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 the sign of the cross in the name of the Father, the Son, and the Holy Ghost, the testators invoked legions of spiritual intercessors: first and most important, the glorious Virgin Mary; then the testator’s guardian angel and patron saints; and finally a host of others, especially Saint Michael, who will hold the scales at the Last Judgment, and Saint Joseph, patron of the “good death.”

These wills were explicitly drawn up, as they put it, “in the thought of death”—an inevitable, solemn, and Christian occasion. By the 1780s most Provençal wills had reduced the traditional formula to a single clause: “Having recommended his soul to God….” The Virgin Mary and saintly intercessors were gone, the Celestial Court emptied of angels. Christ himself had receded into the background, while God the Father sometimes took the form of “Divine Providence.” Many wills had become totally secularized, and some even described death as “the indispensable tribute that we owe to Nature.”

Of course the change in expressions could be attributed to a change in legal conventions. Perhaps the will had become a lay instrument for the transfer of property rather than an outlet for religious sentiment. But it continued to regulate death rites, and their evolution shows that the religious geste followed the same pattern as the legal formulas. Funerals were elaborate ceremonies in the early eighteenth century, especially but not exclusively among the wealthy and the well born. A long procession escorted the casket from the home of the bereaved to the church, touring the town according to a prescribed circuit. Thirteen paupers carried torches decorated with the dead man’s coat of arms or initials in one hand and in the other a ceremonial gift of cloth that they received from him. Priests and nuns in ceremonial robes, rectors of hospitals, contingents of orphans and poor people, and fellow members of religious confraternities filed by, carrying torches and candles, which filled the streets with light. Everywhere bells tolled, and everyone knew for whom, because death involved display, the parading of status by a collectivity, which used ceremony to express its own order and the dead man’s place in it.

After a religious service, whose elaborateness varied according to the “condition” (rank) of the deceased, alms were distributed to beggars at the church door, and the body was buried—in a family chapel or a monastery for nobles, under the church floor for other important citizens, in the graveyard for ordinary citizens. The testator regulated all these details in his will, down to the number of candles, and expected to enhance his chances of entering heaven and of lessening his penance in purgatory by gifts to the poor, who were to pray for his soul, and by funding hundreds or thousands of masses to be said for him on specified occasions, often in perpetuity.

The “baroque” funeral had almost become extinct in Provence by 1789. Requests for processions in Marseilles declined fourfold (from 20 percent to 5 percent of the wills in samples where two thirds of the testators came from the lower middle and lower classes) and were overtaken by a contrary tendency: requests for “simplicity” and for burial “without pomp” (from zero to 7 percent). The parading, torch carrying, and bell ringing had nearly disappeared. The poor had ceased to play a special part because their prayers were no longer deemed useful for souls in purgatory; and poverty was treated increasingly as an economic ailment rather than a spiritual condition.

Driven away from the church doors and shut up in a poorhouse, the wandering beggar now received a dole, thanks to legacies given in a spirit of secular humanitarianism rather than Christian charity. References to penitential confraternities declined markedly. The percentage of clergymen mentioned in wills also dwindled; and they were more often older and from the secular rather than the regular clergy. Instead of asking to be buried in the old style, “according to his condition,” testators left the burial arrangements up to their heirs. (In Marseilles wills expressing “indifference” about the place of burial increased from 15 percent to 75 percent until 1776, when the king forbade interment in churches.) Above all, the Provençaux abandoned the belief that masses were required for the repose of their souls. Among upper- and middle-class “notables” throughout the province, requests for masses declined from 80 percent to 50 percent, and the average number of masses requested dropped from 400 to 100. The decline was still greater in other groups—from 60 percent to around 20 percent among salaried male workers and seamen in Marseilles, and from 35 percent to 16 percent among peasants in the village of Salon-en-Provence.

Every indicator studied by Vovelle points to a decisive shift away from traditional religiosity and toward secularization in the mid-eighteenth century. In fact, it might make sense to conceive of two eighteenth centuries, a devout century (roughly from 1680 to 1760) in which traditional religious attitudes and ceremonies prevailed, and a century of secularization (from 1750 or 1760 to 1815), in which revolutionary dechristianization only accelerated a process that had gained great momentum during the last decades of the Old Regime. Vovelle does not go so far as to suggest such a radical revision of conventional periodization, but it would fit data that have accumulated in demographic, economic, and intellectual history.1 He does, however, analyze his material according to chronology, geography, and social structure; and this analysis lifts his account from the level of description to that of explanation.

First Vovelle established the details of the chronological pattern by analyzing 1,800 wills in central registeries. These covered the entire province very well (they came from 600 notaries in 198 localities, or almost half the towns and villages in Provence). Although they did not represent much of the population below the upper-crust notables, they revealed four phases in the evolution of attitudes: 1680-1710, a period of increased religiosity, which Vovelle attributes to the continuation, at a popular level, of the seventeenth-century religious revival and of the Counter Reformation; 1710-1740, a period of decline, which coincided with the most violent episodes of the Jansenist controversies in Provence; 1740-1760, a period of stabilization; and 1760-1790, a period of brutal dechristianization.

