Saturday 30 April 2016

A portrait of Voltaire's mother

Nicolas Largillière, Portrait of Marie-Marguerite, Madame d'Arouet, c.1700
Seventy years after her death, this  portrait of Madame Arouet hung in Voltaire's bedroom in Ferney - the only image he possessed of a mother he could scarcely remember: it is listed in his inventaire après décès (Besterman,ed. Correspondence and related documents App. D 503).  In 1979 it was included in an exhibition at the Bibliothèque Nationale together with a companion portrait of François Arouet, père.  The catalogue confirms that  "a long family tradition" identified the sitters as the parents of Voltaire, painted by Largillière:  Madame Denis took the portraits (of her grandparents, don't forget) back to Paris and, on her death, they were inherited by Voltaire's great-nephews Dompierre d'Hornoy. The owner in 1979 was identified as the "comte de Dompierre d'Hornoy".  The portrait of Voltaire's mother was subsequently sold by auction on 25th May 1986, and so presumably passed out of the family.  The image is now available commercially as part of the Bridgeman Art Library - no further information is given, apart from the fact that the picture is in a  "private collection".

René Pomeau, who had seen both portraits, was circumspect.  The "presumed" portrait of Voltaire's father shows a young man about town,  a "petit maître",  rather than a serious man of the law. He also commented wisely on the fruitlessness of speculations concerning the resemblance between mother and son, based only on Largillière's (disappointingly non-descript) portrait.  [René Pomeau, D'Arouet à Voltaire 1694-1734 (1985) p. 28 nt 3].


Bridgeman Art Library - Nicolas, Largillière:  Portrait de Madame Arouet, mère de Voltaire.

 Voltaire : un homme, un siècle, [catalogue of an exhibition held at the Bibliothèque nationale, 25 janvier-22 avril 1979], Nos. 4 and 5.

Thursday 28 April 2016

Voltaire: Jansenist?

Voltaire : was he influenced by Jansenism? 

René Pomeau has argued persuasively that a preoccupation with religion was a key aspect of Voltaire's psyche from an early age. In the years 1719-1722 he was already voicing his opposition to the "Dieu terrible" of the Jansenists and displayed a precocious anti-clericalism "whose origin escapes us"(La Religion de Voltaire, p.34).  It is hard not to see the negative influence of Armand: at the time of their father's death in 1722 both brothers were nominally still living together under the same paternal roof.  Their quarrels were echoed in the 1721 Epître in which Voltaire maintained that his brother would laugh at his funeral; Voltaire's accompanying note reports that he used to enrage Armand, "an extreme Jansenist",  by defending the Jesuits against him.(Epître XXI, A M. le Maréchal de Villars, 1721)

Pomeau concluded that the family background had created two brothers who were both obsessed with religion - Armand, a Jansenist troubled by doubt, and Voltaire, whose passionate hostility to religion was "un fanatisme retourné " (p.36)  A stark dichotomy between unbelief and absolute faith characterises the Jansenist mindset of the 1720s - Montgeron's spectacular conversion is a case in point.  According to the Jansenist manuscript Notes historiques, Voltaire himself maintained that one must be "either a deist like himself, or a secouriste like his brother (Gazier, p.625).  Much later in his life Jacob Vernet made the same point: Voltaire saw no middle ground between libertinism and religious enthusiasm (See Pomeau, p.36-7)

Sunday 24 April 2016

Armand Arouet, Voltaire's Jansenist brother

 "I  have two fools for sons, one in prose and the other in verse"
Attributed to François Arouet, father of Voltaire: 
 (Duvernet, Vie de Voltaire p.35)

"I used to have a Jansenist brother;  his ferocious manner gave me a distaste for 'the party'"
Letter of Voltaire to the marquis d'Argens, August 1752

Armand, brother of Voltaire

It is a fascinating, if little known, fact that Voltaire's elder brother Armand was a fanatical Jansenist.  Frustratingly, we know very little about him; Voltaire's writings amount to several million words but he is almost entirely silent on the subject of his family. Most of the information available derives from the researches of  Auguste Gazier who in 1906 published an article in the Revue des Deux Mondes entitled  "Le frère de Voltaire".

Saturday 16 April 2016

A Convulsionist - Gabrielle Moulère

Gabrielle Moulère (sometimes Moller), and her sister Jeanne were among the best known practitioners of les grands secours, made famous - or notorious - largely through Montgeron's account and the set of anonymous engravings included in Book 3 of La vérité des miracles. Gabrielle was born in Paris on 10th March 1722, rue Saint-Victor, in the parish of Saint-Nicolas-du-Chardonnet.  Her father was a cobbler. There  were five children in all  - Jeanne (born 1712);  Marie (born 1715); Jean (born 1719); Gabrielle (born 1722) and Louison (born 1728).The whole family were involved in the oeuvre des convulsions,  with Madame Moulère  assisting at the secours of Jeanne and Gabrielle, in their own home or at the houses of their rich adherents.  Gabrielle was scarcely in her teens at the time.  The girls rapidly ran foul of the authorities: Jeanne was arrested at the home of the marquise de Vieuxpont on 22 November 1737 and Gabrielle on October 30th 1738 (according to some sources 1739) at the country house of  M. d'Arginvilliers in Lardi.  After a brief spell in the Bastille, they were incarcerated in La Salpêtrière and, in Jeanne's case, in Sainte-Pélagie.  Gabrielle was to languish in prison for nine years.

