Historical Essays and Studies/Mabillon et la Société de L'Abbaye de Saint-Germain-des-Prés à la Fin du XVII Siècle

From Wikisource
Jump to navigation Jump to search
Historical Essays and Studies by John Acton
Mabillon et la Société de L'Abbaye de Saint-Germain-des-Prés à la Fin du XVII Siècle



In his Life of Mabillon, which appeared within a week of Marie-Thérèse Imperatrice, Prince Emmanuel de Broglie takes a handsome revenge on the French Benedictines who assailed his father. Whilst the duke explains the rising pride of Prussia and the reasons of the Maison du Roy for reserving their fire, his youngest son, overcoming difficulties which would disable any ordinary man, displays the obscure labours of the Champenois peasant who became the glory of the Congregation de St. Maur. The academic éloge has long developed the art of redeeming the monotony of praise with pinches of salutary censure. This, however, is not a criticism on the famous critic. There is no attempt to overdo, scarcely even to describe, his special merit as an investigator of the past, or to ascertain how far he contributed to progress, in matter and method, and how far it has left him behind. Mabillon is presented as the equal of men like Ducange and Baluze, whilst the most learned of the Dominicans and of the Jesuits, Quétif and Hardouin, are not taken into comparison, and the amiable weakness of biographers appears, if at all, in admiration of the monk, not of the scholar. The worth of the book consists in extracts from the archives of the abbey of St. Germain, now in the congenial custody of M. Léopold Delisle. Its defect is that this inappreciable reservoir of curious knowledge has been too much neglected in favour of books always familiar to students of the growth of erudition. For Mabillon belongs to the family of pioneers, and his is one of the best and best-known names in the line of discoverers, from Valla and Sigonius to Borghesi and Morgan, who have made history a science. Plis branch of the order admitted study as a sub-genus of manual labour. Blameless providers of raw material, they placed texts above facts and facts above thoughts. He himself paid heavy tribute to the humble cumulative purpose which was still the foremost need in that stage of knowledge. He slaved in the mine, and belongs, one half of him, to the useful but unostentatious army of editors, compilers, and transcribers. But although disciplined and repressed by the strict reform of St. Maur, he rose above his brethren to be, as an historian, eminently solid and trustworthy, as a critic the first in the world ; and his thoroughness and individuality brought on disputes in which he was as often right as any man who embarks in much contention.

The portrait here given is taken from these characteristic controversies more than from the study of his greater works. He is heard speaking to contemporaries, not addressing the future. His work was confined to those centuries, from St. Benet to St. Bernard, during which the Benedictine order was the foremost association in Christendom, and a leading force in; the civilisation of the West. History, as he found it, was shrouded in fable. Others were content, in reverent indifference, to accept the fable with the fact, and shrank from the coarse touch which dispels illusions and gives sterile and unaccommodating fact for religion in poetic garb. Mabillon undertook to rescue the work of his founder from the reproach of uncertainty, to bring it out of cloudland into shape fit for daylight, to carry the machinery of positive knowledge into the darkest and most doubtful of the ages of faith. Historical criticism was reduced to an art for the sake and honour of the Benedictines. Mabillon's first care was for the title-deeds of his order. Nobody before him had shown that it is possible to prove beyond dispute that an early document is genuine ; and the uncertainty of history was a welcome ally to those who resisted the tests of truth that were taught by the Cartesian and the inductive philosophers. Abbot Hirnhaim wrote : "Nihili curanda est nobis hominum authoritas, quos constat plerumque falsitatis esse authores. — Diminutae sunt veritates a filiis hominum, et de ipsa veritate vix aliquid veri tenemus. — Nec mundus regitur scientiis sed opinionibus." Some hoped or professed to elevate spiritual authority by the repression of human testimony ; and Huet, with the name and aspect of a Christian apologist and divine, wrote things that might have gone into the article "Pyrrhonisme ": "Il ne se trouve point de faculté naturelle par laquelle on puisse découvrir la vérité avec une pleine et entière assurance." There were men who, anticipating a controversy which reappeared at the cradle of statistical science, declared that the evidences of Christianity would become invalid by lapse of time, and would expire about the year 3154 — or, as it came to be amended, in 1789. To this scepticism Mabillon offered the remedy of criticism ; and his great quality is that the criticism he founded was constructive and did not rest at the exposure of error. M. de Broglie adopts a saying of Leibnitz, that the defence of history was really a defence of religion. Mabillon's antagonist in the endeavour to drown history in legend, the Bollandist Papebroeck, was convinced by the treatise De Re Diplomatica ; and its doctrine, less opposed at the time than that of Simon or of Newton, has remained unshaken and as fruitful as theirs. It covered a small part of a very large field, leaving much for later determination. Thierry says, with more or less justice, of Guizot : "Il a ouvert, comme historien de nos vieilles institutions, l'ère de la science proprement dite ; avant lui, Montesquieu seul excepté, il n'y avait eu que des systèmes." What Mabillon did was to pass from fiction to reality, not from system to science.

