Religion and the Politics of Time: Holidays in France from Louis XIV through Napoleon

Article excerpt

Religion and the Politics of Time: Holidays in France from Louis XIV through Napoleon. By Noah Shusterman. (Washington, DC: The Catholic University of America Press. 2010. Pp. xviii, 299. $74.95. ISBN 978-0-81321725-3.)

By the end of the Middle Ages, the Catholic Church controlled the calendar just as the liturgical year organized the daily lives of millions of ordinary individuals. In Noah Shusterman's words: "In Old Regime France, people perceived and understood the passage of time through a religious framework" (p. 57).

In this richly detailed study, a revised version of his doctoral dissertation completed at the University of California, Berkeley in 2004, the author examines the "politics of time" in the largest Catholic country of Europe over 175 years. Not only did the liturgical calendar with its fifty-two Sundays require attendance at Mass but also marked these as obligatory days of rest (fêtes chômées). It also mandated observance of various sacred holidays, most notably Easter and Christmas. Days devoted to local saints added to the proliferation of files chômées.

According to Shusterman, in the mid-l600s an average of thirty-three weekdays were religious holidays. By the end of the 1700s, however, this number had fallen to only eighteen (p. 38). Such a gradual reduction in holidays was achieved by bishops who recognized that idleness on such days of rest resulted in heavy drinking, debauchery, and even devil worship. In addition, excessive days of religious observance when labor was forbidden deprived poorer Frenchmen of income needed to support their families. Consequently, both religious and economic reasons induced bishops to reduce the number of holidays either by outright suppression or by transferring their celebration to a Sunday (p. 83).

But it was the Revolution of 1789, with its brutal assault on the Catholic Church, that instituted state control over the politics of time. During the Terror the republican government sought to replace the Catholic liturgical year with a new, secular calendar that would regenerate France while rationalizing time. This republican calendar, with its twelve equal months composed of three décades each, and a leap year of five or six days, brought the state into sharp conflict with traditional French society. …