Illustration 1 - Gabrielle is beaten with a heavy iron bar

Despite the inevitable accusations of hysteria or deliberately manipulation of her well-to-do patrons, Gabrielle's commanding presence and sincere belief in her mission were widely attested.  Sympathetic eye-witnesses were deeply impressed by the power of her prophetic gifts. She refused steadfastly to abandon her faith in the secours, preferring to remain in the harsh confines of La Salpêtrière where she died at the age of only twenty-six on 29th March 1748.  After her death she was venerated as a Jansenist saint and the miraculous cure of one Mlle Cécile d'Achon, daughter of an advocate of the Présidial in Nantes, attributed to her intercession.

Thursday 14 April 2016

The Convulsionaries - some first-hand accounts

The vast amount of documentation available on the Convulsionnaires, even just on the internet, is daunting.  I was quite pleased, therefore, to find a couple of old books in English which contain summaries and translations of some of the more famous cases, mostly taken from Montgeron.  Both are based largely on the work of the famous psychiatrist Louis-Florentin Calmeil (1798-1895), author of De la folie (1845); Calmeil's basic thesis was the existence of a pathological state he called a théomanie extaso-convulsive.  His selection from the sources includes the Protestants of the Cévenne  is inevitably biased towards the sensational, but the passages are genuine enough.  Most, but not all, the examples involve supposed miraculous cures.


Catherine Bigot, a deaf-mute, was one of the earliest cases to exhibit convulsionary symptoms. 
"On the 27th of August, 1731, Montgeron relates, they conducted to the cemetery of Saint Médard, a young girl, deaf and dumb from her birth. As soon as she was placed on the tomb, she fell into most terrible convulsions, accompanied with a great perspiration, and manifested, by her gestures, that she was suffering principally in her head, in the throat, and the ears. After the attack, she remained as if dead, and they were obliged to remove her from the tomb. Having, in some degree, recovered her senses, she gave them to understand, by signs, that she wished to be placed again on the tomb, which was accordingly done. The convulsions immediately recommenced with more violence than before, and they carried her away a second time, to enable her to breathe. They yielded again to the desire she evinced, to be brought back to the tomb-stone of the deacon; the convulsions returned, and they were forced to carry away the patient to her own home, where she remained until nine o'clock at night, violently agitated with convulsive movements.
The 28th of August, 1731, she made a second visit to the sepulchre of the Deacon Paris, and the result was a return of the convulsions, which were only allayed at the end of the day. The 29th and the 30th of August, after a kind of swooning, the young invalid found she was able to hear and speak, but, it is said, without understanding the sense of the words which struck upon her ear." (See Montgeron, vol. 2, p. 10f)

Wednesday 13 April 2016

The "Augustinistes"

The so-called Augustinistes were yet another fringe millenarian group spawned by the convulsionist movement of the 1730s.  They were almost invariably coupled by contemporaries with the Vaillantistes, but their conclusions were more extreme; unlike the gentle Pierre Vaillant, the notorious frère Augustin, their founder, was an unhinged and, even allowing for the bias of the sources, a thoroughly unpleasant character.

The Prophet Elijah is reincarnated

The prophet Elijah is a certain Vaillant, a curé from the Diocese of Troyes, who is at present imprisoned in Bicêtre.  They say that he is a man who has fasted so much and so pickled his body by his austerities, that his brain has been affected and he thinks in good faith that he is the Prophet Elijah.  He has gone so far as to take the stagecoach to Metz, and present himself to the Jews as the Prophet Elijah; but the Jews regarded him as a madman and kicked him out on his backside.....
(Barbier, Journal, vol.ii, p.527; December 1734)

 As Catherine Maire has shown, a "figurist" reading of Scripture, associated with the abbé Duguet, the abbé Étemare and other theologians at Saint-Magloire permeated Jansenist thought in the 1730s and suffused it with with millenarian expectation.  Analogies and correspondances proliferated.  Among the best known Biblical passages referring to the Last Days was Romans Chapter 11 which foretold the return to earth of the Prophet Elijah and the mass conversion of the Jews to Christianity.  It was perhaps inevitable that someone would eventually claim that Elijah had returned or even, more extravagantly, that they themselves were Elijah. That person was the abbé  Pierre Vaillant.

 Ascent of Elijah Plate from Thomas Macklin's Bible, c.1800

Friday 8 April 2016

Miracle cures - Restout's illustrations (cont)

Here are the cures from the first volume of Montgeron's with their paired illustrations:

Alphonse de Palacio

Montgeron's first case was neither a woman nor a humble working person.  Dom Alphonse de Palacio, was the sixteen-year old son of a Spanish court official,in Paris studying at the Collège de Navarre.  He had been almost blinded in an accident and sought the aid of Europe's leading oculists to no avail.  Having already lost the sight of his left eye, his right one was so inflamed and weakened that on 30th June 1731 Mr Gendron, doctor to the duke of Orléans certified his condition as incurable. He was unable to bear any light. On 2nd July, when he lay his head on the tomb of the Deacon, the sight in his right eye was perfectly restored so that "he could bear with no discomfort the rays of the sun"; he rushed home and stayed up all night to commit his testimony to paper.

Tuesday 5 April 2016

Jean Restout and the miracles of Saint-Médard

A full bibliographic study of  history of Montgeron's La vérité des miracles is yet to be written (see Kreiser, p.378 nt.).  The first volume, which contains detailed accounts of the miracles of Saint-Médard, is generally considered the most interesting.  It went to the press in late 1736 or early 1737.  The first edition was printed in Urecht under the supervision of the abbé Nicolas Le Gros, closely followed by one clandestinely published in Paris - it was this edition which was destroyed in Hérault's bonfires.  The book runs to over 900 pages and contains striking full-page engravings after originals by Jean Restout.  The duc de Luynes reckoned that it had cost Montgeron over 1,000 livres to produce.

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?
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