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Faith in Testimony to Faith in Tradition: The Debate Over Miracles and Convulsions in the Nouvelles Ecclésiastiques, 1728-1750

Angela Haas

In 1748, the Scottish philosopher David Hume wrote that never in human history had there been a truly well-attested miracle. He claimed that the verification of a miracle would require manifold testimonies from men of “unquestioned good-sense, education, and learning,” and of “credit and reputation in the eyes of mankind.” [1] In addition, he maintained that the miracles would have to be “performed in such a public manner and in so celebrated a part of the world, as to render the detection unavoidable.” [2] However, the miracles reported at the cemetery of Saint-Médard left him somewhat baffled. Surprisingly, this particular set of events fit his criteria for a well-attested miracle. He admitted that these miracles were “proven on the spot, before judges of unquestioned integrity, attested by witnesses of credit and distinction, in a learned age, and on the most eminent theatre that is now in the world [Paris].” [3] Hume was thus left with no other choice but to rely on the a priori supposition that miracles were an “absolute impossibility.” [4] Hume based his final judgment upon natural reason, which led him to reject human testimony in favor of the laws of Nature. Likewise, in the wake of the Saint-Médard episode, many who based their personal judgment upon Christian principles, rejected human testament in favor of the laws of God. The series of miracles and convulsions that erupted in the early 1730s in Paris sparked an elaborate debate regarding the authenticity of miracles, and the reliability of human testimony. This debate, as recorded in the Jansenist newspaper, the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques,suggests that many people were not becoming more rational or less religious. In fact, they were internalizing their faith and thus, they ceased to rely on the judgment of others in matters of faith, and they began to rely more heavily upon Church tradition.

Miracles, Convulsions and the Saintly Deacon

On May 1, 1727 the Jansenist deacon François de Pâris died in Paris. Although he belonged to a wealthy family, [5] he was buried in the Saint-Médard cemetery in the impoverished Saint-Marceau quarter, as a display of his extreme piety and asceticism. Crowds of worshiping faithful, mostly common folk from the surrounding parishes, flocked to his tomb. After a few days, there were various reports of miraculous cures from blindness, deafness, paralysis and other afflictions, all of which were attributed to the saintly deacon. In the following years, news of these miraculous events spread, the number of visitors to the cemetery grew rapidly, and the number of miracles reported there increased dramatically. [6]

The development of a popular religious cult at Saint-Médard alarmed both ecclesiastical and royal authorities. In July 1731, some adherents of the cult began to experience convulsions, which resulted in physical and spiritual healing. While many disregarded the miracles and convulsions as ridiculous, others described them as “terrifying,” “diabolical,” “indecent,” “obscene” and “scandalous.” [7] In the wake of this outbreak of convulsions, both royal and Church officials became increasingly concerned that this cult posed a serious threat to social stability. This fear was exacerbated by the fact that the deacon had quickly become a saintly hero in the eyes of Jansenists. Pâris was an appelant, that is, he opposed the papal bull Unigenitus. Promulgated in 1713, this bull condemned conciliarism and predestination, among other unorthodox tenets commonly held by Jansensists. Thus, as an exceptionally pious appelant, François de Pâris was a perfect symbol of the Jansenist struggle against the monarchy and the Church. This struggle was fundamental to the development of religion and politics in eighteenth-century France. The royal and ecclesiastical anxiety caused by this affiliation of the deacon with the recalcitrant Jansenists resulted in severe suppression of the cult, including closing the Saint-Médard cemetery on January 27, 1732. [8] One sarcastic commentator posted a placard outside the cemetery that read: “By order of the King, it is forbidden for God to make miracles in this place.” [9] As this placard suggests, instead of stifling the cult as the monarchy had hoped, this attempt at suppression increased enthusiasm.

Despite the closing of the cemetery, the convulsions multiplied. Now forced to meet in private, the convulsionaries' practices became more violent and bizarre. This included reciting prophecies, and various forms of masochism, such as beating, stabbing, choking, and even crucifying participants. [10] The afflicted prayed for God to give them the power to endure these tortures. They claimed to feel no pain and to suffer no injury. They considered the experience pleasurable and they found relief in this procedure. [11] Most participants of the cult seem to have been uneducated laboring poor. However, these laboring poor were also joined by nobles, clergy, merchants, financiers, cultivated men of letters, lawyers, and notaries. [12] Despite the cult's respectable social makeup, the extreme and controversial nature of their practices led the convulsionaries to lose much of their public support by the mid-1730s. [13] Despite manifold criticisms from the Church, the monarchy, and other contemporaries, the cult maintained a wide array of supporters, which ranged from common folk, to magistrates in the Parlement of Paris, to nobles at Court. [14] The rise of this cult also sparked an elaborate debate concerning the authenticity of miraculous events, and the legitimacy of evidence supporting these miracles.

The Nouvelles Ecclésiastiques: From Witness Testimony to Church Tradition

While written works supporting the miracles came in a variety of forms, from letters by theologians to widely-distributed works titled, Collections of Miracles, by the early 1730s, the most avid and widely-distributed support of these miracles was found within the illegally-published Jansenist newspaper, the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques.The primary goal of the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques was to expose the injustices created by the papal bull Unigenitus. Although the papal bull Unigenitus had been promulgated nearly twenty years earlier, in the 1720s and 1730s the controversy surrounding it still raged in Paris. This bull denounced the works of the theologian Pasquier Quesnel as dangerous, and it condemned various ideas commonly held by Jansenists, including the doctrine of predestination and conciliarism. [15] Unigenitus also confirmed the hierarchy of the Church, placing the pope over regional bishops, the bishops over the lower clergy and, most controversially, spiritual power over temporal. Not only did Jansenists criticize Unigenitus, but so too did the magistrates in the Parlement of Paris, who resented the placement of the Church over the State. Many bishops criticized it because they resented the inference that the pope had the power to undermine the authority of the Gallican Church, while others rejected the bull on theological grounds. The bull was similarly rejected by nearly three quarters of the lower clergy, and consequently by their loyal congregations, who believed that it thwarted the spiritual authority of parish priests. [16] Thus, the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques had the potential to reach out to a very large, diverse, and sympathetic audience.

