Church and Society in Eighteenth-Century France. Volume 1: The Clerical Establishment and Its Social Ramifications; Volume 2: The Religion of the People and the Politics of Religion

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Church and Society in Eighteenth-Century France. Volume 1: The Clerical Establishment and its Social Ramifications; Volume 2: The Religion of the People and the Politics of Religion. By John McManners. [The Oxford History of the Christian Church.] (New York: Oxford University Press. 1998. Pp. xviii, 817; xiv, 866. $155.00, $165.00 clothbound; $49.95, $45.00 paperback.)

The British are renowned travelers. An innate sense of curiosity seems to take them to every possible place on earth, to visit, to observe, and to report. These travel stories have taken many shapes from Dr. Burney's European musical journeys to A Year in Provence, but they share a common perspective: a keen attention to the details, especially the whimsical ones, and a slightly amused way of describing their experience. This view, I suspect, has also influenced British historians, who have with the same flair visited the past and come back with reports that are both comprehensive and entertaining. Since his 1960 dissertation, dedicated to the city of Angers in the eighteenth century, John McManners has proven himself to be the master of this type of historical exploration. With his deep attachment to the Ancien Regime tempered by a very British sense of humor, the future Regius Professor of ecclesiastical history at Oxford gave us the most readable work of social history. The book under scrutiny, written after his retirement from teaching, represents the magnum opus that many academics dream of, but few actually produce. Its well-filled 1700 pages present a complete survey of the French church from Louis XIV's reign to the eve of the French Revolution. Divided into two volumes available separately, it presents successively the clerical establishment (vol. 1) and religious life and politics (vol. 2). In exactly fifty chapters the author offers a complete, up-to-date, and precise description of every aspect of the life of the French church: three chapters on the bishops, three on the parish priests, two on canons and chapters, four on male and female religious orders, preceded by five on Church and State, and followed by a last one on "the Art of Obtaining a Benefice," constitute the first volume. In the second one, nine chapters cover religious practice, including "The Dark Side of the Supernatural" (chap. 30), followed by four very engrossing studies of clerical interventions on moral issues: usury, sexuality, and entertainment. More political, the second part of the book describes the Jansenist conflict that followed the crisis of Unigenitus and the relations of the established church with religious minorities, Protestants and Jews. Entitled "The Crisis of the Ancien Regime," the final three chapters analyze the situation that represented the prodromes to the French Revolution: the political role of the Jansenists, of the bishops, and of the cures.

Being a professional historian and a devoted admirer of John McManners, I must confess that long before being asked to review this book I had bought it. …