HIST 276: France Since 1871

Lecture 5

 - The Waning of Religious Authority


Religion in France after the Revolution can be understood in terms of two forms of de-Christianization. The first of these is political, and takes place in the de jure separation of church and state. The second is a decline in religious practice among individual citizens. While the history of the former change is well documented, the latter is a more ambiguous phenomenon. Despite the statistical decline in religious participation in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, Catholicism in particular continues to play a significant role in the cultural imagination, or imaginaire, of many French people.

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France Since 1871

HIST 276 - Lecture 5 - The Waning of Religious Authority

Chapter 1. Catholicism and the Rest: Religious Distribution in France [00:00:00]

Professor John Merriman: Okay, I’m going to talk about religion today, yes, and what I’m going to first — well, I’ll talk just a little bit about people who weren’t born into the Catholic Church. The vast majority of the population of France at the time, in the course, until say 1960, were born Catholic. Now, whether they practiced their religion is something we’ll come to in a minute. Of the percentage of the population of France who were Protestants, which I’ll talk a little bit about in a minute, is about five percent. The number of Jews, I think Chip Sowerwine tells you in his book, but I think it’s about 300,000. Now, first let me tell you where Protestants and Jews were, for the most part, and why, just to give you a sense of all this.

The Reformation, in the sixteenth century when it sort of — Calvinism expands from Geneva, where Jean Calvin had considerable influence, it spread really down the Rhône River, and it conquered large parts or found adepts in large parts of this part of France, including Lyon. Lyon was conquered back by the Catholic Church, as they would consider it the Catholic Reformation; or it used to be called the Counter-Reformation, but you don’t call it that any more. But yet there were large sections of the south of France that remained Protestant, and that still are. Just in case it ever pops up in a crossword puzzle, the department with the largest number of Protestants, something like a third — it’s about what it was in the nineteenth century — is the Gard, g-a-r-d, that you would — that’s where Nîmes is the capital of it; and the second is the Ardèche, a-r-d-e-c-h-e, which is where we hang out.

There also still and were Protestants in the river valleys, coming down to the Rhône, particularly in the Department of the Drôme. You don’t have to remember all this information. Lots of Protestants in Lorraine and in Alsace, and, of course, that had been amputated and annexed to Germany, and Protestants sort of here and there. Lots of Protestants, when the Edict of Nantes, that is, that gave toleration to Protestants and was revoked by Louis XIV in 1685, lots of people tried to get out. Lots of Huguenots, as they were called, went to Amsterdam, to the Pays-Bas, to the Netherlands, and lots tried to go to Quebec in Canada because they thought it’d be easier to practice their religion there. But many of them couldn’t afford the passage and end up living here in the Charente, in the Charente-Maritime, in this are here, the Charente — that’s a beautiful city, France’s most beautiful city, on the coast, outside of Collioure, La Rochelle, the capital of the Charente-Maritime.

And then you have Protestants, of course, in Paris and in some of the large cities. What happens is after the annexation of Alsace and much of Lorraine by the German Empire, many of the Protestants in Alsace, and some in Lorraine, moved. Many moved to Belfort, which became a territory, not a department, because of the heroic defense of Belfort by a general during the Franco-Prussian War. So, there are your main centers of Protestantism.

Now, what about Jews, who get rights during the French Revolution? The first synagogue in France, which is routinely targeted by vicious graffiti and this sort of thing, is in the Vaucluse, that is the département of Avignon, in a place called Carpentras or Carpentràs, you can say either word, tras usually, Carpentras usually, on the other side of the Rhône. You have large concentrations of Jews, Sephardic Jews, in Bordeaux and in Paris and in Alsace and Lorraine, where there had been really vigorous and vicious anti-Semitic riots after the Revolution of 1848. And in Alsace, interestingly enough, the three religions, that is, the Catholics, the Protestants and the Jews, tried to outdo each other in charity. They set up really remarkable kind of voluntary associations to help out poor people; and it points to one sort of interesting aspect of it.

