The Society of the Victims was a secret group founded by one Jacqueline-Aimée Brohon in late 18th century France. Their story is a strange one. Under Brohon’s leadership, they aspired to be a kind of Catholic Justice League, saving the world through Reparation. The goals and gender dynamics of the Society make it a potentially interesting example of how Catholic women led and took ownership of their own religious life before the advent of feminism. The Society’s theological grounding seems to depend not only upon the work of Mère Mectilde du Saint Sacrement (1614-1698), but possibly also on more esoteric sources such as the Kabbalah. If an historical theologian could find a complete edition of Brohon’s works in the original, there might be something useful there.
But in truth, we can also see serious problems with the Society, too. There is something cult-like in their self-conception, and some of their founder’s statements seem to draw very near to blasphemy. The few later scholars who paid any attention to Brohon did not hesitate to attribute her ideas to madness.
To my knowledge, there is only one source in English that tells the story of the mysterious Society. The following article is copied from pages 270-73 of the seminal 1817 text by Hannah Adams, A Dictionary of All Religions and Religious Denominations, Jewish, Heathen, Mahometan and Christian, Ancient and Modern. I have reproduced it here in the hope that it may be of use to those who study early modern religion, are versed in Benedictine spirituality, or otherwise take an interest in the spiritual legacy of Mother Mectilde de Bar. In transcribing the work, I have retained all quotes, capitals, spellings, and italics as close to the original as I could. This has resulted in certain evident anachronisms and irregularities, for which I beg the patience of my readers.
On a side note, Hannah Adams herself is worth looking into—a pioneer of comparative religion, a member of the Adams family of Boston, and the first American to work as a professional writer. One of the reasons I love studying religious history is coming across remarkable characters like her. Not to mention oddballs like Madame Brohon.
SOCIETY OF THE VICTIMS
On the 23rd of June, 1804, an imperial decree was issued for the suppression of those associations, known under the names of Fathers of the Faith, adorers of Jesus or Pacanaristes. This decree was provoked by a report of Portalis, minister of worship; a report extremely well written, printed, but not published. It has been translated into German, and therein speaks of a secret society of Victims, concerning which society the following account has been given by Gregoire, in his learned work, styled, “Histoire Des Sectes Religieuses.”
Catherine de Bar was born at Lorraine in 1619. She established, in the year 1657, at Rambervillers, a new religious order, for persons of her own sex, which spread rapidly in France. She adopted the rule of St. Benedict, but with some modifications, which she explained in a work, entitled, “The true spirit of the perpetual religious worshippers of the most holy sacrament of the altar.” The proper character of these nuns was that of being Victims, to expiate the sins committed against Jesus Christ in the celebration of the eucharist. Each day one of the Religious remains in her retreat from mattins until vespers. Her office is to be the expiatory Victim. When the sisters go to their dining room, the Victim is the last to leave the choir. She appears with a cord about her neck, and a torch in her hands. When they have all taken their places, she reminds them that they are all Victims, immolated for the sake of Jesus Christ: she then bows herself, returns to the choir during dinner, and remains there until after vespers, like a victim separated from the flock, destined for sacrifice.
Regnauld, a curate of Vaux, author of a work, entitled, “The Mystery of Iniquity,” makes mention of a work, entitled, “Les Galarics,” published in 1754, a species of mysticism in favour of convulsions. In the fourth galeric of Elias, the author asserts, “The victims are of the greatest importance. They are devoted for every crime, and each of them bears different parts in the sacrifice of Jesus Christ. This character will make them known to the Gentiles. The despair of the victims will expiate presumptuous confidence, as the sacrifice of Jesus Christ on the cross has represented and expiated the sins into which mankind has fallen. They must bear to be culpable in the eyes of men, that they may complete what is wanting in the passion of our Saviour. They must bear the burdens of agner of God and men. They must be found amid the abodes of infamy, among robbers and murderers. Besides these public victims, there must be secret ones, delivered up to the horrible states of passion, despair, and distraction.”
Such probably were the ideas of the lady when on the eve of founding the order of the Victims. She had lived in Lorraine, where the houses of the Benedictines of the holy sacrament were numerous. She relates that at the age of nine years, having experienced in a sensible manner the protection of the blessed virgin, she consecrated herself to her service.
