Giving New Life to Death

Piété baroque et déchristianisation en Provence au XVIIIe siècle: Les attitudes devant la mort d’après les clauses des testaments

by Michel Vovelle
Plon (Paris), 697 pp., 50F

By soaring over centuries, Philippe Ariès in Western Attitudes toward Death (reviewed in NYR, June 13, 1974) managed to sketch the entire topography of this unfamiliar subject, the history of death. Michel Vovelle burrowed deeply into one small corner of it, sifted through his material with extraordinary care, and came up with a work of pure gold. His Piété baroque et déchristianisation en Provence au XVIIIe siècle belongs to the opposite extreme in historical writing from Ariès’s essay. It is an enormous, dense doctoral thesis on attitudes toward death in eighteenth-century Provence.

As a genre, the French thesis is a monstrous thing, which often devours half of a scholar’s research life and rarely gets read by more than a few specialists. It is an invitation to pedantry, because it gives the historian an opportunity to expatiate on a circumscribed subject in boundless detail. Yet it also provides an occasion for rigorous research and exacting analysis. When done well, it can shift the whole way in which history is conceived. Indeed French historiography seems to move by great leaps forward, from thesis to thesis, as it did after the doctorates of Labrousse, Lefebvre, Braudel, Soboul, Goubert, and LeRoy Ladurie. Vovelle’s thesis is one of those. Now that it has been published, French history will never be the same.

Vovelle discovered a way to know how ordinary persons conceived of death in eighteenth-century Provence. The work of Gabriel Le Bras and other sociologists of religion convinced him that the religion actually experienced by the inarticulate could be reconstructed by quantitative analysis of religious behavior. A pattern of action (geste) would reveal a pattern of attitudes. But where could one get systematic information about religiosity in the past? Vovelle found it in one of the oldest and most unexploited kinds of documents: wills, almost 19,000 of them. Far from being impersonal and legalistic as they are today, eighteenth-century wills provide an inventory of the testator’s mental world. Most of them were dictated to notaries and therefore give a distorted reflection of that world, but the notaries proved to be varied and flexible in their writing.

Even their stylized expressions are revealing, because they evolved in a significant pattern, and they indicate a pattern of behavior among the testators. By studying enormous numbers of Provençal wills over a hundred years—and subjecting his data and methods to criticism at every step—Vovelle found that the concept of death and the ritual surrounding it shifted almost as radically in the eighteenth century as Ariès in Western Attitudes toward Death claims it did in the twentieth.

In the late seventeenth and early eighteenth centuries, testators consistently described themselves as adherents of the holy, apostolic Roman Catholic Church, who were prepared to meet their Maker, God the Creator, and Jesus Christ, His Son, by whose death and passion they hoped to be pardoned for their sins and to join the saints and angels in the Celestial Court of Paradise. Having made …

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