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Romantic Catholics and the Two Frances

France’s romantic Catholics were members of a generation that the writer Alfred de Musset (born 1810) characterized as enfants du siècle in his 1836 autobiographical novel. The children of the nineteenth century, Musset wrote, came of age without firsthand memories of the Revolution; they were an ardent, pale, and fretful generation…[c]onceived between battles [and] reared amid the noises of war who reached adolescence in the midst of a world in ruins. Ill at ease in this world, Musset’s contemporaries suffered, he claimed, because they could see no path from the revolutionary past to the future they desired. Their present—defined by what Musset famously described as mal de siècle—was vague and floating, a troubled sea filled with wreckage…where one cannot know whether at each step, one treads on living matter or dead refuse.¹

The women and men who became romantic Catholics shared the generational identity and the anxieties of Musset’s enfants du siècle. They were dismayed by the legacy of their parents’ revolution, although some—like Stendhal’s Julien Sorel, hero of The Red and the Black—were equally discontented that they had been born too late to participate in the world-historical event of their era. The romantic Catholics were, like Musset, born around 1810. Some belonged to families that had benefited from the upheaval of the 1790s, with fathers who had served in revolutionary armies. Others were born to counterrevolutionary families and émigré fathers who remembered the Revolution as a catastrophe. Accordingly, some inherited their Catholicism as an important family tradition while others adopted their faith of their own volition. In both instances, however, the romantic Catholicism of these children of the century was self-consciously different from the religion of their elders.²

Many children of the nineteenth century turned to Catholicism to resolve the dilemma that Musset identified: separating the wreckage of the Old Regime and the Revolution from the living matter out of which they might construct their own lives. Feeling detached from their surroundings, alienated from their parents’ ambitions, and chafing at the uncertainty and caution that characterized their postrevolutionary surroundings, some young romantics looked to Catholicism in an effort to make a world of their own. They determined to set aside the battles of their parents’ generation with philosophes, de-Christianizers, and revolutionaries on one side and Jesuits, Jansenists, and royal censors on the other. Their goal was to find a Catholicism that would be expansive, dynamic, and glorious instead of the nostalgic, bitter, and fearful faith that was the stereotype of the Restoration years.

The Catholic men and women of this book shared with Musset a generational sensibility that they directed to the project of reimagining their religious faith. The men—Maurice de Guérin, Charles de Montalembert (both born in 1810), and Frédéric Ozanam (1813)—were public figures whose names are known, at least in passing, to those familiar with nineteenth-century history or literary studies. Two of the women—Pauline Craven, née de la Ferronnays (born 1808) and Victorine Monniot (born 1824)—were best-selling authors of the second half of the nineteenth century whose names have all but disappeared today. Even more than most popular female authors, Catholic women writers disappeared from the literary canon, and, unlike their republican counterparts such as George Sand, they have not been recuperated as part of a process of feminist canon revision.³ The archival traces of the experiences of Léopoldine Hugo (born in 1824) and Amélie Soulacroix Ozanam (1821) survive largely because of their family relationships: Léopoldine was the daughter of Victor Hugo (himself born 1802), and Amélie married Frédéric Ozanam, whose memory she dedicated herself to preserving after his early death. Like Musset, these men and women were aware that they had inherited a society that had emerged from revolutionary upheaval of unprecedented proportions. They were conscious of their responsibility to rebuild, and they turned to Catholicism for that task, not in the resentful vein of conservatives longing for the Old Regime but in a hopeful, forward-looking mood.

Liberalism, Socialism, and Romantic Catholics

Scholars most commonly refer to the individuals featured in these chapters as liberal Catholics, a term that I have rejected in favor of romantic Catholics.⁴ By the 1860s Charles de Montalembert and his Catholic colleagues who refused to cooperate with the Second Empire referred to themselves as a liberal Catholic opposition. For much of the nineteenth century, however, devout, progressive Catholics utterly rejected the liberal label. Indeed, they abhorred liberalism in all its forms. Their critique of the French Revolution was not simply that it had targeted their church, confiscating its wealth and persecuting its clergy. The faults of the Revolution went much deeper: the elevation of the rights-bearing individual man to the apex of the political community was the Revolution’s original sin. The autonomous male citizen was a pernicious fiction, romantic Catholics claimed, because human beings do not pass through the world as individual units. Revolutionaries had willfully denied that the ties between individuals mattered more than the individuals themselves. Relationships and the sentiments of affection and respect out of which they grew were the true elements of the social fabric. According to romantic Catholics, de-Christianization was the revolutionaries’ response to the challenge that the church posed to their ideology of liberal individualism.⁵ Revolutionaries took on Catholicism not merely because they considered its institutions and personnel corrupt or because they were tempted by its wealth. Rather, they recognized that Catholic teaching revealed the autonomous revolutionary citizen as a sham.