Madam Brohon, who was born at Paris, early devoted herself to the cultivation of letters. The Abbe la Porte, author of the “Literary History of French Women,” written in 1769, says, “It is now fifteen years since much mention was made fo the mind, the graces, and the talents of Madam Brohon, though she was then but eighteen years old.[“] He proceeds to give an analysis of a work of hers, entitled, “The Charms of Ingenuity.” It is a tale of about twenty eight pages. Bossy, the editor of the Mercury, has praised it.
Her life having been preserved, as she asserts, by a miracle of the blessed father Fourier, she determined to take the monastic vows. She repented having written romances, and consulted the Abbe Clement, who directed her for some time, and whose virtues she highly extolled.
The penitent devoted herself to retirement, for the space of fourteen years. At last she returned to Paris, and there died, the eighteenth of September, 1778, being upwards of forty years old.
From the time she quitted her literary career her active spirit exercised itself on ascetic subjects. Many of her works have been anonymously published by her admirers. Such as “Edifying Instructions on the fasting of Jesus Christ in the desert;” and, “The Manuel of the Victims of Jesus, or Extracts from the instructions which the Lord has given to his first victims.” This last work appeared in 1799, a volume in octavo of four hundred pages.
1774, writing to Beaumont, archbishop of Paris, she predicted that God was about to execute his judgments on the nations, to punish a tenth part of the earth, and to choose a new people; but first he would establish those victims, who would constantly immolate themselves to him. The Abbe de Garry would be their director. France, which had been the first christian kingdom, and which had distinguished itself by the purity of its faith, and its piety towards the holy virgin, would be the cradle of this new people, if its perversity did not deprive it of this benefit. If France rejected the Victims, God would take away its provinces; he would raise up a strange prince to devastate and enslave it. She pretended to foresee that the Spanish nation was to be the instrument of God’s vengeance. Great calamities would then fall upon the capital; the clergy, secular as well as regular, would be humbled; the sanctuaries would be abolished, in order to punish those who ought to have been their ornaments and glory. This was published in 1791.
In a letter to Lewis XV, then sick, Madam Brohon introduces the Almighty as a Mediator, and demands in his name Madam Victoire to be one of the victims. Sophia du Castelle, the daughter of a Notary de Peronne, a novitiate of the Benedictine de Gomer Fontaire, was also to be one of the victims. The number was fixed at twelve to represent the apostolic college with the same attributes. The college of Victims was composed of an equal number of men and women. The latter would have the honour of beginning the new mission; 1. as an effect of the love of Jesus Christ for his holy mother; 2. in order to reward the fidelity of the women to Jesus Christ in the course of his mortal life and passion; 3. in order to humble the masculine sex, who abuse their authority; and to provoke their jealousy when they see the zeal of feeble women. The male victims would be clothed with the sacerdotal garments. The women, however, would not be subordinate to them; they acknowledge no superiour but the bishops; but they would preserve a great respect for the body of pastors, united to the Pope, the head of the true church, who would receive an augmentation of power over faithful souls. Some auxiliaries would form a body for reserve out of which the successors of the Victims would be chosen.
The Victims, according to their own account, are predicted in the bible; without them an essential part of the Messiah would fail. They will be established near Jesus Christ, to fulfil the same functions for him that he has fulfilled for his Father. There are, say they, some faithful souls, who have grace enough to ensure their own salvation; but not enough to immolate themselves to divert the plague which menaces the human species. The Victims are consecrated to do it by taking upon themselves the general anathema. They are the centre and recipients of grace, the fountain from which it is distributed over the whole earth. They boasted of being advanced in glory above the monastic life, and having the same privileges as the angels, who would mourn if anything was wanting to complete their felicity. They asserted, that “they were very dear to the Saviour; that the precious blood which flowed from his side is the adorable ink with which their names are written;” and that “himself and the holy virgin have declared themselves the father and mother of the Victims, the promise of refusing them nothing.”
“The sacrifice of the mass will continue during the glorious reign of the Redeemer. Then there will be no monasteries. The Victims will be the vine and body of the church. Enoch and Elias will preside.”
The greatest crimes are committed between six o’clock in the evening and two in the morning; the Victims pass that time in prayer, and recite matins at midnight.