Chapter 2. The Decline of ‘The Awful Thing’: Anti-Clericalism and De-Christianization [00:04:41]

So, that’s just a sort of overview. But the vast majority of the population were born into the Catholic Church. Now, because of the role of the church in the counter-revolution, of the great French Revolution, and because of the close attachment of the Catholic Church to the monarchy, that is, support for the ill-fated Comte de Chambord, Henri V and all of that, you have this tension between the Catholic Church, as a public institution, and an increasingly powerful state. Now, one differentiation that you should make is between de-Christianization, which I’m going to talk about, and anti-clericalism. Now, Voltaire, the great philosophe, he once said, “crush the awful thing.” And he didn’t mean religion itself, what he meant was the public institutional role of the Catholic Church; and he was — became the ultimate sort of symbol of anti-clericalism. And anti-clericalism wasn’t necessarily anti-religiosity, what it was was against the public role, the institutional role of the Catholic Church in politics.

Thus, in French cities, in the 1880s, 1890s, there are literally battles over urban space where laicized, secularized and anti-clerical municipalities want to refuse the right of the Catholic Church to stage processions of relics, for example, on feast days. In Limoges, which became La Ville Rouge, the Red City, it had once been a very religious town but they still have this, every seven years they still do these processions where they haul saints’ relics through the streets. And so the municipality said, no, you can’t do that because that is violating the neutrality of public space. And so thus you have this big bagarre, you’ve got this big brawl between a church and laicizing, secularizing municipalities influenced by socialism; and not necessarily against religion but against the public role of the Catholic Church. And so that’s kind of a background for all of that.

Now, it used to be, maybe 80 years ago — no, less than that, maybe 50 years ago — that one of the interpretations of the French Revolution, the impact of the French Revolution and the Empire, the First Empire, that is “N One,” Napoleon the First who made peace with the church, was that it was the revolution that destroyed that old-time religion. And in 1815 when Louis XVIII, before this course cranks up, comes back, he espouses the view that church people had that the revolution had been created by people like Rousseau and Voltaire, and that they had been responsible for moving France away from that old-time religion. And as I said the other day, after 1815 there is a revival of intense religiosity, in some regions. You find the same thing in the 1870s, again the Republic of the Moral Order.

And so that’s what the church wanted people to believe, and many historians believe that as well. But along came a historian called Michel Vovelle, v-o-v-e-l-l-e, who used to be the Professor of the French Revolution at the Sorbonne and he’s kind of a friend of mine, or at least a good acquaintance, a very old dude now. And Vovelle was interested to see whether that old-time religion was already crumbling or in decline before the French Revolution. And so he started out asking just how effective was the Counter-Reformation or the Catholic reformation, if you will, in bringing back, reviving that baroque piety, of a religion of faith, of a religion in paintings of swooning cupids, of intense religious belief. And what he discovered was that in the parts of France that he looked at, that that old-time religion was already waning.

And thus we come to the concept, which is important for this course, and just in general, of de-Christianization. And de-Christianization means two things. First — again, before this course — it meant the campaign against the Church as a public institution, and really against organized religion, undertaken by — during the Terror, by Robespierre and the others. It meant melting down church bells, it meant — meaning that only priests who swore allegiance to the French Revolution, to the nation, could say mass, and pretty soon putting them under pressure not to say mass at all. But that’s not what we’re talking about. The residuals, the remnants of that are still important in the period we’re discussing. But what Vovelle, whose name I should write on the board, in a book called Baroque Piety and de-Christianization, which is looking at part of Provence, started with that, what he meant was that decline in religious practice.

Now, it’s very hard — imagine you’re in the story, and that’s what you are in this course, how are you going to prove whether religion has that — has still an important role in the individual person, or in family life, or in public life, if you’re looking a long time ago? How are you going to know that in a society in which in the eighteenth century the majority of people could not read and write, and in which the only things about religion that you could read were reports written by — or sermons written by — published by bishops and archbishops, or reports sent by those delegates of bishops and archbishops going around France, going around their dioceses to see how many — what the state of religion was? How do you do that, how do you know what — whether people went to church or not? How do you know that? And so what he did was the following, and this was — talk about tough work, that there are ways of doing this. Let me just give you a couple.