In their critique of liberalism, romantic Catholics had much in common with their contemporaries, the romantic socialists. Central to both Catholic and socialist interpretations of the Revolution was, as Michael Behrent has argued, the question of whether the political emancipation of the individual was compatible with a cohesive social order.⁶ Like devout Catholics, followers of Henri de Saint-Simon or Charles Fourier concluded that no aggregation of autonomous individuals could ever constitute a society. Without an awareness of the transcendent, such an assembly would have no meaning beyond the sum of its parts. Religious sentiment made the individual aware of his fellows and created the bonds of obligation and affection that gave society density and significance.⁷

The competition between romantic Catholics and socialists was particularly intense because both groups claimed to have identified the religious grounding of the ideal society. The socialist impulse in the early nineteenth century was to create a religion to perform the function of sacramentalizing society. Saint-Simon’s Nouveau christianisme and his followers’ quest for the new messiah are the best-known examples of this solution. The romantic Catholics, however, saw no need to guarantee society’s organic strength by contriving a new religion when they already had a faith that had stood the test of time. Beliefs and practices that enabled individuals to recognize transcendent truth and to connect to one another in that recognition could not be invented on the spur of the moment, romantic Catholics believed. Nor could they be human institutions, built in response to humans’ (mis)perceptions of their own needs. According to Catholics, the egotism of the era necessarily infected these unnatural attempts to invent a new faith for the nineteenth century.

Young men in student circles of the 1820s and ’30s like Maurice de Guérin, Charles de Montalembert, and Frédéric Ozanam were particularly aware of the affinities between romantic Catholics and socialists. Catholics and socialists joined the same student organizations and debating clubs, jousting with one another over their claims to reestablish society, in the image of either the old Christ or the new Saint-Simonian messiah.⁸ The young Ozanam’s first published work—which appeared in 1831 when he was only eighteen—was an essay on Saint-Simonianism, in which he condemned its claim to be a new Christianity but also cited it as evidence that there was no trend toward disbelief in the nineteenth century.⁹ Catholic students like Ozanam and his friends took particular pride in the conversion of socialists who, like Philippe Buchez, concluded that the common purpose that brought individuals together in society was not a newly discovered doctrine but rather ancient Christian teaching.¹⁰

Catholics asserted that there was no need to invent a new faith to guide men and women away from liberal egotism and toward awareness of the society in which they lived: Catholicism remained fully capable of accomplishing that goal. In the words of Prosper Guéranger (born 1805), who reestablished the Benedictine order in France in 1832, the Catholic liturgy was nothing if not an instrument in the destruction of individualism and the Eucharist was the means for being incorporated into a human community, the church.¹¹ Guéranger proposed the monastic community as the ideal that a Christian society should follow, but the lay Catholics of this book believed that Christians living in the world could establish a similarly robust sense of obligation to one another.

Competing with socialists to claim the mantle of defenders of society against liberal individualism was largely an affair for the young men of this book. Women were often a point of discord between the romantic Catholics and the socialists of the student world. Ironically, both groups tended to idealize woman in the allegorical abstract as uniquely capable of overcoming individual egotism and forming social bonds.¹² Saint-Simonians rejected Catholic teaching on chastity and marriage, however, and imagined a society in which a liberated sexual love, no longer restricted by clerical scruple, could effectively bind together the threads of a densely woven social fabric. As feminist scholarship on the Saint-Simonians has revealed, the men of the movement, mostly bourgeois students, found their sexual partners among women of the working class. The result of these women’s experimentation with socialism was not equal participation in a revived social order but often the outcast experience of unwed motherhood.¹³

In contrast, romantic Catholics—both men and women—continued to believe that marriage and family remained not only relevant but the most significant relationship possible and the model for any subsequent social tie. Women like Pauline de la Ferronnays, Amélie Soulacroix, and Victorine Monniot had no firsthand contact with Catholicism’s socialist rivals. Young women of the aristocracy or the bourgeoisie did not participate in the sociability of university students, who were often sowing their wild oats with women of the working class, whether acting out their Saint-Simonian convictions or not. Resisting that temptation was a common theme in the youthful letters of men like Ozanam. Restraint and self-discipline, not sensual indulgence, made possible the bonds of society. This self-control came naturally to women, but Christian men had to strive to emulate female integrity, Ozanam and his friends believed. Young Catholic men self-consciously recognized that their desire to preserve their sexual purity in order to highlight the significance of the marriage bond set them apart from others of their generation.