Each Victim has suspended to her neck a silver medal, on which is engraven the sacred hearts of Jesus and Mary, to which they owe a perfect devotion.
Madam Brohon, being the first Victim, it will not be found surprising that she was adorned with extraordinary graces by Jesus, who was her common confessor. She declares, that he said to her one day, as he showed her the wounds on his side, “Seek me no more on the cross, I have yielded to thee my place, I shall no more be crucified, my Victims will be instead of me.”
In 1792, a consultation of many of the professors and doctors of the Sorbonne was printed on the following works: “Edifying Instructions” and “Edifying Reflections.” They reproached Madam Brohon, the author, with various impieties, and the most reprehensible ideas.*
*Gregoire’s Histoire Des Sectes Religieuses, vol. ii. p. 1, 2, 3, 4, &c.
Given the extreme scarcity of resources on the Society, we are beholden unto Gregoire-cum-Adams’s interpretation.
Nevertheless, there are problems with this account. Purely from a historiographical perspective, we should note that Gregoire is Adams’ only source. This introduces some measure of doubt. We have no way of assessing Gregoire’s biases, and no way of separating fact from interpretation.
Moreover, Adams leaves us without any explanation of what exactly the Sorbonne fathers found lacking in the then-deceased Brohon’s work. We could perhaps imagine some of the problems, based on what has already been told. But the sketch is so vague and so detached from the wider context of Brohon’s writings, French Society, and 18th century theology, that we really cannot infer the trouble with any degree of certainty. The condemnation certainly came during an inauspicious year, the same that saw the assault of the King at the Tuileries, the beginnings of unrest in the Vendée, the September Massacres, and the abolition of the monarchy. In fact, 1792 would later be known (for a short time) as Year One of the Revolutionary Calendar. Was the Sorbonne still reliable at that late date? How intriguing that Brohon’s prophecy of destruction and divine punishment for France should have been published only one year before the condemnation of her work came out, a full 13 years after her own death. It is entirely possible that her words were deployed in protest of the Revolution.
Neither Adams nor Gregoire make any such suggestion. Other than telling us about this censure and of the Society’s implication in the suppression of the Pacanaristes, we are left with no sense whatsoever of what the Society actually did, nor what became of it. Did the Victims meet together, or was their work carried out remotely? If they did congregate, were their acts based upon the rites of reparation established by Mother Mectilde? What kind of relationship, if any, did the Society maintain with Mectildean monasteries? Where were the Society’s main centers and circles? Who knew of them, and what was their broader reputation before the Sorbonne issued its decree? Did they exert any influence at all at court or in the Church of France, beyond the two letters to the Archbishop and the King?
Other sources shed a little more light.
Although he dismisses Brohon as a madwoman, Alfred Maury helpfully writes in the Revue des deux mondes (1854) that “Mlle. Brohon did not delay in exercising a veritable empire over distinguished men; with her hallucinations and her pretend prophecies, she occupied a mob of members of the clergy and of persons of high society” (Maury 474; translation is my own). With Adams, he details the letters to Beaumont and Louis XV, and adds that neither paid much attention at all to her demands. More recent scholars have turned their attention to Brohon. In their introduction to the 2011 study Victimes au féminin, Marc Kolakowski and Francesca Prescendi suggest that Brohon’s use of the word “victim” animated connotations of separation and sacrifice reaching all the way back to Roman antiquity (Kolakowski and Prescendi 31-32). This feature is perhaps unsurprising for late 18th century France, which was infused with a mania for all things Roman—culminating in the outburst of violent Republicanism that began on July 14, 1789.
Of course, there is another question that rises like a plume of smoke over all of these sources. No writer definitively confirms that the Society ever really existed. All we can glean is the plan of the alleged Foundress—her spirituality, her intentions for the group, the popularity we think she might have enjoyed in certain quarters, and the names of the other Victims she wanted to join the Society. But nowhere do we find any proof that the privileged circle of the Elect ever extended beyond her.
And thus we are left with one of the innumerable, tangled mysteries of religious history, one that draws together the spirituality of a 17th century Benedictine, the sacred delusions of an 18th century aristocrat, and the fires of the French Revolution.