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 who had been enjoying ecclesiastical pickings since adolescence. But Miss Hufton shows that even in the ranks of the rich clergy there was variety. One canon, De Loucelles, believed passionately in industry, tried to prize secrets from textile manufacturers, even sent for specimens of foreign cloths, in order to set up the poor in competitive industry. As with the clergy, so with the bourgeois: it is fissured, complex, more concerned with safety than speculation, putting its profits into land and houses rather than industry and commerce. Certainly it exploited the peasantry and the town poor, but in the manner of the nobility, not in the manner of a nineteenth-century capitalist.
SO THE SIMPLE DICHOTOMY of Groethuysen dissolves into complexity. Had he only been able to give scholarly depth and precise example to his often brilliant aperçus, his book might have been a magisterial contribution to historical knowledge. Indeed the contrast of these two volumes is illuminating. Miss Hufton collects facts and orders them with the assiduity of a fully trained antiquarian, but generalization, which comes as easily as breathing to Groethuysen is not for her. Like a beautifully organized market stall of vegetables, the glaring facts are set out, piled one on another, arranged carefully, kind with kind, adding up to a sharp impression; but, essentially, others must pillage her stall to turn her facts into intellectual food. The absence of wide-ranging generalization owes much to her historical discipline. She is dealing with a precise place, at a precise time, inhabited by precise people. Other regions, other towns would probably present a different emphasis, a different complex of relationships; and so historical discretion requires silence.
Groethuysen, however, was essentially an amateur historian, and the weaknesses which this induced are everywhere apparent in his book. He seems to treat the years between 1660 and 1789 as one period. Quotations from the works of Bossuet, Bourdaloue, l’Abbé Pluche, le Pasteur du Giap and sermons given just before the Revolution lie cheek by jowl. Although he indicates the changes which took place during this time, such as the weakening of the Jansenist attitude and the wider acceptance of Jesuit teaching in relation to social and economic questions, he is never precise in dating or pinpointing the changes, and from this book one would not gather that the Jesuits were suppressed during the years with which he deals.
But worse than this is a lack of any knowledge of Protestant history either within France or without, for Protestants are never mentioned at all. Yet there are astonishing resemblances between the attitudes of Anglican and of Catholic preachers. Again, how much would have been added to this book had Groethuysen made even superficial comparative studies. Indeed he never asks himself the questions that a historian would naturally ask with regard to time and place. He never inquires whether the ideas of the Catholic Church were the common religious coin of the eighteenth century or whether Catholic ideas, say of the 1780s, were the Protestant attitudes of an earlier generation. The book lacks, therefore, both the detailed scholarship and the disciplined rigor of a major historical work. What, then, has Groethuysen done and what is it worth?
His book is not a study of Catholicism or capitalism, or of the bourgeoisie; it is an analysis, based on published sources, of the attitude of the Church to what the Church considered to be bourgeois behavior. It is, therefore, a contribution to the sociology of religion, not to history. Groethuysen ploughed through the long dusty columns of sermons by France’s great preachers. He ferreted out, as well, pamphlets and addresses by forgotten provincial preachers, marking assiduously all references to bourgeois attitudes. These he put together under general headings, such as Priests and Laity, Almsgiving, Christian Life and Middle-class Life. When he is not quoting directly, he is often giving a précis, and the contribution of Groethuysen lies largely in selection and arrangement of material, for he hoped that would be sufficient to demonstrate, first, the steady contraction of the social area of God’s dominion in the eighteenth as compared with the seventeenth century, and secondly, the uneasy acceptance by the Church of the bourgeois’ own concept of his social value.
GRADUALLY, if reluctantly, the Church accepted the idea that hard work, thrift, social ambition, the values of secular achievement were not inimical to the Christian life; that a good and useful life, judged as such by middle-class social values, so long as it was combined with charity and modesty and free from concupiscence, could be judged as a good Christian life; worldly success and Christian devotion were not inimical, a position of course utterly alien to the Jansenists’ way of thinking. For the Jansenists regarded the world in all its manifestations as corrupt as the greatness of God was immeasurable. Hell, the utter sinfulness of man, the torments of the many and the salvation of the few cease to be the dominant notes of eighteenth-century religion. This thesis is sustained by innumerable quotations, which are so fascinating that they will be plundered by general historians. By the 1770s the idea that happiness, reason, and religion might be combined was widespread, a tenet which a hundred years earlier would have horrified Pascal, but not his contemporary, the Anglican Marquess of Halifax, who told his daughter that
Religion is a cheerful thing; so far from being always at cuffs with good humour, that it is inseparably united to it. Nothing unpleasant belongs to it, though the spiritual cooks have done their unskilful part to give ill-relish to it. A wise epicure would be religious for the sake of pleasure. (Advice to a Daughter, 1688).
Indeed time and time again one is struck by the resemblances between Anglican and Catholic divines, but across the generations. Anglicans had accommodated their theology with the bourgeois world by 1700, if not before: it took the French another fifty years or more. Another similarity may be seen in the development of attitudes to poverty and to education and to the belief in the need for religion for the poor. The Englishman, Soame Jenyns, in the middle years of the eighteenth century had insisted that religion, combined with ignorance, was essential to the poor, and that the fear of hell was a necessary protection of property, a sentiment which was appearing in sermons and pamphlets in France of the 1780s. Again, Hannah More, William Wilberforce, and the Evangelicals of England could have listened with entire approval to many a Catholic sermon of the late eighteenth century. Necker’s remark in 1788 “where poverty constantly jostles magnificance, a morality backed by religion is essential to hold back the multitude,” would have won their entire approval.
Indeed, the sentiments and attitudes which Groethuysen singles out were largely common to Protestant and Catholic countries alike in the eighteenth century, or at least in those in which commerce and industry flourished. Yet there were differences, unmarked by Groethuysen, and very pregnant ones. Right up to the Revolution and beyond there remained a Jansenist streak in the Catholic Church of France which could be expressed with a violence that was utterly radical in its attitude to the society that had developed. No such fulminations as this diatribe by Père Gasquet in 1766 were heard in the eighteenth-century English Churches:
You [i.e., the capitalist] for whom trade is a title to misdeeds and who prefer its criminal operations to the salutary work of your salvation…who secure yourselves against the general poverty by impoverishing so many. You who owe everything to the people and oppress them by your monopolies and a thousand other deceits…. You who till without a plow, who harvest where you have sowed nothing, who earn both sleeping and waking, and who spend nights and days doing nothing but feeding on the work, the sweat and the substance of others.
There has been a conservative strand in European society which never accepted the capitalism and industrialization of the modern world: powerful, moral, highly attractive to many intellectuals, it threads itself into nineteenth-century history in many forms—two obvious examples are the Christian democratic movements and guild socialism. One of the most interesting and complex aspects of nineteenth-century radical history is the interlocking of social revolutionary protest with conservative sentiments and ideology. One of the merits of Groethuysen’s very uneven book is to draw attention to this conservative, religious element whose attitude was forced by the developments in society to become radical protest: In so doing, however, it never lost its primitive conservative attitude. Its appeal to both urban and rural proletariats was large. It was a baffling phenomenon which no revolutionary of the nineteenth century ever fully understood. A great deal of social radical protest has clung to the past and rejected the future as the Jansenist Catholics did in the eighteenth century.
This conservative factor in radicalism has been little explored, and if Groethuysen’s book provokes young scholars to move into this field its translation will have done great service; but as a contribution to eighteenth-century French social history, or even to the history of ideas, his book is of little importance.
October 24, 1968