The emphasis on marital affection as the basis of society reflected romantic Catholics’ conviction that the laity should play an important role in reestablishing the church in the postrevolutionary period. The church needed the wisdom of people who lived in the world—individuals who chose marriage partners and raised children, recognized their duties as citizens, and faced the challenge of the modern economy.¹⁴ The experience of the Revolution had raised the profile of the laity; where Catholic worship held on most successfully, it was usually thanks to the leadership of laywomen in particular.¹⁵ Romantic Catholics’ positive assessment of the role of the laity was another way in which they were open to the possibility that the Revolution might have offered useful lessons to the church. Several of the figures in this book contemplated a clerical vocation but ultimately concluded that their calling was to the ordinary obligations of marriage and family life. Men like Charles de Montalembert and Frédéric Ozanam, had they acted on their youthful sense of vocation, would probably have risen to positions of influence in the church. Although a woman like Pauline Craven could not count on such influence, she could, if she had she chosen a life of vocation, have played a significant role in the expansion of women’s congregations that invented new forms of communal life and gave many women positions of responsibility and even global influence.¹⁶ Victorine Monniot, who never married, certainly considered a religious vocation, as did Maurice de Guérin’s sister Eugénie. All three women, however, remained in the world and embraced a lay vocation of writing and caring for family members.

Although Romantic Catholics focuses on the laity, clerics who befriended and guided the book’s main characters play key supporting roles. Most important was Félicité de Lamennais, who inspired romantic Catholics and acted as a father figure to both Maurice de Guérin and Charles de Montalembert. Born in 1782, Lamennais chose the religious life during the Napoleonic era and was one of the first of a new generation of postrevolutionary priests to seek ordination. In the 1820s he caused a sensation with his call to Catholic revival: he asserted that the ancient church would be the dynamic force in modern society, and he broke with Catholics who could see no better future for the church than the Old Regime. Priests whose early career was shaped by mennaisian teaching formed friendships with lay Catholics and championed the role of the laity within the church. Henri Dominique Lacordaire, who reestablished the Dominican order in France, was close to many of the key figures of this book, in particular Charles de Montalembert. Philippe Gerbet, a collaborator of Lamennais and later bishop of Perpignan, became an intimate friend of Pauline Craven’s family, and Henri Maret, who discovered Lamennais as a seminarian, joined Ozanam and Lacordaire in creating a Catholic republican newspaper in 1848. In all these relationships, the priests in question occupied an ambiguous position; bearing the power of ordination, they maintained a certain authority over people who were friends and collaborators and therefore equals in other senses.

Romanticism: History, the Nation, and the Sacred

Romantic Catholicism of the early nineteenth century shared an aesthetic sensibility with the movement that literary and artistic scholars refer to as romanticism. Their common central concern was the relationship between individuals and society, and they returned repeatedly to the question of how a fully integrated society could nonetheless leave room for individual expression and autonomy. They were extremely conscious of their own ruptured relationship to the past, which they experienced in generational terms. Most of the central figures in Romantic Catholics were writers, and some of them, like Craven and Montalembert, carried their romantic aesthetic well into the second half of the nineteenth century.

The publishing success that Catholics enjoyed indicates that their attachment to their faith was a significant thread within romantic literature and that it resonated widely in French society. Craven and Monniot were authors of some of the nineteenth century’s best sellers: Craven’s memoir of her youth, Le Récit d’une sœur (1866), and Monniot’s girls’ novel, Le Journal de Marguerite (1858), went through dozens of editions between their initial appearance and the First World War. Montalembert’s Histoire de Sainte Elisabeth de Hongrie is a classic of devotional literature, and it has been in print almost consistently from its initial publication in 1836 to the most recent edition in 2005. Maurice de Guérin’s popularity as a poet was entirely posthumous, but his—and especially his sister Eugénie’s—books of verse sold well when they were published in the 1850s. Ozanam wrote primarily for a scholarly audience, but his works, too, were well received, and he enjoyed a successful career at the Sorbonne, an institution not noted for Catholic piety. Romantic Catholicism in a variety of genres appealed to French readers in the nineteenth century, even though most of them were probably not as devout as the authors they selected.

