God is in the street

And if the XVIIIe French century was a century of Catholic fervor? By studying the religious procession, Gal Rideau offers a picture of an urban life still punctuated and organized, in the middle of the Enlightenment, by the public expression of faith.

Desecralization, dechristianization. Because he refuses these commonplaces of historiography on the XVIIIe century, Gal Rideau opens a beautiful path towards paths that only a history of religion renewed by the ethnography of institutions, by social history, made possible.

With the help of an immense documentary and conceptual apparatus, he inventories all the situations where a religious procession presented itself to city dwellers as an experience both of their own community and of a certain sacred universality. And it is clear that the structuring power of ritual, of pious invocation, seems intact.

A forgotten religious format

Ceremonial is a very studied element of Ancien Régime society, to the point that an American school called cremonialist was able to emerge in the wake of the work of Ralph Giesey. If religious ritual as such has not enjoyed the same success, Gal Rideau reveals the relevance of an interdisciplinary study on the subject. The procession obeys a complex formal and canonical grammar, a reference in religious controversies still powerful in the XVIIIe century. But the book goes beyond this to invite us to conceive the procession according to a simple model: the exhibition of a divine or holy figure, or even a relic, in a march inviting the city to participate in a concert of songs and prayers.

In this way, the procession is one of the rare possibilities given to a population to come together and occupy the common space, when the royal authorities still prohibit it. This is a privileged opportunity for the historian to observe a real society, and not just speculated by jurists or theologians. The procession is indeed a representation practical, tangible of the city. Secular clergy and lay people play an active role.

Whether in the liturgical regularity of festivals (Easter, Corpus Christi, Assumption, patron saints) or in the occasional climatic, military or epidemic situation, each city deploys its own rituals which, without being exactly quantifiable, suggest a strong recurrence. The procession is not a dying format of Catholic worship. In the cities of a large northern area (Amiens, Angers, Auxerre, Beauvais, Orlans, Paris, Poitiers, Tours, Troyes), we see it investing the streets, the squares, the squares, with a multitude of signs both spiritual and temporal: idols, emblems, clothing, coats of arms, but also sounds (bells, hymns, backfires), smells (candles, incense), supplications and sermons.

The procession is for the participant a kind of total spiritual, sensory, bodily and social experience. While historiography rather reserved this analysis for the study of pilgrimages or major cathedral services, Gal Rideau's book fills a gap.

Against the backdrop of the Catholic reconquest after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes (1685), half-sacred, half-secular calendars more than ever punctuate daily life in cities with ostentatious, unifying rites. Corporations or brotherhoods did it on their side, but the entire city, at least its social and political incarnation, is called here.

This is why the work mobilizes municipal as well as episcopal sources, from around fifteen funds. the time of online sources, the time of light documentaries practiced by intellectual history, this suggests a long-term archival investigation.

Fixit of ritual and historical change

The procession is therefore an ordinary fact of the city of XVIIIe century. Are we still practicing a baroque piety, typical of the previous century?? The book in fact questions the anchoring of a ritual in a society that is necessarily in movement. The vision of a community of faith simply superimposed on a social community is no longer really valid.

What may be surprising, in fact, comes from the meticulousness with which the book lists lexicons that are both reproachful and apologetic. The philosophical community could play a leading role here. Voltaire denounces the superstitious ridicule of processions, as in 1766: Thirty dead bodies then appear in this march. If we stuck to these mummeries, they would only be ridiculous and disgusting (p. 57). The Calas or La Barre cases are there to forge the famous, and perhaps misleading, context of an incredulity or rationality hostile to the traditional idioms of ritual. Some travelers also see the procession as nothing more than an entertaining and curious stage of their journey.

However, it is the Catholic currents which offer the most effective denunciations. Like the Jansists, religious currents plead for a more interiorized faith, and see in the display of the sensitive or the spectacular an unsuitable impulse for the celebration of the divine. Profane gestures were gradually rejected, especially after 1730-1740. Feasts, dances and crowds are gradually repressed by the clergy and the police. And as soon as civic religion exhausted itself in certain cities, such as Paris with the end of the processions of the hounds of Saint Genevieve in 1725, a certain theatricality disappeared, and a whole relationship with the past.

Ancient times were still considered under the aspect of a common heritage, at the beginning of the XVIIIe century, but another temporality soon replaces them, less commemorative. We no longer hesitate to include the procession in a future free of obligatory references to foundations, heroes or ancestral episodes. At the same time, in the name of a new moral economy, certain rituals are transformed into alms. Balancing personal faith and collective faith, several private gestures take on a greater virtuous or devotional charge.

Now it is indeed within the clergy that this distance occurs, less with the procession as a format of veneration, of thanksgiving, than with its recreational, pompous displays. Obviously, the procession redefines its languages ​​and its meanings.

