Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Waging War for the Lord: Counterrevolutionary Ritual in Rural Western France, 1801-1906

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Waging War for the Lord: Counterrevolutionary Ritual in Rural Western France, 1801-1906

Article excerpt


Long Live Jesus! Long Live France!

We promise it in this holy place,

We will uphold our belief:

Christ is King, Christ is God!

Christ is King, Christ is God! ...

That which the Church teaches us,

We affirm it just the same,

That in order for Jesus to triumph and reign,

We will fight until the death ....

May we be able to see all of France

Under the flag of the Sacred Heart

And repeating, happy and proud

Jesus Christ reigns! He is the victor!1

In the course of their pilgrimage to the grotto of Lourdes in 1877 Catholics from the Diocese of Nantes sang these lyrics-much to the chagrin of police authorities, who seized a copy of the hymnal for their own safekeeping. The police probably procured the hymnal because the words were politically explosive on several counts. The allusions to Christ as a monarch, the admonition that one must fight for Jesus until the death, and the mention of a flag bearing the Sacred Heart of Jesus were all likely propellants for civil unrest. Such lyrics are relevant to the contemporary observer, but not merely because they reveal one-time political strife; just as significantly, they illustrate the character of Catholicism practiced in this region of France during the nineteenth century. Indeed, the words exemplify how the militancy and defiance that had characterized the counterrevolutionary struggles in the west during the 1790's became an integral part of religious ritual, including the singing of hymns, in the region during the concordatory period.2

That there was an inextricable link between the Counterrevolution and religion in certain sectors of western France during the nineteenth century is by no means a new historical revelation; for almost a century scholars have examined this relationship and, accordingly, have utilized different frameworks to interpret it.3 Andre Siegfried, for example, discussed the clerical character of the west and concluded that peasant deference to the clergy and large landowners was central to the formation of conservative political opinion during the early Third Republic.4 Many years later Paul Bois examined the department of the Sarthe, where much of the Chouannerie unfolded, and argued that economic relationships between the rural and urban sectors of the department shaped not only political opinions, but religious comportment as well.5 Most recently, Jean-Clement Martin has tried to explain the counterrevolutionary quality of religion in the west in terms of collective memory. For Martin the link between religion and civil war was indicative of the region's penchant not only to "remember" counterrevolution, but to make such remembrance a component of its identity.6 All of these have contributed to an understanding of the Catholic-counterrevolution connection; yet an argument can be made that explaining religious belief and practice in terms of political, economic, sociological, or even mnemonic phenomena is far from adequate. Although clearly influenced by outside social, economic, and cultural factors, religion is an independent variable that can take on its own logic and momentum. Simply put, religious activity cannot be reduced to a mere epiphenomenon of political, socio-economic, or psychological agency.7

Similar to the studies of Siegfried, Bois, and Martin, this article will consider the character of Catholicism in a counterrevolutionary region of western France during the nineteenth century. But as opposed to previous studies, this article emphasizes that religiously inspired activity cannot be fully understood without penetrating the spiritual logic of the actors involved. Thus if we seek a deeper understanding of the link between counterrevolution and Catholicism in the region, we must grasp the religious rationale of those who forged it. This study also presupposes that such rationale is nowhere more apparent than in the standardized, symbolic, and performative activities of religion commonly known as "ritual. …

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