The stereotypical romantic hero—the solitary, introspective, misunderstood male genius—was not central to romantic Catholic writing, however. Catholic romanticism—male and female—tended to resemble the work of the women writers whom Chantal Bertrand-Jennings has analyzed. This feminine romanticism valued the social, and its protagonists wanted nothing more than to live according to the strictures of a compassionate society. Their inability to do so derived not from their genius but rather from concrete or embodied circumstances: their sex, race, disability, or poverty.¹⁷ The plots of these novels opened necessarily onto social questions, much as Catholic romanticism did, although Catholic writers often drew very different conclusions about how the individual should be integrated into society.

The truth of romantic religious faith rested in a profound but intangible sense of its reality seated in believers’ hearts. The romantic Catholics were wary of rational polemic and of a Christianity that attempted to prove the tenets of the faith to doubters. No one who approached the question of religion with ill will or malice would ever experience the confidence of a genuine faith, and no rational proof could substitute for it. Romantic Catholics turned their back on Enlightenment debates about evidence for and against the existence of God because they saw little point in arguing with individuals whose hearts were closed to Christian teaching. Theological writing of the eighteenth century struck them as arid and uninspiring; it was too often a fruitless contest with malicious Enlightenment philosophie.¹⁸ Eighteenth-century ideas about natural religion, in which God incontrovertibly manifested his existence through the wonders of the natural world, seemed almost as pointless. As God’s creation, nature was certainly grandiose and awe-inspiring, but its sublimity rather than its rational order was the starting point for an individual’s search for God. Only the observer who had already recognized God’s imprint on his or her own heart would be prepared to recognize it in creation.

The scholarship that the romantic Catholics produced demonstrated clearly their inclination to trust emotions as the foundation for rational argument. Montalembert, Craven, and Ozanam all published historical works: the two men wrote extensively about medieval art, literature, and history, while Craven wrote biography and several historical novels.¹⁹ Intimate acquaintance with their subjects was fundamental to their method, and each writer deliberately sought out experiences that would encourage an emotional connection with the past. Craven’s work as a biographer focused on friends and relied on the cooperation of subjects’ families. She worked from her own love for her subjects and from their intimate correspondence with which she was entrusted; her histories intersected with her own life. Both Montalembert and Ozanam traveled extensively to visit the places their research subjects had lived. Ozanam followed Dante and the Franciscan poets through Italy, while Montalembert traced the life of Saint Elizabeth of Hungary through central Europe and visited distant and inaccessible monasteries for his magnum opus on Western monasticism. Both men visited archives and libraries, but their research emphasized the emotional context that brought their historical documents to life. Following in the footsteps of Dante or Saint Elizabeth created the affective bond between historian and subject that all three writers agreed was necessary for a true understanding of the past.

Romantic Catholics’ turn to the medieval was not accidental; the Middle Ages was an imaginative touchstone from which they could evoke both tradition and modernity. The Gothic revival often marks Catholics’ only appearance in histories of romanticism, which are frequently more concerned to locate the movement in the revolutionary tradition.²⁰ Assuming that the politics of the neo-Gothic were necessarily reactionary, scholars tend to pass quickly over examples of Catholic romanticism.²¹ For many young Catholics, however, fascination with the medieval world was a way of skipping over the sterile debates of the Enlightenment and locating their ideals further back in history. Between the paganism of the ancient world and the neopaganism of the Renaissance, the Middle Ages had produced a perfect Christian art, Catholic scholars believed. Mystical and naturalist tendencies found an equilibrium that reflected both the divinity and the humanity of Christ.²² The tone of Catholic medievalism was nostalgic, but it was a nostalgia that resonated very differently from a conservative desire to return to the Old Regime. The medieval world was definitively past, beyond revival in any literal sense. Romantic Catholics borrowed its presumed virtues—its social harmony and common attachment to a single Christian faith—and asserted that the postrevolutionary world should adopt these standards. The Middle Ages was thus an imaginative space to which romantic Catholics could appeal—less a blueprint than a reservoir of Christian thought. Catholic calls to return to the society and the politics of the Old Regime, in contrast, reflected an actual political agenda, which romantics rejected.