For example, I don’t know how — some of you raised Catholic. I was raised Catholic. I was once thrown out of religion class and paddled in a Jesuit high school in Portland, Oregon because the guy had messed up Thomas Aquinas’s proofs of the existence of God and I thought I was a smart-ass and I could prove that God couldn’t exist by what he’d done, and so they threw me out of religion class. But, so I don’t know if that would be a statistic in this kind of evolution, but basically what — in the Catholic Church babies have had to be — I don’t know if it’s still the case — but had to be baptized within the first three days of birth; thus all these certificates that have — remember the acte de temoignage, where people say, “I see this baby, the baby is alive,” and they baptize the baby so if the baby dies — and remember babies died all the time, after childbirth. If you made it to one, year one, you had a good chance of living to the ripe old age of 40 — that if you didn’t baptize the baby and the baby died, then the baby was going to go to limbo or something and sort of float around; there were all these popular beliefs about limbo.

And so what he did is he went out and he looked at all these baptisms, certificates of baptism, thousands of them, to see how long it was that — how long did people, after the birth, did they baptize their children. And now people had already started thinking about that. The first religious sociologists were priests, at the end of the nineteenth century, who said, “people don’t go to church anymore, why not?” And so they went out and they began to — in fact one of the people whose work I most admire is an old, very old, he must be 110 or literally 90, a priest in Limoges who used to go out and look in the cemeteries to see what people had written on tombs, and he looked at the names that people named babies — more about that in a minute.

So, what Vovelle found, and what subsequent historians of religion have found, are that the curve goes something like this: three days to a month to two months to six months. And in the nineteenth century increasingly, in parts of France — that’s key — never. And then are other things you could do. When people of means died they left wills. In the 1830s in Paris seventy-five percent of the population left nothing to nobody because they had nothing to leave anybody, and they couldn’t afford to have anybody draw up a will, they couldn’t afford a lawyer or a notary to draw up a will. And so what Vovelle found was that where people had in earlier times, at the height of the Counter-Reformation or the Catholic Reformation, in the seventeenth century, they had left money to have masses said for their souls, or they had left money to Catholic institutions caring for lepers or caring for other sick people, or foundling homes. And increasingly they stopped doing that, in the areas that he looked at, and they started leaving money to lay associations, or to somebody else, to their uncle or to their children, and no longer 150 masses said on their anniversary or their birthday, for the repose of their mortal soul.

And then you can look at religious vocations. There are parts of France that have always had a lot of priests, Finestère, Brittany, for one example. So, you could look, and what he discovered was that the number of people going into the clergy, men and women, declined rapidly in the parts of Provence that he looked at. Now, that’s a good sign. What about names? There’s another one. This is — talk about boring work, but this is what this guy in Limoges did. When people start naming their babies, when they stop naming them after saints, that tells you something. For example, in the Limousin, this is an example, but in the Limousin the saints that were big time saints there, one is Léonard, like Leonard, and another was Martial, the name Martial. And so this guy looked and people stopped naming their children Martial and Leonard, Léonard. And that tells you something too. Or a more obvious one would be women’s names.

You may, but you probably don’t know people named Mary Magdalene. And during the French Revolution a lot of people took old Roman names and started naming their babies things like Gracchus and names like that. But you can look — you don’t know anybody named Gracchus I bet — but you can — this was another way that you could do it. And there’s other ways too. Remember, I said that one of the published sources you can actually read are these bishops’ sermons because they were published every year, and when these bishops’ sermons, and now I’m talking more about the nineteenth century, when they start talking about the dark secrets — what are the dark secrets at a time of plunging birthrate? Birth control, birth control. And that tells you something very indirectly as well.

And what about even going to mass? In the Catholic Church you’re supposed to go to mass on Sunday and you’re certainly supposed to go to mass, and confession, on Easter, at Easter time. And so that’s one of the things they had the priests count up. They would count people who were in the church. And what you had is again an astonishing decline of the number of people going to church. Just an aside, because I worked with a sociologist and the first thing — well I didn’t have a job one year, the first year after I finished my degree at Michigan, Mighty Michigan, maize and blue forever — I taught sociology, and so I was used to counting things. I worked with a great sociologist called Charles Tilly.

