Reviews: Books of General Interest

An Analysis and Critique of Three Recent Articles on Religion during the French Revolution

By Matthew D. Zarzeczny, FINS

"Introduction: Religion and Politics in the French Revolution." in Desan, Suzanne. Reclaiming the Sacred: Lay Religion and Popular Politics in Revolutionary France. Ithaca, NY: Cornell University, 1990. 262 p. ISBN# 0801424046. pp. 1-30.

Ozouf, Mona. "The Revolutionary Festival: A Transfer of Sacrality." in  Schechter, Ronald, ed. The French Revolution: The Essential Readings. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 2001. ISBN# 0631212701. pp. 301-320.

Van Kley, Dale. "Church, State, and the Ideological Origins of the French Revolution: The Debate over the General Assembly of the Gallican Clergy in 1765." in Schechter, Ronald, ed. The French Revolution: The Essential Readings. Malden, MA: Blackwell Publishers Ltd., 2001. ISBN# 0631212701.  pp.263-300.

The bicentennial of the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Era has done more than to simply spark fleeting renewed interest in that world-changing period. Since the bicentennial began in 1989, many prominent scholars have contributed fascinating articles with new interpretations of the many distinct aspects of that vibrant age, including the role religion played in the French Revolution. Concerning the religious elements of the French Revolution, recently historians such as Dale Van Kley have skillfully looked at questions relating to the religious origins of the Revolution itself, the role of Jansenism, and other tantalizing topics regarding this energetic era in European history.

This review essay will deal with three articles on religion during the French Revolution. The first article concerns religion in the department of Yonne in the Republic of France, during the 1790s; the second article pertains to the Revolutionary festival, from 1789 to 1799; and the third article discusses the debate over the General Assembly of the Gallican Clergy in 1765. Thus, this review hopes to analyze three exceptional articles that manage to contrast and link the experiences of three different facets of French religion during the violent second half of the eighteenth century.

Clearly, these three articles are definitely enjoyable to read. On a personal note, this is largely because the three historians delve into topics rather closely related to the author of this essay’s primary field of study. Therefore, the content of these articles is somewhat more exciting to said author than articles focusing on other religious subjects taking place in different times and/or places. Still, these articles can have appeal for any reader of history, who, although not necessarily possessing any grand enthusiasm for the French Revolution, simply enjoys perusing stimulating articles not written in an overly verbose or too profoundly intellectual manner. Accordingly, the three articles considered in this essay are essentially easier to understand than religious articles of a philosophical nature, because the three articles reviewed here deal quite a bit with the actual history of religion in France. Unlike with purely theoretical articles, a scholar of this period can effortlessly comprehend these articles, which provide fascinating insights into the role religion played during the French Revolution. A reader will likely discover, after completing all three articles, that the first article reviewed in the essay is the most likable and the last article is the least. One could probably perceive this admiration for Desan’s work as personal bias, because Desan mentions Napoleon, who figures prominently in the main historical research of the reviewer, more prevalently in her article than the other two authors do. Although the lack of allusions to the French Emperor by Ozouf and Van Kley makes the second and third articles slightly more difficult for this reviewer to work with, this is not to suggest that the reviewer feels either Ozouf’s or Van Kley’s articles are any less praiseworthy in the academic sense than Desan’s research. With that stated, a closer look at Desan’s work will hopefully illustrate the erudite reasons why this reviewer enjoyed her composition.

Desan’s splendidly written article is full of useful and reliable footnotes referencing renowned scholars such as Jules Michelet, a notable historian of the French Revolution. These footnotes augment the respectability of Desan’s chapter titled "Introduction: Religion and Politics in the French Revolution" from her book titled Reclaiming the Sacred: Lay Religion and Popular Politics in Revolutionary France. In order to enhance further the readability of her highly reputable work, Desan divides this chapter into three sections that quite effectively build upon each other. Beginning with "The Evolving Politics of Revolution and Christianity," followed by "Approaches to Religion and the Revolution," and ending with "The Department of the Yonne," Desan successfully charts the historical progression of religious turmoil in Revolutionary France. Desan explains how the French revolutionaries, influenced by the philosophes of the Enlightenment, prayed to a "Supreme Being" and exhibited a noticeable degree of animosity towards officials of the Roman Catholic Church. Nevertheless, a sizable portion of the French populace still clung to their Catholic faith and rejected the anti-Catholicism of the revolutionaries. What is more, Desan postulates that these people did not necessarily reject the Revolution itself and so she argues that the French of the 1790s could be both pro-Catholic and pro-Revolution or pro-Republic.

While the revival of Catholicism would surface most prominently during the Consulate, when First Consul Napoleon Bonaparte negotiated the Concordat of 1801 with the papacy, Desan in her article focuses on Catholic religiosity specifically in the department of Yonne during the rule of the Directory. Again, this is not to suggest in any way that the residents of Yonne were anti-revolutionary, because, if anything, they were generally supportive of the revolution. Desan focuses on Yonne, because of many available primary sources and additionally because, in Desan’s view, Yonne is representative of the average revolutionary department, which would have been composed of a significant Catholic majority.

