The inimitable John McManners, late Regius Professor of Ecclesiastical History at the University of Oxford, provides a window into the world of late Ancien Régime piety (or, rather, its dearth) in his monumental Church and Society in Eighteenth-Century France. He writes:
“To what extent was the fast of Lent observed? It was commonly said that the austerities of the penitential season were endured only by the poor. According to the Lenten pastoral letter of the archbishop of Sens in 1779, the rich often obtained medical certificates allowing them to eat what they liked. This was the fashionable thing to do. ‘Look at our bourgeois citizen and his wife in their (draper’s) shop, observing Lent strictly,’ said teh Jesuit Père Croisset in his Parallel des moeurs de ce siècle et la morale de Jesus-Christ (1727): ‘their fortune changes…and scarcely has the tape measure dropped from their hands than you see them putting on airs like people of quality and asking for dispensations from fasting.’ This class distinction was observed even in the kitchens of the Bastille: on the first Friday of his imprisonment, Marmontel gloomily at the meatless meal provided, not knowing that it had been meant for his servant. In any case, there were plenty of succulent dishes within the rules, for those who could afford them.
“Lent was the season to have tubs of fresh butter sent in from the countryside, and to ensure plentiful supplies of fish and water birds (the tes of an allowable fowl was: did the gravy remain uncongealed after fifteen minutes? – so a bishop gravely advised Mme Victoire, Louis XV’s pious but comfortable daughter). The peasant, whose existence is a perpetual Lent anyway, said Voltaire, awaits episcopal permission to eat his farmyard eggs, while the bishop himself looks forward to expensive dishes of soles. Certainly, things were well organized at Versailles. ‘A ray of grace has descended on us,’ wrote the duc de la Vallière in April 1756; ‘we fasted for three days a week during the whole of Lent, but on condition that we suffered no deprivations.’ Preachers were well aware that those with money and leisure could organize an attractive Lent for themselves: an occasional walk in a procession (a penitent’s garb was no disadvantage to a good-looking woman), extra time in bed to recuperate from privations, and food more delicately cooked and served than usual. ‘For some – God grant that there are none in my congregation today,’ thundered the Oratorian Surian, ‘Lent is a more agreeable time, in a sophisticated way, than the other seasons of the year.'”
(Vol. I, pg. 86-87).
Ah, the trials of the penitential season!