Sunday, 3 April 2016

Louis Carré de Montgeron, defender of Jansenist miracles

In 1731 Louis-Basile Carré de Montgeron (1686-1754), a magistrate of the Parlement of Paris in his mid-forties, experienced a miraculous conversion at the tomb of the diacre Pâris. He henceforth dedicated all his energies and his considerable fortune to the Jansenist cause, preparing a monumental three-volume defence of "the truth of the miracles of M. de Pâris". What, one wonders, could have motivated such a man?

His conversion

Montgeron recounts his experience in a 32-page "Relation" which prefaces the first volume of his work, which appeared in 1737. The indulged only son of a widowed magistrate, he was a libertine, who had convinced himself that religion was a "chimera". He had once disguised himself as a woman in an attempt to rescue a girl from a convent. The events at Saint-Médard piqued his curiosity and on 7th September 1731 he finally went to the cemetery "to see with my own eyes".   Here he was deeply moved by the "reverence, the compunction, the fervour, painted on the faces of most people present" (p.10)  Addressing to God a sceptical prayer for illumination, he remained four hours at the foot of the tomb, immersed in his own thoughts. The result was a quasi-miraculous realisation of  the truth of divine Providence and Christian revelation, from which he was never again to waver.  

Jean Restout, Carré de Montgeron in prayer at the tomb of the diacre Pâris
Illustration from La verité des miracles, vol. 1 (detail)
Montgeron clearly very much belongs to the thought world of the early Enlightenment in that he sees his conversion as a choice of faith over free thought.

His account of his previous irreligious philosophy is a sophisticated one: 

I never doubted that there was a God who had created the universe;  I recognised an Infinite being who animated all of nature, and possessed all perfections to the sovereign degree; but I believed that we were merely living machines, incapable of pleasing or offending him, and that we acted according to the impressions that he had given us." (p.11)

Only the Jansenists represented true Christianity:

God then led me to a second reflection, that there were in the world two sorts of people: those who, like the appellants that I saw pray with such ardour, truly loved God.. and those who didn't think of him.. being interested only in satisfying their own passions.

Following his conversion, Montgeron became a determined propagandist for the Jansenist cause.  He owned, or heavy supported two or three clandestine printing operations in Paris as well as others in the  Auxerrois.  In 1732 he bought the seigneurial château of  Ratilly in Treigny where the exiled Gaspard Terrasson was parish priest.  For a short period the property became a secret "second Port-Royal", a safe house for Jansenist fugitives and a centre of printing for the Nouvelles ecclésiastiques.  Its success was only brief -  in 1735 it was raided and Terrasson imprisoned.

Montgeron was among the most singleminded supporters of the Convulsionary movement and regularly visited adepts in prison. The convulsionary known as soeur Pélagie was sheltered in his home. The Convulsionnaires referred to him familiarly as "papa de Montgeron" and had convulsions in his presence; an able secouriste, he is recorded as calmly putting his foot on the stomach of one.  According to the governor of the Bastille, it was thanks to him that the printers of pro-Convulsionary works were not at first apprended, since the lieutenant of police was hesitant to importune a magistrate.

In September 1732 the members of the Parlement of Paris, Montgeron among them, were sent into exile in the Auvergne.  It was here, with with the encouragement of the deposed Bishop Soanen, the theologian Nicholas Le Gros and others, that he embarked on his great defence of the miracles.  For five years spent much of his time and money collecting and collating the mass of evidence, conducting a  voluminous secret correspondence with sympathisers all over France.  His work circulated in manuscript and, sustained by Soanen and Colbert of Montpellier, he put arrangements in place for its publication.  In 1736 the task took on new urgency.  In June of that year a number clandestine printing shops were raided including one in which he had kept his notes;  the page proofs were saved only because they were hidden under a mattress. However, even after mass arrests and confiscations, which produced abundant evidence of his activities, he was allowed to continue unmolested. By July 1737 the first edition was finally ready and Montgeron decided audaciously to present a copy to the King in person.

He presents his work to the King

Montgeron recounts the episode himself.  On Monday 29th July 1737 he arrived by coach at Versailles early in the morning, fortified by prayer but with no clear plan of action.   He was told that the king was at his petit couvert, dining privately in his room.  He made his way to the door, when the cordon bleu challenged him but, perhaps because he was imposingly dressed in his magistrate's robes, he was unexpectedly allowed in.  When the King rose from the table, Montgeron went to him, knelt and recited his prepared discourse.  The King listened, took the book "avec un air fort gracieux" and gave it immediately to Cardinal Fleury. So stunned were the assembled courtiers that  Montgeron was then allowed leave, rejoin his coach and set off for Saint-Cloud where he intended to present a second book to the duc d'Orléans.  Fleury gave immediate orders for his arrest, but providence was with him. The coachman missed his road and doubled back to Versailles so that the pursuing troops encountered him travelling in the wrong direction and failed to recognise him. He was sympathetically received by the duc d'Orléans and managed to return to Paris unchallenged .  He even had time to offer further copies of his book to the First President and other dignitaries of the Parlement.   He then returned calmly to his hôtel in the rue du Cimetière Saint-André des Arts;  at half-past midnight he was awoken  by two men armed with a lettre de cachet and escorted to the Bastille.

