Sunday, 13 March 2016

The Nouvelles ecclésiastiques

It is one of the great paradoxes of 18th-century thought, that the most successful clandestine publication of the age was not an Enlightenment work at all, but the Jansenist journal, the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques. Despite the best endeavours of the authorities, the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques appeared entirely illegally, without a break from 1728 to its final demise in 1802.  It was, as Professor McManners observes, "one of the most effective and organised propaganda sheets of all time."(Church and society in eighteenth-century France, v.2 (1998) p.423)

The origins of the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques

The Nouvelles was only the most conspicuous publication in a veritable outpouring of illegal Jansenist literature in the 1730s: almost 3,000 titles were produced, some with print runs of 2,000 to 6,000 -  substantial numbers in the days of the hand printing press.  In her book De la cause de Dieu à la cause de la nation (1998) Catherine Maine used police reports to map out the various Jansenist secret presses
and friendly houses. The endeavour was made possible by a network of sympathetic booksellers, perhaps 20% of the Parisian communauté, and by the determination of devoted individuals, such as Madame Théodon, who for ten years ran a clandestine printing operation, or the Jansenist magistrate Carré de Montgeron who provided financial backing.  Although Paris was the main centre, there was considerable activity in the provinces, particularly in the "pays de Jansenie" around Champagne and Burgundy, and notably in the diocese of Auxerre under Bishop Caylus. (The Auxerre printer François Fournier was immortalised by Restif De La Bretonne as "Monsieur Parangon").  Jansenist publications were also made possible by the "refuge hollandais", the schismatic Church of Utrecht; Catherine Maine confirms the importance of the famous boîte à Perrette a secret fund which may have been worth a million livres by the middle of the century.

Much of the intellectual and organisational impetus was provided by the "figurist" Jansenist theologians of the Oratorian  seminary of Saint-Magloire -  the abbés Le Sesne de Ménilles d'Etemare, Jacques-Joseph Duguet and Philippe Boursier.  After the destruction of Port-Royal Jansenist writings had already begun to take on a noticeably apocalyptic tone, but the theorists of Saint-Magloire gave this clearer form. They identified the appellants as the faithful remnant of witnesses to Christian truth in a period of persecution; Romans, chpt. 11 supplied the key prophecy, predicting a period of apostasy which would herald the return of the prophet Elijah and the mass conversion of the Jews to Christianity.   A small beleaguered minority would remain faithful in the "times of troubles".  .In the 1720s and 1730s the Saint-Magloire "theological bureau'" was directly or indirectly behind an outpouring of books and pamphlets which translated the theological debate into accessible French and attempted to create a lay witness. 

Newssheets at first circulated in manuscript form.  The immediate precursor of the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques was compiled by the abbé Vaillant, an associate of Duguet. It was taken over by two wealthy Jansenist sympathisers, the brothers Desessarts who financed a printing press in their premises in the rue des Bourguignons. The abbés Boucher and Troya produced the first copy, backed by an editorial board which included both Duguet and d'Etemare. The first print issue appeared on 23 February 1728. The centre of production was later transferred to the rue de la Parcheminerie. From late 1728 until his death in 1761, the journal was directed by Jean Fontaine de la Roche, an appellant curé who had lost his living in Tours. Henceforth it was La Roche who wrote most of the articles, collated information from sympathisers throughout France and oversaw printing and distribution.


The Nouvelles ecclésiastiques appeared four-weekly in-quarto, double-columned, densely packed - itself unusual since the majority of 18th-century periodicals are in-octavo.  Libraries have bound copies, but it would originally have circulated unbound - the  initial issue consisted of eight sheets.This first issue makes clear the populist aim - to place the Jansenist cause "before the eyes of the public", and to inform them of the afflictions suffered by the Church.   From the outset the  paper was noteworthy for its lavish engravings. The first number was adorned with a handsome title page with half a dozen oval frames around the border depicting various Jansenist sufferings; the appellant Bishop Jean Soanen of Senez on his knees before the assembled Council of Embrun in 1727;  police closing down the Jansenist College of Sainte-Barbes; Jansenist booksellers in the pillory - to say nothing of ominous views of the Bastille and the prison of Mont-Saint-Michel.

