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- The Eve of the French Revolution - 6/64 -


king's ministers, conditions were not infrequently exacted of the crown. Thus in 1785, on the occasion of a gift of eighteen million livres, the suppression of the works of Voltaire was demanded. And once at least, as late as 1750, on the occasion of a squabble between the church and the court, the clergy had refused to make any grant whatsoever. The total amount of the Free Gift voted during the reign of Louis XVI. was 65,800,000 livres, or less than four and a half millions a year on an average. The grant was not annual, but was made in lump sums from time to time; a vote of two thirds of the assembly being necessary for making it. The assembly itself assessed the tax on the dioceses. A commission managed the affairs of the clergy when no assembly was sitting. The order had its treasury, and its credit was good. The king was its debtor to the extent of about a hundred million livres.

The clergy itself was in debt. Instead of raising directly, by taxation of its members, the money which it paid to the state, it had acquired the habit of borrowing the necessary sum. The debt thus incurred appears to have been about one hundred and thirty-four million livres. In addition to the amount necessary for interest on this debt, and for a provision for its gradual repayment, the order had various expenses to meet. For these purposes it taxed itself to an amount of more than ten million livres a year. On the other hand it received back from the king a subsidy of two and a half million livres. From most of the regular, direct taxes paid by Frenchmen the Clergy of France was freed. [Footnote: _Revue des questions historiques_, 1st July, 1890 (L'abbé L. Bourgain, _Contribution du clergé à l'impôt_). Sciout, i. 35. Boiteau, 195. Rambaud, ii. 44. Necker, _De l'Administration_, ii. 308. The financial statement given above refers to the Clergy of France only. Its pecuniary affairs are as difficult and doubtful as those of every part of the nation at this period, and have repeatedly been made the subject of confused statement and religious and political controversy. The Foreign Clergy paid some of the regular taxes, giving the state about one million livres a year on an income of twenty million livres. Boiteau, 196.]

The bishops were not subject to the secular tribunals, but other clerks came under the royal jurisdiction in temporal matters. In spiritual affairs they were judged by the ecclesiastical courts.

The income of the clergy, had it been fairly distributed, was amply sufficient for the support of every one connected with the order. It was, however, divided with great partiality. There were set over the clergy, both French and foreign, eighteen archbishops and a hundred and twenty-one bishops, beside eleven of those bishops _in partibus infidelium_, who, having no sees of their own in France, might be expected to make themselves generally useful. These hundred and fifty bishops were very highly, though unequally paid. The bishoprics, with a very few exceptions, were reserved for members of the nobility, and this rule was quite as strictly enforced under Louis XVI. as under any of his predecessors. Nothing prevented the cumulation of ecclesiastical benefices, and that prelate was but a poor courtier who did not enjoy the revenue of several rich abbeys. Nor was it in money and in ecclesiastical preferment alone that the bishops were paid for the services which they too often neglected to perform.

Not a few of them were barons, counts, dukes, princes of the Holy Roman Empire, or peers of France by virtue of their sees. Several rose to be ministers of state. Even in that age they were accused of worldliness. It was a proverb that with Spanish bishops and French priests an excellent clergy could be made. But not all the French bishops were worldly, nor neglectful of their spiritual duties. Among them might be found conscientious and serious prelates, abounding both in faith and good works, living simply and bestowing their wealth in charity. [Footnote: Rambaud, ii. 37. Mathieu, 151.]

After the bishops came the abbots. As their offices were in the gift of the king, and as no discipline was enforced upon them, they were chiefly to be found in the antechambers of Versailles and in the drawing-rooms of Paris. They were not even obliged to be members of the religious orders they were supposed to govern.[Footnote: The abbots of abbeys _en commende_ were appointed by the king. These appear to have been most of the rich abbeys. There were also _abbayes régulières_, where the abbot was elected by the brethren. Rambaud, ii. 53. The revenues of the monasteries were divided into two parts, the _mense abbatiale_, for the abbot, the _mense conventuelle_, for the brethren. Mathieu, 73.] Leaving the charge of their monasteries to the priors, they spent the incomes where new preferment was to be looked for, and devoted their time to intrigues rather than to prayers. No small part of the revenues of the clergy was wasted in the dissipations of these ecclesiastic courtiers. They were imitated in their vices by a rabble of priests out of place, to whom the title of abbot was given in politeness, the little _abbés_ of French biography and fiction. These men lived in garrets, haunted cheap eating-houses, and appeared on certain days of the week at rich men's tables, picking up a living as best they could. They were to be seen among the tradesmen and suitors who crowded the levees of the great, distinguishable in the throng by their black clothes, and a very small tonsure. They attended the toilets of fashionable ladies, ever ready with the last bit of literary gossip, or of social scandal. They sought employment as secretaries, or as writers for the press. The church, or indeed, the opposite party, could find literary champions among them at a moment's notice. Nor was hope of professional preferment always lacking. It is said that one of the number kept an ecclesiastical intelligence office. This man was acquainted with the incumbents of valuable livings; he watched the state of their health, and calculated the chances of death among them. He knew what patrons were likely to have preferment to give away, and how those patrons were to be reached. His couriers were ever on the road to Rome, for the Pope still had the gift of many rich places in France, in spite of the Concordat.[Footnote: Mercier, ix. 350.]