And so one day, because I was writing a book about our village, and with my daughter then, who was about 11, we heard the bells ring, there’s — for church, and there’s only a Mass about every six weeks, more about that later, and I said, “well, let’s go up and count the number of people in church.” And there’s a huge gap between men and women in the church attendance. It was true in the nineteenth century and it’s true now. So we go to the back of this church and we start counting the number of people, and there were eighteen people. And my daughter, then eleven, all of a sudden said, “mais papa, même les femmes sont chauves,” even the women are bald. And, of course, then everybody in the church turned around and looked at us standing in the back, and she had a cruel point there; she didn’t mean to be cruel but it was that most of the people who went to church were very old ladies. But the priests, even now, and this particular village does not have a regular priest and it has not had for decades, they count the number of people who are there on Easter. And what you had is this precipitous decline in the number of people going to church.

So that is de-Christianization. Let me give you another example, from World War I, war memorials. Many of you have had my friend — some of you may have had my friend Jay Winters’ course and he works — he’s done a lot of work on war memorials. And if you go to parts of France that were very de-Christianized, more about this later, if you go to the Creuze or up here to the Nièvre here or the Allier, those are sort of classic examples of very de-Christianized parts of France, even the war memorials were in some places where you practiced religion, the war — the number — the monument to the dead will be near the church. In some of those places the monument to the dead is not only not near the church that no one goes to, but will have a broken cross, asking that same question that Voltaire once asked about the Lisbon earthquake: “if there is a God, how could he or she have allowed this to happen?”

And even those monuments are symbols of a decline in what had been assumed by the church, and indeed assumed by the state, of that old-time religion. But now, is this true everywhere? Well no, not at all, and that’s one of the points, and that’s one of the reasons that I insist — and if you don’t have one, please come up and get one later — those handy little maps with the regions and the départements; because there are huge differences, and these differences were already apparent in the eighteenth century.

The French Revolution was, above all, this civil war, a war about religion. And if you take a map from 1789 or 1790, ‘90, when the priests had to either swear to the nation, to the French Revolution, or refuse to swear to the Revolution and to the nation, and you take that map and you put it along a map of the elections of May 1849, and you put that on top of a map of the election of François Mitterrand as President of France of 1981, they’re almost the same, with very few changes. And one of the predictors — here I sound like a sociologist, which I am not — but one of the predictors of all of that is de-Christianization, because the regions of political conservatism are the regions in which that old-time religion was — which those regions were less de-Christianized than other places.

Chapter 3. Regional Differences in Religiosity [00:21:34]

So, where were the de-Christianized regions, where were the areas of still intense religious practice, just for the hell of it? Auvergne, again Auvergne, that’s a region you should at least know something about. If you like gastronomy you’ll think of aligot, fabulous garlic with potatoes, or you’ll think of stuffed cabbage, you’ll think of all sorts of stuff. But that’s not what we’re talking about. In Auvergne you still have intense religiosity. We have friends who once owned a café across from the National Archives, where I spend quite a lot of time, in both institutions, and they — the wife was from the Vernon, which is way down here, Millau and all that, and the husband is from Cantal, which is up here, Aurillac, there. And they had thirteen and twelve brothers and sisters, respectively, born in abject misery in the 1930s, just misery. Classic, some of the babies died, but that’s a lot of children.

Now, if you compare that, if you go about — if you want to drive about not even a day, you get down here near Agen, the Prune Capital of France, and one of the rugby capitals of France, it was said, and was true, that if, and I mentioned this the first day I think, that if you had more — if you had a second child in some villages you received a condolence card, a condolence card. Now, how different that is, and those places aren’t very far away. Well, the Lot-et-Garonne, down here, is extremely de-Christianized, whereas Auvergne, one of the things the Catholic Church said was no dark secrets baby, and have lots of children, and send the younger ones into the clergy, as sisters and nuns and that sort of stuff.

Other areas of religious practice: in Alsace Catholics, Protestants and Jews all practiced their religion, very faithfully. In the north of France, particularly in Flemish parts of the nord, that old-time religion was still practiced. In much of Normandy, the same thing, though not in big cities, less in Rouen for example; and in Brittany, above all, religion was practiced, as it always had been. And there were huge numbers of people going on what in they call in Brittany the pardons, which are religious ceremonies, full of festivity as well.

