Response to Reviews, 2015-2016

In most journals there are no opportunities for review responses, which may or may not be a good thing--see the recent H-France Salon, vol. 7 (2015, Issue 20).  It depends upon whether or not the review has any significant merit.  Reviews are laudatory with reservations or equivocal or, at times, just plain bizarre. I’ll do some responses, then, hoping to clarify issues for, and even mildly entertain, my readers. 

Laudatory reviews of Priests of the French Revolution have highlighted the goals and structure of the work, and suggested clarifications or additions, which I will briefly respond to here.

           Annales historiques de la Révolution française, no. 382 (Octobre-Décembre 2015): 184-186.   Caroline Chopelin-Blanc not only gives a precise description and analysis of the book’s thesis and structuring, but looks carefully at the subsections, individual portraits of the priests in their contexts, both the “saints” and the “renegades,” and, finally, locates the book relative to the existing literature on revolutionary priests and the Constitutional Church.  Any author would be grateful for a review of such length, liveliness, and detail.  I would ask that colleagues who cannot fit the book into their present reading schedules begin with this review in our primary journal of French Revolution studies. 

             Journal of Ecclesiastical History 66 (2015): 902-903. Alyssa Goldstein Sepinwall puts special emphasis on the thesis of the book, and on how it plays in both historical and religious studies.  “He [Byrnes] focuses on their shared efforts to reconcile their priestly vocations with changing political circumstances.”  For me, this is the essence of the essence, more concise that anything I came up with myself.   She finds the final third of the book to be the “most valuable” section, because it “examines the ill-fated efforts of the ‘United Bishops,’ led by Grégoire, Clément, and others, to create a Christian republic, inside and outside the Church,” men whose “values endured in Gallican Catholicism through to the Second Vatican Council.”  I’m pleased to note this because two other reviewers did not catch as much here as she did.  Her inquiry about the data source of the maps is a welcome one, because the credits are only given at the beginning of the book, an editorial decision that would not have been my choice.  “All maps are after Langlois, Tackett, and Vovelle, eds., Religion, vol. 9 of Atlas de la Révolution française, copyright Éditions de l’École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales.”  Sources for the maps are given in the notes of this volume 9.  In another response below I will make one further observation about map 3.

           The Catholic Historical Review, 101 (2015): 943-944. Edward J. Woell, too, is a helpful guide to the main lines of the book, both for readers and—perhaps most of all--for myself.  Woell’s central observation that the rhetorical ties which bound the priests together were not really established by the one-by-one coverage of the revolutionary priests is a valuable one; it certainly has inspired me to propose to the editors an entry in the essay section of our Dictionnaire des évêques constitutionnels (see elsewhere on this site for relevant information):  “Church, State, and Ministry in the Writings of the Constitutional Bishops.”  Inasmuch as the bishops were chosen from among the most convinced and outspoken constitutional priests, we should get a good idea of those rhetorical ties.  To his conclusion “that these priests bypassed a golden opportunity to secure a principle central to the Revolution itself: greater autonomy and agency for the many who—for too long—had no voice in either the Church or the state”--I say, relative to the “central-principle”  concedo, but relative to “golden opportunity,” nego.  The conservative opposition to the constitutional priests was so unremitting that riding out the Concordat was ultimately their only option. . . and that did not, of course, turn out to be “a golden opportunity.”  

Equivocal reviews have spotlighted some problems that I deal with here.

              H-France.  I have already briefly responded to the review with a communiqué to the network.  I repeat that here, although I provide a link so readers can access a colleague’s response to this same review.

I want to profit from the H-France publication of the Noah Shusterman review of my Priests of the French Revolution: Saints and Renegades in a New Political Era, to highlight my thesis and approach, rather than haggle over details of the review.  This is an email to H-France and not a formal author response.