Another large part of the revenues of the church was devoted to the support of the convents. These contained from sixty to seventy thousand persons, more of them women than men. Owing to various causes, and especially to the action of a commission appointed to examine all convents, and to reform, close, or consolidate such as might need to be so treated, the number of regular religious persons fell off more than one half during the last twenty-five years of the monarchy. Yet many of the functions which in modern countries are left to private charity, or to the direct action of the state, were performed in old France by persons of this kind. The care of the poor and sick and the education of the young were largely, although not entirely, in the hands of religious orders. Some monks, like the Benedictines of St. Maur, devoted their lives to the advancement of learning. But there were also monks and nuns who rendered no services to the public, and were entirely occupied with their own spiritual and temporal interests, giving alms, perhaps, but only incidentally, like other citizens. Against these the indignation of the French Philosophers was much excited. Their celibacy was attacked, as contrary to the interests of the state; they were accused of laziness and greed. How far were the Philosophers right in their opposition? It is impossible to discuss in detail here the policy of allowing or discouraging religious corporations in a state. Should men and women be permitted to retire from the struggles and duties of active life in the world? Is the monastery, with its steady and depressing routine, its religious observances, often mechanical, and its quiet life, more or less degrading than the wearing toil of the world without, and the coarse pleasures of the club or the tavern? Is it better that a woman, whom choice or necessity has deprived of every probability of governing a home of her own, should struggle against the chances and temptations of city life, or the constant drudgery of spinsterhood in the country; or that she should find the stupefying protection of a convent? These questions have seldom been answered entirely on their own merits. They have presented themselves in company with others even more important; with questions of freedom of conscience and of national existence. The time seems not far distant when they must be reconsidered for their own sake. Already in France the persons leading a monastic life are believed to be twice as numerous as they were at the outbreak of the Revolution. It is difficult to ascertain the number in our own country, but it is not inconsiderable.[Footnote: Rambaud (ii. 52 and _n._) reckons 100,000 in the 18th century and 158,500 to-day in France, but the figures for the last century are probably too high, at least if 1788 be taken as the point of comparison. Sadlier's _Catholic Directory_, 1885, p. 116, gives the number of Catholic religions in the Archdiocese of New York at 117 regular priests, 271 brothers, 2136 religious women, in addition to 279 secular priests.]

A pleasant life the inmates of some convents must have had of it. The incomes were large, the duties easy.

Certain houses had been secularized and turned into noble chapters. The ladies who inhabited them were freed from the vow of poverty. They wore no religious vestment, but appeared in the fashionable dress of the day. They received their friends in the convent, and could leave it themselves to reenter the secular life, and to marry if they pleased. Such a chapter was that of Remiremont in Lorraine, whose abbess was a princess of the Holy Roman Empire, by virtue of her office. Her crook was of gold. Six horses were harnessed to her carriage. Her dominion extended over two hundred villages, whose inhabitants paid her both feudal dues and ecclesiastical tithes. Nor were her duties onerous. She spent a large part of her time in Strasburg, and went to the theatre without scruple. She traveled a good deal in the neighborhood, and was a familiar figure at some of the petty courts on the Rhine. The canonesses followed her good example. Some of them were continually on the road. Others stayed at home in the convent, and entertained much good company. They dressed like other people, in the fashion, with nothing to mark their religious calling but a broad ribbon over the right shoulder, blue bordered with red, supporting a cross, with a figure of Saint Romaric. No lady was received into this chapter who could not show nine generations or two hundred and twenty-five years of chivalric, noble descent, both on the father's and on the mother's side.

Such requirements as this were extreme, but similar conditions were not unusual. The Benedictines of Saint Claude, transformed into a chapter of canonesses, required sixteen quarterings for admission; that is to say, that every canoness must show by proper heraldic proof, that her sixteen great--grandfathers and great--grandmothers were of noble blood. The Knights of Malta required but four quarterings. They had two hundred and twenty commanderies in France, with eight hundred Knights. The Grand Priory gave an income of sixty thousand livres to the Prior, who was always a prince. The revenues of the order were 1,750,000 livres.

But very rich monasteries were exceptional after all. Those where life was hard and labor continuous were far more common. In some of them, forty men would be found living on a joint income of six thousand livres a year. They cultivated the soil, they built, they dug. They were not afraid of great undertakings in architecture or engineering, to be accomplished only after long years and generations of labor, for was not their corporation immortal? Then we have the begging orders, infesting the roads and villages, and drawing several million livres a year from the poorer classes, which supported and grumbled at them. And against the luxury of the noble chapters must be set the silence, the vigils, the fasts of La Trappe. This monastery stood in a gloomy valley, sunk among wooded hills. The church and the surrounding buildings were mostly old, and all sombre and uninviting. Each narrow cell was furnished with but a mattress, a blanket and a table, without chair or fire. The monks were clad in a robe and a hood, and wore shoes and stockings, but had neither shirt nor breeches. They shaved three times a year. Their food consisted of boiled vegetables, with salad once a week; never any butter nor eggs. Twice in the night they rose, and hastened shivering to the chapel. Never did they speak, but to their confessor; until, in his last


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