Montgeron presents his book to the King

His colleagues in the Parlement sent a deputation to Versailles, protesting that the arrest had not taken place under the proper procedure. The king received them but answered impatiently  that Montgeron had shown lack of respect by invading his private rooms. According to Barbier they took action only "for form's sake".

His imprisonment

Montgeron was to remain in the Bastille for two and a half months.  The lieutenant of police Hérault had burned under his windows, in the ditches of the citadel, all the first Parisian edition of the book - 5,000 copies - which he had seized.  But arrangements had already been made for a new edition to appear in Utrecht at a  comparatively low price. It sold well and was translated into several languages, ensuring its author's status as the new Jansenist cause célèbre.

In October 1737 Montgeron was transferred as far away from Paris as possible,  to Villeneuve-les-Avignon,where he was held at the Benedictine abbey of Saint-André situated within the citadel.  A letter from the Prior recounts to Hérault an exchange he had with Montgeron on the occasion of the death of the Convulsionary "la soeur au feu" (see Bibl.) He was allowed a certain amount of latitude: he corresponded more or less freely with his friends, and even contrived to fund the foundation of free schools in Villeneuve. Eventually the constitutionnaire bishop of Avignon lost patience and had him transferred to Viviers. When he protested formally to the Parlement in Paris that he was being denied the sacraments, the remonstrances  of the magistrates were cut short by a royal lettre de cachet which ordered his further removal.  Montgeron was now simply "exiled", this time to Valence (29 June 1738).  His conditions of detention were restrictive:  orders were given he was to be held in the citadel and only allowed out to communion in the chapel of the Château each Sunday.   He remained in Valence until his death in 1754.

Despite his incarceration, he continued his work undeterred  and managed to produce two further massive volumes, published in Holland in 1741 and 1747.  A large number of his letters, notes and drafts - as yet unstudied - are preserved in the Le Paige collection at the Bibliothèque de Port-Royal (Kreiser, nt.169).  As Augustin Gazier observes, Montgeron grew old in prison without complaint. His second volume  is prefaced with a view of the Rhône at Valence:  at the right Montgeron sits writing in his prison tower;  the Biblical quotation in Latin, from 2 Timothy 9,  carries the defiant message: "I am suffering even to the point of being chained like a criminal. But God’s word is not chained".

Frontispiece to La vérites de miracles, vol. 2 
These second and third volumes were not well received even in Jansenist circles where there were now serious misgivings about Montgeron's close identification with the Convulsionnaire cause.  Interestingly, in his final years Montgeron himself turned back to the problem of irreligion. A anonymous Eulogy reproduces a letter of October 1749 in which he refers a projected defence of religion against "the new books of Deists and Atheists"; the Bishop of Valence had tried to prevent him writing but the King had authorised the work, commanding that he be furnished with the necessary books (p.33, nt.1). 

The eulogy gives an account of his death and burial; it is comforting that, after his long years of sacrifice and determined labour, he enjoyed a peaceful end:

On 12 May he got up at quarter to four in the morning; he wanted to dress, but finding himself unwell, he called  his servant, who, seeing him stagger, ran to him took him in his arms and put him in a chair where about an hour later he lifted his eyes to Heaven and died without effort.  He was 68 years old and had passed a month short of sixteen years in the prison.  As soon as he was dead they wanted to put him in a coffin and bury him there and then without ceremony.  His servant opposed this, saying that they should not bury so precipitously a man who had just died.  Those who came to see him after he had passed away,  said that he looked as though he was in a peaceful sleep, that his face was handsome and showed no sign of death...  He was buried with the ordinary ceremonies of the Church and a Grand Mass was sung over his body.  They had opened a vault to bury him, but  changed their minds at the last moment and simply interred him in the cemetery of the poor.


Louis Basile Carré de Montgeron, "Relation du miracle de conversion operé sur l'auteur, le 7 septembre 1731" in La vérité des miracles opérés par l'intercession de monsieur de Paris et autres appelans démontrée contre M. L'archevèque de Sens vol. 1(1737)
Account of presenting the book to the king - vol.3(1747) p.348-50

Éloge funébre, historique et poetique de M. Louis Basile Carré de Montgeron ,conseiller au Parlement de Paris (Valence, 1754)

Letter concerning "la soeur au feu", Journal des révolutions de l'Europe (1790)

See also:
B. Robert Kreiser, Miracles, Convulsions, and Ecclesiastical Politics in Early Eighteenth-Century Paris  (Princeton University Press, 1978), p.378-90 [extract available on Google Books]

Augustin Gazier, Histoire générale du mouvement janséniste depuis ses origines jusqu'à nos jours, vol.1, Paris  (1924), p.280-299.

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