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’s work. The indignant author’s response was to abandon his cure of souls and make the relatively short journey to Paris, probably in the autumn of 1833.

Migne had proved to himself that he was a competent writer. He had a natural desire to challenge authority, both civil and religious, and he sought to widen his conflict with the bishop by taking it to Paris. Bloch makes the point that this confrontation was the traumatic event, the repressed wound at the core of his personality, for which the rest of his career would compensate. Since Monseigneur had suppressed his brochure, he would revenge himself by publishing whole libraries.

Furthermore, the opportunity was there. It was Lamennais whose first writings had, in Sainte-Beuve’s words, caused an explosion and had established the program of Catholic science. But in 1831 his journal, L’Avenir, ceased publication. Those Catholic newspapers that remained were of poor quality, avoiding issues such as Gallicanism and the Pope’s condemnation of Lamennais, and they attracted few readers. It was thus a propitious moment for Migne to launch his papers, one destined for the laity and one for the clergy. He was always to remain a journalist, although he was to dismiss these ventures as secondary to his main activity, which became that of an editor and publisher. It was in 1838 that he founded Les Ateliers Catholiques. These were to become the largest privately owned printing works in France, employing at the height of their success some six hundred workers, as well as many proofreaders who worked at home. In 1842 he launched the idea of a vast theological encyclopedia, responding to the prevailing public taste for such ventures, but distinguishing itself by being a specialized survey of Catholicism in all its aspects.

When considering Migne’s success it is important to understand the methods that he used, as shown by Bloch. But it is also necessary to remember that there was a need for Migne’s particular type of work. When Migne was ordained in 1824 he was one of some 1,500 priests who were received into the Church that year. In 1825 there were more than 1,600 and by the 1830s more than 2,000 were being ordained each year. The mission of these priests was to bring life to the Church that had suffered from the Revolution, but although their numbers became larger than the 34,868 who were in office on the eve of the Revolution, they suffered from many disadvantages. In 1830 more than 40 percent of those still in activity were aged sixty or over; many priests had to serve more than one parish; but above all, these clerics were largely ignorant of the nature of Catholicism. They knew neither its history nor its theology, and some of them were uncertain about its liturgy. Their ambition, at its highest, was to be a good priest in the sense that they would comfort those around them.


More than one of Balzac’s characters goes so far as to deplore that the Church should be exacting over questions of doctrine. Those who discuss the maxims of Christianity would, according to le curé Janvier in Le Médecin de campagne, be better employed in practicing them. The main character in Victor Hugo’s Dernier Jour d’un condamné gets little comfort from the prison’s official chaplain, and seeks instead for some ordinary priest, young or old, sitting by his fireside, in the first parish that one comes across, who would give comfort to a man in the last hour of his life. The priest would encourage his parishioners to work (“travailler c’est prier“), to attend church, to repent, and to believe that everything they had lost on earth would be waiting for them in heaven.

Those who were educated still lived in the atmosphere of the Enlightenment. Had not Voltaire pointed out the irony of an ignorant Mohammed establishing a religion that had invaded Asia and Africa, and of an unreadable Luther and Calvin producing religions that divided Europe, while the great Newton and Locke found it difficult to create a tiny group of followers? Monsieur Homais in Madame Bovary derided a Christ who put his friends in the belly of a whale, who died and rose again after three days. Such things, he said, were contrary to the laws of physics, and he proclaimed his loyalty to Socrates and Voltaire. Somewhat complacently Michelet claims that he knew the name of Jupiter before that of Jesus Christ, and his friend Edgar Quinet recalled that the first name that he had learned at school was that of Voltaire.

Thus Migne had to produce a work that would fall between apologetics and vulgarization (to use the words of Langlois and Laplanche, in a book which Bloch does not seem to have consulted). It was intended to reconcile the exigencies of the modern world to the resuscitated traditions of the Church and to reflect the higher truths of Catholicism. Beyond all this, Migne, believing that he had a fixed body of readers in the clergy who were interested in their financial and social position as well as in an ecclesiastical education, publicized in his newspapers accounts of priests who had suffered from financiers, landlords, civil and religious dignitaries, and who were offered advice on how to conduct their affairs. It was ironical that as Balzac published Le Curé du Village the Allignol brothers, popular commentators in the Paris press, wrote critically about the present state of the French clergy. There were disputes in the air. Migne had plenty to do.

Bloch tells how Migne set about his task. It is a story of work, tenacity, and stubbornness (the last-named being associated with people from the Auvergne). In Migne’s imagination he was a medieval monk staving off the barbarians; but his task, he thought, was to face the inheritance of the Revolution, to build a printing house that was bigger than the Imprimerie Nationale and to create a library that was greater than the Bibliothèque Nationale. His Ateliers Catholiques represented much of the best. It was a medieval scriptorium; it was a universe dedicated to the book; but it applied steam power to printing in a manner that was still rare even in the mid-century, and as Migne (probably) said himself, “The hand of a monk of yesteryear could not copy in three years what is done in the l’Imprimerie Catholique in a single minute.” Above all his imprimerie, set in what were then the suburbs of Paris (now the fourteenth arrondissement by the Avenue du Maine), was a religious community, a miniature Kingdom of God. A journalist from the paper L’Illustration visited the Ateliers in 1868, and his experience is quoted by Bloch. After visiting the warehouse he was directed to take Bible Street, then Bossuet Street, at the end of which he would find the Abbé Migne on the Fathers of the Church Square. After he had made his way through long aisles of books, he found the Abbé Migne giving directions to the spot where the Tertulian building was to stand.