The attraction of the medieval reflects romantic Catholicism’s cosmopolitanism because medieval primitivism and the concept of Christendom appealed to young Catholics all over western Europe. As Montalembert pursued his research on Saint Elizabeth in central Europe, he met German painters of the Nazarene school who were drawing on medieval painting in order to develop new vocabularies for representing the sacred in the modern world. Montalembert’s close friend and traveling companion François Rio introduced the French art world to the Nazarenes in his De la poésie chrétienne (1836), which championed their conviction that artists should not embrace a doctrine of progress. Rather, they should always be prepared to look backward and to consider that the present might represent a retreat from an earlier perfection. Rio spent much of his adulthood in Great Britain, where he married a Welsh woman and moved in the Anglo-Catholic circles of the Oxford Movement. Individuals like the architect Augustus Pugin and the novelist Kenelm Digby, inspired by their acquaintance with the Nazarenes and their French commentators, were confident that the restoration of Catholicism in the British Isles would temper and humanize industrial society.²³

The French romantic Catholics of this book shared the cosmopolitanism of the art world. Most were multilingual and maintained extensive international correspondence networks. They traveled widely, and most of them lived abroad for long stretches of time. Maurice de Guérin and Léopoldine Hugo, whose short lives never took them very far from home, are the exceptions here. Craven, Montalembert, and Ozanam were all born abroad to parents displaced by the Revolution, and Craven, married to an English diplomat, never really established a permanent home in France at all. Victorine Monniot, whose life was also unsettled by the Revolution and its aftermath, traveled as far abroad as the Indian Ocean colony of Bourbon (now Réunion), and her heroine, Marguerite, followed her there in fiction.

In what is often described as the age of the nation-state, romantic Catholics were deeply aware of their affinities to other Catholics across national boundaries. As scholars, Montalembert and Ozanam explicitly broke with the nineteenth-century mainstream, writing comparative, transnational studies whose goal was not primarily to locate the origins of the national community.²⁴ Ozanam dedicated himself to teaching comparative literature and to restoring the literature of southern Europe, especially Italy, to the position of prominence it had occupied before the Enlightenment directed attention toward northern countries. Montalembert shared a similar commitment to medieval Christendom as a world in which national identity was secondary. Craven’s work as a biographer focused almost entirely on foreign subjects who reflected her life and her friendships that stretched from Britain to Russia. None of them ever renounced their French citizenship or denied the significance of their French culture, but none of them wanted to conceive of French identity as separate from or prior to Catholic faith.

Committed membership in the Catholic Church expanded the individual’s horizons: issues like Catholic emancipation in Britain and Ireland, the status of Poles within the Russian Empire, the Catholic movement in the Low Countries that led to the formation of Belgium, and the religious affiliation of Prussian children born into mixed marriages were all matters of intimate concern to devout Catholics. Romantic Catholics did not see these events through the lens of French foreign policy—they were not foreign at all because they concerned fellow believers. Catholic missions in the colonies, too, had special significance to Catholics who understood civilizing as a process that necessarily began with Christianizing.²⁵ In many ways, missions exemplified the dynamic and modernizing potential of the church as they adopted new goals and methods in response to changing circumstances. The Catholic press regularly printed stories of Catholics abroad, in both Europe and the wider world, and invited readers to identify with the struggles of their coreligionists. The boundaries of the nation-state could not fully circumscribe Catholic identity, which extended globally to encompass believers everywhere.

This Catholic cosmopolitanism may have been particularly important to women, whose national horizons were limited. The nineteenth-century nation-state offered women relatively little; it might ask them to demonstrate the same loyalty and readiness to sacrifice that it asked of men, but it promised them a paltry return. Women could expect little more in exchange for their allegiance to nation than an incomplete citizenship, clearly inferior to that offered to men. The Catholic Church certainly did not treat male and female believers alike, but it never espoused equality as a governing principle for its activity on earth. The expansion of women’s congregations in the nineteenth century created more opportunities for women religious to participate in the mission of the church as teachers and nurses, both in France and in the colonial world. Laywomen, also, had a missionary role: they could convert their husbands, a common Catholic literary trope, and protect the faith of their sons. Their lives, too, opened out to the world even if they never left France, because the church invited them to pray for believers everywhere and to support international Catholic efforts.