Moreover, the Nouvellistes overtly proclaimed their goal to appeal to common folk, which further increased the accessibility and appeal of the paper to a broad readership. The opening article of the first issue proclaimed that while the "ordinary lay faithful” may have believed that the disputes about Unigenitus “concerned only opposing schools of thought better left to Theologians to fight over and unbecoming for simple laypeople to take part in,” in fact, the dire circumstances made it necessary to “place the facts before the eyes of the Public.” [17] The first issue made its intended audience very clear: "the Ecclesiastical News [is] particularly for the simple and for the people who cannot give all their attention to this great affair [the bull Unigenitus]." [18] The paper consistently used phrasing such as "People are saying," to sugget that they gathered their information from the people, which "gave credence to the opinions of ordinary people." [19] The Nouvelles exposed convoluted scandals with accurate, yet circumstantial evidence. It also provided detailed, clear explanations of complex theological issues, which "had the trick of flattering the reader's intellectual self-esteem." [20] While the paper was clearly read by many highly-educated individuals, it aimed to obtain the loyalty of the populace as a whole. This underground newspaper “became the tribunal of the public and the linchpin in the Jansenist propaganda effort to galvanize popular opposition to Unigenitus. [21] They focused very strongly upon the persecution of the Jansenists by the higher powers of Church and State in order to rally the lower classes behind the appelant cause. The Nouvelles exposed persecution, provided spiritual advice and made regular calls to their "Public" in hope of opening the eyes of those who were sleeping through the scandal around them.

Every issue between 1730 and 1735, made some reference to the miracles at Saint-Médard. [22] The paper consistently encouraged readers of all social and educational backgrounds to use their own reason to assess the legitimacy of the miraculous events of their time. However, the way in which the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques encouraged readers to apply this reason changed over time. In the early years of the paper, it consistently stressed reliance upon human testimony as evidence for the miracles. However, from the mid-1730s to the early 1740s, hesitation grew over the reliability of such testimony, which led the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques to accept some aspects of the movement, and reject others. By 1750, the authors of the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques came to reject human testimony entirely, and they supplanted it with an exclusive reliance upon Church tradition.

As early as July 1728 the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques featured the miracles at Saint-Médard in a lengthy two-page article that included the names, ailments and accounts of cures that allegedly occurred at the deacon's tomb. [23] While between 1728 and 1729 the Nouvelles published only ten articles dealing with miracles, after the explosion of miracle reports at the cemetery of Saint-Médard the number shot up dramatically. There were twenty-four articles on miracles in 1731 alone, and another fifty-nine over the following two years. The majority of the articles dealt with miracles that occurred in Paris by the supposed intercession of François de Pâris. Other articles reported miracles that occurred outside the capital, and some were attributed to other saints. Many of these articles contained miracle accounts and witness reports, while others contained reports of various works written either to support or oppose these miracles. [24]

The author of an article on the biography of François de Pâris in June 1731 claimed that this work contained reports of events “so marvelous” and “so recent” that “it truly puts the criticism and malignancy of the century to the test,” since it is “founded upon proofs so concerning, upon reports so evident, so sensible, so close to us, so difficult to contradict, and so easy to verify, that one cannot read it without being touched.” [25] However, the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques insisted thatit would only publish information about the cures once they had been “cleared up and confirmed.” [26] An article published in August 1731assured readers that “the events under consideration had been occurring in full public view and were known all over Paris.” [27] Clearly, there was a great deal of concern that the reports be veritable, or at least believable. The Nouvelles ecclésiastiques called upon its readers to judge for themselves, providing them with the “obvious” and “incontestable” signs that these miracles were not only verifiable, but also a sign that God was supporting the appelant cause by bestowing them upon these “defenders of the faith.”

The Nouvellistes did not rely solely on the faith and credulity of their readers when discussing the miraculous nature of these events. Beginning in 1731 the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques consistently provided “incontestable evidence” for the miracles they reported. In August of that year the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques published an article, which contained twenty-two reports of miracles. These miracles resulted in cures from a variety of maladies including ringworm, asthma, habitual vomiting, and paralysis. [28] While each of these individuals had a unique story and ailment, the evidence supporting these miracleswas strikingly uniform. Each cure had a series of witnesses: those who attested to the person's prior ailment, and to the fact that these miracles were incurable, those who attested to seeing the miracle itself take place, and those who attested to the aftermath to ensure that the healing was complete. While some of the witness reports came from family members and random passers-by, others came from doctors and surgeons who affirmed the breach between the natural and the supernatural.

