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The Art of Dying

Death and the Enlightenment: Changing Attitudes to Death among Christians and Unbelievers in Eighteenth-century France

by John McManners
Oxford University Press, 619 pp., $29.95

Voltaire’s death was a major event in the eighteenth century. It did not merely signal the passing away of the archphilosophe of the Enlightenment; it was a drama, staged with consummate artistry by the last of the classical French tragedians, and it reveals more about eighteenth-century culture than any of the plays he wrote.

All Europe watched as the old man neared the end in 1778. Would he hold fast to his anticlericalism when faced with the final reckoning, or would he die in the hands of the priests as Montesquieu had done and as Buffon proposed to do? Would he go out with a jest, or would he take communion? Would he disavow his works, or would he brave burial in unconsecrated ground?

The questions touched a deep chord in eighteenth-century sensibility, as John McManners demonstrates in this latest book on death. Under the Old Regime, dying had become the supreme act of living—a ritual that, if managed correctly, could open the gates of heaven or, if bungled, could lead to hell. Men’s imaginations still fixed on the late medieval ideal of the “good death.” They hoped to die in bed and in public, surrounded by family, friends, and anyone who happened to follow the priest carrying the viaticum through the streets for the last communion. They wanted death to come after confession, absolution, communion, and extreme unction and to be followed by a proper cortege, a funeral service, and burial in a cemetery or, better, in a church, as near to the altar as possible. Above all, they did not want to die as most of us do today—quickly, privately, and with as little fuss as possible. In the eighteenth century, men were as horrified at the idea of dying suddenly, or unshriven in their sleep, as we would be at the spectacle of death in the midst of a crowd, with lamentations, anointing, the ringing of bells, the clutching of crucifixes, the hideous glimpses of hell, and the edifying last words for curious on-lookers.

But the old ideal began to unravel as the century wore on. Christians and unbelievers alike questioned the idea of a wrathful God, who would condemn a man to everlasting torment merely because he panicked on his deathbed or failed to take his last communion. They often resented the way priests exploited the fear of death. Some entertained notions of pushing the clergy into the background and of dying as Julie did in La Nouvelle Héloïse, in the bosom of the family. Some imagined dying without any priests at all. Death was the winding-down of a machine, said La Mettrie, the notorious materialist. It could even be pleasurable, like going to sleep after making love.

The freethinkers joked about dying. In place of spiritual exercises, they practiced famous last words. Duclos, who enjoyed the advantage of having a curé named Chapeau, resolved to die saying, “I came into the world without breeches; I will go out without Chapeau.” The comte de Caylus summoned his confessor to the bedside and set him up with a pious observation—“I can see that you want to talk to me for the good of my soul”—then flattened him with some studied impiety: “But I am going to let you into my secret. I haven’t got one.” While his curé went off to burn the manuscript of his last opera, Lully consoled a friend with a stage whisper that soon made the rounds of the cafés: “Hush. I have a second copy.” The abbé de Voisenon regaled café society by a deathbed apostrophe to the grand vicar of the archbishop of Paris: “Tell Monseigneur that, however great my sins, I would not exchange souls with him, even if he threw in yours for good measure.”

Voltaire himself had ridiculed the Catholic rite by comparing it with that of the Brahmin who died holding the tail of a cow. But would he be able to sustain his impiety to the end? Frederick II though not: “He will disgrace us all.” D’Alembert advised Voltaire to submit to the traditional ritual so that he could receive a Christian burial and the customary memorial service for Academicians in the church of the Cordeliers. A hardened atheist might not care about such things. But Voltaire was a deist who wanted to die with decorum. He did not want his corpse to be dumped face down in unconsecrated ground like that of a beggar. Yet he would not submit to cross-examination from a curé and disavow his works in order to get absolution.

In short, Voltaire was trapped. He was also afraid. Like all of us, he did not know what lay for him beyond the boundary between life and death, and he could not treat the metaphysical moment when he would cross that boundary as a joke.