My own copies, made many years ago from the manuscripts which M. de Broglie has consulted, do not authorise me to dispute readings taken with the aid of such a master as Delisle. But some passages of interest have been overlooked, and the want of attentive revision in small things is a drawback in a book of this academic kind. It is not very difficult to read the conundrum contained in the words "M. de Leybum, auditeur de mgr. le cardinal de Montfort." But the "Libellus de expeditione sacra sub Urbano II." is an account of the first crusade, not of a pilgrimage under Urban the Fifth ; Johannes Diaconus ought not to be confounded with Paulus Diaconus, though both wrote lives of the same personage ; Christine of Sweden was not the daughter of Charles XII. ; in 1686 Burnet was not Bishop of Salisbury ; and the rejoicings over the reported death of William III. took place after Boyne Water, not "au moment où il venait de détrôner Jacques II." A hasty reader of the words "Comme Pierre Victor l'écrit dans le deuxième livre de sa Rhétorique" would take the commentator for the author. In the account of Allatius's emotion at the loss of the Greek pen which had lasted forty years, "ne versa pas une larme" does not give the sense of "tantum non lacrymasse." Mabillon wrote "Animadversiones" on a book which claimed the Imitation for Kempis. We are assured that the title of the book is dans nu Latin un peu barbare. The title is Vindiciae Kempenses, without any barbarism. Madame de Guise is counted among those who urged Rancé to write against Mabillon. If it is so, authority should be given, for there would appear to be some the other way : "Le P. Abbé avouoit dans une de ses lettres que ces avis lui venoient de plus de vingt endroits. Madame de Guise, entre autres, lui ecrivit fortement sur ce sujet ; mais e'etoit pour lui une affaire de conscience." It is scarcely accurate to say simply that the dispute touching the orthodoxy of the Benedictines of St. Maur, provoked by Mabillon's preface to St. Augustine, was silenced by the pope in 1700. The king imposed silence in 1699. In March 1701 the question was reopened at Rome; in January 1708 Massuet wrote his defence against the Bishop of Beauvais ; it was even proposed to dissolve the congregation. The preface was less successful than the biography implies. F£nelon declared it equally offensive to Catholics and to Jansenists ; and one of the Benedictines accuses the writer of trimming, and says, "Cette préface donne quelque atteinte à la reputation de Dom Mabillon."