My double theme across the years has always been “religious identity and national Identity.” In an earlier book, published with Penn State University Press, which has this theme in the subtitle, I situate my work within a rather complex range of discussions.  Here, in the present book, I study religious—specifically priestly—identities as they were expressed and lived out by a cross section of French priests and bishops between the opening of the Estates General and the signing of the Concordat.  Permit me to quote from the Prologue: “I have researched and studied the archival and primary source material to explain the priests of the French Revolution precisely as priests, on the premise that their priestly commitment, with its mutations, is the primary explanation of their behavior.”  And, also in the Prologue, I take considerable pains to discuss the Catholic and French traditions of priestly identity up to the Revolution.  Accordingly, I have presented my personalities on their own—often in their own words--as well as in their interactions with their religious and political contemporaries.  I determined my narrative and footnote strategies to facilitate this presentation: present tense once established in a given letter or sermon (mainly by means of a past tense) for long summaries with quotes, and individual footnoting for all quotes (eschewing the trick of referring to the several quotes within a given paragraph in a single footnote).  Real errors in the texts of my books are corrected in a special subsection of my internet site.

             American Historical Review 66 (2015): 902-903.  Malcom Crook is at times helpful, but at times puzzling, especially in the first paragraph.  He writes that “The radically reformed Catholic Constitutional Church. . .  is a Cinderella of the revolutionary period,” presumably because both conservative Catholic and ardent republican historians have little studied it.  But I must point out that there has been substantial work done on the Constitutional Church and revolution-accepting priests, work which I profited from, and copiously cited, in the text.  Immediately afterword, when he criticizes an appréciation (blurb) to make the general point that the book is not the synthesis required to eliminate this supposed “Cinderella” status.  Here I am more modest than the writer of that appréciation.  I write not so much a synthesis as an introduction (albeit one with its own thesis) to two powerful, full studies, Rodney Dean on the structuring and development of the Constitutional Church as such, and Timothy Tackett on the backgrounds and religio-political choices of the priests who went with the Revolution; and it is an introduction to the collected writings of Bernard Plongeron.  The works of these three scholars are syntheses, and we do not need a mega-synthesis to pull them all together (a general study, maybe, in some student introduction series such as The Bedford Series in History and Culture).  On elections--and so, elections of constitutional bishops--Crook’s own work is important, but I am puzzled as to why my summary of his work on p. 41 was insufficient, given the thesis of my book.  Relative to the map of “abdicataires” of Michel Vovelle (see my reference to maps in the Sepinwall review paragraph), I point out that the map is the only one we have, but I think it is somewhat problematic even so.  The numbers do not add up at all to reach the approximate total of abdicating priests.  Vovelle never explained this, and so I did what I could with the map, suggesting relative size of abdicating priest populations in the various départements.  And frankly, I think my concessions for those less familiar with the subject may have been a bit excessive—with all the section introductions and chronologies—rather than too few, as Crook believes, although for the Annales de la Révolution française reviewer these pages hit the right balance.

             The Journal of Modern History 88 (2016): 686-688. To begin with, I am grateful for the substantial summary of the book in the first half of the review, which Jeffrey Burson closes with praise for the overview introductions of each section of the chronologically arranged book: engagement, survival, revival—each with summaries of the politics of the period, elements of religion and politics covered by the individual chapter, and relevant chronology.  But then Burson seems to shade his eyes completely from the considerable light that these introductions cast on the chapters that follow.  

Burson’s way of operating, after noting that I concern myself with priestly commitment and its mutations, then, does not make complete sense.  I am presumably neglecting the “currents of the age” (this expression only a little less useless than zeitgeist) because I do not analyze principally in terms of “Enlightenment Catholicism” (Burson has edited/published usefully here) or Jansenism (which contemporary historians are virtually dissolving as a useful unmodified category).  My priests are in a multitude of ways informed by these “currents” and so it helps little to categorize them as instances of EC or Jansenism.  We need specifics on these guys.  Hence the anecdotes and quotations, which tell individual stories that I present as a continuum, not noticed apparently by Burson, so eager to simply toss the available priests/bishops into the Enlightenment Catholicism and Jansenism bins.  