He therefore prepared his last moments carefully, accumulating evidence to prove that he accepted enough Catholic doctrine to be given a decent burial, in case his heirs would have to bring a lawsuit against the clergy. The main thing was to obtain absolution, a sticky business, because he would have to acknowledge the divinity of Christ, the efficacy of the Eucharist, and the wickedness of his writings. Fortunately, a simple-minded priest, the abbé Gaultier, strayed within hailing distance, puffed up with the ambition of seizing such a prize for the Church. Voltaire maneuvered him into granting absolution by a volley of pious-sounding but noncommittal phrases. After being ushered out, the abbé was not permitted to return for clarification of points of doctrine. Then, when the final agony came, Voltaire was declared too incoherent to discuss theology or receive communion. Having preserved appearances, he died as he had promised to do, “in the Catholic religion”—in it, but not of it, as McManners observes. He got the death he wanted and made his final exit by outwitting “l’infâme.”

The great merit of McManners’s book is that it takes such scenes seriously. Instead of dismissing deathbed rites as curiosities, McManners treats them as cosmological dramas, which expressed the meaning of life and death as Voltaire’s contemporaries understood it. Voltaire’s own death serves as the centerpiece of the book, and it works very effectively; for it shows how the king of the philosophers drew on traditional ritual to confront the contradictions and to act out the hopes and fears that lay at the bottom of the Enlightenment.

McManners is not the first to study the history of attitudes to death. The French have given the subject such a going-over during the last few years that it sometimes seems to have eclipsed everything else. François Lebrun has related it to demography. Michel Vovelle has reduced it to a retrospective sociology of religion. Jean Delumeau has subsumed it within a vast history of fear. Philippe Ariès has incorporated it within a vaster account of childhood and family affections. Alberto Tenenti has treated it as an element in art history. Daniel Roche and Roger Chartier have traced its place within the history of publishing. Robert Favre has placed it in the history of literature. Pierre Chaunu has charted its ebb and flow within the history of Paris, and more books are on the way.* It is a brave man who would come up with a treatise of his own in the face of such an outpouring, and it calls for courage on the part of a reader to take up yet another tome if he has waded through all the wormwood and gall that has accumulated on the shelves since the French discovered Geoffrey Gorer and Jessica Mitford and began to run them through the machinery for turning out trends within the “Annales school” of history.

The reasons for the rise of this trend may become clear to some future generation; but now that we are deep in crepe and widow’s weeds, we can easily lose our bearings. The vogue, moreover, is not limited to the French, for the British and Americans have produced plenty of death history; see, for example, The Puritan Way of Death by David E. Stannard, Wisconsin Death Trip by Michael Lesy, and The Victorian Celebration of Death by James Stevens Curl. Anyone who needs to find his way through the new dismal science could not choose a better guide than John McManners, Regius professor of ecclesiastical history and canon of Christ Church, Oxford.

There may be an advantage in studying the French way of death from the perspective of a man of the cloth, especially if the cloth is English. With the exception of Ariès and a few others, the French have attacked the subject by counting—counting Masses to be said for souls in Purgatory, counting invocations to the Catholic Church and the celestial court in wills, counting deathly themes in the titles of books, counting pounds of candle wax burned to patron saints. The quantification gives an air of scientific rigor to the study of collective attitudes or mentalités, the major growth industry within the avant-garde or Annales variety of history. But it raises more questions than it answers, because a drop in the graphs—and they all go into a slump when they reach the late eighteenth century—could indicate “dechristianization,” as Vovelle calls it, or the opposite: a tendency toward a more inward and intense form of spirituality. To the secular left (Vovelle, Roche, Chartier) the graphs suggest embourgeoisement of world view. To the Catholic right (Ariès, Delumeau, Bernard Plongeron), they reveal new patterns of family affection and charity.

As an Anglican clergyman specializing in the history of France, McManners can treat the debate with a combination of sympathy and detachment: he is in it but not of it. Instead of arguing for a clear-cut case of his own, he summarizes the arguments of others, adds up the evidence, and leaves the reader with the feeling that there is much to be said on all sides and that the truth lies somewhere among them. That may seem a little muddled, but the subject is murky. McManners’s version of it is erudite, empirical, even-handed, undogmatic—in a word, British. If he fails to produce hard-and-fast conclusions, he is probably right: the history of mentalités does not lend itself to bottom lines.

But what, besides erudition and objectivity, does Death and the Enlightenment have to contribute to this overgrown field of study? Not much in the way of original research, because McManners has wisely resisted the temptation to plough through another few thousand notarial dossiers. Instead, he has given a sympathetic reading to sources that have lain within everyone’s reach but outside the range of most historians’ interests: confessors’ manuals, liturgical works, funeral eulogies, and sermons. He goes beyond the Jansenist-Jesuit polemics, which can still raise the blood pressure of a dedicated dixhuitiémiste, to forgotten tracts like Pratiques pour se disposer à la mort and La Manière de se bien preparer à la mort. Above all, he has a sharp eye for deathbed behavior. Chapters on disease, funerals, graveyards, and beliefs about the afterlife fill out the picture. But the deathbed stands at the center, and rightly so.