Now what are the big de-Christianized areas? Almost any large city. Even in the case of Brittany, Brest, because it had so many sailors who weren’t from Brittany there; though a lot of Bretons were sailors also. For example, in L’Havre there are lots of Bretons who live in L’Havre; but anyway that makes things more complicated than they are. Most big cities, some exceptions — Lyon is still fairly practicing Catholic; Paris, totally lost to the church. One of the things, if you go to the suburbs of Paris, even the inner suburbs that were annexed in 1860, you’ll see all of these extremely modest and sometimes just impossibly ugly churches that were built in the 1870s to try to re-conquer the working class population that had been lost in the working class suburbs to the Catholic Church.

Sacré Coeur, which I’ve already denounced because of its architecture, standing on Montmartre, the butte of Montmartre, was there as a sign of penance because of the Franco-Prussian war. But the cities were basically lost to the Catholic Church, with some exceptions. But so were huge regions. The Île-de-France, the area around Paris, here, the Île-de-France, as it’s called, because you can imagine it kind of vaguely as an island because of all these rivers — extremely de-Christianized. The Limousin, around Limoges, totally de-Christianized. The southwest, absolutely, I forgot to mention that where Bernadette of Lourdes saw the Virgin Mary, that that part of the Pyrenees was still very Christianized. Provence, much of Provence, very de-Christianized as well. And, as I said before, the Bourbonnais — you don’t have to know these regions, just know something about the big ones.

So, there are big regional disparities in this. And this is background to the separation of church and state in 1905. And two of the various laws that you can read in Sowerwine’s book, the anti-clerical legislation that really starts in 1878, 1879, that will lead to expulsion of some of the religious orders and eventually the de-coupling of church and state in 1905. Now, this, to be sure, is a rather pessimistic, from the point of view of the church, assessment, and perhaps overly so, because there has been recent work that has described in many parts of France, and in parts of Catholic Germany also, a revival of intense religiosity that has a lot to do with miracles.

Now, in the Catholic Church, in bad times sometimes miracles come along to kind of rescue the church, and the case of Bernadette of Lourdes, before this course, in 1856, was one of them. Lourdes becomes one of the first tourist sites in France, after Paris, because these — it’s always young girls, by the way, always, who see the Virgin Mary; never young boys it’s always young girls, that’s interesting. The case of Marpingen in the Saar in what, 1876, appear in Germany too. It comes along at a good time for the Catholic Church — or Fatima, in Portugal, in 1917.

It’s always young, illiterate shepherd girls who see the Virgin Mary. And then what happens is they interview them, they bring translators to interview them, as in the case of Bernadette — “what did you see?” And they stick to their stories and pretty soon, the bishops are a little skeptical, and then they seize upon the moment and this becomes God is telling us something, that we have sinned and the Virgin Mary is looking after us. So, it revives — it happened also in the 1830s near Grenoble, or was it was the ’40s, a place called La Salette — it is a sort of classic. And then, as I said the other day, talking about the railroads, the first and, for many people, only railroad trip they ever took, people that in the 1870s and the 1880s who didn’t have a lot of money, is to where? To Lourdes, to get — if they’re sick to try to be healed or to buy holy water.

I just saw something the other day, that they had a big confrontation in an airport because they refused to let them carry holy water on the plane because it was bigger than a mini tube of toothpaste; you know how they take away, you can only have little bottles instead of big bottles, and it even happened on a papal airplane or something like that. So, we live in a very different world now. They didn’t have to worry about that stuff at the time of these miracles. But pilgrimages to Lourdes from every diocese in France is still something that you see all the time. But regional, these regional outlines remain very, very true, indeed.

So, in 1905 what happens is the church and the state get separated, that the clergy are going to be pretty much left on their own now, that the state has control over religious buildings, and this is bad news for priests and for nuns. Now when I — I admitted one thing when I was talking about the religious revival, and this is something that goes very — goes back to the early — well not the early days but it goes back at least to the sixteenth century, and probably earlier if I knew — yes, earlier, earlier than that, it goes back to the medieval period. Now, the Roman Catholics’ view of women had left them pretty much in a state of subordination, and that’s always pretty much been the case. I went to a school that was a Jesuit school, as I said, that only — it was mostly a sports factory and it only had — and that’s kind of what I did — and it didn’t have women; that was — they were just out there somewhere. And we used to like to go to a — if you can imagine me as a failed altar boy, you’re looking at one, but we used to like to go out to the girls school and help the priests with the mass and all that, just to have a look at these women who we had basically never seen before.

