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   Chapter 3 THE CLERGY.

The Eve of the French Revolution By Edward J. Lowell Characters: 27851

Updated: 2017-12-01 00:04


The inhabitants of France were divided into three orders, differing in legal rights. These were the Clergy, the Nobility, and the Commons, or Third Estate. The first two, which are commonly spoken of as the privileged orders, contained but a small fraction of the population numerically, but their wealth and position gave them a great importance.

The clergy formed, as the philosophers were never tired of complaining, a state within a state. No accurate statistics concerning it can be obtained. The whole number of persons vowed to religion in the country, both regular and secular, would seem to have been between one hundred and one hundred and thirty thousand. They owned probably from one fifth to one quarter of the soil. The proportion was excessive, but it does not appear that the lay inhabitants of the country were thereby crowded. Like other landowners, the clergy had tenants, and they were far from being the worst of landlords. For one thing, they were seldom absentees. The abbot of a monastery might spend his time at Versailles, but the prior and the monks remained, to do their duty by their farmers. It is said that the church lands were the best cultivated in the kingdom, and that the peasants that tilled them were the best, treated.[Footnote: Barthelémy, Erreurs et mensonges historiques, xv. 40. Article entitled La question des congregations il y a cent ans, quoting largely from Féroux, Vues d'un Solitaire Patriote, 1784. See also Genlis, Dictionnaire des étiquettes, ii. 79. Mathieu, 324. Babeau, La vie rurale, 133.] In any case the church was rich. Its income from invested property, principally land, has been reckoned at one hundred and twenty-four million livres a year. It received about as much more from tithes, beside the amount, very variously reckoned, which came in as fees, on such occasions as weddings, christenings, and funerals.

Tithes were imposed throughout France for the support of the clergy. They were not, however, taken upon all Articles of produce, nor did they usually amount to one tenth of the increase. Sometimes the tithe was compounded for a fixed rent in money; sometimes for a given number of sheaves, or measures of wine per acre. Oftener it was a fixed proportion of the crop, varying from one quarter to one fortieth. In some places wood, fruit, and other commodities were exempt; in other places they were charged. Tithe was in some cases taken of calves, lambs, chickens, sucking pigs, fleeces, or fish; and the clergy or the tithe owners were bound to provide the necessary bulls, rams, and boars. A distinction was usually made between the Great tithes, levied on such common articles as corn and wine, and the Small tithes, taken from less important crops. Of these the former were often paid to the bishops, the latter to the parish priest. The tithes had in some cases been alienated by the church and were owned by lay proprietors. In general, it is believed that this tax on the agricultural class in France amounted to about one eighteenth of the gross product of the soil.[Footnote: Chassin, Les cahiers due clergé, 36. Bailly, ii. 414, 419. Boiteau, 41. Rambaud, ii. 58 n. Taine, L'ancien Régime (book i. chap ii.). The livre of the time of Louis XVI. is commonly reckoned to have had at least twice the purchasing power of the franc of to-day.]

The whole body of the clergy, as it existed within the boundaries of the kingdom, was not subject to the same rules and laws. The larger part of it formed what was known as the "Clergy of France," and possessed peculiar rights and privileges presently to be described. Those ecclesiastics, however, who lived in certain provinces, situated principally in the northern and eastern part of the country, and annexed to the kingdom since the beginning of the sixteenth century, were called the "Foreign Clergy." These did not share the rights of the larger body, but depended more directly on the papacy. They paid certain taxes from which the Clergy of France were exempt. The mode of appointment to bishoprics and abbacies was different among them from what it was in the rest of the country. Throughout France, and in all affairs, ecclesiastical and secular, were anomalies such as these.

