Sunday, 20 March 2016

Miracles at Saint-Médard

The Church of Saint-Médard

Here are some twilight photos of the church of Saint-Médard, scene in the 1730s of so many supposed miracles and extraordinary frenzied convulsions.  The playground is all that remains of the cemetery which once housed the famous tomb of the diacre Pâris.  Then as now, it was a run-down area.  The fabric of the church dates mainly from the 16th and 17th centuries.  In the 18th century, although the parish fell under the direct jurisdiction of the archbishops of Paris, the curés-prieurs who officiated were provided by the nearby Abbey of Sainte-Geneviève.  Father Pommart the priest at the time of the deacon's death was a Jansenist sympathiser, who was popular with his churchwardens and with his poor parishioners. The cemetery bordered the church to the south and  east,  with the larger southern section running along the rue Censier.  In winter a large communal pit would be dug to receive the bodies of the dead.  The eastern part  where the diacre Pâris was interred, was situated against the outside wall of the chapel in the apse, bounded on three sides by the charnel house.

 Saint-Médard today (Google Maps)

Death and burial of the diacre Pâris  (May 1727-March 1728)

From the moment of his death François de Pâris assumed the aura of a saint among the working people with whom he lived.  Neighbouring artisans, shopkeepers and others crowded into his rooms to pay their respects as he lay in his simple coffin.  Some touched the corpse with rosaries, garments or religious objects, whilst others garnered small relics - hair and fingernails, threads from his clothing, scraps of mattress or slivers of wood from his casket.  The deacon had requested a pauper's funeral in the chapel at Saint-Médard, without candles bells or wall hangings;  the burial cost parish a mere 35 livres.  But the funeral was attended by  members of the Pâris family and others of high rank. The sources record the surprise of the common people who lined the streets to view the cortege:

Poor people and the children he had catechised cried openly during his burial and funeral service.  They were astonished to find that the interment of a man they considered their equal was attended by distinguished nobility of the robe, such as M.  le Feron, sous-doyen of the Parlement,  uncle of the defunct on his mother Madame de Pâris's side.  As the cortege passed by,  poor people on the side of the road addressed M. de Pâris the Conseiller, whom they did not know, telling him that if he was the brother of M. l'abbé de Pâris, he surely had a brother in Heaven.
[MS of the Musée Historique de la Ville de Paris, cited in Catherine Maire, Les Convulsionnaires, p.65-6]

The funeral of the diacre Pâris - preliminary illustration for an engraving by Bernard Picard,
Musée de Port-Royal des Champs

First miracles

The first miracle occurred on the very day of the interment, 3rd May 1727.  Louise Madeleine Beigney (or Beignet), a 62-year-old widow, was a devideuse de soie whose right arm had been paralysed for over twenty years, presumably as a result of her hard and repetitive work.  She reported that she had heard tell of M. Pâris and had met him on her own stairs bring alms to a neighbour.  Arriving as the funeral procession was about to depart, she pulled back the bed cover and kissed his feet under the shroud, continuing to kneel in prayer as the beadles placed his body into the coffin.  It was only later when she returned home to her work that she realised that her arm had been cured. (Her testimony was subsequently called into question since her legal deposition was published only in 1733 and she herself was unable to sign her name.)  Other claims soon followed.  These early cures, which included the four chosen by Archbishop Noailles for investigation in 1728, involved predominantly local working people -  Pierre Lero, a second-hand clothes dealer and Marie-Jean Orget, a  humble dressmaker.  It was rare at first for the sick themselves to visit the cemetery. The cures were brought about by  the application of relics, such as fragments of the chestnut tree which grew near the deacon's grave, or through the prayers of relatives at the churchyard;  the poor might be paid a few sous to recite prayers on behalf of supplicants. Jansenist theology created an expectation of the miraculous and the cures effected by François de Pâris were by no means unique; just two years earlier, for instance, similar miracles had taken place at the tomb of the appellant canon Gerard Rousse in Avenay in the diocese of Reims.

