Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Convents and Nuns in Eighteenth-Century French Politics and Culture

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Convents and Nuns in Eighteenth-Century French Politics and Culture

Article excerpt

Convents and Nuns in Eighteenth-Century French Politics and Culture. By Mita Choudhury. (Ithaca, New York: Cornell University Press. 2004. Pp.xi, 234. $42.50.)

On July 17, 1794, sixteen Carmelite nuns went to the guillotine, accused of royalism and counterrevolutionary behavior. These nuns became symbols to both opponents and supporters of the French Revolution. To the former, they were heroic martyrs; to the latter, dangerous fanatics. What made these nuns such potent political symbols? Mita Choudhury's study of the discourse around convents and nuns in eighteenth-century France provides us with some intriguing answers to this question.

Choudhury's study spans the period from the 1730's, when Jansenist nuns resisted the papal bull Untgenttus, through the French Revolution, which, as it became increasingly radical, closed France's convents and monasteries and labeled those who resisted counterrevolutionaries. She argues that during this period, discussions of convents and nuns were central to critiques-and to the eventual dismantling-of the political and social institutions of the Old Regime. Like the Bastille, convents came to symbolize the arbitrary and despotic nature of power in pre-revolutionary France.

During the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, debates about nuns and convents centered on matters of enclosure and authority. In the 1560's, the Council of Trent declared that all religious communities of women must be cloistered and submit to the authority of the bishop, though these prescriptions were challenged by new active women's congregations, such as the Ursulines, and by nuns who brought court cases against ecclesiastical superiors who challenged their traditional rights. The Enlightenment shifted the terms of the debate. As Sophie, Rousseau's "natural woman," became the basis for a new ideal of womanhood, convents and convent education were branded "unnatural." The religious "fanaticism" denounced by philosophes like Voltaire and Diderot tended to be gendered female, and in the latter writer's scurrilous novel, La Religieuse, the convent stood for all that was wrong with Old Regime politics and society.

Choudhury does a masterful job of unpacking the complex and contradictory images of nuns-as victims and despots, submissive and disobedient, holy and sexual-that appeared in the Jansenist controversy of the 1730's through the 1750's, in judicial memoirs of cases regarding the abuse of power by mother superiors, in narratives of forced vocations, and in debates over convent education. …

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