Though slow to admit the justice of attacks, the biographer does not care to refute them. When Mabillon, whose function it was to write correct and copious Latin, became revealed, under stress of controversy, as a master of unsuspected French, it was believed that his friend Nicole stood at his elbow and revised his style. This, we are told, is untrue. Nevertheless, the authority for it is Rancé, an adversary, no doubt, not to be trusted in speaking of character, but so richly furnished with sources of information, that his word, on matters of fact, deserves the compliment of refutation. Richard Simon, being, like Fenelon, a Molinist, disliked and disparaged Mabillon. According to Simon, there was so much opposition in the abbey to his special studies that he wished to escape from it ; several of the monks became Protestants ; and one, after scoffing at the new criticism, fled to Berlin. The superior himself was not at ease with such a fish in his net : "Il a toujours été dans cette pensée, que les lettrez de sa maison n'apportoient que du désordre ; et s'il en avoit été crù, on les auroit obligez aux exercices de la communauté comme tous les autres Religieux." Threatened with an action for libel — "de injuriis lege postulatus" — Simon withdrew certain of his statements, which are furthermore contested in the posthumous volume of the Annales ordinis S. Benedicti. The report of internal dissension at St. Germain does not appear to have been either confuted or withdrawn, and, coming from one who, in the view of posterity, was the most important divine then living, who did more for the advancement of religious knowledge than either Bossuet or Mabillon himself, calls for verification. All this we are not suffered to know or to perpend. Neither attack nor defence is set forth.

Perhaps the most curious document in these volumes is the letter in which Lamy describes his interview with Rancé at the height of the strife between scholar and ascetic. The whole of it, indeed, only transposed to the third person, was published a century and a half ago ; and it should be pointed out that its drift is contested. Lamy represents Ranee as conceding a good deal. But Rancé says : "Je ne suis convenu de rien avec le pere Lami, mais je n'ai point voulu disputer avec lui sur rien, car je ne veux disputer contre personne." The question of precedence which perplexed Lord Castlemaine at Rome is told in a letter of 21st January here printed. We are not told what came of it, which would have been found in the letter of the 28th. There is much in this correspondence about England, not to say about the Nag's Head. Durand, in one of the omitted letters, touches as follows upon the prospect opened by James II., and on one of the problems which it raised : "J'ay même desjà vu quelques personnes de considération qui mettoient en question, si Ton devoit réordonner les évesques d'Angleterre, en cas qu'ils se reconciliassent à l'Eglise ; et de la manière que ces personnes s'expliquoient, il semble qu'on devoit espérer en peu quelque changement considérable en cette Isle, touchant la religion." These Maurine fathers, when they settled in Rome, struck no root. One of them writes : "Tout me scandalise dans Rome. — Je suis persuade que les Romains n'ont ni dévotion ni religion. lis se contentent d'en faire paroistre a l'extérieur dans la magnificence des Eglises ; surtout les monsignori et les gens de la cour Romaine, qui fourbent Dieu aussi bien que les hommes." This might be rejected as trivial and unscrupulous. But after Sergardi's censure of Roman ignorance given in vol. i. p. 192, we might expect Germain's tribute to Roman learning, which not only expresses the judgment of Mabillon himself, but is remarkable in the pen of a man notorious for petulance and satire : "Je reconnois tous les jours qu'il n'est pas vrai qu'on etudie si peu les bonnes choses à Rome, qu'on s'imagine à Paris. C'est une illusion de croire que toute l'habilete des savants de cette ville se termine au droit civil et canonique. Je vous assure qu'ils scavent fort bien la théologie, et que dans la De Propaganda Fide, et dans leurs autres académies, il se fait des conferences sur les Conciles et sur l'Histoire ecclésiastique, où l’on dit des choses aussi belles et aussi foncières qu'on puisse faire à Paris. Il est vray qu'ils ont tort de ne pas écrire sur ces matières ; mais ils ne laissent pas de les sçavoir."

