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From Penitence to Charity: Pious Women and the Catholic Reformation in Paris.

From Penitence to Charity: Pious Women and the Catholic Reformation in Paris. By Barbara B. Diefendorf (Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. ix plus 341 pp.).

Barbara Diefendorf takes issue with those who have treated religious visionaries as mentally disturbed fanatics, as well as with those who have seen the Counter-Reformation campaign to enforce rules of claustration on women's convents as unalloyed patriarchal subjugation. Most important, she offers a pointed corrective to all those who have neglected to assign agency, initiative, skill, or intelligence to the women who created new forms of religious community life from the end of the French religious wars to the Fronde.

Diefendorf's book overlaps most significantly with Elizabeth Rapley's The Devotes: Women and Church in Seventeenth-Century France (1990) on the theme of women's agency. The two authors adduce mutually reinforcing evidence for the signal role of women as initiators of new communities of lay women and as definers of their particular missions. Diefendorf, however, is more concerned to recreate to the degree possible the inner spiritual lives and aspirations of two generations of Parisian women. She captures in a telling vignette toward the end of her book the complex relationship between the deeply ascetic generation of women who experienced the French wars of religion and their daughters who were less given to penitential mortifications of the flesh and more inclined toward charitable service. Only when Marie Deslandes fainted one day did her daughter, Madeleine de Lamoignon, discover that her mother, whom she had accompanied on charitable rounds for many years, regularly wore a hair shirt and constricting iron bands to mortify her flesh. "Like their mothers," the author tells us, "the younger women remained profoundly Christocentric, and yet they tended to attach themselves more to the example of the living Christ as teacher and friend to the poor than to the agonies of his passion that had been the favorite subjects of meditation for Barbe Acarie and her peers." (p. 241)

While she ranges far afield to trace the linkages between religious communities in Paris with others throughout France and beyond, Diefendorf, by contrast with Rapley, is more focused on the Parisian cultural milieu. Expertly navigating a labyrinth of manuscript records in Parisian archives and libraries and breathing life into an abundance of primary printed sources, she tells an affecting story of individual women, their families, and their social networks lay and clerical. Diefendorf has a long acquaintance with the prominent Parisian families who provide the dramatis personae of her narrative. In the introduction to Beneath the Cross: Catholics and Huguenots in Sixteenth-Century Paris (1991), Diefendorf explained her need to go beyond the primarily sociological analysis of sixteenth-century Parisian magistrates that had been the subject of her first book, in order to understand the religious mentalities and personal relationships that made possible the lurid massacres of Saint Bartholemew's Day in 1572. The puzzle for her was to explain how the otherwise cautious, even-tempered, and reasonable men that she thought she knew could have been drawn into such a frenzy of blood-letting. The present study draws its deft psychological colorations and its filigree of specific familial relationships from long reflection on the mentalite of the Parisian elite and its most sensitive and intelligent daughters, who felt impelled to provide personal and collective atonement for evils beyond human understanding--evils suffered, witnessed, inflicted or countenanced.

Her account begins, then, with the ascetic impulse and the creation of new orders such as the Feuillants, recognized by the Pope in 1587. Describing "Mademoiselle Acarie and her circle," the author explores the likelihood that Acarie drew on a variety of medieval sources to formulate a Christocentric vision of a contemplative life outside the cloister and did not merely follow in the footsteps of influential contemporary clerics such as Benoit de Canfield or the Carthusian Richard Beaucousin. In a chapter on "first foundations" she evokes the role of Barbe Acarie and her circle in establishing a French Carmelite order, sloughing off the tutelage of Mother Ana de Jesus and her entourage of Spanish nuns brought to ensure adherence to Saint Teresa's model. Following an account of the establishment of the French Capucines, Diefendorf describes the unique French turn given to the order of Ursulines that originated in Italy and found a first French outpost in Provence. She highlights the key role of Madeleine Luillier in bringing the order of the Ursulines to Paris, blending social activism and a commitment to the teaching of women with penitential retreat and a fervent, ascetic piety. Obliged to submit to the Augustinian rule, they added a fourth vow dedicating themselves to "the instruction of young girls and their education in Christian piety, virtues, and morality, and in the works and exercises suitable for their sex." (p. 128)

A further chapter focuses on the contemplative revival, characterized by a common ideal of strict reform and a role for lay women in providing spiritual guidance. Diefendorf analyzes the tensions between this ideal and the worldly interests that impinged on the effort to establish new houses on a firm footing. Wealthy families were inclined to protect their investment in costly dowries for their daughters who entered such houses through irrevocable vows and a cloistered life. Diefendorf suggests that many of these daughters of the elite were quite content to pursue their vocation in this manner and did not find the trend toward enclosure oppressive. On the other hand, those most ardent to pursue strict reform accepted unhappily the necessary concession to wealthy donors who demanded the privilege of "dropping in" on the contemplative routine and lodging with the sisters at will.