The Church of France enjoyed great and peculiar privileges, both among the churches of Christendom, and among the Estates of the French realm. By the Concordat, or treaty of 1516, made between Pope Leo X. and King Francis I., the nomination to bishroprics and to considerable ecclesiastical benefices had been given to the king, while the Holy Father kept only a right of veto on appointments. The annates, or first-fruits of the bishoprics, taxes equal in theory to one year's revenue on every change of incumbent, but in fact of less amount than that, were paid to the Pope, and these, with other dues, made up a sum of three or four million livres sent annually from France to Rome. On the other hand, the Clergy of France was the only body in the state which had undisputed constitutional rights independent of the throne. Its ordinary assemblies were held once in ten years. The country was divided into sixteen ecclesiastical provinces, each under the superintendence of an archbishop. In each of these provinces a meeting was held, composed of delegates of the various dioceses. Each of these provincial meetings elected two bishops and two other ecclesiastics, either regular or secular. These deputies received, from their constituents, instructions called cahiers to be taken by them to the Ordinary Assembly of the clergy, which was held in Paris. This body granted subsidies to the king, managed the debt and other secular affairs of the clergy, and pronounced unofficially even in matters of doctrine. Smaller Assemblies, nearly equal in power, came together at least once during the interval which elapsed between the meetings of the Ordinary Assemblies; so that as often as once in five years the Church of France exercised a true political activity. The sum voted to the king was called a Free Gift[Footnote: Don Gratuit], and the name was not altogether inappropriate, for, although required was stated by the king's ministers, conditions were not infrequently exacted of the crown. Thus in 1785, on the occasion of a gift of eighteen million livres, the suppression of the works of Voltaire was demanded. And once at least, as late as 1750, on the occasion of a squabble between the church and the court, the clergy had refused to make any grant whatsoever. The total amount of the Free Gift voted during the reign of Louis XVI. was 65,800,000 livres, or less than four and a half millions a year on an average. The grant was not annual, but was made in lump sums from time to time; a vote of two thirds of the assembly being necessary for making it. The assembly itself assessed the tax on the dioceses. A commission managed the affairs of the clergy when no assembly was sitting. The order had its treasury, and its credit was good. The king was its debtor to the extent of about a hundred million livres.

The clergy itself was in debt. Instead of raising directly, by taxation of its members, the money which it paid to the state, it had acquired the habit of borrowing the necessary sum. The debt thus incurred appears to have been about one hundred and thirty-four million livres. In addition to the amount necessary for interest on this debt, and for a provision for its gradual repayment, the order had various expenses to meet. For these purposes it taxed itself to an amount of more than ten million livres a year. On the other hand it received back from the king a subsidy of two and a half million livres. From most of the regular, direct taxes paid by Frenchmen the Clergy of France was freed. [Footnote: Revue des questions historiques, 1st July, 1890 (L'abbé L. Bourgain, Contribution du clergé à l'imp?t). Sciout, i. 35. Boiteau, 195. Rambaud, ii. 44. Necker, De l'Administration, ii. 308. The financial statement given above refers to the Clergy of France only. Its pecuniary affairs are as difficult and doubtful as those of every part of the nation at this period, and have repeatedly been made the subject of confused statement and religious and political controversy. The Foreign Clergy paid some of the regular taxes, giving the state about one million livres a year on an income of twenty million livres. Boiteau, 196.]

The bishops were not subject to the secular tribunals, but other clerks came under the royal jurisdiction in temporal matters. In spiritual affairs they were judged by the ecclesiastical courts.

The income of the clergy, had it been fairly distributed, was amply sufficient for the support of every one connected with the order. It was, however, divided with great partiality. There were set over the clergy, both French and foreign, eighteen archbishops and a hundred and twenty-one bishops, beside eleven of those bishops in partibus infidelium, who, having no sees of their own in France, might be expected to make themselves generally useful. These hundred and fifty bishops were very highly, though unequally paid. The bishoprics, with a very few exceptions, were reserved for members of the nobility, and this rule was quite as strictly enforced under Louis XVI. as under any of his predecessors. Nothing prevented the cumulation of ecclesiastical benefices, and that prelate was but a poor courtier who did not enjoy the revenue of several rich abbeys. Nor was it in money and in ecclesiastical preferment alone that the bishops were paid for the services which they too often neglected to perform.

Not a few of them were barons, counts, dukes, princes of the Holy Roman Empire, or peers of France by virtue of their sees. Several rose to be ministers of state. Even in that age they were accused of worldliness. It was a proverb that with Spanish bishops and French priests an excellent clergy could be made. But not all the French bishops were worldly, nor neglectful of their spiritual duties. Among them might be found conscientious and serious prelates, abounding both in faith and good works, living simply and bestowing their wealth in charity. [Footnote: Rambaud, ii. 37. Mathieu, 151.]