In the seventeenth century the purposes of controversy were dominant ; ecclesiastical history was more developed than civil, and polemical motives underlie even the writings of Mabillon. Thinking sometimes of his order and sometimes of his church, he rejoices especially in the eleventh century "ex restitutione ecclesiasticae disciplinae, quae a Romanis pontificibus ex ordine nostro assumtis facta est." When he contends with Daille for a date, he is defending the very citadel of the theology of tradition. Yet his canons of good history were not injured by devotion to a cause : "Donner pour certain ce qui est certain, pour faux ce qui est faux, pour douteux ce qui est douteux. — Mon but n'est autre, que de faire rechercher simplement la vérité par l'examen des raisons, qui les auteurs de différent parti ont apportées de part et d'autre. — Nec satis est, tamen verum amet et investiget, nisi is insit animi candor, quo ingenue et aperte dicat quod verum esse noverit." The maxim that mischief lurks oftener in praise than in blame, that it is better to dwell on evil than on good, is one of the rare points on which his sage and lucid but not prophetic mind saw two centuries ahead. His position towards other schools is defined by the Traité des Études, in which he counsels the young Benedictine to read the De Officiis in preference to various Christian writers on morality. "On étudie l'Ecriture et les sentimens des Conciles et des Pères dans leurs sources, et non pas seulement dans de medians extraits que les scolastiques empruntoient les uns des autres, et s'en servoient bien souvent contre le sens des auteurs. — A force de raisonner, on a perdu quelquefois la raison, et on a vû avec douleur, que la morale des payens faisoit honte a celle de quelques casuistes. — Il n'y a presque point de crimes, auxquels on n'ait trouvé des palliations et des excuses." He quotes with approval the words of Godeau : "Les Docteurs se sont multipliez et la bonne doctrine s'est presque toute perdue. On a traité exactement des cas de conscience ; on a tout examiné, on a tout réglé ; et l’on a perdu la conscience." On his travels he is careful not to commit himself about the authenticity of relics, rebukes superstition, and tells with a touch of humour the tricks that were played with "Corpi Santi. Catenae beati Petri de more ostensae sunt. — Miranda majorum nostrorum pia simplicitas, a moribus nostrae aetatis longe diversa, qui ejusmodi ossa pro veris reliquiis habebant. — Utinam hanc (Baronii) religionem imitarentur, qui sanctorum recens absque certis nominibus inventorum fictas historias comminiscuntur, atque in lucem obtrudunt ad confusionem (ne quid amplius dicarn) verarum historiarum : immo et qui paganorum inscriptiones aliquando pro Christianis vulgant. — Recurrisse in mentem Sixto quod Felici acciderat, ac meditari coepisse quo pacto Canonicos Sancti Hieronymi corpore, quod in ea cappella asservatur, spoliaret. Ideo sub Sancti Doctoris patrocinio ecclesiam, quae Sixto titulus Cardinalitius fuerat, ad ripam Tiberis a fundamentis instaurasse, ut in eam sacras reliquias transferret. Sed Canonicos fraudem subodoratos, eas in locum secretum abdidisse : sicque dolum dolo fuisse delusum." At a time when Petavius could not be reprinted in England, lest the Socinians should help themselves to his ante-Nicene quotations, Mabillon speaks of Rome in such terms as these : "Apostolicam sedem paullo minus reveriti sunt fideles praecipue aliarum Ecclesiarum episcopi etiam religiosissimi, atque saeculares Principes, quantumvis perditae famae et vitae essent Romani antistites. Hinc Sergius Coloniensis archiepiscopus, et Rogerus Hammaburgensis, pallium a Sergio III. (Deus bone quali monstro !) modeste petierunt." Nor is this an utterance of anti-Roman spirit, for he goes on to say of the Bavarian bishops : "Sic illi sedem Petri tamquam errori haud obnoxiam suspiciebant." Having convinced himself on his visit to Rome that there was a practice of finding the remains of imaginary saints, to be sent forth with lying legends attached, he exposed the abuse. His treatise gave offence, and the pope required that he should rewrite it. Mabillon submitted, and produced an enlarged and amended edition, which was published with approbation. In a preface of genuine moderation and humility, he assumes the bearing of one who has undergone correction : "Eo tendit ut emolliam si quid durius, ut explicem si quid obscurius, denique ut emendem et corrigam si quid secus quam par sit a me hac in epistola scriptum non-nullis videatur." To the world, and even to his own brethren, he appeared to have confessed his error. Dom Thuillier says that he condemned himself and was only too long about it. In fact he had sacrificed his credit rather than his judgment. To a friend he writes of this book : "Je l'ai done retouchée sans l'affoiblir en rien, et l'ai augmentée de près de la moitié." The historian who says that the finest moments in Church history are the resistance of Luther and the submission of Fénelon, might find room for a third type in the example of Mabillon.

