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Kostroun, Daniella, Feminism, Absolutism, and Jansenism: Louis XIV and the Port-Royal Nuns.

Kostroun, Daniella, Feminism, Absolutism, and Jansenism: Louis XIV and the Port-Royal Nuns, New York, Cambridge University Press, 2011; hardback; pp. xiii, 273; R.R.P. 55.00 [pounds sterling]; ISBN 9781107000452.

This is a book about words--ambiguous words, weasel words, brilliantly parodied in Blaise Pascal's Provincial Letters--words that underlay one of the most bitter and obscure religious struggles in seventeenth-century France, a struggle that was never what it seemed and that, in the end, gave no one the victory. Royal demands for unreserved acceptance of an imposed formulary --demands that curiously parallel similar demands in Britain at the same time--raised issues of conscience and obedience that underlay much of the intellectual and political development of the country in the hundred years before the Revolution and provided the legitimation for resistance to absolute authority. The theological issues had a long history. They had come up since the early Fathers in various forms and were, effectively, logically insoluble. Whether the fortunately dead Cornelius Jansen had ever promulgated the heresies attributed to him was an issue of fact that created a separate problem.

But why did a convent of nuns, a modestly well-endowed convent but only one among hundreds in France, become the flashpoint of the struggle? Much has already been written on this subject and Daniella Kostroun's purpose is not to reassess some of the more classical claims. Readers will look in vain for any discussion of the leadership role in reform the convent may have had in the early part of the century or the importance of the petites ecoles in the later period. They may also find few references to the religious inspiration of the nuns and the distinction between their reformed Rule and the more participatory life of Orders who undertook care for the wider community under the inspiration of St Vincent de Paul.

Kostroun, after a brief genuflection towards the sociological context of the rising noblesse de robe, is primarily concerned to explain how, without making claim to theological understanding, the women who led the convent, from Angelique and Agnes Arnauld onwards, could present themselves as true and orthodox servants of God and the Church 'using the figurative language of pious example' (p. 244). In true Biblical tradition, any setback could be accepted as a discipline sent by God to try their faith.

Luckily, the material available is enormous and she painstakingly recounts the way in which, with some assistance from prominent men like Antoine Arnauld, they were able to exploit the feminine positions acceptable during the period to maintain their own independence. Kostroun also demonstrates their ability to use all the loopholes and special considerations available to stall Louis XIV's attempts to close them down. It provides excellent evidence --if more is needed--that bureaucratic complexity was alive and well four hundred years ago.

The tedious and complex diplomatic and international context that influenced Louis's tortuous path are set out with considerable clarity, as are his struggles with his own bishops both Gallican and Ultramontane. The nuns, as they pick their way through this field full of calthrops, call on patrons like the queen of Poland for moral and practical assistance, smuggle written material out of the convent, and keep detailed journals as evidence of their lives and difficulties.

Some of the most telling passages are those that show how different nuns, faced with a one-on-one meeting with Perefixe, Archbishop of Paris, their ultimate superior, handled his mixture of blandishments and threats and maintained their position of equality before God. In general, Kostroun concentrates on the leaders of the community--and although the triennial election of abbess was a key point in their programme it is noticeable that reelection was the common practice--and the exhortations they delivered to those beneath them suggests that the congregation did not always share their commitment.

In her conclusion, Kostroun argues that these women are part of a feminist movement in seventeen-century France. Using the language of agency and discourse and following Barbara Diefendorf, she proposes a more instrumental role for them and stresses the importance of the internal life of the convent itself. There are perhaps two problems with this, one historical and the other interpretative. Historically, it is the survival of evidence that enables seventeenth-century researchers to establish the foundation on which to construct the inner life of the convent, but the absence of such material in earlier centuries does not really permit us to assume that convents in the Middle Ages lacked a similar life. As a matter of interpretation, it seems that if any action in which a woman asserted herself may be added to the history of feminism even where the cultural structure of society is not challenged, feminism is deprived of any distinctive meaning. Surely this destroys the very nature of the idea itself and brings us back to ambiguous words that do not clarify what they seem to assert.

Sybil M. Jack

Department of History The University of Sydney
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Author:Jack, Sybil M.
Article Type:Book review
Date:Jul 1, 2012
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