Life in Ancien Regime Vaud

By Larminie, Vivienne | History Today, April 1998 | Go to article overview

Life in Ancien Regime Vaud

Larminie, Vivienne, History Today

Vivienne Larminie explores the history of the Pays de Vaud, showing how resistance to Protestant reform gave rise to a distinctive culture and, in 1798, a revolt against foreign rule.

For the Enlightenment luminaries like Voltaire, Rousseau, Edward Gibbon and Madame de Stael who made it their temporary home, and for other foreigners like James Boswell who passed through on the Grand Tour, the Pays de Vaud, in what is now western Switzerland, was a haven of freedom and of agreeable literary society. Gibbon, who spent nearly five years there as a youth, reckoned that he owed his `creation' to Lausanne. Here he received a better education than at Oxford, was weaned from Catholic superstition and forged lasting intellectual friendships; here he returned in old age as the most congenial place in which to complete his Decline and Fall of the Roman Empire.

Yet from the point of view of its inhabitants ancien regime Vaud was hardly promising soil for progressive political or religious thought. Situated to the north and east of Lake Geneva and the upper Rhone and formerly territory of the Duke of Savoy, it had been conquered in 1536 by Bern, the most powerful canton of the Swiss Confederation. Following a Disputation in Lausanne cathedral between traditionalists and Reformers, the Bernese had imposed on their new subjects their own particular brand of Zwinglian Protestantism. There was a short period of relative freedom in the mid-sixteenth century, when Lausanne attracted some of the keenest minds in Reformed scholarship and most eloquent evangelists. Thereafter orthodoxy solidified to combine a largely Calvinist doctrine narrower and more rigid than that of neighbouring Geneva with an Erastian church order more thoroughly state-controlled than Henry VIII's. Henri Vuilleumier, author of the monumental Histoire de l'Eglise Reformee... sous le Regime Bernois (1927-33), dubbed it Zwinglian `caesaropapalism'.

The result appeared to be a confessional subject state characterised by dogmatic religious conservatism and tight political control, surviving little changed down to its overthrow in 1798 in the wake of the French Revolution. Sovereign power was held by the Bernese republican oligarchy, who appointed a treasurer to head the administration, and divided the Pays into fifty bailiwicks, each dominated by a Bernese bailiff with a few handpicked local officials. Town councils survived, but with subordinate and limited authority. Absence of direct taxation, apart from tithes, and the retention of local feudal privileges for the elite, made it less unpalatable, but Gibbon himself in his Lettre sur le gouvernement de Berne of 1755 displayed vehemently the potential for Enlightenment criticism of this most pronounced of ancien regimes.

In the absence of a provincial parlement or representative institution, the church provided the nearest to an expression of the Pays' collective identity. However, here too the Bernese held the reins; there was no opportunity for an independent-minded clerical assembly such as in contemporary Scotland, but every occasion to exercise social and political control. By 1558 each parish had a consistory with highly intrusive powers to supervise morals and curb gambling, drunkenness, luxury, sexual misconduct, dancing, swearing, impiety and popery. Although the pastor was a member, this was effectively a lay tribunal, presided over by an approved local judge. All appeals, and final decisions on divorce, had to be referred to Bern. The ministers were organised into five classes, meeting at Lausanne, Morges, Yverdon, Payerne and Orbe. Their disciplinary and pastoral activities were conducted under the watchful eye of the local Bernese bailiff; attempts to meet without him were squashed. All appointments to cures were finally decided by the Council of Bern; all ministers were bound by oaths of loyalty and orthodoxy to their political masters.

The Academie de Lausanne, the pastors' training college and the only institution of even secondary education, was regularly purged of its most eminent professors on the slightest suspicion of independence, liberalism or Arminianism. …

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