After the bishops came the abbots. As their offices were in the gift of the king, and as no discipline was enforced upon them, they were chiefly to be found in the antechambers of Versailles and in the drawing-rooms of Paris. They were not even obliged to be members of the religious orders they were supposed to govern.[Footnote: The abbots of abbeys en commende were appointed by the king. These appear to have been most of the rich abbeys. There were also abbayes régulières, where the abbot was elected by the brethren. Rambaud, ii. 53. The revenues of the monasteries were divided into two parts, the mense abbatiale, for the abbot, the mense conventuelle, for the brethren. Mathieu, 73.] Leaving the charge of their monasteries to the priors, they spent the incomes where new preferment was to be looked for, and devoted their time to intrigues rather than to prayers. No small part of the revenues of the clergy was wasted in the dissipations of these ecclesiastic courtiers. They were imitated in their vices by a rabble of priests out of place, to whom the title of abbot was given in politeness, the little abbés of French biography and fiction. These men lived in garrets, haunted cheap eating-houses, and appeared on certain days of the week at rich men's tables, picking up a living as best they could. They were to be seen among the tradesmen and suitors who crowded the levees of the great, distinguishable in the throng by their black clothes, and a very small tonsure. They attended the toilets of fashionable ladies, ever ready with the last bit of literary gossip, or of social scandal. They sought employment as secretaries, or as writers for the press. The church, or indeed, the opposite party, could find literary champions among them at a moment's notice. Nor was hope of professional preferment always lacking. It is said that one of the number kept an ecclesiastical intelligence office. This man was acquainted with the incumbents of valuable livings; he watched the state of their health, and calculated the chances of death among them. He knew what patrons were likely to have preferment to give away, and how those patrons were to be reached. His couriers were ever on the road to Rome, for the Pope still had the gift of many rich places in France, in spite of the Concordat.[Footnote: Mercier, ix. 350.]

Another large part of the revenues of the church was devoted to the support of the convents. These contained from sixty to seventy thousand persons, more of them women than men. Owing to various causes, and especially to the action of a commission appointed to examine all convents, and to reform, close, or consolidate such as might need to be so treated, the number of regular religious persons fell off more than one half during the last twenty-five years of the monarchy. Yet many of the functions which in modern countries are left to private charity, or to the direct action of the state, were performed in old France by persons of this kind. The care of the poor and sick and the education of the young were largely, although not entirely, in the hands of religious orders. Some monks, like the Benedictines of St. Maur, devoted their lives to the advancement of learning. But there were also monks and nuns who rendered no services to the public, and were entirely occupied with their own spiritual and temporal interests, giving alms, perhaps, but only incidentally, like other citizens. Against these the indignation of the French Philosophers was much excited. Their celibacy was attacked, as contrary to the interests of the state; they were accused of laziness and greed. How far were the Philosophers right in their opposition? It is impossible to discuss in detail here

the policy of allowing or discouraging religious corporations in a state. Should men and women be permitted to retire from the struggles and duties of active life in the world? Is the monastery, with its steady and depressing routine, its religious observances, often mechanical, and its quiet life, more or less degrading than the wearing toil of the world without, and the coarse pleasures of the club or the tavern? Is it better that a woman, whom choice or necessity has deprived of every probability of governing a home of her own, should struggle against the chances and temptations of city life, or the constant drudgery of spinsterhood in the country; or that she should find the stupefying protection of a convent? These questions have seldom been answered entirely on their own merits. They have presented themselves in company with others even more important; with questions of freedom of conscience and of national existence. The time seems not far distant when they must be reconsidered for their own sake. Already in France the persons leading a monastic life are believed to be twice as numerous as they were at the outbreak of the Revolution. It is difficult to ascertain the number in our own country, but it is not inconsiderable.[Footnote: Rambaud (ii. 52 and n.) reckons 100,000 in the 18th century and 158,500 to-day in France, but the figures for the last century are probably too high, at least if 1788 be taken as the point of comparison. Sadlier's Catholic Directory, 1885, p. 116, gives the number of Catholic religions in the Archdiocese of New York at 117 regular priests, 271 brothers, 2136 religious women, in addition to 279 secular priests.]

A pleasant life the inmates of some convents must have had of it. The incomes were large, the duties easy.

Certain houses had been secularized and turned into noble chapters. The ladies who inhabited them were freed from the vow of poverty. They wore no religious vestment, but appeared in the fashionable dress of the day. They received their friends in the convent, and could leave it themselves to reenter the secular life, and to marry if they pleased. Such a chapter was that of Remiremont in Lorraine, whose abbess was a princess of the Holy Roman Empire, by virtue of her office. Her crook was of gold. Six horses were harnessed to her carriage. Her dominion extended over two hundred villages, whose inhabitants paid her both feudal dues and ecclesiastical tithes. Nor were her duties onerous. She spent a large part of her time in Strasburg, and went to the theatre without scruple. She traveled a good deal in the neighborhood, and was a familiar figure at some of the petty courts on the Rhine. The canonesses followed her good example. Some of them were continually on the road. Others stayed at home in the convent, and entertained much good company. They dressed like other people, in the fashion, with nothing to mark their religious calling but a broad ribbon over the right shoulder, blue bordered with red, supporting a cross, with a figure of Saint Romaric. No lady was received into this chapter who could not show nine generations or two hundred and twenty-five years of chivalric, noble descent, both on the father's and on the mother's side.