Perhaps the most important aspect of these reports is the degree to which the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques trusted witnesses. The paper consistently published the testimonies of those present at the time of the miraculous event. These reports also relied upon the testaments of those who were familiar with the cured person, or alternately, people who were associated with the Royal Court (nobles, servants of nobles, or anyone else associated with the nobility). The legitimacy of the reports was dependent on the credibility of witnesses. By providing the testaments of various doctors and surgeons, the newspaper called upon its readers to trust in the training and judgment of these experts. One article claimed that these reports were “so sensible, so close to us, so difficult to contradict, and so easy to verify,” that they “put the criticism of the century to the test.” [29] However, the evidence provided relied almost solely upon the principle that readers' fellow Parisians were reliable. Thus, the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques did not encourage readers to rely purely on their faith, but to base their reasoning upon the testaments of their fellow man.

As this debate continued throughout the 1730s, the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques continued adamantly to defend the trustworthiness of Parisians. For example, in May 1732 the paper condemned the Jesuit play titled, Saint Déniche. The playwright claimed that the actors were composing a “Jansenist Theater." Throughout the play, the actors mocked the credulity of those who believed in the miracles at Saint-Médard. This credulity was portrayed as the result of “seduction”and the miracles as “impostures payed for in a plot to seduce the people.” [30] Parisians were characterized as being “easy to seduce” and “heretical.” The author of the play's handbill stated that “a spirit of vertigo or fanaticism burned ALL THE BRAINS of this large city.” [31] However, the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques contradicted this defamation and adamantly defended the reputation of the people of Paris, claiming that these “scandalous plays” were an insult to the “solid writings” and “evident miracles,” whichwere “demonstrated and known” in all of Paris. The paper claimed that these events “cannot be seriously and reasonably refuted.” [32] Despite the explosive criticisms of the Jesuits and other opponents of the miracles and convulsions, the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques asserted that these events were evidently attested by the people of Paris, who were a thoroughly reliable source.

The Nouvelles ecclésiastiques faced a multitude of critics for their support of witness testimony. However, most of these criticisms seem to have been limited to theological works with a relatively limited circulation. One of the most widely criticized miracles was that of Anne Lefranc, which occurred after the dismissal of her Jansenist-leaning curé from his postin 1730. After having suffered from blindness in one eye and partial paralysis for almost thirty years, she was miraculously cured at the cemetery of Saint-Médard on November 3. [33] The most ambitious critic wrote a twenty-four-page treatise opposing the miracle of Anne Lefranc titled, Lettre à Monsieur ***. In this anonymous work the author disregarded the testaments of people and claimed that “It is not necessary to be convinced to speak with assurance, one can mislead without desiring to do so.” [34] In fact, he believed that those who supported the miracle had a good reason to mislead and “worry simple people”: to gain support for their Jansenist heresy. [35] The author of the letter concluded by claiming that those who support the miracles are of “a Sect that makes light of Religion, that buys miracles, and that pays in deniers counting the seduction of the Public.” [36] Thus, clearly not everyone during this period found the common people a reliable source of information, but rather, found them easily misled and gullible. Such criticisms tended to appear often in theological treatises and letters. However, perhaps the greatest difference between a treatise such as this one and the Collections of Miracles and the Nouvelles Ecclésiastiques is that the latter two were far more accessible to the lower classes and far more widely distributed. That the more widely distributed—and, indeed, more widely read—works strongly supported the reliability of the populace may suggest that during this period there was a stronger tendency toward faith in human testament than against.

The Saint-Médard debate during this early period was two-sided: for and against. However, the outbreak of convulsions in July 1731 transformed this debate into a multi-faceted clash of theological and philosophical wits. In this dispute, each side attempted to assess the reliability of Scripture, the Church Fathers, and human testimony. In 1733, a single article of the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques boiled down the convulsionary debate to three basic arguments. The first group embraced every aspect of the movement, and believed that all aspects were divine. The second group rejected some aspects of the convulsionary movement, such as the violent outbursts and false prophecies, but accepted other aspects, like the miraculous healings. Finally, a third group rejected the convulsions entirely. Some believed that the entire convulsionary movement was an imposture (a stance held by most Jesuits who generally disdained all Jansenists). Others believed that the convulsions were the result of natural causes, and attributed them to a maladie épidémique [epidemic sickness] or overactive imaginations, inspired by their personal connection to Pâris. [37] It is important to note that the discourse surrounding the miracles and convulsions reflected a clashing of fundamental beliefs. Each group had a different perception of how individuals ought to apply their reason in matters of faith. While some accepted witness testimonies and found the convulsionaries to be trustworthy, others assumed that they were heretical impostors, or people with overactive imaginations who had forsaken reason for fanaticism. These groups disagreed over the degree to which individuals should base their faith on witness testimonies, Church tradition, and what the authors of the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques unfavorably referred to as “pure reason.”

Despite increasingly diverse and vicious criticisms, the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques held that the convulsions were merely an extension of the earlier miracles at Saint-Médard. One article noted that even the closing of the cemetery did not stop these convulsions, which proved the divine force responsible for them. Thus the convulsionary movement was considered to be very extraordinary “by virtue of the new circumstances that join them to the actions that are already known.” [38] The article listed the various miracles that had occurred as the result of these convulsions, including “sublime discourses of piety” spoken by simple and uneducated people, beautiful prayers, complete cures for some people, and significant relief from pain for many others, as well as the dramatic conversions of unbelievers. It was admitted that some of the convulsionaries had falsely predicted certain events that never came to pass, and spoken of “frivolous and sometimes shocking things.” [39] However, these were far fewer than the valid miracles and he resented the fact that some had attempted to relate them to fanatiques of other periods.