This scheme suggests that Jansenism and the Enlightenment could have acted as the gravediggers of traditional religiosity. Although Jansenism represented only an aspiration for a more intense and inward devotional life, it looked like crypto-Protestantism to many Frenchmen, and it touched off some fierce quarrels between rival factions of the French church in the early eighteenth century. After a long period of latency, the Enlightenment burst into print in mid-century and became widely diffused during the next fifty years. But how deeply did either of those two intellectual movements penetrate into French society?

Vovelle explored these and other problems of cultural diffusion by taking detailed soundings in twelve carefully chosen sites. With the help of several students, he made exhaustive analyses of wills in the notarial archives of one city (Marseilles), a small town and a village in lower Provence, two towns in upper Provence, and seven other towns and villages chosen for their exposure to Jansenism and Protestantism. Each study is a monograph in itself; each is executed with rigor and sophistication; and each touches an aspect of cultural and spiritual life that has eluded previous research.

Take the case of Roquevaire, a village near Marseilles, which had a population of 2,500 in 1765. About two thirds of its inhabitants left wills when they died, and almost three quarters of them were peasants. Vovelle studied 500 wills in five samplings taken from 1650 to 1790. He therefore worked with a remarkably representative index to attitudes among the obscure “little people” in village society, and he found that they changed more radically than among the notables throughout the province. In 1700, 80 percent of the peasant landowners requested that masses be said for their souls; by 1750 the proportion had risen to 100 percent; and by 1789 it had dropped to 30 percent. The decline was less severe among the local notables (75 percent to 60 percent), but it was very strong among artisans and shopkeepers (50 percent to 16 percent). Other statistics confirmed this trend: requests for funeral corteges declined from 23 percent to 2 percent; legacies to religious confraternities dropped from 55 percent to 1 percent; and the phrasing of the wills, which had been rich and varied in devotional expressions, became totally laicized.

Thus the general trend toward secularization could have extended further among the “submerged masses” than among the elite—at least in southern Provence, where economic and demographic growth and social and geographical mobility were greatest. Vovelle discovered another world in the isolated regions of northern Provence. Religious customs remained almost unchanged in Barcelonnette, an Alpine village where the Counter Reformation had established itself with unusual power and precocity (92 percent of the wills requested masses at the beginning of the century, 81 percent at the end). There was also little change in Manosque, a backward, back-country town, which never adopted the intense religious practices of the mountainous areas and never gave in to the secularization of the plat pays (requests for masses remained constant at a low level, between 20 and 30 percent of the wills). The geographical comparison suggests a link between changes in attitudes and in socio-economic forces. Did a “modern” world view result from the increased mobility, economic growth, and life expectancy of the second eighteenth century?

Vovelle seems to favor this interpretation, but he shies away from generalizations and concentrates on the effects of cultural factors: hence his emphasis on Jansenism and the Enlightenment. He found secularization strongest in towns where Jansenism had taken root most deeply (Pigans and Cotignac) and also where Protestantism had never been completely extinguished (Cucuron and Pertuis). But in remote Jansenist sites (Blieux and Senez), orthodox Catholicism reestablished itself with unusual militancy, making the graphs of requests for masses—which serve as the crucial indicator throughout the book—rise instead of fall, until the last decades of the Old Regime, when they drop sharply. So if Jansenism precipitated dechristianization, it did so primarily in the open, mobile population of the south.

The drop that occurs almost everywhere in Vovelle’s graphs after 1760 suggests that secularization correlates with the diffusion of the Enlightenment. But attitudes and ideas represent different mental states: the decline in the devotional treatment of death need not imply a rise in Voltairianism; and it cannot be measured against the penetration of the Enlightenment, because that penetration cannot itself be measured. Faced with this problem, Vovelle uses literacy as a standard of measurement, although he concedes that it is a crude and unreliable index to the spread of enlightened ideas. He produces some important statistics on the incidence of literacy in so far as it can be known by the only available evidence, signatures of wills.

His results confirm the celebrated Maggiolo study, which showed a low rate of literacy in southern France, and they expose the mythical character of the common view—one which flourished among nineteenth-century anti-clericals—that instruction undermines religion. Vovelle discovered villages where both literacy and religiosity were very high (Barcelonnette) and very low (Salon). And he shows that in some places secularization was stronger among peasants and laborers, who were predominantly illiterate, than among the highly literate notables. So even if the spread of the Enlightenment has a correlation with primitive literacy, as seems unlikely, literacy has none with the secularization of attitudes toward death.