In art as in life, the deathbed provided Frenchmen with a way to express their understanding of the meaning of existence. It did not merely serve as a prop for tragedies on the stage, but inspired new ways of dramatizing the human condition in novels, as in the climactic scene of La Nouvelle Héloïse and in paintings like La Piété filiale by Greuze. The rituals of dying helped bring a radical political consciousness into the open during the 1750s, when the parlements, crown, and clergy quarreled over the right of Jansenists to receive the last sacraments. At the same time, a secret report to the police denounced Diderot for being “extremely dangerous,” because among other things he did not take death rites seriously; and the public was horrified and fascinated by books like Le Rituel des esprits-forts, ou le tableau des incrédules modernes au lit de la mort by J.-M.-A. Gros de Besplas. As that title indicates, even freethinkers had a ritual or counterritual of their own. There was no escaping the central fact of death or the meanings attached to it by the traditional art of dying. As Jean Fourastié put it in a formula taken up by Pierre Goubert and by McManners after him, “Death was at the center of life as the graveyard was at the center of the village.”

But an enormous distance separated the village from the esprits-forts. How can the historian relate the philosophy of the Enlightenment to basic attitudes toward life and death among the entire French population? McManners does not confront that problem directly, but it remains implicit in the title of his book and in his mode of exposition, which builds up to a discussion of philosophers and churchmen from a general account of the conditions of life among ordinary people.

The key element in the argument seems to be demography. In a learned discussion of the demographic literature, McManners shows that mortality rates decreased enough in the eighteenth century for the population to expand and life expectancy to rise. Attitudes adjusted accordingly, both among the common people, who adopted less severe death rites, and among philosophers, who produced a more optimistic and secular view of the human condition. If that is McManners’s argument—and one can’t be certain, because he never makes it explicit—it seems reasonable enough; but it does run into difficulties.

First, there is a problem of chronology. It would be possible to find many examples of earthbound affections and secularized dying before the onset of sustained demographic growth in the mid-eighteenth century. A.F. Deslandes produced a whole collection of such incidents in Réflexions sur les grands hommes qui sont morts en plaisantant, published in 1712. Moreover, demographers no longer see a clear contrast between a black seventeenth century and a sunny eighteenth century. Death rates rose disastrously in many parts of France in the 1740s and 1770s. And the growth in population now looks far more modest, gradual, and uneven than had previously been believed, especially if the French pattern is compared with that of other countries. Jacques Dupâquier has shown that a slight drop in the rate of infant mortality, from 280 to 240 per thousand (today it is 20 per thousand), would produce a growth rate sufficient to push the population from 19 to 26 million between 1700 and 1789.

Second, insofar as the population did expand, it is difficult to understand how contemporaries could have perceived it. A demographic explosion may be visible in a place like Mexico City today, but it seems unlikely that anyone could have noticed an annual growth rate of 3 per thousand in eighteenth-century France. How could village midwives have realized that the devastation of infants was decreasing, even though demographers now suspect that 40 more of every thousand babies lived long enough to reach their first birthday? For their part, the philosophes believed that France was becoming depopulated. It suited them to do so, because they equated population growth with good government and they wanted to demand more Enlightenment in the administration.

Third, even if the demographic trend had been unambiguous and visible to contemporaries, it would not necessarily have brightened up their world view Demographic expansion meant pauperization for millions of peasants and workers, because France did not undergo anything comparable to the agrarian and industrial revolutions that were transforming the British economy. Prices rose, real wages fell, and those who could not make ends meet disappeared into a vast floating population of beggars, prostitutes, and thieves. Such persons would not be likely to see much congruity between their experience and the themes of progress and earthly happiness in the Enlightenment tracts, even if they could read them.