Some establishments, notably the Filles de la Visitation, linked together the vocations of contemplation and service, "joining Martha's part with Mary's." Diefendorf argues that neither Chantal nor Francois de Sales viewed the acceptance of enclosure as a capitulation but rather as a further stage in the institutionalizing of their vision of an exemplary religious life for women. She provides a finely documented account of their evolving vision of this congregation, beginning with a small group of lay women carrying out charitable works in Annecy, and ending with the consolidation of the Visitandines as a cloistered order with convents in Paris, Lyon, and elsewhere. She goes on to detail the parlous conditions of several smaller lay orders that combined contemplation and service, including two that served "fallen women" and others that focused on teaching and the care of orphans. To this reader, it seemed that Diefendorf carried her argument to the limit in arguing that de Sales retained the core of his vision for the Visitandines after enclosure limited their activities in the community at large. To be sure, he secured approval for the order to receive widows and allow them some freedom to come and go, and to allow temporary retreats by lay women, but it is hard to avoid giving some credit to Rapley's argument that the vision of the Visitandines was at least in part frustrated and deformed. In the same vein, it is clear from Diefendorf's account that the financial difficulties experienced by the Filles de Notre-Dame resulted in part at least from the onerous requirements that boarders and day girls be taught in separate quarters with a separate cadre of teachers, in order to preserve the requirements of clausura.

In a final chapter on "the Impulse to Charity," Diefendorf depicts the creative contributions of five Parisian women to the charitable works of the early seventeenth-century: Marguerite de Silly, who was no mere aristocratic Lady Bountiful permitting Vincent de Paul to carry out his work, but rather an active collaborator in furthering the work of religious instruction of the poor through the Confraternities of Charity (p.207); Louise de Marillac (p.210), who played a active part in creating the Filles de Charite to assist the parish charites; and who in Diefendorf's detailed account, demonstrated the qualities of "imagination, initiative, and considerable administrative talent (p. 215-216); Marie Luillier, who desired to further her sister's vision of an open congregation, and took the lead in creating the Filles de la Croix, modeled on the Filles de Roye in Picardy, active in the training of schoolmistresses; Marie Lumague, who seconded Louise de Marillac's work with the charites and started up, in her own house, with support of the archbishop of Paris, the Filles de la Providence to provide an alternative to the Madelonettes in helping young women turn away from prostitution; and Genevieve Fayet, who organized the Dames de la Charite to visit the sick at the Paris Hotel-Dieu.

Diefendorf argues convincingly that the Dames de la Charite were no mere aristocratic busybodies. Inspired by older practices such as those spelled out by Suzanne Habert, the core impulse of bringing spiritual consolation to the sick was complemented by material support, especially through fund-raising. Their activities expanded to include care of foundlings and training for employment. They also made notable contributions to war relief, nursing soldiers at the front, organizing refugee camps, providing civilians with clothing, blankets, tools and seed in pillaged areas (p.232). This work was overshadowed by the male-dominated initiative of the Hopital-General, which Diefendorf views as an unrealistic initiative doomed from the start, but women's initiatives continued, such as Mme de Miramion's community of lay devotes who worked with orphans and delinquent girls.

This work is not only a magnificent work of documentation and scholarship, but a valuable contribution to European social history in its successful blending of the methods of the modern social historian with a rare empathy for the religious vision of the pious women of the Catholic Reformation in Paris. Some readers may still find elements of pathology in the physical and moral exercises of mortification of flesh and will in this phase of Catholicism, and some may still see the handiwork of patriarchy in the imposition of clausura on those women who attempted to create lay forms of religious life that would act upon the life of the community at large. Diefendorf has nonetheless given dignity and plausibility to the religious practices of her subjects, and has solidly supported her contention that "The Catholic revival was the product of a vast collaboration between clerics and lay people, women and men." (p. 246)

Thomas M. Adams

Washington, D.C.
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Author:Adams, Thomas M.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Date:Dec 22, 2006
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