Such requirements as this were extreme, but similar conditions were not unusual. The Benedictines of Saint Claude, transformed into a chapter of canonesses, required sixteen quarterings for admission; that is to say, that every canoness must show by proper heraldic proof, that her sixteen great-grandfathers and great-grandmothers were of noble blood. The Knights of Malta required but four quarterings. They had two hundred and twenty commanderies in France, with eight hundred Knights. The Grand Priory gave an income of sixty thousand livres to the Prior, who was always a prince. The revenues of the order were 1,750,000 livres.

But very rich monasteries were exceptional after all. Those where life was hard and labor continuous were far more common. In some of them, forty men would be found living on a joint income of six thousand livres a year. They cultivated the soil, they built, they dug. They were not afraid of great undertakings in architecture or engineering, to be accomplished only after long years and generations of labor, for was not their corporation immortal? Then we have the begging orders, infesting the roads and villages, and drawing several million livres a year from the poorer classes, which supported and grumbled at them. And against the luxury of the noble chapters must be set the silence, the vigils, the fasts of La Trappe. This monastery stood in a gloomy valley, sunk among wooded hills. The church and the surrounding buildings were mostly old, and all sombre and uninviting. Each narrow cell was furnished with but a mattress, a blanket and a table, without chair or fire. The monks were clad in a robe and a hood, and wore shoes and stockings, but had neither shirt nor breeches. They shaved three times a year. Their food consisted of boiled vegetables, with salad once a week; never any butter nor eggs. Twice in the night they rose, and hastened shivering to the chapel. Never did they speak, but to their confessor; until, in his last hour, each was privileged to give to the prior his dying messages. Hither, from the active and gay world of philosophy and frivolity would suddenly retire from time to time some young officer, scholar, or courtier. Here, bound by irrevocable vows, he could weep over his sins, or gnash his teeth at the folly that had brought him, until he found peace at last in life or in the grave.

To enjoy the temporal privileges of the religious life neither any great age nor any extensive learning was required. To hold a cure of souls or the abbacy of a "regular" convent (whose inmates chose their abbot), a man must be twenty-five years old. But an abbot appointed by the king need only be twenty-two, a canon of a cathedral fourteen, and a chaplain seven. It cannot be doubted that persons of either sex were obliged to make irrevocable vows, without any proof of free vocation, or any reason to expect a fixed resolution. Daughters and younger sons could thus be conveniently disposed of. A larger share was left for the family, for the religious were civilly dead, and did not take part in the inheritance. On the other hand, misfortune and want need not be feared for the inmate of the convent. If a nun were lost to the joys of the world, she was lost to its cares. To make such a choice, to commit temporal suicide, the very young should surely not be admitted. Yet it was not until 1768 that the time for taking final vows was advanced to the very moderate age of twenty-one for young men and eighteen for girls.[Footnote: Rambaud, ii. 45. Mathieu, 43. Chassin, 25. Boiteau, 176. Bailly, 421. Mme. d'Oberkirch, 127. Mme. de Genlis, Dict. des étiquettes, i. Ill n., Le Comte de Fersen et la Cour de France, I. xxix. Mercier, xi. 358.]

The secular clergy was about as numerous as the regular. It was principally composed of the curés and vicaires who had charge of parishes.[Footnote: The bishops, of course, belonged to the secular clergy. So, in fact, did the canons; who, on account of the similarity of their mode of life, have been treated with the regulars. In the French hierarchy the curé comes above the vicaire. The relation is somewhat that of parson and curate in the church of England.] These men were mostly drawn from the lower classes of society, or at any rate not from the nobility. They had therefore very little chance of promotion. Some of them in the country districts were very poor; for the great tithes, levied on the principal crops, generally belonged to the bishops, to the convents of regulars, or to laymen; and only the lesser tithes, the occasional fees,[Footnote: Casuel.] and the product of a small glebe were reserved for the parish priest, and the latter was liable to continual squabbles with the peasants concerning his dues. But the parish priest, with all other churchmen, was exempt from the state taxes, although obliged to pay a proportion of the décimes,[Footnote: Décime, in the singular, was an extraordinary tax levied on ecclesiastical revenue for some object deemed important. Décimes, in the plural, was the tax paid annually by bénéfices. D?me, tithe (see Littré, Décime). It seems a question whether the proportion of the décimes paid by the parish priests was too large. See Revue des questions historiques, 1st July 1890, 102. Necker, De l'Administration, ii. 313.] or special tax laid by the clergy on their own order. Moreover, the government set a minimum;[Footnote: Portion congrue.] and if the income of the parish priest fell below it, the owner of the great tithes was bound to make up the difference. This minimum was set at five hundred livres a year for a curé in 1768, and raised to seven hundred in 1785. A vicaire received two hundred and three hundred and fifty. These amounts do not seem large, but they must have secured to the country priest a tolerable condition, for we do not find that the clerical profession was neglected.

