Sunday, 25 September 2011

Corpus Christi in pre-revolutionary France

Pierre de la Gorce paints a picture of the French ancien régime in his Histoire religieuse de la Révolution française:

"When Spring comes around each year, the parade known as the "Fête-Dieu" takes place in every town in France.  On that day, the Church deploys all her forces and allows all her treasures to be seen.  The procession begins with the massiers, the halebardiers, the vergers, the choristers, the musicians, the altar boys and the cross-bearers.  It continues with the confraternities.  They are all there, with their banners, their badges and, most notably, the relics of their patrons; for even though faith is in decline there are scarcely any of them that do not hold fast to their devotion to their saints.  At Limoges, there is the Confraternity of Saint-Martial, at Besançon the Confraternity of the Cross, at Arras the Confraternity of the Holy Candle.  There are the gentlemen, all bearing military insignia and grouped under the name of St Michael or St George.  There are painters, carvers of images, glaziers and embroiderers ranged around the banner of St Luke. There are men of all trades, weavers, roofers, carpenters, shoemakers, some of them honouring St Liévin, others St Amé or St Crépin.  The infinite variety of the confraternities' appearances symbolises all the diversities of the old France.  Sometimes, as in the case of the Confraternity of Philanthropists founded in Artois for the burial of the dead, their sombre shades darken the vibrant colours of the procession.  Sometimes in the Flemish cities they appear in rich costumes... dressed for the banqueting table as much as for prayer....  They march to the foot of the bell-tower while the bell sends out its peals, by turns light and soft, as if to send out a little joy under the grey sky.  At the same time, at the other end of France, long lines of penitents are marching, dressed in every colour, enveloped in their hoods and carrying lighted candles.  So it is that they can be seen, whether they are walking in loose formation in the open spaces of Montpellier or marching close together under the leadership of their régidors in the narrow streets of Perpignan.

After the confraternities come the religious orders.  All the spiritual sons of St Francis are there: the Capuchins, the Récollets and the Cordeliers.  Then come the great Discalced Carmelites, then the Dominicans, then the secular orders, then all the multitude of orders which have now disappeared and which we know only through engravings.  The parade is long, and yet the old men notice some gaps: they look in vain for the other congregations which they saw in their youth and which have melted away due to the spirit of the age, the decline in vocations or the decrees of the kings.

After the religious come chapters of every kind. Sometimes the order in which they march is established only with difficulty, for there are endemic disputes among them over precedence and sharp rivalries over their antiquity and their privileges.  Among the canons, there is on display everything that is to be found in the churches' treasuries - chandeliers of engraved silver, ivory statuettes, Gothic and Renaissance reliquaries, processional crosses adorned with precious stones.  The canons themselves are dressed splendidly in their vestments of cloth-of-gold, cloth-of-silver, velvet and silks from France and the Orient.  And all the pieces of silverwork and all the carefully brocaded fabrics have their own particular origin.  They recall the welcoming of a king when he visited or passed through the locality, the recognition or favour of a prince, the fulfilment of a vow or the expiation of a sin, with the result that anyone who assembled all of these treasures would have a history of the province, and, piece by piece, could reconstruct the history of France.

Together with the religious procession come the civil processions.  Is not Catholicism the religion of the State?  Is it not, moreover, the only religion that is recognised?  Everyone is there, counsellors of the regional parliament and judges of the royal court, military officers, provosts of corporations, elected municipal officials, magistrates of every sort who, against the backdrop of the growing absolutism of the kings, constitute the remnants of the ancient local liberties.

In this seeming unanimity of devotion, who could believe that there is a single dissident in France?  In the midst of these splendours, there processes the monstrance, resplendent with jewels, in which the sacred elements are enclosed.  From time to time, the procession stops.  In the midst of precious tapestries and foliage, altars for the monstrance can be seen.  They are often set up at the entrance of monasteries, within which there are Carmelites, Annuciationists and Poor Clares - the other members of the great Christian family - with their hands stretched towards the sky.

The faithful kneel, then resume their journey, then kneel again.  The bells of every parish call out to each other, sacred music fills the air and cannons sound.  Finally, the procession returns to the church....  The last of the clouds of incense disappear, the banners are folded and the chests of the treasury jealously take back all the pieces that they allowed to escape.  To judge by appearances, it seems that the Church is not merely full of life, but dominant and triumphant.  Those who witness the spectacle see it with their eyes, but without paying attention and without etching it on their memory - for, they think, they will surely see the same magnificent sights again next year.  Their children will see them after them, and no-one suspects, no-one imagines that the radiant solemnity which is now ending is a compendium of everything which is about to perish."