Chapter 4. The Role of Women: Finding Independence through the Catholic Church [00:30:04]

But one of the things that happens, happened in the Catholic Church very early, is that every time there’s a new kind of spurt of religious adherence and belief, is that convents, female convents, the religious orders, are one of the places, one of the only places that women, smart, upwardly mobile women, can rise and have careers worthy of their intelligence and organizational skills, if you think about it. And so it’s easy looking back from our secular age and kind of dissing all these people, mumbling up in the mountains someplace, or not speaking at all, in some cases, and just simply praying all the time.

But what is often forgotten is for women who couldn’t possibly do more than simply bear children and do the best they could in those circumstances because the strictures of society didn’t give them opportunity. These convents actually have an important role in their lives, that is often simply forgotten. And the role of women teachers, even though many of them were barely educated, in very many parts of France that were still practicing, like our part of France, it was extremely important. And they had what they called — they don’t call them obviously grandfather rules — but they had essentially grandmother rules, a phrase they didn’t use, that meant that these teachers who were female teachers who were nuns, who were allowed to teach in the public schools until they died, and they were given that dignity to be able to stay and teach there. And their teaching was valued for what they did.

And so again what one has to — has to keep all these things in perspective. And for example there was a woman, a friend of mine who did a book, a long time ago, which feminists just mauled, they couldn’t stand it, but it’s a very important book; because what she looked at, the sort of upper class ladies in the north, such as those people you’re going to read about in Germinal — so that’s a nice transition, a vaguely nice transition — and that one of the things that they were able to do because of their intense religiosity was organize their own households in ways that they wanted to, with crucifixes and statues of the Virgin Mary and all this kind of stuff, and that they carved out their own separate sphere and participated in their charitable activities. So, from the point of view of the Catholic Church, or for religiosity in general, religious practice, all the news is not bad, but indeed most of it was.

Chapter 5. Disentangling Church and State: Regional Devotion and Developments [00:32:45]

And having said what I’ve said, it’s easy for you to, if I ask you this, to say in what regions were people mad as hell about the separation of church and state, and about the inventories that followed in 1906, you would already know the answer. Now, what were the inventories? The inventories were where they sent some state inspector around who’s going to say, “we’re going to look at all the paintings in this church and to assess their value.” Now, even in very modest villages, of almost no means, they all had some sort of paintings, often just terrible art, but you never know, maybe you’re going to stagger into a Rubens or something like that, purely by accident, on the border of Flanders, of Belgium — you don’t know that. And so they sent around these inspectors. And in many cases the faithful lock themselves in the church, they barricade the church, and then they have to bring soldiers in, and this was kind of bad, the soldiers are camping in fields near the church, then they have to conscript locksmiths, from the towns, to come and force open the locks. And in many cases that doesn’t work, so they have to bring people with huge axes.

So, again, from the point of view of the church, this is the martyrdom of Saint Sebastian again, this is the martyrdom of ordinary people at the hands of a cruel, secularizing, centralized state, working against the interests of ordinary religious people. Now, to be sure, the Catholic Church had not done itself any great favors with the Papal Syllabus of Errors in 1864 that said that modernity, liberalism, democracy, helping workers, anything, was bad, and it made the church look pretty ridiculous. And also, there was a huge controversy then over a papal pronouncement in 1871 that said that when the Pope puts on a certain hat that he is infallible, infallible. Now, we don’t pay attention to this now, nobody pays attention to this now, I guess, I had completely forgotten about it, but at that time, what if the Pope puts on a certain hat and says, “you’ll be excommunicated and burn in hell forever if you vote for a Liberal or a Socialist”? Voilà. So, what’s that going to do?

So the church didn’t do itself any favors in being provocative. But by 1905 and 1906, the Catholic Church in the wake of the Dreyfus Affair, more about that another time, where the Catholic Church went after Dreyfus; it was better that he be guilty, even if he wasn’t guilty, because he was a Jew. By then you have this ralliement, or rallying of the church to the Republic as an institution, and so things should have been better, when they go around and knock on the door and try to get into these churches. But they weren’t, and people barricaded themselves into these churches. And so I got interested in this, and, for example, in our particular village, one of the things that people told — were passed down generation after generation, is that the troops had been bivouaced in the field behind the new church, which had been started in 1896 to replace the old Romanesque church, which is disaffected or désaffecté, whatever you call it, taken out of commission, right across from where we live, actually, and that the troops had come with axes and had broken down the doors of the church, and that people had gone home with pieces of the door, cherishing them as you would a piece of the true cross, on which Christ was crucified.

