Rose-Marie Peake: “The Daughters of Charity and Moral Management in Seventeenth-Century France – Creating Conservative Catholics, Securing Survival”. Lectio praecursoria 13.11.2015

FM Rose-Marie Peaken yleisen historian väitös ”The Daughters of Charity and Moral Management in Seventeenth-Century France – Creating Conservative Catholics, Securing Survival” tarkastettiin 13.11.2015 Helsingin yliopistossa. Vastaväittäjänä toimi Professor Barbara Diefendorf (Boston University) ja kustoksena professori Laura Kolbe.

A certain eminent historian once said: the task of the historian is to avoid judging the past and teaching the present. He also stated that the historian is to use original sources to discover wie es eigentlich gewesen, or what actually happened.

In the source material of this study, not much is, in fact, happening, but there sure is a lot of talk about what should be happening in certain people’s lives – and all of this with a great judgemental tone.

This study is about values, attitudes and mentalities. Contrary to Leopold von Ranke, who I just cited, I am convinced that these issues bear significance also for the present, for us.

The subject of the thesis is one of the most important moral educators of seventeenth-century France: les Filles de la Charité, or the Daughters of Charity. The organisation was dedicated to poor relief and Catholic conversion and employed mainly lower class women. The tasks of the Company included schooling poor girls, nursing the sick, sheltering the orphans and visiting prisoners. It was founded in Paris in 1633 by one of the most illustrious personnages of the French Catholic reformation, priest Vincent de Paul and his spiritual directee and collaborator, the elite widow Louise de Marillac.

The focus of the study is on the value system of this Company, which is found behind the activities that I have just described. In my study, I have chosen to call these activities by the name moral management. This term refers to the moral education the Company provided in order to produce ideal human beings, meaning upright, good Catholics.

Because a picture is sometimes worth a thousand PhD dissertations, I have decided to provide you with a visual summary of my study.

Let me present the portrait Jean André painted around 1732 and called “Vincent de Paul and the Ladies of Charity”. This painting is very useful: it captures all the main agents and targets of the activities of the Company and also reflects the process of analysing the sources by means of interpretation and reinterpretation.

“Vincent de Paul and the Ladies of Charity” painted by Jean André  around 1732.  Œuvre conservée au Musée de l'Assistance - Publique- Hôpitaux de Paris
“Vincent de Paul and the Ladies of Charity” painted by Jean André around 1732. (Œuvre conservée au Musée de l’Assistance – Publique- Hôpitaux de Paris

So, let’s have a closer look at the painting. What can it tell us about the content of the moral management and the value system of the Daughters of Charity?

It first of all shows the three different hierarchical levels involved in the moral management: the poor in the form of swaddled babies, above them the modest lower class Daughter of Charity and, as representing the top of the hierarchy, the elite women and the directors, Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac.

Important to note here is the fact that all of these three groups were also targets of moral management: not only the poor but also the Daughters of Charity and the elite Ladies along with Louise de Marillac were supposed to portray a certain set of values and act in a certain way.

Let’s begin with the top of the hierarchy, the founders and their elite peers, and do some interpreting and reinterpreting.

The message of the composition is pretty clear, in my mind: the man, Vincent de Paul, has been positioned in the centre of the painting and accentuated with a glow behind his head. This was a hint as to his saintliness: the process for declaring him a saint had been started a few years before the painting of this portrait.  All the other figures, the fine Ladies, are placed below him. Even the Queen Mother Anne of Austria who is sitting closest to him.

Without doubt, the painter, the Dominican monk Jean André, wants to say that the male priest was the central and most important figure in the workings of the Company of the Daughters of Charity.

Now the reinterpretation. A first, the mutual correspondence of Louise de Marillac and Vincent de Paul seemed to confirm Andrés statement: Louise de Marillac would belittle herself and give all the credit in matters relating to the direction of the Company to Vincent de Paul.

Or at least rhetorically speaking she did.

After thoroughly close-reading and reinterpreting the sources, I became convinced that the Company could not have been able to succeed without her. I argue that only Louise de Marillac was able to attract the interest of these elite Ladies. These Ladies were crucial because they financed everything. Many of them were also Louise de Marillac’s personal and long-term friends. In comparison to Louise, Vincent was an outsider; he accessed the elite circles as originally not a member of the elite but a son of Gascon peasant family.

Let’s have a look at the second level of the painting, the humble Daughter of Charity. What the painting chooses to conceal is the crucial and central role of this woman. In fact, neither the founders nor their elite friends could have been able to run the Company without her. In the beginning they tried. Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac sent these fine Ladies to the poor, to bandage their wounds and to cook them nourishing meals. But, after a while, the Ladies, very conscious of their social standing, refused the work and started sending their maids. The maids were not much better: they did not want to labour in the horrendous huts of the poor – they thought they had taken a job in a fancy manor house.

Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac realised they needed to descend the social hierarchy: they began recruiting peasant women who they thought were more used to performing menial work. But, in reality, the women who they were able to recruit were not all peasant women: many were the daughters of artisans and some even noble. Louise and Vincent didn’t give up: they decided to make them peasant women by teaching them to behave like ones. The Daughters were even dressed like the peasant women of the Parisian region. They were also taught to act modestly on all occasions – something that is also reflected in this painting.

In the portrait of Jean André, the lowest level of hierarchy, the swaddled infants, also deserve an interpretation. What my study found was a rather mixed set of values. On the one hand, they really were at the bottom of hierarchy: although the girls were schooled, the emphasis was on teaching them Christian morality, not letters. Higher learning was the privilege of the upper classes, and this was a something the Daughters of Charity did not challenge.

But, on the other hand, the painting of Jean André can be reinterpreted as representing the opposite: are not the infants really positioned in front and aren’t their features painted very carefully, almost lovingly? In fact, my study argues that this is how the Company of the Daughters of Charity mainly understood the position of the poor: at the front and often also at the top of the hierarchy.  In fact, the directors taught the Daughters to consider the poor as masters of the whole Company – as masters of both the Daughters and the directors, Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac – and, most importantly, to see them as images or the substitutes of Jesus Christ on Earth.

This means that although the seventeenth century is famous for expelling beggars from cities or locking them up in special institutions (such as the General Hospital of Paris), the Catholic reformation diffused also a contrary, saintly idea of the underprivileged.

As a concluding remark, I would like to briefly summarise the different images and attitudes I have just touched upon: leading men, submissive women; work according class and the problem of the poor: freedom of movement, locking them up or sharing in their humanity?

Does this sound familiar to you, as people of the twenty-first century?

To me it does.

In fact, it has been shown on many occasions, most recently in Finland by Dr. Satu Lidman in her book entitled Väkivaltakulttuurin perintö (the Legacy of the Culture of Violence), that many twenty-first century discourses (on gender, power, social inequality, for example) have their roots in the early modern period. In other words, they have a historical context.

This leads me to conclude that, contrary to the eminent historian cited in the beginning of this lecture, I feel that today one of the important tasks of the historian is to participate in these discourses and be less afraid of giving us a teaching and a judgement of our time.

Kuva: Œuvre conservée au Musée de l’Assistance – Publique- Hôpitaux de Paris

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