The Catholicism of the romantic era centered on papal Rome, not Paris. Young French Catholics associated the eighteenth-century church’s Gallicanism with its vulnerability to revolutionary de-Christianization. The lesson of the Revolution, they believed, was that a church that relied on the support of the state would always be susceptible to political disruption. Félicité de Lamennais, the key theologian of their era, shaped the romantic generation with his conviction that Catholics needed to look to the eternal city and to rely on the papacy as the solid foundation of their faith. The Gallicanism of an earlier generation continued to manifest itself in the French hierarchy’s support for the Restoration monarchy, and younger Catholics inspired by Lamennais feared that this strategy risked subjecting the church to a repetition of the French Revolution’s anticlerical fervor.²⁶ Historians, thinking primarily of the late nineteenth century, often associate ultramontanism—a Catholicism centered over the mountains in Rome—with reactionary politics.²⁷ For the romantic generation, however, ultramontanism was the way to embrace elements of the Revolution without abandoning the church—it allowed young romantics to square the circle of an ancient church drawing on tradition to produce a modern, forward-looking faith. Ultramontanism in the early nineteenth century represented a fresh start, a chance to leave behind the mistakes that had set the church at odds with progress.²⁸

Secularization and Romantic Anti-Catholicism: Jules Michelet

The romantic Catholic view of France’s postrevolutionary path disrupts the narrative of two Frances that ordinarily structures discussions of religion in modern France. According to this schema, Catholicism divided France into two opposing camps that formed in the Revolution and lasted into the twentieth century.²⁹ The two Frances are implicitly characters in a story about secularization: Catholic France holds on determinedly, but history tends toward the secular, and republican, anticlerical France wins out in the end. Hostilities between the two cease when Catholic France can no longer muster enough partisans for combat. More recent scholarship calls this narrative of secularization into question, however.³⁰ Historicizing secularization itself—examining its origins, its arguments, and its strategies—has been a key way to dismantle the claims that it determined the course of modern history.

The tradition of the two Frances had its own romantic phase, particularly associated with Jules Michelet, whose account of French Catholicism—and especially of women’s roles within it—has decisively shaped the historiography of modern France. Romantic anti-Catholicism, in contrast to its more devout contemporary, is quite familiar to historians—it represents the legacy of the Revolution, the tradition that linked 1789 to the Second and Third Republics and that insisted that the Old Regime offered nothing to the modern world. Michelet’s history of France celebrated the Revolution and the sovereign people and firmly identified the Catholic Church as their principal and perpetual antagonist. His account of the role of religion in the development of modern France has ultimately been far more influential among scholars than the aspirations of his Catholic contemporaries. In particular, Michelet’s identification of Catholicism with women has shaped historians’ views of gender, religion, and republicanism in modern France.

Born in 1798 and forging his literary career in the postrevolutionary world, Jules Michelet in many ways resembled the devout men and women at the center of this book. Like them, he rejected a liberal view of human society that elevated nothing higher than the individual, although he located transcendence in the French people rather than in a divinely ordained social order. His historical writing glorified the sovereign people and celebrated the nation over the individual. Like many of his contemporaries, Michelet found the medieval world fascinating, but his Middle Ages was not fundamentally Christian. Coalescing amid the tightly woven ties of feudal society, his French nation entered into history in the medieval era, but Catholicism alienated rather than constituted the people. Catholic doctrine rejected the particularity of French national genius, encouraging instead the imitation of Christ as a universal practice.³¹ In order to find their apotheosis in the Revolution of 1789, the French people had to reject this false path of Catholic dogma. By the end of his career, Michelet, like his socialist contemporaries, was rewriting Christianity, and his 1864 Bible de l’humanité argued that true ethical wisdom was the product of national genius, not religious institutions.³²

Veneration for woman as a symbolic abstraction dominated Michelet’s historical writing, but his female contemporaries—Frenchwomen of the nineteenth century—failed to live up to his ideals. In Michelet’s epic histories, woman was nature, and she reminded men, who live in historical time, of their connection to the timeless and the cyclical. History was the product of the maternal and beneficent qualities of the people encountering the masculine principles of justice and law.³³ Roland Barthes has observed, however, that in spite of Michelet’s veneration for woman in general, particular women who belonged to a specific nation or group were excluded from Michelet’s paradise.³⁴ Rather than incarnating abstract virtues, actual women, Michelet believed, slavishly followed the dictates of the Catholic Church. Michelet’s polemical Du prêtre, de la femme, de la famille (1845) warned his fellow Frenchmen of women’s fatal tendency toward a sentimental piety and of priests’ willingness to encourage them. In an image that both titillated and frightened readers, Michelet cautioned husbands to beware of wives who, in the marital bed, whispered a lesson learned…from another man.³⁵ The foolishly devout woman and her slippery priest were stock characters of Michelet’s imagination.³⁶