Throughout the following decade, however, the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques slowly became more reliant on Church tradition as they grew more skeptical of the trustworthiness of the movement's adherents. By the middle of the 1730s, the cult of François de Pâris had lost its most powerful supporters, including most members of the Parlement of Paris, and most Jansenists as well. These supporters abandoned the cause primarily due to the violent actions of individual convulsionaries. Nevertheless, the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques continued avidly to support the cult, believing that despite extreme manifestations, the convulsionary movement still contained something praiseworthy. During this period the paper's view of the cult fell between undoubted support and full condemnation, and it began to rely more heavily upon Church tradition and doctrine to distinguish true convulsions from false ones. Throughout the mid 1730s, the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques began to report works that relied more on tradition, and less on witnesses. In 1734, the paper published a letter written by the theologian M. Le Gros, in which he claimed that it was “very unjust to scorn them, or to judge the Convulsionaries in general,” since these convulsions took a variety of forms. [40] He proclaimed: “Let us research ... the truth; let us use God to dissipate the clouds; let us attach ourselves to the RULES, which are not subject to illusion.” [41] He called on his readers to rely on Church tradition to discern the real convulsions from the false ones. Not only was this author calling upon his audience to base its judgment upon tradition, he was also suggesting that perhaps witness testaments were not entirely reliable, but rather they were “subject to illusion.”

Throughout the 1740s, tradition continued to supplant human testimony as the authenticating force for miracles and convulsions. In January 1742 an article was published condemning the latest work of Carré de Montgeron, a magistrate in the Parlement of Paris. Montgeron was amongst the cult's most celebrated defenders and his work supported the convulsionary movement with few reservations. The Nouvelles ecclésiastiques was critical of this work because “in critical times, and in events filled with obscurity” it failed to address how essential it was to follow “the Rules of Scripture and of Tradition.” According to this article, Montgeron was not mindful enough of those who had the misfortune “to separate themselves from these sacred Rules.” Furthermore, he failed to mention the mix present within the movementand thus, the article claimed, these facts “should render us circumspect and precautioned.” [42] Because Montgeron was “very affectionate toward convulsions” and believed in the virtues “of the greatest number of convulsionaries,” the criticism continued, this led to “an involuntary exaggeration.” [43] In concluding the article, the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques claimed that certainty depends on good judgment and the use that one makes of that judgment. Thus, to depend on impressions and instinct is to substitute these for the rules of tradition. [44]

The authors of the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques were openly criticized for their position on Montgeron's work. The fact that these criticisms were published in full in 1742 suggests that contributors were still in the process of reconsidering their stance and that they had not definitively rejected the convulsions. After critics published a second letter criticizing the paper's position on this work, the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques decided to “abandon judgment to the public.” [45] By 1740 the debate over this issue had become exceedingly complicated. Nevertheless, the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques still refused to condemn the convulsionary movement in its entirety. This support was, however, growing increasingly thin. Throughout the following decade, the paper's tone toward the convulsionaries grew increasingly critical. In 1743, the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques praised a work titled Response to the Complaint of legitimate defenders of the Convulsions that condemned the violent actions of the convulsionary movement as contrary to at least five of God's laws. The paper declared this work “so clear, so solid, so instructive, so conformed to the Rules and to the principles that one has always followed in the Church;” the article continued, that“on the one hand, it will give rise to no reasonable retort, and on the other hand ... it will irrevocably fix all incertitude on the object of this appalling controversy.” [46] Thus, by the mid 1740s the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques both openly condemned the violent manifestations of the cult, and boldly asserted that Church tradition took precedence over all other forms of evidence.

The very last article in which the convulsionaries received a significant mention was written in December 1750. The article was a review of a theological work published in 1749 titled Preservative against false principles. This work rejected individual authentication of miracles in favor of Church tradition. The theologian asserted that “(t)he cause of truth does not at all depend upon people. It draws all its force from the foundations on which it pleased God to rest them, and which are none other than Scripture and Tradition.” [47] This theologian constructed his arguments using Scripture and tradition. He also applied the voice and rules of the Church as well as its communal preaching. In its review of this theological study, the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques affirmed its position that Church tradition was the only source to which one should refer when analyzing religious matters. [48]

Between 1728 and 1750 the paper came full circle. In just over two decades, the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques slowly shiftedfrom supporting individual testaments, and encouraging their readers to do the same, to rejecting any evidence that was not firmly grounded in Scripture and Church tradition. However, this was clearly not the immediate result of the cult's bizarre turn toward spiritual violence. The Nouvelles ecclésiastiques never condemned the entire convulsionary movement. The paper continually held that the convulsions were divine, but that some people acted outside the divinely-imposed regulations. As late as 1749 the paper published a letter written by the bishop of Auxerre, in which he claimed that the biggest problem with Montgeron's work was that it failed to recognize that the secours posed “a very great risk to one's health, when one is not bound to convulsions.” [49]The condemnation was not of the violent actions of the convulsionaries per se, but of violent actions by people who pretended to have convulsions. The Nouvelles' support of this stance suggests that it was not the actions of the convulsionaries which turned the paper against their cause. On the contrary the paper seems to have no longer trusted that these people were not convulsionary impostors. The Nouvelles ecclésiastiques concluded this article by claiming that “We benefit from this occasion to exhort anew and with the most vivid instances the people who well wish to contribute to the Mémoirs, to make us pass on only facts that are absolutely certain.” [50]From this period on, evidence that was “absolutely certain” was found not in witness reports, but in hagiographies, Biblical narratives, and theological treatises. By the middle of the eighteenth century, the Nouvellistes replaced the authority once given to the people with Scriptural precedence and tradition.

