The Cruelest of All Mothers: Marie de l'Incarnation, Motherhood, and Christian Tradition

The Cruelest of All Mothers: Marie de l'Incarnation, Motherhood, and Christian Tradition

The Cruelest of All Mothers: Marie de l'Incarnation, Motherhood, and Christian Tradition

The Cruelest of All Mothers: Marie de l'Incarnation, Motherhood, and Christian Tradition


In 1631, Marie Guyart stepped over the threshold of the Ursuline convent in Tours, leaving behind her eleven-year-old son, Claude, against the wishes of her family and her own misgivings. Marie concluded, "God was dearer to me than all that. Leaving him therefore in His hands, I bid adieu to him joyfully." Claude organized a band of schoolboys to storm the convent, begging for his mother's return. Eight years later, Marie made her way to Quebec, where over the course of the next thirty-three years she opened the first school for Native American girls, translated catechisms into indigenous languages, and served some eighteen years as superior of the first Ursuline convent in the New World. She would also maintain, over this same period, an extensive and intimate correspondence with the son she had abandoned to serve God.

The Cruelest of All Mothers is, fundamentally, an explanation of Marie de l'Incarnation's decision to abandon Claude for religious life. Complicating Marie's own explication of the abandonment as a sacrifice carried out in imitation of Christ and in submission to God's will, the book situates the event against the background of early modern French family life, the marginalization of motherhood in the Christian tradition, and seventeenth-century French Catholic spirituality. Deeply grounded in a set of rich primary sources, The Cruelest of All Mothers offers a rich and complex analysis of the abandonment.


“I received your letter,” wrote Marie de l’Incarnation to her son, Claude, “and everything that was in your packet when I was no longer expecting it.” It was the summer of 1647 and nearly a decade since Marie had left her cloister in Tours, France, to found the first Ursuline convent in the New World. the Quebec in which Marie had settled in 1639 was still, eight years later, underdeveloped, poorly organized, and thinly populated—a struggling outpost pitifully vulnerable to Iroquois attacks. Marie’s mind was not, however, on the state of colonial affairs at this particular moment in the summer of 1647. It was, instead, on the subject of her decision to abandon Claude in favor of religious life some sixteen years ago. “You reproach me,” Marie continued in the letter from the summer of 1647,

For a lack of affection, which I can’t endure without an appropriate
reply … You do, in fact, have some reason to complain because I
left you … It is true that even though you were the only thing left in
the world to which my heart was attached, [God] nevertheless wanted
to separate us … Finally I had to yield to the force of divine love and
suffer this blow of division which was more painful than I can tell you,
but which didn’t prevent me from considering myself an infinity of
times the cruelest of all mothers. I ask you to forgive me, my very dear
son, for I am the cause of your having suffered much affliction.

Marie de l’Incarnation was born Marie Guyart just before the turn of the seventeenth century on October 28, 1599, in Tours, France. the fourth of Florent Guyart and Jeanne Michelet’s eight children, Marie was drawn to the liturgy and the sacraments from an early age and inclined to conversation with God the Father, Christ the Son, and the Blessed Virgin Mary. When she was just seven years old, Marie experienced the first of . . .

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