There was no mistaking the pious, pliant Frenchwomen of the nineteenth century for heroines like Joan of Arc who incarnated the French people. If the French nation was a synthesis of masculine justice and feminine devotion, no such harmony characterized the world that Michelet claimed to observe around him. Michelet’s history of French republicanism—like so many histories of the modern world—featured a narrative of secularization, with republican men in the lead. Michelet described God as having changed sex: the process had begun in the twelfth century with the castration of Abelard and with the proliferation of the Virgin on church altars—vapid female sentimentality defeating austere male reason.³⁷ It culminated in the nineteenth century with the emancipation of male citizens from the authority of both kings and priests and the concomitant strengthening of priests’ empire over women and girls. Feminine susceptibility to clerical manipulation was the dangerous counternarrative to the history of the French nation.

Far from being the tranquil sphere over which men ruled and from which they derived the autonomy that allowed them to participate in the public sphere as citizens, domesticity, for Michelet, represented a worrying challenge to men’s patriarchal and political authority. His dire warnings of female vulnerability to Catholicism were the corollary of his celebration of male autonomy and republican citizenship. Du prêtre, which quickly went through multiple editions and translations, explicitly addressed a male audience; it warned its readers against our adversaries, the priests who seek to control our wives and our daughters.³⁸ Michelet made no attempt to address women, to convince them of the error of their ways, or to induce them to choose their husbands over their confessors. The remedy lay entirely in the hands of laymen.

Following Michelet, the French republican tradition has maintained that female religiosity was an atavistic phenomenon by which many, perhaps even most, women resolutely turned their backs on modernity. Republicans assumed that women had to give up their attachment to their church before they could expect to enjoy full participation in the modern world—for instance, by exercising the rights of citizens. Famously, political elites denied suffrage to Frenchwomen until after the Second World War because they maintained that votes for women would deliver the republic into the hands of its clerical enemies. Michelet’s depiction of credulous women obeying their priests’ bidding survived into the twentieth century, ensuring that the nation that pioneered universal manhood suffrage would fail to extend the vote to women until the postwar period.

Michelet’s view of a feminized Catholicism, although stripped of its overt misogyny, has lasted even longer in historical scholarship. The association between women and the church remains central to the history of the post-Enlightenment world. Scholarship on domesticity and the analytical concept of separate spheres relied on the notion that women remained attached to their traditional faith as men marched off toward the secular future.³⁹ In the influential work A History of Women in the West, edited by Geneviève Fraisse and Michelle Perrot, Italian historian Michela de Giorgio maintained that [t]he nineteenth century’s estrangement from the Church, its militant or passive anticlericalism, were exclusively masculine phenomena…. Catholicism of the nineteenth century was expressed in the feminine gender.⁴⁰ The domestic sphere, undergirded by female religiosity and compensating for male disbelief, is a trope of the nineteenth-century home that crosses both national and confessional boundaries.⁴¹

The feminization of religion scholarship in France has a disturbing tendency to echo Michelet. This research had its origins in the tradition of religious sociology; women in the nineteenth century increasingly outnumbered men among communicants, and Claude Langlois’s classic work on female religious orders investigated the proliferation of vocations among women that resulted in female religious significantly outnumbering male by the end of the century.⁴² From an argument about numbers, however, historians have slipped with undue ease to an argument about culture, and the feminization of religion has become, according to Langlois, a sort of linguistic tic whose meaning is increasingly diffuse.⁴³ A feminized Catholicism in France by the nineteenth century was not only a religion characterized by large numbers of women in pews and in convents but also one marked by sentimental forms of devotion that rational and autonomous bourgeois men presumably found repellent. Obsession with the Virgin Mary and a host of adolescent girl-saints and visionaries, worship of an androgynous Christ, the cultivation of tears, and a fascination with victimhood, the whole package represented by artists trained in the pretty but utterly unchallenging style of mass-produced religious imagery—this was a church that offered only a profoundly feminized piety.⁴⁴

The slippage from numbers to culture in the scholarship of the feminization of religion tends to maintain Michelet’s history, only purged of its overt misogyny. It raises a whole series of questions that historians have only begun to pose. Was the connection between female numbers and devotional culture really that close? Did men need a muscular Christ, and were only women drawn to worship the Virgin and child?⁴⁵ How much can we properly conclude about male de-Christianization from patterns of attendance at Mass?⁴⁶ The historians’ feminized Catholicism relies on Michelet’s trope of a God that has changed sex and on the highly questionable assumption that nineteenth-century men and women both looked for self, rather than other, when they turned to God. Michelet and the historians agree that Catholicism really was feminized, both in its numbers and in its forms of expression, and that women did persist in their religiosity in defiance of an increasingly secular world. Michelet’s explicit contempt for female devotion is missing from contemporary scholarship, but these researchers often understand themselves to be analyzing nineteenth-century women from the same postreligious vantage point that Michelet claimed for republican men.