Conclusion: The Paper, the People, and the Internalization of Piety

Although the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques came to reject the violent actions of the convulsionaries by the 1740s, the larger editorial shift away from reliance on witness testimony cannot simply be explained as a side effect of convulsionary extremism. Human testimony only gradually faded from the articles of Nouvelles ecclésiastiques. The papercontinued to print reports of miracles through the early 1740s, with the last recorded report in 1746. Like the earlier reports, they aimed to prove the authenticity of these miracles by means of witness reports. Between the mid 1730s and the mid 1740s, these reports decreased dramatically. Between 1733 and 1736 there were forty-one articles in the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques that contained miracle reports, while between 1743 and 1746 there were only eight. [51]Thus, during the same period in which the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques slowly grew more critical of the convulsionary movement due to its increasingly apparent break with Church tradition, it also slowly came to ignore the once celebrated miracles based upon witness testimonies. Since miracle accounts continued to be published until 1746, it is clear that this shift from a reliance on human testimony to a reliance on Church tradition was not the immediate result of convulsionary extremism, which arose in the early 1730s. Furthermore, the primary editor of the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques, Jacques Fontaine de la Roche held his position from 1728 until 1762, which makes it extremely unlikely that this shift was the result of a shift in newspaper personnel. [52]

In recent years, historians such as Catherine Maire and Dale Van Kley have argued that the lack of reception to these events and the decline of support for the cult was the result of the rise of incredulity throughout this period. [53] While a failure to report miracles may have been the result of a variety of factors, including a general shift toward incredulity, sometimes deemed “dechristianization,” it may also indicate a shift among those whose faith remained intact. That is to say, perhaps some people were actually becoming more incredulous of their fellow man than of supernatural phenomena. In the last few decades, historians have begun to stress a general trend of internalization of piety in eighteenth-century France. Most notably, John McManners has both combined and challenged various aspects of the “dechristianization” thesis. He claims that much of the evidence used by historians such as Michel Vovelle and Pierre Chaunu to support this thesis, in fact, indicates a “refinement in the religious outlook.” [54] His study affirms that the people of eighteenth-century France slowly rejected some of the more ostentatious and public forms of piety. However, McManners believes that this abandonment indicates an internalization, rather than a depletion of piety. He combines some elements of the “dechristianization” thesis with other developments such as the increase in family affection and concludes that people's views toward death were becoming increasingly internal and personal, and that religious rituals surrounding death were becoming increasingly private and “lonely.” He believes that this indicates a shift toward the internalization of piety in eighteenth-century France. [55]

The decline of religious associations is one of many signs of this internalization. These religious associations “exposed the idea of the corporate life and responsibility of Christians and their hope for a corporate salvation.” [56] Throughout the eighteenth century, this hope waned. The desire for corporate salvation was displaced by an internalized view of individual salvation, based upon personal adherence to Church rules and attention to Scripture. The shift toward Church tradition and away from individual testimony in the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques suggests another manifestation of this trend. Throughout the eighteenth century, many French people came to rely less on corporate salvation, and to believe that their personal salvation was not inextricably linked to that of the community. Likewise, it appears that the Nouvellistes came to believe that an individual’s judgment should not rely on that of others.

However, this trend seems to have extended beyond the publishers of the Nouvelles. This paperwas widely-distributed and attempted to appeal to a wide range of readers in order to convert them to the cause of the appelants. While it is impossible to tell exactly how well these works were received, to some extent the numbers speak for themselves. That between 4,000 and 6,000 copies were distributed to eager readers each week suggests that the message being expounded was more or less accepted. As the historian Robert Scribner has suggested, propaganda in any age is unlikely to stray far from the most general values and concerns of its intended audience. [57] Furthermore, there is evidence that people felt a great deal of attachment and loyalty toward the paper. For example, when the archbishop Vintimille demanded that his pastoral letter condemning the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques be read from the pulpit in all of the capital's parishes, twenty-one priests refused. [58]Even the cooperation of the clergy could not ensure that of their congregation. When in May 1732 the recently appointed curé of the Jansenist parish of Saint-Jacques-du-Haut-Pas tried to read Vintimille’s mandamus against the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques during his homily, the entire congregation left the church “leaving the curé to listen to himself.” [59] Many people who had exposure to the newspaper clearly accepted and even defended the message of the editors. The paper was overtly polemical and its information sometimes bordered on gossip. Nevertheless, "it was gossip powerfully slanted, a weekly foray of revenge against the majority party in the Church which was victorious in everything except winning the hearts of the public." [60] As the historian Dale Van Kley has noted, the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques “found—indeed, even created—its own public.” [61] While the “public” regularly evoked in articles may have been initially rhetorical, over time the Nouvelles managed to procure a real one. The Nouvellistes tried ostensibly to arouse as much support as possible for the appelant cause, and thus, they attempted to take positions to which they believed their audience would be receptive.

Furthermore, since the journal published extensive criticisms of their own positions, often without refutations, it is apparent that they were aware of, and responsive to their audience. After the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques published its condemnation of Montgeron's work in 1741, it received a series of criticisms, which were reported in a series of articles later that same year. The paper dedicated an entire four pages to a letter written on behalf of the author of Reflections on the Miracle at Moisy, in which the author insisted that the miraculous cures that occurred as the result of convulsions were no less divine than those that had occurred at the cemetery of Saint-Médard a decade earlier. He claimed that it was “a false maxim to claim that it is always necessary to prefer the certain to the uncertain.” [62] In July of 1742, apparently jaded by the debate and these criticisms, the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques decided “to abandon judgment to the public.” [63] This concession was the result of various criticisms from other highly learned writers, which suggests that the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques did attempt to match its stances to those of the “public.”