But how can the historian form any idea at all of attitudes among the illiterate masses two and three centuries ago? McManners produces no new evidence of his own, so he must fall back on the quantitative studies by the French. Whatever one thinks of their propensity for graphs—“Everything derives from the curve,” said Ernest Labrousse, the grandfather of them all—the quantifiers have produced indices of behavior among the submerged three-quarters of the population of the Old Regime. That is no mean accomplishment, although the graphs can be interpreted in contradictory ways, as McManners points out. In reading his version of their research, one does not expect to find a flood of new information. One hopes to watch a judicious English expert pick his way among the contradictions of the French and emerge in the end with a sound synthesis and a balanced assessment of the history of mentalités in general.

In order to get around the difficulties of quantification in cultural history, McManners takes a long detour through the favorite subjects of social historians—poverty, disease, crime, childhood, aging, and family life. Apparently he expected to conquer his subject by surrounding it, as if an adequate account of social conditions would explain the development of attitudes. Determine the chances of living, and you can derive the attitudes to dying. For McManners, therefore, the key question is: how did Frenchmen respond to the improvement in the “odds” of dying at a ripe old age in the eighteenth century?

McManners acknowledges that the men and women of the Old Regime could not draw on anything like the statistics of modern demograpers, but he does not go on to question whether they thought in terms of odds at all. Instead, he attempts to reconstruct the “statistical odds” that they might have imagined. They limited their expectations about life in the seventeenth century, when it was short, he asserts. And they invested more affection in human relations during the eighteenth century, when the average life span, for those who survived infancy, increased by ten years.

But how can people think of life as short if they had never imagined it as being longer? How could they adjust their hopes and fears to a century-long shift in life expectancy if they could not perceive an average life span and if they lacked the mental categories with which to make it thinkable? McManners traces the development of demographic thought in the eighteenth century, but he concedes that it did not lead through the camp of the philosophes and did not extend to the educated general public. So he must fall back on a vague, stimulus-response view of attitude formation: as demographic conditions improved, world views became sunnier.

Some of the vagueness lifts in the last chapter, where McManners relates the history of death to the history of the family. The transition from the “harsh and loveless world” of the old demographic order took place, he claims, through the “discovery of the child and of femininity” and “the concentration of affection in the nuclear family” during the eighteenth century. Historians often announce such discoveries (“man” was discovered in the fifteeenth century according to Burckhardt and in the late eighteenth century according to Foucault), and should not be taken too seriously, unless they provide strong evidence for their assertions. McManners draws his evidence from the work of Philippe Ariès and from literary sources, but he does not pause long over the history of the family and does not really mean that children were undiscovered or that conjugal love did not exist before 1700. Thus after recounting examples of affectionate treatment of children, he remarks, “We are not documenting the advent of a new attitude to children; we are collecting samples of an overflow from a vast reservoir of interest and affection stored up in human nature, and awaiting only the lessening of the rigours of social conditions to manifest itself.”

The argument boils down to three causally linked assertions: the mortality rate and social conditions improved; family affections blossomed; and men developed a less lugubrious attitude to death. How the Enlightenment fits into this pattern remains unclear, except that the philosophes contributed to the general “laicization” of outlook. Even their enemies in the Church softened the old terroristic view of death and hell-fire. So everything moved in the same direction. But what propelled it all?

McManners does not confront that question or pause to ask what attitudes are and how they take shape. He proceeds as if the mental phenomena will fall into place if only he can get the social background right. But ideas and attitudes do not derive from society in the straightforward way that chapters line up in books and that lectures follow one another in history courses—from economics and demography to social structure to culture. The difficulty of bringing social and cultural history together probably constitutes the most important problem facing historians today.

McManners cannot be blamed for failing to resolve it. His failure demonstrates that a vigorous dash of British empiricism—good, commonsense history, solidly propped up with footnotes and free of graphs—will not advance the history of attitudes to death. But he was on to something when he recounted the story of Voltaire’s deathbed. All of us, like Voltaire, express our understanding of life and death by manipulating symbols that our culture makes available to us. We do not merely respond to social conditions, we construe the social order with our minds and shape it with our actions. By learning to read actions, it might be possible for historians to re-create social constructions of reality. If so, Voltaire’s deathbed drama could point the way to an interpretative variety of socio-cultural history, which would take the history of mentalités beyond the stage where the French have left it; and McManners will not have labored in vain.

  1. *

    Two large studies, La Mort en Occident by Michel Vovelle and La Mort Bretonne by Alain Croix, will be published soon; and a collective work, La Mort aujourd’hui, has just appeared in the Cahiers de Saint-Maximen series (Editions Rivages).

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