And again, I’m unrepentant about the “freak of political nature to begin with” that was the Convention, a government without a constitution.  It should be clear from my discussion of the Convention that I’m not here a reductionist, but trying to evoke the very complexity of this government, as my clergy tried to negotiate their way across the Convention years.  Burson thinks that my ‘Accommodation” and “Promotion” headings are examples of this reductionism, but I used and labeled them as poles, not simple units.  He also does not like Audrein-Chabot contrasts, with Chabot and the other episcopal-vicar delegates to the Convention given bad marks; but beginning with Ruth Graham's findings of thirty years ago, we have easily noted that violent, priestly maverick qualities of these men. Morality tale?  Immorality tale?  How about history of behavior?

In short, the reviewer wants to address complexity but does not want biographical maneuvers, anecdotes, quotes, which can provide a history of a considerable variety of experiences.  I’ve made it clear that, in my view, tossing the priestly personnel into broadly labeled category-bins is almost useless.  And I return to my promise at the end of my response to the Woell review, à savoir to look at “Church, State, and Ministry” themes in the projected work on the Constitutional bishops.  

A bizarre (“negative” is, I suppose, the more standard label) review- - -

            French History 29 (2015): 576-577.   I have to say up front that the reviewer, David Andress, misses the primary point, caricatures the secondary features, and gets the book (mostly) wrong at every turn.  You know that a review will not deal with the book when it starts off referring to a “first sentence” that actually follows fourteen pages of essential material, and when the reviewer turns the so-called sentence into a caricature by not finishing it!  The Estates General was called “as a dramatic bid for resolving chronic financial crises” (problems going back to the Seven Years War and before): readers can be reminded of this simple fact by reading these, my, words, i.e. finishing the sentence.  “Bad harvests and the high cost of food staples” were only the latest additions to the more important chronic financial crises.  And then, the “naming” of the Convention after the American assemblies (OK, Congress), can anything be more secondary in this paragraph than that?  There is a similar toss-off observation in the Histoire et dictionnaire de la Révolution française, 1789-1799: “Nommé Convention à l’imitation des États-Unis, cette assemblée se réunit le 21 septembre 1792" (p. 732), and this is not the place to do up a history of the Continental Congresses and the Constitutional Convention.  How about Marat dying before “dechristianization” started?  The movement or the effort?  I gave a date for the beginning of the movement, but efforts to dechristianize were underway earlier, and Marat was active there.  But what does all this have to do with the more than 300 pages of the Byrnes book?  What is Byrnes's thesis and how does he structure his chapters to accomplish this?  No answer.  The reviewer finds that Byrnes does not engage with historiography very much, but, in fact, scholars are cited relative to most of the major questions.  The reviewer would not even have to go to the footnotes to find this out.  

What is it with the colleagues who exalt Jacques Roux?  The only good, full case in his defense was made by Morris Slavin in his 1964 article for French Historical Studies, an article I cite.  Rumors about early scandalous behavior did not make or unmake Roux, but we are not all in agreement that the stories have been fully refuted.  There exists, in any case, Roux’s violence-exalting sermons, and the odd role he played in the king’s execution.  This behavior might have befitted, on the overall, a dedicated revolutionary, but not a revolutionary priest.  This is a long, sad story of a revolutionary priest.  Yes, check again the important items in those first unread-by-the-reviewer twelve pages. 

The reviewer believes ultimately that the author has a strong “dislike” for those who "let the clerical cause down” and is guilty of “blatant partis pris.”  I conclude with a third reminder that the book is written to a thesis, and request that colleagues read the other reviews laudatory and equivocal (faute de mieux: reading the book itself).  Advance Access publication of this review appeared on the vigil of my birthday, which reminded me that I am getting too old for such reviewer fakery. Reviewers should read the books they are reviewing au fond, and not play riffs on those few lines that jump out at them.