The tombstone

The transformation of the churchyard of Saint-Médard into the focus of activity occurred almost by accident.  In March 1728 Jérôme-Nicolas de Pâris had a tombstone erected over his brother’s grave. A Latin inscription composed by the Jansenist theologian Jardin, praised the deacon as "one who employed his life in the service of God", who had been "full of the holy spirit"and "an innocent victim of penitence".  The royal authorities forbade the epitaph almost immediately, but translations were printed or engraved and by 1731 circulated extensively.  The stone itself, a large slab of black marble on four raised supports, seemed almost deliberately designed to serve as a dais where supplicants might lay, kneel in prayer, or even squirm underneath.  The sick rapidly began to gather around it.

The cemetery provided a perfect impromptu stage set. The eastern area where the grave was situated consisted of a space some nine metres square, bound on three sides by the charnel house, with the tomb itself set against the wall of the church; three large bays on each side communicated by an internal gallery and served as "lodges" where pilgrims and onlookers could congregate. The entrance in what is now the rue Daubenton allowed the passage of the many sedan chairs and stretchers which can clearly be seen in the illustrations.

Pilgrimage to the tomb of the diacre Paris.  Anon. engraving
As the crowds increased,  a pious industry rapidly grew up to cater for their needs .Verses and prayers were produced and printed - early engravings already showed the deacon as a saint with a dove over his head.  Booksellers hawked Jansenist pamphlets; scribes offered to compose prayers. Taverns and eating-houses provided for the pilgrims. 

Response of the authorities

Cardinal Noailles visits the tomb of the diacre Pâris
On 15 June 1728 Cardinal Noailles appointed an official commission of inquiry into the miracles and conferred upon the deacon the title of "bienheureux".  Four cures were selected. Voluminous dossiers of testimony and medical evidence were compiled, but the proceedings were stalled by Noailles's death in May 1729. The new archbishop Vintimille moved firmly towards eradicating dissent.  In the course of 1730 three hundred clergy were interdicted.  At Saint-Médard itself a new priest Jacques Coiffrel, appointed in December, found himself in open conflict with his churchwardens who refused to attend his services or sign their name after his in the parish register; they openly encouraged the population to seek the intercession of the deacon Pâris “as though he was a saint of the Church” . In April 1731 the vestry even began legal proceedings against him in the Grand Conseil.   In response successive sacristans were dismissed by lettres de cachet and the  parish was finally deprived of its right to elect churchwardens.

On 15th July 1731 Vintimille, in consultation with Cardinal Fleury,  finally issued a pastoral letter which formally banned the cult of deacon  Pâris.  The move was precipitated by the supposed cure of Anne Le Franc, a middle-aged spinster afflicted with  partial blindness and paralysis, who came to Saint-Médard in November 1730. Her subsequent Relation interpreted the miracle as an expression of divine support for the abbé Lair, the evicted Jansenist priest of her parish of Saint-Barthélemy. A widely disseminated  Dissertation sur les miracles generalised the message - God was warning his Church that the cause of the oppressed Jansenists was his own.  In response Vintimille declared Anne Lefranc to be a fraud.  The interdiction was created a wave of response; Anne Lefranc appealed her case to the Parlement of Paris and there were formal demands from the Jansenist clergy of Paris to re-open investigation of the miracles (August and October).

The number of miracles escalated. In August 1731 the estranged  churchwardens set up a "bureau de vérification" in the sacristy to process claims.  In 1731 there seventy attested healings, mostly in the second half of the year after the Archbishop's ban. The Jansenist cause scored a further propaganda coup in August when one Gabrielle Gautier, the widow Delorme, was stricken with paralysis after mocking the miracles.  Soon the press of people was truly immense. Wagons, carriages and carts filled the streets; even to reach the tomb was a struggle:

The crowd meant that she had to wait until 11.30 to get into the cemetery.  Even then the Guardsman of the parish had to fend off the mass of people so that she could get to the tomb.  She found several sick people lying on top of it and she could only find a small place to lay part of her body and she suffered a great deal; but the confidence that the pious and edifying spectacle inspired in her allowed her to overcome her pain, and address her prayer to God... [Testimony of Catherine Le François, July 1731 (see Maire p.68-9)] 

Visit of the princesse de Condé to the tomb of  François Pâris, 17th August 1731[anonymous engraving]
The fashionable and well-to-do were now in some evidence.  Some, like the  princesse de Rohan and the duchesse de Montbazon came out of curiosity  or like Louis de Bourbon Condé, comte de Clermont, out of sympathy. The princesse de Conti, afflicted with progressive blindness,  failed to secure a cure but found the experience spiritually uplifting. Her visit in August 1731 was said to have been accompanied by 400 courtiers who came to pray with her.  As Barbier noted, the appearance at the cemetery of people of quality was an insult which the archbishop had no choice but to swallow.

