Monday, August 23, 2010

Religion in France during the French Revolution

Various governments of France, beginning with the start of the French Revolution in 1789, implemented the following policies:

  • The deportation of clergy and the condemnation of many of them to death,

  • The closing, desecration and pillaging of churches, removal of the word “saint” from street names and other acts to banish Christian culture from the public sphere

  • Removal of statues, plates and other iconography from places of worship

  • Destruction of crosses, bells and other external signs of worship

  • The institution of revolutionary and civic cults, including the Cult of Reason and subsequently the Cult of the Supreme Being,

  • The large scale destruction of religious monuments,

  • The outlawing of public and private worship and religious education,

  • Forced marriages of the clergy,

  • Forced abjuration of priesthood, and

  • The enactment of a law on October 21, 1793 making all nonjuring priests and all persons who harbored them liable to death on sight.

  • The climax was reached with the celebration of the Goddess “Reason” in Notre Dame Cathedral on 10 November.

Under threat of death, imprisonment, military conscription or loss of income, about 20,000 constitutional priests were forced to abdicate or hand over their letters of ordination and 6,000 - 9,000 were coerced to marry, many ceasing their ministerial duties. Some of those who abdicated covertly ministered to the people. By the end of the decade, approximately 30,000 priests were forced to leave France, and thousands who did not leave were executed. Most of France was left without the services of a priest, deprived of the sacraments and any nonjuring priest faced the guillotine or deportation.

The March 1793 conscription requiring Vendeans to fill their district's quota of 300,000 enraged the populace, who took up arms and fought. They stated that, in addition to opposing the conscription, they were fighting above all for the reopening of their parish churches with their former priests. A massacre of 6,000 Vendée prisoners, many of them women, took place after the battle of Savenay, along with the drowning of 3,000 Vendée women at Pont-au-Baux and 5,000 Vendée priests, old men, women, and children killed by drowning at the Loire River at Nantes in what was called the "national bath" - tied in groups in barges and then sunk into the Loire.

With these massacres came formal orders for forced evacuation; also, a 'scorched earth' policy was initiated: farms were destroyed, crops and forests burned and villages razed. There were many reported atrocities and a campaign of mass killing universally targeted at residents of the Vendée regardless of combatant status, political affiliation, age or gender. By July 1796, the estimated Vendean dead numbered between 117,000 and 500,000, out of a population of around 800,000.

The irony is that these atrocities - ruthlessly carried out against anyone who was a Christian, or even seemed to be a Christian - were the product of a revolutionary government which had come to power, in part, to seek freedom of religion!


Although a French Roman Catholic, Bossuet was interested to appeal also to Protestant readers. He wrote some of his books deliberately to explain his views to both Catholics and Protestants, using a style accessible to both groups, and offensive to neither. He believed that Catholicism was correct, and Protestantism mistaken, and that rational persuasion can be used in discussing these two competing interpretations of the faith - not emotional appeals or violence.

Louis XIV liked his style, and so Bossuet became the teacher of Louis XIV’s son.

Bossuet then wrote, partially as a textbook for the future king, that the duties of absolute ruler are: promoting the welfare of state; fostering religion and justice as the good constitution for the welfare of society; making peace; opposing false religion; and being humble because political power is a gift.

Ultimately, Bossuet could not accept the harsh absolutism of Hobbes, and moved beyond it, stating that the royal authority was limited by (a) the king's duty to be paternal to his subjects, (b) the king's duty to behave rationally, and (c) the king's accountability to God, from Whom political power comes.

Sunday, August 8, 2010

The History of Hygiene

Whether you call us "Western Civilization" or "European Culture," we're pretty clean people: we take showers and baths, and between those, we wash our faces and hands. We shampoo our hair, and wash our clothes and dishes. We clean our houses and wash our cars. How did we get to be this way?

We started off well: the Greeks and Romans were clean folk, who bathed regularly.

Despite the stereotypes, the Middle Ages were also a clean time: people took a dive into the nearest river or pond, scrubbed themselves clean, and washed their clothes as well. In fact, soap-making was a big deal in the Medieval Era.

Soap-makers were members of a guild in the late sixth century. Karl the Great ("Charlemagne") even wrote about soap: a Carolingian document, dating to around 800, and sometimes attributed to Charlemagne, mentions soap as being one of the products the stewards of estates are to tally. Soap-making is mentioned both as "women's work" and the produce of "good workmen" alongside other necessities such as the produce of carpenters, blacksmiths and bakers. Although some historians have mistakenly called them the "Dark Ages," these were, in fact, pretty sanitary times.

But then we got dirty. Those murky segments of time known by various names - the Renaissance, the Enlightenment, the Age of Ideas, the Age of Reason, etc. - were years in which people relied more on a dash of cologne or some white powder on the face than on actual washing.

Professor Lynn Thorndike, at Columbia University, writes that "Francis Bacon tells us that people bathed less in his time than they used to do."

How did our culture ever get clean again?

As the English expanded their colonization efforts, they encountered fastidiously clean cultures in southern Asia (India) and eastern Asia (China). Through contact with these cultures, the English learned, or re-learned, the habits of cleanliness. From England, the trend spread to Europe. And from Europe, to the Americas, to Australia, and other outposts of Western Civilization.

And so we are clean!