Marseilles, however, seems to have been a special case. Vovelle found that lower-middle- and lower-class Marseillais were far more literate and secularized than their rural counterparts. Some of his statistics strain credibility (on page 377 he notes that by 1789 literacy among female peasants had risen to 45 percent and among male peasants had dropped to zero). But they demonstrate that secularization and literacy developed coincidentally in this urban setting, though at different rates among different social groups. Thus the literate elite of notables split, the nobles clinging to traditional religiosity while the bourgeois became “dechristianized.” By 1789 three quarters of all male laborers, artisans, and shopkeepers could sign their names, and the vast majority of them had given up the practice of requesting masses for the repose of their souls.

Vovelle tends to see a class alignment behind this sorting out of attitudes, and he turns it against the revisionist argument that the Enlightenment took root among a mixed elite of nobles and nonnobles. His thesis will go down well with Marxists who treat the Enlightenment as bourgeois ideology,2 but his data suggest a change of attitudes that go deeper than ideology, and they call for further analysis. They are strikingly clear, by contrast, in showing a split in the devotional practices of men and women. This “sexual dimorphism” was especially strong among the lower classes, where there was also a widening gap between the literacy of men and women. Thus by the nineteenth century, illiterate women servants frequently had become more devout than their mistresses; and male laborers took to drink and newspapers in the bistro while their illiterate wives attended church. Vovelle has most to say about such questions of custom and outlook. He discovered a sea change in man’s conception of the sacred, a process that may have disposed the Provençaux to accept enlightened ideas but that had no direct connection with the Enlightenment.

How this change came about remains in the end a mystery. It was not a matter of the masses following the lead of the elite, nor is it a matter of education or of urbanization. Secularization took hold most strongly in areas where social and economic change was greatest, and exposure to disruptive influences like Jansenism, Protestantism, and the Enlightenment probably had a reinforcing effect. But “socio-economic change” hardly serves as an explanation. Vovelle shows that the established pattern of attitudes in Marseilles was barely disrupted by the devastating plague of 1720, which killed half the population in the city, and by the subsequent tidal wave of immigration, which replaced the dead with a new population of uprooted peasants. And at some points his explanation sounds redundant: attitudes changed because of a “mutation de sensibilité collective,” that is, a change in attitudes.

Ultimately, his interpretation depends on the words used in the title: he traces a shift from “baroque piety” to “dechristianization.” Instead of defining these terms, he builds associations around them and uses them descriptively, as a kind of shorthand for a pattern of attitudes and actions. But the “baroque” is a particularly ambiguous concept, which means different things to different historians, many of whom will gag on expressions like “sensibilité baroque,” “moeurs baroques,” and “baroquisme.”

Dechristianization also poses a problem, because most of Vovelle’s material concerns the decrease in traditional ways of dealing with death—a matter of decline, not extinction (by 1789 half of the notables in the province still requested masses for their souls). The abandonment of “baroque” rites need not have implied the renunciation of Christianity. In fact, deritualization could have meant purification, as it did among the English Puritans. Ariès tries to explain Vovelle’s data by invoking the rise of the family instead of the decline of traditional death rituals. He claims that testators stopped regulating their funerals and burials because for the first time they could trust their relatives to do justice to such ceremonies. Perhaps other interpretations could fit Vovelle’s data, which he expounds beautifully but never fully explains.

Yet such criticism applies equally to the great theses that established the economic and demographic patterns of eighteenth-century French history. We still do not know why the population broke through the old Malthusian ceiling of twenty to twenty-five million, why agricultural prices should have increased by half during the last fifty years of the Old Regime, and why there was a revolution. Now we can ponder a deeper mystery: why did attitudes change toward the basic facts of life and death? All these changes seem related to the emergence of a world that we may recognize as “modern,” but how can we explain these relationships? By penetrating a previously inaccessible realm of experience, Vovelle has added a new dimension to the Big Questions of history, even if he has failed to answer them.

The importance of his achievement needs to be stressed because few readers will find his quantification palatable or digestible. There is a kind of statistical puritanism to this book. No human beings relieve the unrelenting flow of maps, charts, and graphs, 112 of them, all done without computers or correlation coefficients. But history has often floundered in vague talk about world view, climate of opinion, and Zeitgeist. To get beyond Burckhardt, the study of “mentalités” needed new methods and new materials. Vovelle has supplied them. He has succeeded where Ariès failed and has carried the craft into unexplored territory, where the human condition appears in a strange, new light.

(This is the second of two articles.)

  1. 1

    For an excellent synthesis of work in these fields, which treats the mid-eighteenth century as a turning point in the history of the Old Regime, see Pierre Goubert, L’ancien régime (Paris: Armand Colin, 1969 and 1973), 2 vols.

  2. 2

    Vovelle has associated himself with this tendency, which seems to be increasingly important in Marxist writing on the eighteenth century: see L’Humanité, February 18, 1972.