Moreover, there is evidence to suggest that the Nouvellistes were not exclusively responsive to their learned readers. In at least one case, the number of miracles reported in one year resulted in a increase in enthusiasm for the trustworthiness of individual testimonies in the following year. Between 1731 and 1734, the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques printed an average of twenty-five articles on miracles each year. These numbers dropped significantly in 1735 and 1736, and these two years combined produced only nine articles on miracles. However, the next year the number shot up again, from three in 1736 to fifteen in 1737. The preliminary discourse for the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques published in January 1738 contained the most avid defense of witness testimony in the history of the paper.The Nouvelles ecclésiastiques looked forward to a time when,

far from treating healed people as criminals of the State, far from exiling the witnesses of their healing, both are heard without partiality by those to whom we know it pertains, that (without needing to know how to read) the most simple, the least instructed amongst the Faithful informs himself with care in his Province, in his city, in his Parish, in his family, in his neighborhood. That he sees if his compatriot, his friend, his neighbor, his relative did not suddenly recover his sight, his speech, his hearing, the usage of his limbs, or the reestablishment of health that all human resources could not have rendered him, and that it was done by the invocation of an appellant and by the application of his relics. In a word, that one has recourse with honesty and simplicity to this report so decisive and so persistent that God surrendered to himself, in returning it to his Truth, which has been cast into obscurity by the Constitution, BY MEANS OF THE TESTIMONIES: all the clouds dissipate. [64]

While the surge of miracle reports in 1737 resulted in increased enthusiasm for the reports in 1738, this enthusiasm was short-lived. From this time on there were no more energetic defenses of the testimonies of the people. Between 1738 and 1746, there was an average of four articles on miracles reported each year. As the number of miracles reported decreased, so too did the enthusiasm of the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques for witness testimonies. In the 1740s, references to the miracles and the testaments of witnesses disappeared from the preambles and they focus exclusively upon Unigenitus and the persecution of the Jansenists. By the 1750s, when the miracle reports had ceased entirely, the preambles focused almost exclusively on Biblical stories. Instead beginning the year's issue with a call to the public to judge the marvels around them, they begin with moral lessons of Scripture and they consistently related their hardships and successes to those found in the Bible. [65] The entire tone of the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques seemsto have followed the ebb and flow of popular enthusiasm for miracles and witness reports. Thus, there was a symbiotic relationship between the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques and its intended audience, the common lay faithful.

The Nouvelles ecclésiastiques'support of witness testimonies seems to have correlated with the people's enthusiasm for them. There is no indication that the newspaper singled out certain miracles and failed to report others. Since the Nouvellistes continued to report some miracles throughout the 1740s, it is unlikely that they would not have reported all of the miracles, as they had a decade earlier.A combination of factors, including an editorial shift in the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques, the paper's large and receptive audience, and a general decrease in witness reports of miracles, all between 1728 and 1750, indicates that the intended readers of the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques, that is the common lay faithful, were becoming less credulous of human testimony. Furthermore, these factors suggest another shift taking place alongside “dechristianization”: a shift away from reliance upon the judgment of others in matters of faith, and toward reliance upon Church tradition. The increased stress of individual judgment based upon Church tradition in the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques was part of the larger trend toward internalization of piety throughout the eighteenth century.

Works Cited

Secondary Sources:

Chaunu,Pierre. La Mort à Paris, XVIe, XVIIe, et XVIIIe siècles. Paris: Librairie Arthème Fayard,


Doyle, William. Jansenism: Catholic Resistance to Authority from the Reformation to the French

Revolution. New York: Saint Martin’s Press, 2000.

Kreiser, B. Robert. Miracles, Convulsions, and Ecclesiastical Politics in Eighteenth-Century Paris.

Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978.

Maire, Catherine. De la cause de Dieu a la cause de la nation: Le Jansénisme au XVIIIe siècle (Paris:

Gallimard, 1998), 247

Maire, Catherine. Les Convulsionnaires de Saint-Médard: miracles, convulsions et prophéties à

Paris au XVIIIe siècle. Paris: Éditions Gallimard/Julliard, 1985.

McManners, John. Church and Society in Eighteenth-Century France: Volume II, The Religion of the

People and the Politics of Religion. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998.

McManners, John. Death and Enlightenment: Changing Attitudes To Death in Eighteenth-Century

France. Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1981.

Mousset, Albert. L'étrange histoire des convulsionnaires de saint-médard. Paris: Les Éditions de

Minuit, 1953.

O'Keefe, Cyril B. Contemporary Reactions to the Enlightenment, 1728-1762: A Study of three critical

journals: the Jesuit Journal de Trévoux, the Jansenist Nouvelles ecclésiastiques, and the secular Journal des Savants. Geneva: Slatkine, 1974.

Strayer, Bryan. Suffering Saints: Jansenists and Convulsionnaires in France, 1640-1799. Brighton

and Portland: Sussex Academic Press, 2008.

Van Kley, Dale K. The Religious Origins of the French Revolution: From Calvin to the Civil

Constitution. New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1996.

Vovelle, Michel. Piété baroque et déchristianisation en Provence au XVIIIe siècle. Paris: Éditions

du Seuil, 1978.

Primary Sources:

Hume, David. An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, edited by Stephen Buckle. Cambridge:

Cambridge University Press, 2007.

