The Religious Origins of the French Revolution. from Calvin to the Civil Constitution, 1560-1791

By Gres-Gayer, Jacques M. | The Catholic Historical Review, July 1998 | Go to article overview

The Religious Origins of the French Revolution. from Calvin to the Civil Constitution, 1560-1791


Gres-Gayer, Jacques M., The Catholic Historical Review


The Religious Origins of the French Revolution. From Calvin to the Civil Constitution, 1560-1791. By Dale K. Van Kley. (New Haven:Yale University Press. 1996. Pp. x, 390. $35.00.)

The allegation of a Jansenist plot to destroy Church and State is as old as the accusation of Jansenism itself-a reputation that the famous remark in Louis XIV's Memoires on their "Republicanism" did not help to stifle. But did the Jansenists actually influence the process that ended the Ancien Regime? Already in 1929, E. Preclin attempted to show how the resistance to the bull Unigenitus produced a revival of Richerism that led to the Civil Constitution of 1790. His conclusions have inspired later historians to look more closely into the political aspects of this influence, especially in the parliamentary circle that was so instrumental in these changes. They have shown the validity of this perspective as well as its greater complexity. The question remains to define Jansenism and to discern the continuity between the bishop of leper (Ypres) and those who have been labeled his disciples during the century and a half that followed the publication of Augustinus. This is the purpose of Dale Van Kley's book; he sees in the opposition to absolutism a common element that supports the notion of a Jansenist party and explains its influence over the "unraveling of the Ancien Regime," to use the title of another of his important works. In this political vision, Van Kley sees also an affinity with Calvinismhence the subtitle of the book.

In this "synthetic study," that patterns the works of W Doyle, K. Baker, and R. Chartier, the author draws on a vast amount of scholarship to reconstruct the complex ideological and political evolution of Jansenism that instigated the Revolutionary process. The demonstration is impressive and often convincing. In his first chapters Van Kley establishes the tenets of French Absolutism, the "royal religion," a Gallican conception that was rejected by French Calvinists as well as the Parti devot, thus forcing the monarchy under Henry IV to adapt it in order to place itself "above the confessional fray. This required a weakening of the two factions, but did not prevent the emergence of a Jansenist Party representing both sides [author's italics, p. 12] of this resistance that was more successful in resisting and eventually defeating the divine-right monarchy. The Constitution Unigenitus (1713) was the occasion of the rebellion; during the rest of the century a faction of clerics and jurists would first desacralize the monarchy and then transfer its sway to the Nation. The last decade of the old Regime would see a division of this group that accounts for the divergent reactions to the Civil Constitution.

This brilliant essay is above all a testimony to recent scholarship in the field of eighteenth-century France, especially at the level of intellectual and political analysis. …

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