How to Celebrate Lent like a French Princess

Mesdames Victoire, Adélaide, and Louise, three of the pious daughters of Louis XV, known collectively as “Mesdames de France” or “Mesdames Tantes” after the accession of Louis XVI. Only Adélaide married; Louise later became a Carmelite prioress at Saint-Denis before having the extremely good fortune to die in 1787. Source

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.

Empress Maria Theresa of Austria in the garb of a penitent (Source)

“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!

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Saint-Denis, Liturgy, and a Royal Nun

StDenis

St. Denys, pray for us! (Source)

Canticum Salomonis has a great little piece on the Sequence of St. Denys. Liturgical nerds will find it of particular interest. It mainly attracts my own attention due to a fascinating tidbit:

Beginning with the new Parisian missal promulgated by the Lord Archbishop François de Harlay in 1684, the neo-Gallican liturgical books that festered in France during the Enlightenment Age altered this sequence to expunge any connection between St Dionysius the Areopagite and St Dionysius of Paris. The Abbey of St-Denys, however, remained firm in defending the Greek origins of its patron, and sung the original text until the Revolution.

I’m unaware of any serious scholarship so far that has plunged into the liturgical dynamics of the Revolution – though certainly, the Gallicans, Jansenists, and Cisalpines all had ideas about liturgical reform. What an intriguing project a deeper study might be. Perhaps John McManners has looked at it all already, and I simply haven’t gotten to that part of his famous and positively rococo two-volume study, Church and Society in Eighteenth-Century France.

Madame Louise, Prioress of Saint-Denis. (Source)

Saint-Denis was an important place in the 1780’s. Madame Louise, daughter of Louis XV and aunt of Louis XVI, entered the Carmel of Saint-Denis while her father was still alive. As Sister Thérèse de Saint-Augustin, she eventually rose to the rank of Prioress. Saint-Denis thus became a center of the Parti Dévot, the most conservative (some would say reactionary) part of the French court and church. It’s hardly surprising that the great Abbey there would likewise remain a bastion of liturgy that might otherwise be regarded as “superstitious” or “backwards” by the more radical portions of the French church.