There is and has been a Catholic majority for hundreds of years. Traditionally, the Catholic Church added to the legitimacy and stability of French society and politics by practically, though not technically, being a "state church." During the Revolution, however, the National Convention under Robespierre unleashed a campaign of dechristianization from 1793 to 1794. Notre-Dame de Paris becoming the Temple of Reason poignantly exemplifies the anti-Church trend during the Terror. After Robespierre’s fall, and in spite of a push by French residents, including in the Yonne department, to revive Catholic practices, a second campaign of dechristianization occurred from 1797 until 1799, when the Consulate would ultimately prove more conciliatory towards the Catholic Church in an effort to end some of the tensions brought about by the French Revolution.

When studying the revolutionary era, one can see tensions in a broader territorial sense as well. The second article brings attention to a precise religious aspect of the French Revolution, but does not limit the focus to simply Yonne or any other particular department. Instead, Mona Ozouf deals with a more specific issue than Desan by looking closely at the Revolutionary festival, one piece of the religious puzzle of Revolutionary France, which can be associated with the whole of France during the uncertain decade from 1789 to 1799. For example, in both articles the authors mention the impact of Napoleon, if indirectly in Ozouf’s case. Still, the majority of Ozouf’s article focuses on the diverse aspects of the aforementioned festival and the various elements that inspired it, all of which, Ozouf presents in three parts, beginning with "Horror vacui," followed by "The Meaning of a Few Borrowings," and concluding with "The Meaning of Purging."

Like Desan and unlike Van Kley, Ozouf looks at the Revolution rather than its causes and more specifically focuses on the craze for festivals after the Revolution began. These festivals had a diverse range of themes, from Youth to a commemoration of Louis XVI’s execution, though Ozouf feels there was a unitary kind of festival, which she calls "the Revolutionary festival." Like Desan, Ozouf deals with the problems created by dechristianization and how French Catholics tried to bring Catholic religious elements back into French society. Ozouf sees the revolutionaries as being "unimaginative" by drawing from antiquity to create new forms of worship. In fact, Ozouf sees the Revolutionary festival as being ironically conservative by imitating antiquity, Catholicism, and freemasonry. Ozouf explains how the festival shows admiration and emulation of the ancient Greeks and Romans, while the revolutionaries ignored subsequent civilizations. She shows how this ties into the festival as an idealization of antiquity, which was basically an unrealistic nostalgia. The revolutionaries looked to the Roman Republic as a model and so looked to ancient festivals associated with that ancient political entity. Furthermore, Ozouf describes how Masonic symbols were also borrowed from. The mere idea of such a shadowy group as the Freemasons influencing the French Revolution is certainly compelling.

Ozouf’s article, while only slightly less thrilling than Desan’s article, is probably the easiest one to get through, largely due to the article’s short length, but also because of some of its more titillating topics. For instance, the religious associations ascribed to assemblies, fathers, Paris, etc. are all quite energizing. Although this article is markedly concise, as opposed to Van Kley’s very extensive article, Ozouf’s research is clearly written for an educated audience. The high intellectual expectations Ozouf has for her potential readers are evidenced by her use of words like "pastiche." Moreover, Ozouf demonstrates the necessary knowledge of French and familiarity with French sources required to compose an article that would be acceptable to other scholars in this field. Additionally, Ozouf is commendable for her archival research and Ozouf’s conclusion is well written with the suggestion, which Desan would likely agree with, that the reign of Napoleon would be "a new era." Like Desan, she ends with Napoleon’s coup as the close of this era of Revolutionary festivals and the completion of Catholicism’s return, thus contrasting her research with the works of Emile Durkheim and Lynn Hunt.

Van Kley’s article differs even further from Desan and Ozouf’s compositions than Durkheim and Hunt’s do. Van Kley, while also referencing the French Revolution, focuses more precisely on the origins rather than the course of religious history during the Revolution and even in this regard, Van Kley primarily concentrates on a key event occurring in 1765. In that regard, Van Kley’s work is along the lines of Keith Michael Baker’s research on the origins of the French Revolution, though by no means do both completely parallel each other either. In the same way, a relationship can still be detected between Van Kley’s article on the religious origins of the French Revolution and articles on religious issues during the Revolution itself. Just as the Catholics of Yonne rejected anti-Church elements of the French Revolution, Van Kley shows how volatile religious tensions were during the climax of the Enlightenment. In particular, Van Kley deals with three religious tensions that explode in a controversy erupting in 1765.