The first convulsions

This new highpoint coincided with beginning of the convulsionist phenomenon.  The first documented convulsionnaire was Aimée (or Edmée) Pivert, aged forty-two, a servant from the place Cambrai who was in all probability an epileptic.  She came to the cemetery between  12th July and 2nd August 1731 and, when laid on the tomb,  was racked with uncontrollable shudders and contortions of her limbs, as though possessed.  Her paroxysms increased over next three weeks, until she left, allegedly cured, on 3rd August.   She was followed by two Parisian girls,  one of whom, a deaf-mute from Versailles called Catherine Bigot, claimed partial recovery of both her hearing and speech.  This case was one of those selected for consideration by the famous defender of the convulsionaries, the lawyer Louis  Montgeron (Montgeron, Idée de l'oeuvre des convulsions, ii, 5-21.). 

The novelty of these first convulsionaries  was perhaps evident only in hindsight, for it would be  easy to dismiss this behaviour as the result of nervous disease or the muscular spasms of long-disused limbs forced into movement.  The real turning point came with the arrival in the summer of the abbé Pierre Sartre de Bécheran(d), a canon - prêtre habitué  -  from the parish of  Sainte-Anne in Montpellier.  Born in about 1693 in the diocese of Uzès, Bécherand had suffered from birth from a paralysed and visibly deformed leg .  A convinced and pious Jansenist , he was implacably but vainly convinced that he could secure restoration of his withered leg as a demonstration of the sanctity of the diacre Pâris.  His determined efforts to impose mind over matter soon degenerated in grotesque spectacle.  As his companions prayed fervently on his behalf, he was seized with sudden and violent convulsions, made contorted grimaces, uttered exclamations and screams of pain, and sometimes foamed at the mouth.  Witnesses reported apparent levitations;  his entire body was "forcibly lifted into the air", despite the efforts his assistants who grasped his arms and held him down.  These attacks lasted for hours on end.  His entourage would rub dirt from the deacons's grave over the most afflicted parts of his body.  Police reports described the sight as "terrifying", "diabolical" and "indecent and obscene". 

Among others [at the cemetery] is an ecclesiastic sent there by M. the bishop of Montpellier,  a great Jansenist.  This ecclesiastic is called the abbé Bécheran.  Everyone agrees that  he has limped badly since childhood and has one leg shorter than the other.  He is at present on his third novena; he goes there every day, sometimes morning and evening.  They take off his collar, the buttons on his sleeves and his gaiters; they lie him on his back on the tomb lengthwise; they say the Seven Psalms with great devotion and silence on the part of the spectators.  They hold him by the arms, and he is seized from time to time with such violent convulsions that he loses his pulse; he becomes white, he foams at the mouth, and by great exertions raises himself a foot above the tomb despite efforts to hold him down.  Everyday the most famous surgeons come to visit him. Some say that he used not to be able to walk and now he can walk; that his sinews have stretched and elongated so that he limps a lot less; others say that he is just as lame as before; that his convulsions come about because, in the hope of being cured, he forces himself to stretch out his leg and the pain causes him to rise up.  Still others say that in all the tradition there have never been miracles from God or the apostles which have required so long to take effect or been accompanied by convulsions;  finally some believe that there is sorcery on the part of the Jansenists  Barbier Journal, vol.2 p.199 September 1731.

