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Confession and Community in Seventeenth-Century France: Catholic and Protestant Coexistence in Aquitaine.

In Confession and Community in Seventeenth Century France, Gregory Hanlon sets outs to identify the substance of religious toleration as it was lived in one French village over the course of the seventeenth century. Possessing a wide and thorough grounding in the historiography of seventeenth-century France, as well as an impressive command of local archives, Hanlon puts his considerable abilities at the service of the idea that beneath the level of the cant and rhetoric of cultural elites, ordinary folk during the seventeenth century really did "just get along." Key to his approach is a dichotomy between "discourse or representation"(belief) and "practice" (action). As he argues, investigations built upon the analysis of the former proceed upon undemonstrated assumptions about the causal connection between it and action. He, on the other hand, "would relegate to the periphery the assumption that most contemporaries adhered to the spirit and the letter of the doctrines they professed." based upon his readings in (primarily French) social psychology, he suggests that in early modern Europe, culture offered "multiple references and multiple choices," which permitted individuals to "play simultaneously" on "several fields of commitment." With literary "deconstructionists" (my term) clearly in mind, Hanlon endeavors to illustrate that beliefs are "too unstable" to have a consistent effect on behavior.

Hanlon builds his case around an investigation of the archives of Layrac-en-Brulhois, a small town south of Agen in southern France. The town itself held at its seventeenth-century peak perhaps 1100 people, the town with its rural hinterland totaling between 3000 and 4000 inhabitants. While the hinterland remained overwhelmingly Catholic, just after the French Wars of Religion the town held perhaps as many as 775 Protestants. This number declined across the seventeenth century to approximately 250 around the time of the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes. As might be expected, Protestants tended to cluster in the bourgeois and literate classes.

Hanlon examined government archives, notarial archives, ecclesiastical archives, and they all demonstrated the same conclusion, that to the chagrin of priests and ministers, the people of Layrac simply did not permit confessional distinctions to rule their lives. The organs of local government were consciously structured to maintain a balance between Catholics and Protestants. Property was bequeathed across confessional lines without contest. Catholics married Protestants and vice versa. Protestants stood as godparents for Catholic infants and vice-versa. Both groups continued to frequent the taverns. Both participated in local rituals and recreations. While women were expected to take on the religion of their spouses, they were free on the other side of their spouses' deaths to return to the religion of their birth, which many of them did. Not surprising, given the ever mounting pressure from the Counter-Reformation Catholic church and the French absolutist state, the majority of conversions were from Protestant to Catholic. Still, even after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, Catholics tried to look out for their Protestant neighbors.

Hanlon was aware of the fact that his database was too small to offer statistically significant conclusions. There were also distressing gaps in the information contained in town archives for times of crisis, such as political conflict and plague, when it might be expected that confessional ideologues would have exerted more influence over collective decision-making. Hanlon attempts to compensate for the weakness of his data by first making the case for the similarity of Layrac to larger urban conglomerations in the region, then arguing from the dynamics occurring in these cities back to what must also be happening in Layrac. His narration of the actions of the jurade, or municipal assembly, proceeded from the assumption that confessional identification designated something akin to political affiliation. The terms "Catholic" and "Protestant" were used as if synonymous with political parties with articulated agendas. This construction proves to be a straw man, though, as he then goes on to show that confessional identification had no predictable influence on political positions. One could also take issue with his static constructions of both Calvinism and Catholicism, especially Calvinism. The fact that the core beliefs of both these creeds evolved during the period under consideration is not addressed. This is regrettable given that his argument turns on the assumption that the substance of religious beliefs remained constant.

The major flaw in Hanlon's case, however, may be that the variable he tested, religious belief, does not validate his hypothesis, at least not for Layrac. Hanlon can be granted his argument that confessional identification, i.e., being Catholic or Protestant, did not determine behavior in the town. This concession, however, does not take away the question whether another form of identification did. Hanlon's analysis makes it clear that people in Layrac thought of themselves first and foremost as locals. Culture for them may have presented, to use his terms, "multiple references and multiple choices," but these options were always refracted through the lens of local sensibilities. In Layrac one was either an insider or an outsider, and only insiders counted. Significantly, confessional identities were always imported in from the outside by outsiders. The Catholic priests and the Protestant ministers who served in the town during the seventeenth century all came from elsewhere. They complained alike about the local lack of response to their preachings. In the end it is not so surprising that in Layrac local Catholics tolerated local Protestants. Not only were local Protestants their neighbors and relatives, local Protestants played by the same rules that they did. Hanlon does not prove his hypothesis that belief does not determine behavior, he just proves that in one early modern French hamlet, religious belief did not take precedent over local values.

Andrew E. Barnes Arizona State University
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Author:Barnes, Andrew E.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Mar 22, 1998
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