Throughout its long history, the Nouvelles charted the vicissitudes of the appellant struggle  in lavish detail and repeated a few stock themes with a relentlessness which defied parody. The Jansenist theology of predestination and efficacious grace was made explicit, as was the demand for a return to the austere practices of Port-Royal.  Fontaine singled out for attack the Jesuits, who he imagined dominating a vast conspiracy designed to foster moral laxity  and to undermine religion.  He saw the Bull Unigenitus as the starting point for the France away from the true faith.  He fortified the faithful with  stirring accounts of Jansenist martyrs and, increasingly, miraculous happenings. In the mid-1730s his editorial control was briefly challenged by the abbé Duguet  and others who had misgivings about the paper's rigid theological stance and its uncritical support for the convulsionnaires of St Médard. However, Fontaine survived and in 1761 passed his mantle on to Marc Claude Guenin, the "abbé de Saint Marc" who carried on in much the same vein.

Organisation and persecution

On May 29th 1728 a Royal Declaration formally prohibiting the printing of the Nouvelles on pain of imprisonment, or the galleys for a subsequent offence.  At the beginning of 1729 there was a spate of arrests, including the abbés Vaillant and Troya, and the general feeling was that the paper was losing its impetus. 

Idée de l'Ordre observé pour la Distribution des Nouvelles ecclésiastiques. c.1731
Fontaine de la Roche realised that a single permanent base rendered his enterprise too vulnerable.  By 1731 he had  set up a complex network of agents and distributors, organised in such a way that each participant could incriminate only himself and his immediate contacts.  According to Barbier's Journal (ii, p.211-2; 231),  Fontaine passed his articles to three separate colleagues who made a manuscript copy in their own hand before burning the original. Different individuals then conveyed them to the printers.  Next runners passed the printed pages, in lots of a hundred or so copies, to  twenty bureaux scattered throughout Paris.  Finally they were handed over to the colporteurs, each of whom had their networks of regular customers. The individuals concerned remained unknown to each other and at each point, transactions were made in cash so that they could not be traced. An engraving of 1731 provides an organisational chart.   As the caption explains, "each one of the 24 persons ... knows only the person to whom he must report and those who report directly to him".  The organisation represented a coordinated and efficient machine.  According to Marais, the capture of secret printing presses "could not halt the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques". Indeed, though many premises were raided and individuals imprisoned, the police failed signally to halt publication. In his preface to the 1731 edition Fontaine denied provocatively that the paper was work of one man. He himself was never even suspected.

The vicissitudes of official action served mainly to attract publicity.. In February 1731, at the instigation of the Parlement, five issues were burned by the public hangman.   In 1732, in a notorious mandement from Archbishop Vintimille threatening all those involved with excommunication  served only to ignite a bitter wrangle between t King and Parlement over jurisdiction. .After 1740 persecution generally declined;  only when a particularly offensive issue appeared did Maurepas pursue it with any vigour. Rumour had it that the lieutenant of police Berryer had been bribed - or diverted into pursuit of more dangerous publications such as the scurrilous Sarcellades.  Amusing Tom and Jerry anecdotes circulated as to how the authorities had been outwitted,  damp sheets from the latest print run deposited provocatively in the lieutenant's coach.

The Nouvelles eccl
ésiastiques and the philosophes

Continued to be opposed by the ecclesiastical establishment and incrasingly by the philosophes.  Attacks on Montesquieu, Voltaire and the Encyclopedie.  Lived to comment triumphantly on the banning of the Encyclopedie in 1759.Defense de l'Esprit des Lois 1750 was a reply to charges made in the issues of 9 and 16 October 1749.  Rejected Buffon's conclusions as contrary to Holy Writ (3 July 1754) and campaigned long and hard against the Encyclopedie.  Helvetius (22 January 1759) and after the publication of Emile, Rousseau.

 Increasingly of interest only to Jansenist faithful.  From 1790 Revolution allowed it to be publically available.  Finally abandoned at the end of 1793;  issued from Utrecht until 1803. 


" Nouvelles ecclésiastiques"in Jean Sgard ed..Dictionnaire des journaux 1600-1789 (1991)
See also:  Dictionnaire des journalistes,  Entries for Fontaine de La Roche, Guenin de Saint-Marc etc.

David Coward  "The fortunes of a newspaper: The Nouvelles ecclesiastiques (1728–1803)" British Journal for Eighteenth-century Studies (1981) no.4 p.1-27.

Catherine Maire De la cause de Dieu à la cause de la nation. Le jansénisme au XVIIIe siècle (1998)
Reviewed by Isabelle Brian, AHSS 2002 57(2):

Jansenists, Printing, and Censorship: Unigenitus 1713-2013

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