The Bourgeois, Catholicism vs Capitalism
Bayeux in the Late Eighteenth Century
Since it was published forty years ago, Bernard Groethuysen’s book has enjoyed a modest subterranean reputation, greater perhaps in sociological than in historical circles. But it has always been a rare book, mentioned in the bibliographies of specialists in eighteenth-century French thought, but rarely read. It has now been excellently translated by Mary Ilford, and will be widely available. I expect that it will again be used mainly by sociologists and occasionally by historians of ideas, but by straight historians, quite rightly, hardly at all.
It is a poor book, highly intelligent in concept, feeble in execution, and like so much sociological literature even weaker in technical method. It is not surprising that the Introduction, also by a sociologist, makes claims for it that border on the ridiculous. Apart from linking Groethuysen’s name with Weber, Dilthey, and Tawney, Mr. Nelson compares his creative imagination with that of Charles Darwin! And what of this:
…no historian or sociologist of culture before Groethuysen and hardly any since—have managed so well to evoke the puzzling land-scapes of the everyday sort of man who claimed center stage when the secularizing virtuosi of the Renaissance and the religiously orientated virtuosi of the Reformation had spent themselves.
At no point in his book does Groethuysen mention any bourgeois by name, analyze individual beliefs, describe their religious or charitable activity, nor does he give a collective description of the middle class in any city or region of France. Anyone going to this book for a careful, scholarly analysis of the French bourgeois of the eighteenth century and their attitude to religion or their precise relationships with the Church would be sadly disappointed. Far better to turn to Olwen H. Hufton’s Bayeux in the Late Eighteenth Century, which, plundering the rich archives of a single town, gives one a cross section of French life, as rich in detail as the Bayeux tapestry itself. In this book we are told precisely who the bourgeois were, their economic, cultural, and charitable interests, their relationships with an actual church.
And how different is the actual Church. The conservatism of the Church was, at Bayeux, economic as well as spiritual. Although the greatest and richest landowner of the district, it bitterly opposed innovation in farming, scorning improved techniques or increase of profit and posed as the protector of the small farmer, but this attitude was rooted in one simple economic fact. Innovation in farming in Normandy meant change from arable to pasture, to the high profits on meat and dairy farming, which meant a loss of clerical income, for arable paid tithe and pasture did not. The most active, successful, and rich bourgeois involved in commerce were the men who dealt in cattle and dairy products.
Also the Church of Bayeux was bitterly divided: the poverty of the village curé was as great as the riches of the bishop and cathedral chapter. Innovation and change did not worry the parish priest as it did the rich, well-born canon …