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The Religious Origins of the French Revolution

The Religious Origins of the French Revolution: From Calvin to the Civil Constitution, 1560-1791

Dale K. Van Kley
Copyright Date: 1996
Published by: Yale University Press
Pages: 402
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  • Book Info
    The Religious Origins of the French Revolution
    Book Description:

    Although the French Revolution is associated with efforts to dechristianize the French state and citizens, it actually had long-term religious-even Christian-origins, claims Dale Van Kley in this controversial new book. Looking back at the two and a half centuries that preceded the revolution, Van Kley explores the diverse, often warring religious strands that influenced political events up to the revolution.Van Kley draws on a wealth of primary sources to show that French royal absolutism was first a product and then a casualty of religious conflict. On the one hand, the religious civil wars of the sixteenth century between the Calvinist and Catholic internationals gave rise to Bourbon divine-right absolutism in the seventeenth century. On the other hand, Jansenist-related religious conflicts in the eighteenth century helped to "desacralize" the monarchy and along with it the French Catholic clergy, which was closely identified with Bourbon absolutism. The religious conflicts of the eighteenth century also made a more direct contribution to the revolution, for they left a legacy of protopolitical and ideological parties (such as the Patriot party, a successor to the Jansenist party), whose rhetoric affected the content of revolutionary as well as counterrevolutionary political culture. Even in its dechristianizing phase, says Van Kley, revolutionary political culture was considerably more indebted to varieties of French Catholicism than it realized.

    eISBN: 978-0-300-14756-8
    Subjects: History

Table of Contents

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  1. Front Matter
    (pp. i-iv)
  2. Table of Contents
    (pp. v-v)
  3. Acknowledgments
    (pp. vi-x)
  4. Introduction
    (pp. 1-14)

    TO SUGGEST THAT THE FRENCH REVOLUTION HAD RELIgious origins, and that the religion in question was mainly Catholic Christianity, may seem deliberatively provocative if not outrageous. What revolution before the Bolshevik Revolution of 1917 was more anti-Christian than the French Revolution of 1789? Even in its initial and most moderate phase the French Revolution deprived the Catholic Church of the tithe, nationalized its property, and ended its corporate independence, unilaterally redrew ecclesiastical boundaries, all but abolished the regular clergy, demoted the secular clergy to the status of elected and salaried state servants, and persecuted clergymen who refused to swear loyalty...

  5. CHAPTER 1 From Calvin to Quesnel
    (pp. 15-74)

    THAT THE FRENCH MONARCHY DID NOT FINALLY THROW IN its lot with the Protestant Reformation of the sixteenth century may seem somewhat puzzling. Although the Concordat of Bologne, negotiated by Pope Leo X and François I on the eve of Martin Luther’s initial protest, gave the French monarchy control over episcopal nominations and curtailed the amount of revenue leaving France for Rome, thereby removing some of the material considerations that were soon to tempt many German princes away from the Roman fold, embracing the Reformation would nonetheless have filled this “new monarchy’s” coffers with the proceeds of ecclesiastical and monastic...

  6. CHAPTER 2 The Century of Unigenitus
    (pp. 75-134)

    THE EIGHTEENTH CENTURY WAS OF COURSE A CENTURY OF “lights,” or the Enlightenment, and one of the first of its many literary lights appeared not long after the bullUnigenitus,in 1721, in the form of the baron de Montesquieu’sPersian Letters.In these spirited letters and elsewhere Montesquieu set the tone for philosophes who followed him by taking a detached, Olympian view toward the issues dividing Jansenists and Jesuits, wishing a pox on both their houses. Although his own view of the nature of natural justice and human liberty of action were not far from those defended by Molinists,...

  7. CHAPTER 3 The Siege of Sacral Absolutism
    (pp. 135-190)

    IN JUNE 1749 ONE CHARLES COFFIN FELL DANGEROUSLY ILL and, fearing death, requested the viaticum–the Eucharist given, along with extreme unction, to a dying communicant–from the curé of his parish of Saint-Etienne-du-Mont in Paris. No very obvious obstacle stood in the way of honoring his request. Poet, rhetorician, and liturgist, Coffin had been principal of the College of Beauvais before becoming rector of the University of Paris and remained fondly remembered in both capacities. At the request of Archbishop Vintimille he had composed numbers of hymns for the Parisian breviary, including one entitled “On Jordan’s Banks,” which is...

  8. CHAPTER 4 The Conceptual Dismantling of Sacral Absolutism
    (pp. 191-248)

    THE EARLY 1750S ARE INDELIBLY ASSOCIATED WITH SOME OF the maturing French Enlightenment’s first political utterances, among them Denis Diderot’s article on political authority in the first volume of his and d’Alembert’sEncyclopedia.Along with the scandal caused by the Sorbonne’s acceptance of the abbé Jean-Martin de Prades’s “enlightened” thesis, it was that article that drew hostile attention to the fledgling enterprise, nearly causing its suppression in 1752. The same year also witnessed the publication of the abbé Mey’s and Gabriel-Nicolas Maultrot’s two-volumeApologie de tous les jugements (Apology for All the [Parlement’s] Verdicts)and the following year that of...

  9. CHAPTER 5 From Religious to Ideological “Parties”
    (pp. 249-302)

    HARDLY HAD THEY RETURNED FROM THEIR ANNUAL AUTUMnal recess in December 1770 than the magistrates of the Parlement of Paris received from their chancellor a royal edict that, had they registered it, would have been tantamount to a disavowal of all the constitutional gains they had made at the expense of royal absolutism during the preceding twenty years. Defending the king’s undivided and divinely ordained sovereignty against his disobedient magistrates’ esprit de système, this so-called Edict of December explicitly condemned the theses that the Parlement of Paris, together with France’s thirteen provincial parlements, constituted the various “classes” of a single...

  10. CHAPTER 6 From Ideology to Revolution and Counterrevolution
    (pp. 303-368)

    AMONG THE VARIOUS CANDIDATES FOR THE DISTINCTION of being the last day of the Old Regime in France, the claim of 23 June 1789 is as strong as any. On that day Louis XVI arrived at the Salle des menus plaisirs accompanied by much of the court to address a plenary session of the Estates General of his realm–the first such meeting in 175 years–and presented two declarations, as though for registration by the assembly. The very first article of the first declaration maintained the distinction between the clergy, the nobility, and the Third Estate as essential to...

  11. Conclusion
    (pp. 369-375)

    THE RECENT DEMISE OF THE SOCIAL INTERPRETATION OF the French Revolution in Marxian form as a victory of a protocapitalistic bourgeois class over a neofeudal nobility has sent many historians scurrying back to Alexis de Tocqueville’s mid-nineteenth-century classic,The Old Regime and the French Revolution,which stressed the prerevolutionary state’s leveling effect on the social hierarchy and the continuity between royal and revolutionary administrative centralization. It has also stimulated a renewed interest in politics and high culture as agents in their own right in the coming of the Revolution. Whence a quest for political and cultural continuities between the Old...

  12. Bibliographical Note
    (pp. 376-377)
  13. Index
    (pp. 378-390)