Lettre à Monsieur ***: Au sujet du concours qui se fait à Saint Médard, & d’un Ecrit intitulé,

Dissertation sur les Miracles, & en particulier sur ceux qui ont été operez au Tombeau de M. de

Paris, en l’Eglise de S. Médard de Paris; avec la Relation & les preuves de celui qui s’est fait le

troisième Novembre 1730, en la Personne d’Anne le Franc de la Paroisse de S. Barthelemy,

Paris, 1731.

Nouvelles ecclésiastiques ou mémoires pour servir à l'histoire de la constitution Unigenitus. Paris &

Utrecht, 1728-1803.

[1] David Hume, An Enquiry Concerning Human Understanding, ed. Stephen Buckle (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2007), 102.

[2] Hume, Enquiry, 102.

[3] Hume, Enquiry, 109.

[4] Hume, Enquiry, 110.

[5]Robert B. Kreiser, Miracles, Convulsions, and Ecclesiastical Politics in Eighteenth-Century Paris (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1978), 82-83.

[6] Kreiser, Ecclesiastical Politics, ix-xi.

[7] These are descriptions from various police reports, quoted in Brian Strayer, Suffering Saints: Jansenists and Convulsionnaires in France, 1640-1799 (Brighton and Portland: Sussex Academic Press, 2008), 245.

[8] Kreiser, Ecclesiastical Politics, ix-xi.

[9] Catherine Maire, Les Convulsionnaires de Saint-Médard: miracles, convulsions et prophéties à Paris au XVIIIe siècle. (Paris: Éditions Gallimard, 1985), 112.

[10] Maire, Les Convulsionnaires,15-16.

[11] Kreiser, Ecclesiastical Politics, 269-271.

[12] Kreiser, Ecclesiastical Politics, 251-252.

[13] Maire, Les Convulsionnaires, 155.

[14] Kreiser, Ecclesiastical Politics, ix-xi.

[15] Conciliarists believed that the highest authority in the Church was an ecclesiastical council, not the pope.

[16] William Doyle, Jansenism: Catholic Resistance to Authority from the Reformation to the French Revolution (New York: Saint Martin’s Press, 2000), 45-46.

[17] Dale K. Van Kley, The Religious Origins of the French Revolution: From Calvin to the Civil Constitution (New Haven and London: Yale University Press, 1996), 95.

[18]Nouvelles ecclésiastiques ou mémoires pour servir à l'histoire de la constitution Unigenitus, January 1728, Discourse, 2. From this point forward the title will be shortened to NNEE.

[19] Bryan Strayer, Suffering Saints: Jansenists and Convulsionnaires in France, 1640-1799 (Brighton and Portland: Sussex Academic Press, 2008), 172.

[20]John McManners, Church and Society in Eighteenth-Century France: Volume II, The Religion of the

People and the Politics of Religion (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1998), 426.

[21] Strayer, Suffering Saints, 172.

[22]Cyril B. O'Keefe, Contemporary Reactions to the Enlightenment, 1728-1762: A Study of three critical journals: the Jesuit Journal de Trévoux, the Jansenist Nouvelles ecclésiastiques, and the secular Journal des Savants (Geneva: Slatkine, 1974), 21.

[23] Strayer, Suffering Saints, 245.

[24] Calculations are based upon how many entries there were under the title “miracles” in the Tables de Matières of the Nouvelles Ecclésiastiques for the years 1728-1762, 297-313. This does not include the numerous entries of a similar nature found under “convulsions” and “M. de Pâris” for the same years.

[25] NNEE, June 17, 1731, 125.“Elle contient de si grands éxemples de vertus, des faits si merveilleux & si récens, une penitence si rare, des caracteres de prédestination si marques; elle est tellement à l'épreuve de la critique & de la malignité du siècle, fondée sur des preuves si intéressantes, sur des témoignanges si évidens, si sensibles, si près de nous, si difficiles à contredire, & si aisés à vérifier, qu'on ne peut la lire sans en être touché.”

[26] Ibid.

[27] Quoted in Kreiser, Ecclesiastical Politics, 172-173.

[28] NNEE, August 26, 1731, 165.

[29] NNEE, June 17, 1731, 125.

[30] NNEE, May 16, 1732, 93. The playwrights portray the miracles as the effect of “séduction”and as “impostures payées par une cabale pour séduire le peuple.”

[31] Ibid. “C'est ce qu'on appelle à Paris être catholique & archicatholique; un esprit de vertige ou de fanatisme a brouillé TOUTES LES CERVELLES de cette grande ville.”

[32] Ibid.

[33] Kreiser, Ecclesiastical Politics, 125.

[34] Lettre à Monsieur ***: Au sujet du concours qui se fait à Saint Médard, & d’un Ecrit intitulé, Dissertation sur les Miracles, & en particulier sur ceux qui ont été operez au Tombeau de M. de Paris, en l’Eglise de S. Médard de Paris; avec la Relation & les preuves de celui qui s’est fait le troisième Novembre 1730, en la Personne d’Anne le Franc de la Paroisse de S. Barthelemy, Paris, 1731, 2. “Il n'est pas nécessaire d'être convaincu pour parler avec assurance, il ne faut qu'avoir beaucoup d'envie de tromper.”

[35] Ibid.

[36] Ibid., 24. “Vous rougirez enfin d’une Secte qui se jouë de la Religion, qui achete les miracles, & qui paye à deniers comptans la séduction du Public”

[37] NNEE, December 4, 1733, 197.

[38] NNEE, December 6, 1732, 224. “Elles sont devenues très-singulieres dans plusieurs Convulsionaires, par les nouvelles circonstances qui se sont jointes aux mouvements extraordinaires déja connus.”