Apart from considerations of material well being, the condition of the parish priest was not undesirable. He was fairly independent, and could not be deprived of his living without due process of law. His house was larger or smaller according to his means, but his authority and influence might in any case be considerable. He had more education and more dealings with the outer world than most of his parishioners. To him the intendant of the province might apply for information concerning the state of his village, and the losses of the peasants by fire, or by epidemics among their cattle. His sympathy with his fellow-villagers was the warmer, that like them he had a piece of ground to till, were it only a garden, an orchard, or a bit of vineyard. Round his door, as round theirs, a few hens were scratching; perhaps a cow lowed from her shed, or followed the village herd to the common. The priest's servant, a stout lass, did the milking and the weeding. In 1788, a provincial synod was much disturbed by a motion, made by some fanatic in the interest of morals, that no priest should keep a serving-maid less than forty-five years of age. The rule was rejected on the ground that it would make it impossible to cultivate the glebes. Undoubtedly, the priests themselves often tucked up the skirts of their cassocks, and lent a hand in the work. They were treated by their flocks with a certain amount of respectful familiarity. They were addressed as messire. With the joys and sorrows of their parishioners, their connection was at once intimate and professional. Their ministrations were sought by the sick and the sad, their congratulations by the happy. No wedding party nor funeral feast was complete without them.[Footnote: Turgot, v. 364. This letter is very interesting, as showing the importance of the curés and their possible dealings with the intendant. Mathieu, 152. Babeau, La vie rurale, 157. A good study of the clergy before the Revolution is found in an article by Marius Sepet (La société fran?aise à la veille de la révolution), in the Revue des questions historiques, 1st April and 1st July, 1889.]

The privileges and immunities which the Church of France enjoyed had given to her clergy a tone of independence both to the Pope and to the king. We have seen them accompanying their "free gifts" to the latter by requests and conditions. Toward the Holy See their attitude had once been quite as bold. In 1682 an assembly of the Church of France had promulgated four propositions which were considered the bulwarks of the Gallican liberties.

(1.) God has given to Saint Peter and his successors no power, direct or indirect, over temporal affairs.

(2.) Ecumenical councils are superior to the Pope in spiritual matters.

(3.) The rules, usages and statutes admitted by the kingdom and the Church of France must remain inviolate.

(4.) In matters of faith, decisions of the Sovereign Pontiff are irrevocable only after having received the consent of the church.

These propositions were undoubtedly a part of the law of France, and were fully accepted by a portion of the French clergy. But the spirit that dictated them had in a measure died out during the corrupt reign of Louis XV. The long quarrel between the Jesuits and the Jansenists, which agitated the Galilean church during the latter part of the seventeenth and the earlier half of the eighteenth century, had tended neither to strengthen nor to purify that body. A large number of the most serious, intelligent and devout Catholics in France had been put into opposition to the most powerful section of the clergy and to the Pope himself. Thus the Church of France was in a bad position to repel the violent attacks made upon her from without.[Footnote: Rambaud, ii. 40. For a Catholic account of the Jansenist quarrel, see Carné, La monarchie fran?aise au 18me siècle, 407.]

For a time of trial had come to the Catholic Church, and the Church of France, although hardly aware of its danger, was placed in the forefront of battle. It was against her that the most persistent and violent assault of the Philosophers was directed. Before considering the doctrines of those men, who differed among themselves very widely on many points, it is well to ask what was the cause of the great excitement which their doctrines created. Men as great have existed in other centuries, and have exercised an enormous influence on the human mind.

But that influence has generally been gradual; percolating slowly, through the minds of scholars and thinkers, to men of action and the people. The intellectual movement of the eighteenth century in France was rapid. It was the nature of the opposition which they encountered which drew popular attention to the attacks of the Philosophers.

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