We see it, the religious shift constitutes one of the guiding threads of Gal Rideau. Borrowing the themes of Pierre Chaunu, he measures the impact of modern criticism on a medieval ritual, on its orthopraxy. Which institution is still involved in the processional form? What posture or prayer is cut off?? The book shows itself reluctant, that said, to follow the inevitable thread of weakening. Why?

First of all, because we see many contrasting chronologies from one city to another. Strong variations are observed in the use of processions. Then, more profoundly, because the author does not want to renounce the procession as an invariable articulation of the community and the religious, throughout the period. The demonstration of an almost anthropological constancy remains at the heart of the book.

Express the community

With religious ceremony, the XVIIIe century therefore persists in encompassing urban populations in a community of life and salvation. The procession remains one of the immutable vectors of urban identity: a community which exhibits and extends the following of a divine or holy image, respecting a route among the streets, the bridges, the gates, as a way of linking the city to a totality.

The procession is a story of unity, a proclamation of stability (p. 173). A sort of feat showing the first components of the city (city hall, justice companies, trades), it in fact uses the continuity of political powers to legitimize the immutability of the church. It is also a power of recording, of telling a story. The procession is an event at the same time as writing, which must lend itself to retrospective readings.

Also the book does not fall into trap. Conflicts of precedence are constant, between bodies and companies, between ecclesiastical authorities, and descriptions of these continual, almost structural struggles abound. Sy expresses the episcopal control against the secular clergy and brotherhoods, that of civil officers or notables against artisanal and popular circles.

The creation of a new body, like that of Saumur doctors, immediately posed the problem of its place in an already ordered procession, and in 1730 provoked vituperations from lawyers and prosecutors. Beyond that, demands for rights, fiscal and military, invest the ceremony and crack the fiction of urban unity. Simply, the exposition is rarely made in the chronicles and registers, mastered by the historiographers and the institutions concerned.

At this stage, the reader would still like to learn more about the concrete aspects, the cost of these ceremonies and celebrations, about the economy which surrounds them, the image of these torches which, in Angers, burden the stock market of the trades participating in the procession, while attracting in the city a crowd of admirers able to spend their money in the shops.

But the book prefers to see, among the first performances of the ritual, its framing devices. Because the very limit between freedom and constraint is difficult to draw in the participation of the faithful, especially when the regulations constantly fight against absenteeism from the professions. It must be said that mid-XVIIIe century, the procession established itself as a tool of submission to public order, and we can guess a reluctance (or perhaps a conservatism) of the popular classes to participate in it from now on, under police and armed control.

Thus, it is different meanings of the city which simultaneously take over processions, and the study of resorts wonderfully points it out. Stopping places where the procession honors a saint, a glorious fact, the resorts actually indicate perceptions of space that vary from one festival to another, emphasizing limits alternately drawn by such an esplanade or fortified gate, such monastery, crossroads, calvary, such social group or that other.

Perhaps, at this level, the work of Angelo Torre on the ritual fabric of the locality could have provided an interesting rural model. It remains that urban unity is artificial, moving and contested, while proving useful to the ruling classes and the royal powers. If Gal Rideau does not take the plunge, we could almost read from his pen the vision of disorder as the very agent of order and control of Ancien Régime society. The conflicts of jurisdiction between temporal and spiritual powers, marking all the regulations specific to processions, are perhaps only an illustration of this.

The religious, the lake, the public

At the end of this imposing book, a plea emerges. That of a reading of XVIIIe century which would not evacuate the traditional forms of the collective, of the common, which the religious persisted in taking charge of until 1789 and the great procession opening the States-General.

The conclusion bears the observation of secularization, at the very end of the period, but religion does not disappear as a way of disciplinarizing the crowds. The religious remained incorporated into the social and political, into the monarchical, until the end of the Ancien Régime. There remains a still majority mode of intelligence of living together. It seemed relevant to recall this.

It is certain, the tutelary figure of Alphonse Dupront covers the work. Isn't the role of lakes a little minor?? The work of Laurence Croq and David Garrioch on the religion lived somewhat shifts the equivalence between religion and clergy that the book holds. And if religious expression also attached itself to the issues carried and animated by the lakes? The book highlights the ecclesial tensions which seize religious ritual, and less those of the social body itself.

But this is an opening which does not invalidate the method implemented, and we must remember the lesson: it is not good to enter this century in a teleological way, in search of origins, giving the Revolution side by side, otherwise entering it from its beginning, speak XVIIe century. There, a space appears seized by collective use, certainly regulated, contained by religious ceremony, directed by episcopal, parish, municipal privileges, by their contradictions and their disputes, but clearly linked to an experience of the city, by its inhabitants.

We cannot fail to see it as an experience of the public, once we accept to conceive of the public as a social institution still largely realized by religion. THE XVIIIe century could only work on this heritage. And in this way Gal Rideau succeeds in a great exercise in situated history.