And this was handed down from generation to generation, and people talked about it as if they had been there — even folks who hadn’t been to church in ages and ages. Now, I got interested in this, because I was writing a book about this place, and so I went to all the archives, of course, and I went to all the newspapers, the Catholic newspaper and to a very anti-clerical socialist newspaper, and I read the accounts of all the incidents in which that happened, in all these other villages, in this part of France in which tensions between Protestants and Catholics had always been very high because of the wars of religion in the sixteenth century, the seventeenth century, and in the eighteenth century. And what I discovered was that the event never happened, it never happened, that there were no troops ever bivouaced outside of the church in this particular village called Balazuc, and that there was never a time that the door was bashed down by soldiers with axes, to look at the modest paintings on the walls of this poor church whose parishioners had almost nothing.

The event never happened, it did not happen. But nonetheless in their imaginaire, or in their — the constitution of their memory it had a place, which is that they were defending their church against these forces from the outside, rather like the case of our school, that they couldn’t control. So it had a place there, even though it never happened. It could’ve happened but it just didn’t, it never happened. So what’s the point of all that — is that separation of church and state was extraordinarily wrenching in areas that were not de-Christianized, although there were instances in some of the other ones as well, and that people simply got by as best they could in the church continuing to draw people on Sundays and to religious holidays, and that — which was the case in our village. And our village had a priest, the last one who was denigrated as a red-haired ladies’ man by some of his enemies, he left I think — well we got there 20 years ago, so about four years before we were there.

And as I said the other day in the context of the schools, the Catholic Church now is just a voluntary association in our particular part of France, like any other one. There are no more people from our village who go to that church than will turn up at X, to play bingo for the school, far fewer, from that point of view. But it doesn’t mean that the church doesn’t have some place in the collective memory of the place, even a lot of it is imaginary or some of it’s imaginary.

Once there was a huge windstorm, as there frequently is, and we always have the rivers — in fact it was the 22nd of September 15 years ago the river rose so dramatically it killed about 200 people, not in our part, not our particular river, but across the Rhône, when a big storm came and the statue, this rather ugly statue of the Virgin Mary crashed to the ground and broke into one hundred pieces, or 1,000 pieces. In the café that’s open all year they put up a bowl and people who are very anti-Clerical always put money into the bowl to rebuild this statue, because people care that this voluntary association remain; and that it’s still — in the Catholic Church you call them four-wheeled Catholics, people still will go there for baptism, for burial — not in this order — and for marriage.

And I have assisted at, with my family, combined baptism/marriage ceremonies where a couple will marry years and years after having children, which is pretty usual actually in our part of France, among many of our fiends, and they’re still very much couples, they just never got married. In France, in Paris in the nineteenth century a quarter of all couples who lived together weren’t actually married. It wasn’t that they were just defying organized religion, it was that they didn’t have money to pay to have a marriage. And if you ever read L’Assommoir, when they do get married — Zola, one of his other great novels, when they go down to the Louvre it’s one of the great scenes in French literature, so far as I know.

So, but the trouble with the Catholic Church in France is of course there’s no priests anymore, and just end with it there; that something like I read in Libé or one of the newspapers that well over half of all the priests in France now are — oh, sixty-five percent of them are over sixty years old, and something like forty-five percent are over seventy, and there are almost no religious vocations at all, even from religious areas now. So, because churches do provide charity still and help organize lives for very elderly people, this is very sad.

And even Voltaire, who once said that if God didn’t exist he or she should be invented so that he wouldn’t be cheated by his wife or his tailor, even Voltaire would have agreed that the church, churches still in France fill some useful function. But these regional contrasts are still extraordinarily important in de-Christianization, helped define the evolving politics of La Belle France.

Apologies again for this colossal mess about the room; we will take care of this as soon as possible, like in the next ten minutes. So have a great weekend, and have fun in section. See ya.

[end of transcript]

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