This may seem ridiculous, but is it as ridiculous as an archbishop of Paris’s earlier remark that, apart from Jesus being the son of God, we know that he was from a good family on his mother’s side? What is ridiculous, or sinister, according to one’s choice of vocabulary, was that within the walls of the Ateliers Migne exploited his workers and underpaid them badly; he laid down harsh rules on how they should behave when they were at work; he drove a hard bargain with all his associates, and he quarreled with most of them. It is no wonder that Howard Bloch should have found in the police archives references to him as a man of violence, as an unstable character, and as a source of constant trouble. He had the reputation of associating himself over-readily with unfrocked priests, or with clerics who were in dispute with their bishop, but while one can understand that the abbé naturally had some sympathy with such cases, this did not prevent him from making use of them. His support for priests who had been maltreated by their bishops led to his paper La Voix de la Vérité being condemned by the Archbishop of Paris, Monseigneur Affre, in 1847, and other conflicts with the law and with the Church followed.

Perhaps it was natural enough that as a priest turned entrepreneur, Migne should have become hard and uncharitable, and that as a priest who had quarreled with his bishop he should fail to cringe before the disapproval of episcopal authorities. But his methods of self-advertisement are unexpected. When the greatest prelates of the day praise his work on the Church fathers, it is curious that what each one of them says resembles in both tone and style what the others say, and the whole of them resemble nothing so much as Migne’s official publicity statements on behalf of these works. Similarly the comments in the Univers religieux about Migne’s Cours Complets resemble in the extreme the comments written by Migne himself in his pamphlets. We know too that Migne offered a bribe to Veuillot, editor of L’Univers (which Migne had originally founded), to include praise of the Cours Complets. The process was simple and seems to have been repeated many times. Migne would make a statement, and he would then contrive to have another person repeat his words or paraphrase them; and he would then be quoted by Migne. Thereby a chorus of voices is created where there is in reality only the one. This is what Howard Bloch felicitously calls “ventriloquistic salesmanship.”

Migne plagiarized as a newspaper editor; he plagiarized also as the editor of the histories of the Church fathers by reprinting earlier editions (sometimes with all the errors), and sometimes seeking the edition that was most difficult of access, so that his annexing of someone else’s work would not be perceived. He consulted some five thousand clerics before launching his Cours Complets, thus being able to claim that his work was representative of a collective Christian tradition.

Migne stood for mass production, mass standardization, and mass marketing. For each volume the text was guaranteed to be pure, the quality of the original type was extolled, and the standardized layout, with 4,180 letters on each page was specifically designed so that the reading of the volumes would not be tiring. The whole could be produced at low cost, and the volumes could be sold direct to the consumer, thus eliminating the middleman, a procedure that caused many of the alarmed booksellers of Paris to turn to the archbishop and ask him to close down the Ateliers Catholiques, a request to which Monseigneur de Quelen reacted favorably, although he failed in his attempt to do so.

The whole of Migne’s enterprise ended in a fire that was started in mysterious circumstances at one or two o’clock on the morning of February 12, 1868. The metal of the printing works was liquefied into rivers, fused and twisted into bizarre forms. The Ateliers Catholiques were no more than a pile of blackened papers and twisted steel. For four years the Ateliers were not to produce a single book, while during much of this time Migne fought the insurance companies in the courts. But during the years between the fire and the legal judgment Migne went blind. He died in 1875, having succeeded in reconstituting some of the indices to the patrologies. Dr. Bloch sees him dying as a Balzacian character whose task, which had become his obsession, had been completed. Perhaps he might also have thought of the Apostle’s testimony, “I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith.”

It is true that one would have liked to know more about his actual religious beliefs. We know, for example, that when Migne had his quarrels with Denis-Auguste Affre, when Affre was archbishop of Paris, he had as his defender a papal nuncio, Fornari, who hated the Gallicanism of Affre, and who saw in Migne someone who was loyal to the papacy. As Migne put it to his friend Mathurin Gaultier (who does not appear in this book) “catholique pur avant tout.” But we should not complain. There is a wealth of learning in Dr. Bloch’s book and although there are moments when he could have used one of the Abbé Migne’s army of proofreaders, he succeeds remarkably in showing how Migne’s enterprise is to be compared to the phenomenon of the grands magasins that were assailing the customers of Paris. Both Migne and Aristide Boucicaut of the Bon Marché used to organize visits to their establishment at three in the afternoon, like prelates who were showing their places of worship. He amply justifies Jacques Le Goff’s statement that the entire history of France appears differently when it is seen through the phenomenon of religion. And we learn much from Migne himself, not only as a publisher but as a leader, when he said “for men who are determined on progress, it is with Tradition that we march forward.”

This Issue

September 22, 1994