The Tycoon Priest

God’s Plagiarist: Being an Account of the Fabulous Industry and Irregular Commerce of the Abbé Migne

by R. Howard Bloch
University of Chicago Press, 152 pp., $24.95

The Reverend Father Jacques-Paul Migne, who was born in the Auvergne in 1800, has been compared to Napoleon, Balzac, d’Alembert, and Diderot; to Raspail the scientist and politician, to Girardin the newspaper proprietor, to Boucicaut who founded the Bon Marché store, and to Larousse the publisher. Migne compared himself to a Balzacian character (a Rastignac in surplice?) and to Hercules. He published an estimated 1,095 volumes in his lifetime, he created the greatest publishing house since the invention of printing, he revived patristic theology in France and sought to establish a science of Catholicism. Migne was a man of unlimited ambition whose achievements were solidly real. Yet we know little about this indefatigable priest. A discreet plaque on the wall of 189 Avenue du Maine tells us that it was there that he lived and there that he died in 1875. It is the catalogs of the great libraries of Europe which are his monument. But it is only the catalogs. Like the 265 volumes of a nineteenth-century Bishop of Norwich, Migne’s Encyclopédie Théologique with its 168 volumes dominates the catalog of the British Library but only in the space it takes up. He is, as has been said, a forgotten continent.

Professor Howard Bloch has set out to tell us a number of things about Migne. But he has not behaved as other academics would. They would write a large book about some author who is largely forgotten because he has written but a few lines here and there and has made but fugitive contributions to learning or literature. Bloch has written a small work about someone who, as he claims, published a book every ten days over a period of thirty years. And instead of telling us, as others would have done, that this man about whom we know little was a great and a good man who deserves to be discovered, he explains how Migne was dishonest and reprehensible in his multifarious activities. He has written a book that is original and pointed in its learning.

Migne was an Auvergnat from Saint Flour. When he was seventeen he was admitted to the seminary in Orléans and he was ordained priest in 1824. After some short stays in other parishes, he became the curé of Puiseaux, in the department of the Loiret. But this was not to be a long stay. Relying on Hippolyte Barbier’s account, written in 1844, Howard Bloch recounts how Migne found himself in conflict with the local garde nationale when he defended the rights of a priest who had been evicted from his parish; and then, after the revolution of 1830, Migne was once again in trouble when he failed to show respect for a tricolore flag that had been placed humorously, or provocatively, on the altar of his church. He responded by writing a long brochure on liberty and the clergy. But without reading a word of it, his superior, the Bishop of Orléans, both confiscated and condemned Migne …

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