For years now, I have been studying, pondering, puzzling about the role religion has played in French national life since the Revolution of I789--for personal as well as intellectual reasons. As a kid, I knew that the Catholicism of my Irish-American-and I should add New England-youth was basically a French product. The formation of my parish priests was European (usually French) or their American seminary professors were Sulpician. And, of course, the missionary bishops to the New World were primarily French. Both missionary and monastic orders originated in France or French Canada. Church devotions came from French saints, too: Sacred Heart (from the vision experience of St. Marguerite-Marie Alacoque), Our Lady of LaSalette, and St. Thérèse of Lisieux. In addition, the great liturgical reform of the I960's was the direct result of French experiments after World War II. Roman Catholic we called ourselves, but French Catholic we were. God may not have been French, but the church was.
It was as a frenchified Irish-American Catholic that I entered the seminary and was ordained in the turbulent 1960's. My religious community had been established by a eighteenth-century itinerant preacher from northwest France, Louis Grignion de Montfort, remembered for his evangelical energy and single-mindedness, his devotional style (labeled Berullian, after the French cardinal of the 1600's who combined intense mysticism with graphic evocation of Christ's life), and the apparent lasting results of his mission to the Vendée (the region most resistant to dechristianization during the Revolution). Summers from I962 through I966 were spent in pursuit of a master's degree in liturgical research at the University of Notre· Dame, established by another French congregation, the Holy Cross Fathers. This was my first opportunity for immersion in properly historical research and consequently in Latin texts and, often, French secondary literature on the topic. By the time annual sojourns in South Bend came to an end, I was moving about early modem Europe so to better know the Council of Trent.
Graduate work at the University of Chicago set the foundation for a career in modern European history with a predilection for the social sciences. A theme at that time was "popular religion," which we tried to isolate from formal or elitist religious thinking and practice Oater deciding that "local religion" was an easier label to use). I was accordingly attracted to study the ways of pilgrimage, attended to by both historians and anthropologists, having myself visited both Paray-le-Monial, site of the Sacred Heart apparitions, and Chartres, the medieval cathedral shrine of the Blessed Virgin. In the end, I chose Chartres, wanting to do more history and less anthropology. The idea was to study the influence (I prefer the French rayonnement) of Chartres as a spiritual and cultural center, but I narrowed my dissertation focus to the role of Chartres cathedral in the personal and intellectual life of one man: Henry Adams of Mont-Saint-Michel and Chartres fame. Along the way, I arranged to spend a summer with the priests of the cathedral parish.
I may have learned as much about people, pilgrimage, and their religious ways during those long lunches and suppers with the Chartrian clergy as I did from my work in the seminary library and cathedral sacristy. I remember an old Breton priest, chaplain to one of the city's convents, who would recite, with gusto the refrain of a song he remembered from his boyhood days, "Catholique et français toujours." A slight man, in poor health but of unfiling good humor, he loved to evoke those days when he and his large family were poor, quite happy together, and, well, thoroughly Catholic and thoroughly French. I have in a very general way traced the song to the early days of the Third Republic, with its government of moral order, and I have found only one example of such a song-in fact a pilgrimage song--in the Bibliotheque Nationale (Cantique National) Pelerinage de Valfleury, 17 mai 1875 [St.-Chamond, 1875], Bibliotheque Nationale 4 YE Piece 439). But I have worked out a series of "case studies" of the specific forms of the fraught relation between religious and national identity in France-across the nineteenth century and the first part of the twentieth century.
For my work I needed new and interesting archival opportunities in the French national and departmental archives as much as I needed dramatically revealing case studies. I tried to respond to both needs as I chose my topics: rebellious priests and imitation religious festivals during the Revolution, the high-profile religious and secular personalities of Chateaubriand and Destutt de Tracy across the revolutionary era and under the Napoleonic empire, pilgrimage in particular to Chartres cathedral across the nineteenth century; clerical concern for the non-French-speaking cultures of Alsace and the Roussillon during the Second Empire and early Third Republic, the face-off between priests and (often freethinking) schoolteachers in World War I, and the public influence of conciliatory historical and religious scholarship (the Sorbonne historian Émile Màle) before and after war. As the work progressed, I began to see the contours of my three stages of development in the grass roots church-state story: divorce of religion and nation, the devotional and social defense of an entrenched Catholicism against secularizing national governments, and détente between religiously enthusiastic and secularly nationalistic French citizens. The case histories may not always be the most dramatic possible, but they were among the most interesting archival challenges, and I promote them as optimally revealing dramas of religious and national identity in France.
Among my early inspirations, I signal especially the seminal works of two great contemporary historians: Eugen Weber for modern France, especially his Peasants into Frenchmen: Modernization of Rural France, 1870-1914, and Natalie Zemon Davis, especially her Society and Culture in Early Modern France: Eight Essays. Weber ranged across a staggering number of archival sources to represent local voices and attitudes on such issues as regional languages ("A Wealth of Tongues"), town and country ("Rus in Urbe" and "Peasants and Politics"), religious practice and devotion ("Dieu est-il français" and "The Priests and the People"), and local celebrations ("The Way of All Feasts")--chapters aglow with life and color. Zemon Davis recreated the struggles across the Reformation and wars-of-religion eras by representing voices long ignored. I was impressed, too, by her pleasure in favorite French archives: she wrote, "The excitement of discovery is always associated for me with one of these settings-Mere Folie, for instance, with the beautiful eighteenth-century library at Dijon; the varied signatures of sixteenth-century artisans with the quiet reading room of the Archives du Rhône, high above the city of Lyon'' (xi). On all my own research days, whether involving the excitement of discovery or not, I could take quiet pleasure in the old seminary library at Chartres, nondescript itself but overlooking the valley of the Eure River; in the archives of the wonderful departmental chiefs lieux of Rouen, Grenoble, Perpignan, and Strasbourg (with the Salle d'alsatiques then opposite the university library); in the distinguished Paris setting of the Bibliothèque de l'Institut de France, the simple plain rooms of the archives of the Archdiocese of Paris, and the library of the Centre National de Documentation Pédagogique (with those seedy cellar stocks of the century's textbooks). Then there was that rainy day on the outskirts of Rouen when I got out of my cab before the large, low, and desolate building that housed the Musée National de l'Education. The driver brightened everything when he looked over the whole sad scene and said, "Oh! Ça fait du charme ça." He pulled away and I was ready for work. Along with all of my colleagues, I have lived through the changes across the years in the Archives Nationales and the Bibliothèque Nationale: from a new, open, and efficient researchers' hall in the Archives--closed for years now for a variety of structural maladies-to temporary locations in the BN and the Hôtel de Soubise; and from the wonderful old BN readers' room (the Salle Labrouste), more dysfunctional with each passing year, to the modern, mainly functional, colossus down on the Seine.
But now, hoping that readers will forgive the brief personal intrusion, I introduce my case studies of a vital people, some embracing and some dead set against the sentiments of the old song, addressed to Notre-Dame:
Garde au·coeur des Français la foi des anciens jours.
Entends du haut du ciel le cri de la patrie
Catholique et Français toujours.
Oklahoma City and Paris, 2005