Foremost, Van Kley focuses on Jansenism during the reign of Louis XV, who reigned from 1715 to 1774. Jansenism, originating with the Fleming, Cornelius Jansenus (1585-1638), promoted an austere morality and doctrine of predestination similar to Calvinism. Louis XIV and Louis XV oppressed and persecuted the Jansenists, while the Jesuits and Molinists, who favored the doctrine of free will over predestination, also opposed this much beleaguered religious group. The papacy condemned Jansenism in 1713 and in 1765, the Gallican Clergy published Actes de l’assemblée générale du clergé de France sur la religion, extraits du procès-verbal de ladite assemblée, tenue à Paris, par permission du Roi, au couvent des Grands-Augustins, en mil sept cent soixante-cinq, which affirmed the rights of bishops to deny sacraments to Jansenists and criticized both parlements and the king.

The next two tensions that Van Kley considers tie into the problems involving the Jansenists by adding supplementary discordant issues to further divide the French populace. Van Kley secondly focuses on the tension between Gallicanism, which references those desiring the independence of the French Catholic Church from papal control, and ultramontanism, which refers to those who looked to Rome for guidance. While the Jansenists leaned towards Gallicanism, the episcopacy leaned towards ultramontanism. Finally, the third tension pertains to the equally contentious debate over how to govern the church. Bishops wanted a hierarchical system, which can be referred to as episcopalism. Meanwhile, the lay conciliarists wanted a more democratic structure, which can be referred to as conciliarism.

Van Kley, like both Desan and Ozouf, breaks up his article into sections that help to structure his argument about all these conflicts. Since his article is longer than Ozouf’s article, Van Kley utilizes five subheadings, starting with, interestingly enough, "Introduction," followed by "Jansenism, Gallicanism, and Parlementary Constitutionalism," "Reason, Contract, and the Pursuit of Happiness," and "Toward Throne and Altar," before ending with, as one might expect, the subheading of "Conclusion." Such subdivision, as also in the articles of Desan and Ozouf, helps to outline an article’s arguments.

In further developing and fleshing in his arguments, Van Kley looks at pamphlets associated with the controversy of two incompatible ideologies. The first, in opposition to the bishops, associated with Jansenism, Gallicanism, lay conciliarism, and even looked to ideas of the Enlightenment. The second, in support of the Actes and the monarchy, associated with Molinism, ultramontanism, and Episcopal power. According to Van Kley, these were liberal versus conservative ideologies. As with Desan’s suggestion of the duality of the French as being simultaneously for the Revolution and for Catholicism, by making the aforementioned assertion regarding polarizing political ideologies, Van Kley is likely to spark further debate on his subject.

Fortunately, Van Kley leaves his readers with clues to consider for such discussion and later research. Foremost, Van Kley’s footnotes show a solid command and usage of primary and secondary sources, incidentally some of which include his own works. Van Kley, like Desan and Ozouf, is also unmistakably writing to an educated audience as demonstrated by his inclusion of a quotation in Latin, with no translation into English. The learned level that Van Kley writes at is evident even amongst the interesting and unique words he incorporates into his text, such as "bifurcated." In addition, Van Kley writes many well-written individual sentences that discuss a number of thought-provoking ideas. For example, one finds it compelling that Van Kley dissects the famous concept of the Divine Rights of Kings by indicating its complexities. Van Kley also shows the fascinating influence of pamphlets in Bourbon France under the absolutist monarchy. Moreover, one finds it quite enthralling that a connection is made by French ecclesiastical historians to Christianity under emperors Constantine, Theodosius, and Charlemagne. Nonetheless, much of the article is written in a non-exciting style of prose that can at times make reading it feel like a bit of a chore.

Regardless of the readability of Van Kley’s article, one of the great contributions of an article like this is its challenge to certain misleading perceptions of the French Revolution often taught in high schools and undergraduate courses. An example is the frequently quoted "fact" that the French Revolution simply started on July 14, 1789, a date which Van Kley disputes by revealing rather that various earlier events already began to destabilize the Old Regime in France, years before the Bastille fell. Furthermore, while Van Kley efficiently shows how conflicting religious interpretations can hinder a society, he ultimately brings this multifaceted mass of mind-stirring material together in his conclusion and even raises the issue of liberalism that is familiar to Desan’s article.

By reading all three articles, one appreciates the significance of religion in understanding the French Revolutionary and Napoleonic Era and the manner in which religion affected France at the end of the eighteenth century. Collectively, these three articles present scholars with several tantalizing questions to consider for future research on religion during the French Revolution. Historians of this period accordingly will continue to answer questions involving in what ways the French Revolution could be seen as religious, how the French Revolution and Napoleon impacted the development of liberalism and religion in Yonne and other areas of France, how one’s attitudes towards liberalism during the French Revolution were shaped, to what do differences between liberals and conservatives of this period rest on, and to what degree a "conservative" politics is based on religion. Perhaps, these are questions that the current generation of historians has only begun to answer and which will continue to challenge the next generation of scholars long after the bicentennial celebrations of the Revolutionary and Napoleonic Era have ceased.

Placed on the Napoleon Series: April 2003


Reviews Index | General Interest Index ]

Search the Series

© 1995-2015 The Napoleon Series, All Rights Reserved.

Top | Home ]