Notice to the public.  The great troupe of acrobats and contortionists  of Le Sieur Pâris…will now give regular morning and evening entertainments for the convenience of the public.  Le Sieur  Bécheron the lame will continue his usual gymnastics and, by special request, will give numerous performances of his new and dangerous jump, relying on his own two feet and with only three persons to hold him up…….(quoted McManners, p.442)

As Bécherand continued to make twice daily appearances into the winter months,  he began to be lampooned as a theatrical turn and spectatorswondered  seriously if he was possessed by the devil . The Jansenist camp itself was divided by the phenomenon.  Duguet, Asfeld and other prominent theologians condemned what the  "deformation" of the cult of Pâris whilst Colbert of Montpellier  supported Bécherand, although he affirmed that he had not send him.  (After the closure of the cemetery Bécherand was imprisoned in Saint-Lazare for a short period from February to April 1732,  then disappears entirely from the historical record.  He himself continued to insist on the reality of his miraculous cure.)

Almost inevitably Bécherand spawned imitators.  From September to November the police reported increasing instances of uncontrolled paroxysms, groans, screams, leapings and whirlings, so intense that onlookers provided mattresses and cushions to prevent injury.  As well as genuine petitioners, they observed  exhibitionists of all kinds, including the girls "assez jolies et bien faites" described in one report waving their legs in the air.   Women "prostituted themselves" and  there was  growing use of the satanic imagery  of  "seances", "sabbaths" and "flying on the winds".  Even more spectators crowded into the churchyard  and the frenzy rapidly spread into  the chapel, nearby streets and adjacent houses.  Archbishop  Vintimille informed Procurer-General Joly de Fleury that, if this fanaticism were allowed to continue, "religion would be absolutely lost in Paris".  

Closure of the cemetery. 29th January 1732

Although the police had maintained a visible presence in the cemetery since early 1729, little had been done  to curtail activities beyond the arrest of an occasional hawker.  Finally, however, in January 1732 Fleury and Vintimille moved to take decisive action.  Louis XV evoked all cases of alleged miracles to his Council of State, the churchwardens and sacristan of Saint-Médard were banished and  the leading convulsionaires declared fraudulent and  imprisoned in the Bastille.  On 27th January 1732 a royal ordinance ordered the closure of the cemetery.  At four in the morning of the 29th the police moved in to cordon off the entrances. Notoriously, an epigram scrawled on the wall proclaimed:
De par le roi défense à Dieu
De faire miracles en ce lieu
- "The King forbids God to work miracles in this place".

The historian of the convulsionnaire movement Robert Kreiser evokes the scene: 
p.357: A report in the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques (17th February 1732, p.31-2) described the pathetic scene among the shocked and troubled people at Saint-Médard.  They gathered around the little parish church, consternation and despair visible on nearly every face.  Some were moaning or sobbing; others stood in stunned and disbelieving silence.  This pitiful, moving spectacle seems even to have touched the large contingent of police officers charged with watching over the area as a precaution against potential disturbances - although pity never deterred these guards from effectively carrying out their duty.  Indeed the ominous and intimidating presence of the police no doubt served to deter large numbers, priests and worshippers alike, from publicly venting their true feelings of hostility and frustration.  According to the Nouvellistes and other eyewitness accounts, submission and patience rather than tumultuous uproar constituted the predominant reaction among the faithful. 

The cemetery was to remain closed until 1807, when the parish priest  Berthier, had the tomb of the deacon exhumed, distributed relics among several pious Jansenist families and  buried what remained near the chapel of the Virgin.  The south part of the cemetery which bordered the rue Censier was sold off in 1798 and transformed into the present square in 1875. 

Blocked up entrance to the cemetery, still visible in the rue Daubenton (Google streetview)


Saint Médard on the Tombes et sépultures website

B.Robert Kreiser, "Religious enthusiasm in early eighteenth-century Paris; the convulsionaries of Saint Medard".   Catholic Historical Review 61(3) 1975, p.353-85 (JStor article)
_____, Miracles, Convulsions, and Ecclesiastical Politics in Early Eighteenth-Century Paris  (Princeton University Press, 1978). Some extracts from this important and sympathetic study are available on Google books.

Brian E. Strayer  Suffering saints: Jansenists and convulsionnaires in France, 1640-1799 (Sussex Academic Press 2011), p. 236ff.

Catherine Maire, Les Convulsionnaires de Saint-Médard, Collection archives Gaillimard no.95, 1985

P.-F. Mathieu, Histoire des miraculés et des convulsionnaires de Saint-Médard (Didier, 1864) p.115ff.

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