[39] NNEE, December 6, 1732, 224.

[40] NNEE, March 8, 1734, 41. He claims that it is “très-injuste de mépriser, ou de juger en général les Convulsionaires.”

[41] Ibid. “Recherchons ... la vérité: prions Dieu de dissiper les nuages: attachons-nous aux REGLES, qui ne sont pas sujettes à illusion.”

[42] NNEE, January 21, 1742, 9. The author claims that they cannot help but see an author who “dans des tems critiques, & dans des événemens remplis d'obsucrités, n'a pas senti combien il est essentiel d'une part de ne se conduire que suivent les Regles de l'Ecriture & de la Tradition; & combine d'autre part les égaremens de ceux qui ont eu le malheur de s'écarter de ces saintes Régles, doivent nous rendre cironspects & précautionnés.”

[43]Ibid. “C'est ainsi que dans ce qui est dit en plusieurs endroits des vertus du plus grand nombre des Convulsionnaires, des personnes d'ailleurs très-favorables, & même, s'il est permis de s'exprimer ainsi, très-affectionnées aux convulsions, trouvent une éxagération involontaire sans doute, mais réelle.”

[44]Ibid., 9-10.

[45] NNEE, July 1, 1742, 102.

[46]NNEE, June 14, 1743, 85. The author claims that this work is “si claire, si solide, si instructive, si conforme aux Règles & aux principes que l'on a toujours suivis dans l'Eglise, que nous croyons pouvoir espérer d'une part qu'elle ne donnera lieu à aucune réplique raisonnable, & de l'autre, qu'elle fixera irrévocablement toute incertitude sur l'objet de cette affligeante controverse.”

[47] NNEE, December 4, 1750, 195. “La cause de la Vérité ne dépend point des personnes. Elle tire toute sa force des fondemens sur lesquels il a plu à Deu de l'apuyer, & qui ne sont autres que l'Ecriture & la Tradition.”

[48]NNEE, December 4, 1750, 195-196.

[49]NNEE, September 11, 1749, 148. The bishop claimed that there was “un très-grand risque pour son salut, quand on n'est pas attaché aux convulsions.”

[50] Ibid. “Nous profitons de cette occasion pour exhorter de nouveau & avec les plus vives instances les personnnes qui veulent bien nous fournir des Mémoires, à ne nous faire passer que des faits absolument certain.”

[51]These numbers are based upon those entries found under “miracles” in the Tables Matières for the Nouvelles Ecclésiastiques, which covers the period 1728-1762, pp. 297-313. The earlier set of years specifically excludes the years of 1731 and 1732 before the closing of Saint-Médard, when the number of reports was extremely high, since it would skew the degree to which articles on miracle reports had declined. The latter set of years was chosen essentially because it shows how uncommon these articles were in the last three years of their being reported by the Nouvellistes.

[52] O'Keefe, Contemporary Reactions, 10-11.

[53]Van Kley, Religious Origins, 98-99. Maire, Les Convulsionnaires, 220-221.

[54]John McManners, Death and Enlightenment: Changing Attitudes To Death in Eighteenth-Century France (Oxford & New York: Oxford University Press, 1981), 242. On dechristianization see Pierre Chaunu, La Mort à Paris, XVIe, XVIIe, et XVIIIe siècles (Paris: Librairie Arthème Fayard, 1978) and Michel Vovelle, Piété baroque et déchristianisation en Provence au XVIIIième siècle (Paris: Éditions du Seuil, 1978).

[55] Ibid., 463-465.

[56] McManners, Death and the Enlightenment, 233.

[57] Robert Scribner, For the Sake of Simple Folk: Popular Propaganda for the German Reformation (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1994), 1-13.

[58] O’Keefe, Contemporary Reactions, 21.

[59] Van Kley, Religious Origins, 96.

[60] McManners, Church and Society II, 425.

[61]McManners, Church and Society II, 425 .

[62]Lettre sur le 2e Tome de M. de Montgeron censurédans les Nouvelles Ecclesiastiques du 21 Janvier 1742, in NNEE, 1742, p. II.“C'est une fausse maxime de prétendre qu'il faille toujours préferer le certain à l'incertain.”

[63] Ibid., 102.

[64] NNEE, January, 1738, 1-2. “Que loin d'enlever comme des criminels d'Etat les personnes guéries, loin d'éxiler les témoins de leur guerison, les uns & les autres soient entendus sans partialité par ceux à qui il appartient d'en connoître, comme l'éxigent les loix civiles, l'équité naturelle & les SS. Canons...Que (sans qu'il soit besoin de savoir lire) le plus simple, le moins instruit d'entre les Fideles s'informe avec soin dans sa Province, dans sa ville, dans sa Paroisse, dans sa famille, dans son voisinage; & qu'il voie si son compatriote, son ami, son voisin, son parent n'a pas subitement recouvré la vue, la parole, l'ouïe, l'usage de ses membres, ou le rétablissement d'une santé que toutes les resources humaines n'avoient pu [sic] lui rendre, & cela par l'invocation d'un Appellant, & par l'application de ses Reliques: en un mot qu'on ait recours avec droiture & simplicité à ce témoignage si décisif & si persévérant que Dieu se rend à lui-même, en le rendant à sa Vérité proscrite en obscuroie [sic] par la Constitution, AD TESTIMONIUM: tous les nuages se dissiperont.”

[65] See the preambles for the years 1740-1753 in NNEE.

Last Updated: 8/12/16