Religion and the Politics of Time: Holidays in France from Louis XIV through Napoleon






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Publication: Church History
Author: Bergin, Joseph
Date published: June 1, 2012

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Both the title and sub-title of this book are essential if potential readers are not to misunderstand its propos . The sub-title brings us into the heart of the matter of the book, which deals with the successive attempts by church and state within France--and the conflicts to which they gave rise--to revise the calendar over the 150 years separating Louis XIV and Napoleon. The main title matters, too, since throughout this admirably readable and well-researched book Noah Shusterman addresses the wider question of how Europeans of earlier centuries viewed times of rest and celebration in relation to religious or secular values. The result is a much more layered and nuanced treatment of the subject than provided by previous studies.

The timescale of this study is bookmarked on one end by Henri IV petitioning Pope Clement VIII in 1599 to reduce the number of holidays "of obligation" in order to enable France to recover from prolonged civil war, only to be told that this was a matter for the bishops of France. At the other end, in 1802, Napoleon had the papal legate publish an indult reducing religious holidays to just four, but nobody was fooled by this apparent intervention of the papacy in France's religious affairs. Napoleon wanted to bury the troublesome Revolutionary calendar and return to its Gregorian predecessor, and doing it under a papal flag of convenience was designed to rally support for the regime among France's Catholics. The Napoleonic regime would achieve considerable success here, with the enduring result that decisions on work days and rest days, as well as the kind of "regime" that defined rest days, belonged firmly henceforth to the state rather than the church. The previous 150 years had been largely concerned with how to reduce the number of holidays, but once the Napoleonic minimum of four had been achieved, the modern French state has been mostly concerned with raising their number again! Current defenders of what seem to outsiders as the "generous" French holiday regime argue that they can be afforded because French workers are more productive than their counterparts elsewhere; much of the pressure in previous centuries to reduce holidays was based on assumptions about low levels of productivity and the laziness which too many non-working days generated.

This book effectively dispels many of the myths on the subject of the historical calendar. Nowhere was it more fiercely contested than in France, which produced its own ten-day "week" and associated non-religious festivals with the Revolutionary Calendar of 1793. Shusterman approaches this familiar question with the best analysis so far of the efforts made during the previous century to cull the religious holidays inherited from earlier epochs, and which were still being added to until the seventeenth century. Such an analysis is fraught with acute problems of documentation, and a useful appendix provides the reader with an expert guide to the subject. For all Louis XIV's efforts to strengthen royal power, holidays and festivals were left under the control of France's bishops until 1789, just as Clement VIII had told Henri IV they should. Remarkably, though, the bishops breathed the spirit of the age, especially during the eighteenth century and especially on questions of social utility. Not only were they willing to reduce the number of holidays to about eighteen on average by the 1780s, but they did so in a purely voluntary co-coordinated way, which meant that by 1789 France was already close to having a national calendar, albeit one whose character was still religious.

The crisis of the French Revolution gave scope to Enlightenment ideas for an alternative calendar that would not merely have fewer holidays, but would be based on different, secular principles. The Revolutionary calendar finally arrived in 1793, like the metric system of measurement, as part of the increasingly severe de-christianization campaign launched by the embattled revolutionary regime, but in the decade or so before its abolition in 1805, it was only seriously enforced during the Terror of 1793-4 and the latter years of the Directory (1797-8). These campaigns are examined in some detail in chapters 5 and especially 6, which reveal a bewildering array of attitudes in both central and local government. At such moments, the Paris-based government and politicians could argue that French citizens needed to be re-made as secular republicans in their rulers' likeness, but when local campaigns sought support for tough measures to enforce the new calendar, ministers sometimes balked, responding that freedom of conscience and religion could not be overturned without creating a new tyranny. Such incidents allude to a much wider set of arguments that only make a fleeting appearance in this book, which whets the reader's appetite for further explorations of the topic. The Napoleonic regime, which began with the Brumaire coup in late 1799, gradually sought to bury the conflicts arising from these religious and calendar changes, but without surrendering any of the authority that the French state had acquired as a result of them.

There is a wider historiographical theme that traverses this book. Noah Shusterman contests Tocqueville's argument that the French revolutionary state absorbed and centralized much of the power that had been scattered throughout the old regime monarchy, showing that as far as holidays were concerned, it was the French church that had previously had the authority to make all such decisions. Secondly, he argues against Tocequeville that religious affairs were integral, not incidental, to the centralization of state power, with de-christianization as a major motor for increased state intervention in daily life (118-19).

Despite its compact format and modest length, it will be evident that this is a book that deals with a wide as well as an important range of historical issues. It is based on extensive research, as its helpful appendices, maps, and diagrams make abundantly clear. Some of the debates on the Revolutionary calendar and, especially, about the question of its enforcement might have received more attention, but that wish is itself testimony to the book's value as it stands.

Author affiliation:

University of Manchester, U.K.

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