The moral that distils from these pages is that Mabillon and his companions were not only learned and able, but veracious and sincere ; that history, which intellectually makes giant strides, makes none morally ; that the rules, the limitations, the observances that guarded the compilers of so many folios are safer than the maxims of an age in which Renan, Havet, Haureau, occupy the seats of Gallican learning, when unattachment is more honoured than authority, and a man is less esteemed for equity towards opponents than for alacrity in turning against friends. "Les erudits d'autrefois valaient bien ceux de notre temps. — Tous . . . portent dans leurs études et leurs recherches une bonne foi, une liberté d'ésprit et de jugement, qui frappent singulièrement." There is a problem here of historical psychology and progressive ethics that is worth thinking about. At first sight it should seem a paradox to say that two centuries which have accomplished so much for the science of conscience, for the theory of morals, for the testing of certainty and the analysis of motive, which have learnt to probe the springs of error with instruments of precision as little known to the logic of Port Royal as fluxions to Hipparchus, have added nothing to the notion of truth. Men without fastidiousness in their political tastes imagine that liberty flourished under Alfred, under Charlemagne, or even in the Hercynian forest. Probably the conception of historical veracity has been as greatly expanded, modified, fertilised by culture and experience as that of political liberty, and we may be as far from what the seventeenth century meant by good faith as from that which it understood by freedom. What are we to think of a man who declares that the enemies of the Church come to an inevitable bad end : "Mira Dei in ecclesiae gubernatione procuratio, occulta et ineluctabilis divinae vis Providentiae ad perdendos ecclesiae hostes " ? Or who makes a theological argument out of the existence of a Latin liturgy in France in the seventh century ; or who thinks that one who denied the legend of Veronica, "ex suae sectae praejudicio impugnavit ?" At Naples Mabillon beheld some custom which he thought Protestants right in denouncing. "Detectio haec fit cum dignitate et modestia, non cum iis ritibus quos alibi in Italia observatos vidimus, non satis fortasse ad gravitatem religionis compositos. Ejusmodi ritus Neapoli nobis superstitionis nomine objecerunt quidam Hollandici haeretici, quibus, ut par erat, satisfecimus. Cum vero ea de re ad quemdam nobilem verba haberemus, respondit ille non decere, ut quod fidei domesticos aedificat, in gratiam exterorum et segregum facile abrogetur." Taking the lesson home with him, he employed it in defence of the "Sainte larme de Vendôme. II faut voir si la suppression que Ton prétendroit faire ne causeroit pas plus de scandale que l’abus même que l’on pretend oster ; et s'il ne seroit pas plus a propos de tolérer ce que Ton ne peut supprimer sans causer un plus grand mal. — On doit s'en tenir à la bonne foy des Eglises, jusqu'à ce que l’on ait des prcuves certaines et evidentes qui obligent de porter un autre jugement." He is not far from applying this rule to the head of St. John, of which there are several. The earliest mention of the Vendôme relic is late in the twelfth century. No matter ; we need no testimony where we have prescription : "Ce principe peut bien servir pour prouver un point de dogme, de morale, ou de discipline : mais d'en vouloir faire dépendre la vérification des reliques, c'est réduire presque toutes les Eglises à l'impossibilité d'en montrer de véritables." The silence of authors is no objection, for Fulbert nowhere mentions the similar relic of Chartres, which is known to have existed in his time : "Nous en avons une preuve indubitable sur la fin du neuvième siècle, lorsque Rollon, chef des Normans, ayant assiégé la ville de Chartres, l'evesque ayant fait une sortie et porté la chemise de Notre Dame, Camisiam S. Mariæ in manibus ferens, mit en fuite Rollon et son armée."