Adopting Michelet’s notion of a feminized Catholicism fails to account for the fact that republican anticlericals of the nineteenth century wrote political polemic, not sociological description. A feminized religion served a political purpose for Michelet and for later French anticlerical politicians: it protected the masculinity of politics and especially of the republican tradition, and it justified the exclusion of women from full citizenship.⁴⁷ Michelet and many of his contemporaries responded to the disturbing persistence of religious devotion in the modern world by feminizing it, a move that contained, if it did not eliminate, the threat. The association between bourgeois women’s domesticity and religion in the nineteenth century was not simply descriptive. Rather, it was an argument intended to disenfranchise precisely those women of the educated, property-owning classes who but for their sex might easily have fit into liberal notions of citizenship. That Michelet did not call on women to emancipate themselves from their priests was neither accidental nor coincidental because his purpose was not to create autonomous women but rather to protect and celebrate the autonomy of men.

Tracing the Romantic Catholics

Turning our attention away from the masculine, republican tradition and toward romantic Catholics reveals possibilities that Michelet did not wish to explore. First, and most obviously, the romantic Catholics included men who saw no conflict between their gender and their faith and who were not persistently apologizing or compensating for their membership in a feminine church. Romantic Catholics thought profoundly about how their gender inflected their religious duty and how their faith transformed their lives as men and women. They assumed, however, that Catholic faith united men and women. They also rejected the notion that religion belonged exclusively in a private sphere of family and home: Catholicism, they maintained, was not a faith that one could leave at home before entering the realm of politics or the market. Attending to romantic Catholicism, then, suggests paths not taken in the development of church and state relations in modern France.

Broadly speaking, the chapters of Romantic Catholics follow a Catholic life course: chapters 1 and 2 examine childhood, chapters 3 and 4 focus on issues of adult autonomy, and chapters 5 and 6 consider the individual’s political and social obligations to others. Taken together, these accounts of Catholics growing up, learning independence, and assuming the responsibilities of adulthood also trace the disappointment of a generation of progressive Catholics. Their hope for a synthesis between faith and modernity—a Catholicism that could make its peace with the modern political order and a French state that would welcome the participation of Catholics—ended in frustration. By the end of the nineteenth century, members of this Catholic generation who had denied that two Frances were the unavoidable legacy of the Revolution witnessed both Catholics and republicans adopting the rhetoric of these two camps.

Romantic Catholics opens with an examination of Catholic children in a pair of chapters on girls and boys growing up to become members of the faith. As Robert Orsi has observed in his work on the formation of modern American Catholic identity, in the age of the Virgin Mary, children were central to the Catholic community because they anchored a family’s faith.⁴⁸ As the future of the church, children were also its peril—they might easily fail in their duty to become devout adults and transmit the faith to future generations. The French Revolution, which in many areas suspended Catholic teaching and worship for a decade, made that danger quite clear to devout Catholics. They entered the nineteenth century with a pressing sense of mission that focused particularly on children; the rising generation had to recoup the losses of a decade without baptisms, catechisms, or communions. Catholic childhoods were thus fraught with significance for the future of the church. Children had to learn the tenets of their religion, and that education required adults to articulate their beliefs and their expectations for the future of the church.

Chapter 1 explores first communion, the rite of the church that marked children’s arrival at the age of reason and welcomed them as full members into the community of Christ’s church. Observance of first communion remained at remarkably high levels across the nineteenth century—even as French men and women opted out of other sacraments such as marriage or last rites, they nonetheless continued to mark their children’s development by sending them to catechism and dressing them in white gowns or black suits to receive the Eucharist. Although communion rates were high for both boys and girls, the sacrament became increasingly prominent in the life stories of girls. The Eucharist was the fulcrum on which girls’ lives turned and the point from which their futures were determined.

The communion experiences of Léopoldine Hugo, daughter of the famous novelist, and Marguerite Guyon, heroine of a best-selling girls’ novel, Le Journal de Marguerite, are at the center of this chapter. Léopoldine