That such reasoning as this can have been seriously meant and published by the supreme scholar of the age of Lewis XIV. is not absolutely impossible, because nothing is impossible to historians ; but it is hard to believe. Mabillon was not his own master. He had to consider the credit of two hundred French monasteries, the feelings and the interests of the studious body among whom he lived. To be checked and winnowed by Sammarthanus, Coustant, and Massuet is a servitude we all should envy ; but it is not conducive to originality or to integrity, which imply isolation. And there were other ordeals, civil and ecclesiastical, to pass before honest manuscript could get into deceitful type. Thuillier gives a cue when he says of Mabillon, "que souvent il faut deviner son sentiment, ct qu'il ne l'insinue d'ordinaire que par un peut-être, pourraît-on dire." But our author's admiration extends generally to the group of which Mabillon is the centre. One of the ablest of these men wrote in defence of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes. When it was doubted whether Innocent XI., who was labouring as no pontiff had done before him for conciliation and reunion, would approve that measure, the Benedictines grew impatient. Durand expresses their inner mind when he writes : "On a d'autant plus de sujet d'espérer que le Pape fera quelque ordonnance sur ce sujet, que Grégoire XIII. tint consistoire exprès sur l'affaire de la St.-Barthélemy, et qu'on a comme voulu éterniser cette action si honteuse à la France, en la faisant dépeindre dans la salle royale du Palais Vatican." As this was by no means the universal sentiment of the French clergy at the time, it cannot be excused by the argument from environment. And the allusion to Gregory XIII. shows that it was inspired neither by the rapture of religious zeal, nor by respect for authority. Another sinister symptom among these men is their extreme sensibility to contradiction and their anxiety not to be answered. Huet, who stands in the front rank as a scholar if not as a thinker, hit thus wildly at certain Protestants : "Ces gens-là, par leurs médisances et par leurs calomnies atroces, font bien voir qu'ils n'ont guère de Christianisme. lis ont fait une critique sur le dictionnaire de l'Académie." Valois writes that Germain tried to induce him by threats to give up his intention of answering a particular publication of the Benedictines : "Il me dit d'une voix émue : Si vous le faites, nous vous perdrons ; et dans la même conversation il me repeta plus de douze fois ces mots : Nous vous perdrons." As the struggle against Jansenism was not confined to scientific arguments, it raised a crop of equivocation. One of the ablest of the French priests wrote : "J'ai signé contre M. Jansénius des faits dont je ne suis pas persuadé, et qui me paraissent au moins fort douteux et fort incertains. — Je n'ai souscrit aux formulaires simplement et sans restriction, principalement la dernière fois, qu'avec une extrême répugnance, par une obéissance aveugle à mes superieurs, par imitation, et par d'autres considérations humaines." Nisard has described a writer" qui louvoye entre plaire et déplaire, et pour qui concevoir une idée et s'inquiéter de ce que l’on en dira, est une seule et meme operation d'esprit." Under pressure of dependence and solidarity they learnt to speak what was not precisely their opinion, and to shelter themselves behind insinuations and ceremonious ambiguities. "La politesse est a la fois la fille de la grâce française et du génie jésuite." To this day a Frenchman who indicates disagreement by some deferential suggestion, instead of calling his friend a Serbonian plunger or a hog from Tartarus, is told : "Il n'y a qu'un élève du Petit Séminaire pour être poli comme cela." Malebranche, having to give an opinion about a magical performance, says : "Je crois que c'est une fourberie ou une diablerie ; mais un peu plus le premier que le dernier." And Thuillier, speaking of the enemy at La Trappe, says quite seriously : "Les saints ne nous instruisent pas moins par leurs défauts que par leurs vertus." The fact is that these men were devoted, exact and temperate, but indirect and given to a simple irony. The praise of sincerity should not be squandered. M. de Broglie touches the right note when he writes the wary words : "Mabillon ne parle même plus de cette attaque qui était venue le chercher si loin, et le silence etait peut-être aussi habile que chrétien."


  1. English Historical Review, vol. iii. 1888.