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  • From Penitence to Charity: Pious Women and the Catholic Reformation in Paris
  • Thomas M. Adams
From Penitence to Charity: Pious Women and the Catholic Reformation in Paris. By Barbara B. Diefendorf ( Oxford and New York: Oxford University Press, 2004. ix plus 341 pp.).

Barbara Diefendorf takes issue with those who have treated religious visionaries as mentally disturbed fanatics, as well as with those who have seen the Counter-Reformation campaign to enforce rules of claustration on women's convents as unalloyed patriarchal subjugation. Most important, she offers a pointed corrective to all those who have neglected to assign agency, initiative, skill, or intelligence to the women who created new forms of religious community life from the end of the French religious wars to the Fronde.

Diefendorf's book overlaps most significantly with Elizabeth Rapley's The Dé- votes: Women and Church in Seventeenth-Century France (1990) on the theme of women's agency. The two authors adduce mutually reinforcing evidence for the signal role of women as initiators of new communities of lay women and as definers of their particular missions. Diefendorf, however, is more concerned to recreate to the degree possible the inner spiritual lives and aspirations of two generations of Parisian women. She captures in a telling vignette toward the end of her book the complex relationship between the deeply ascetic generation of women who experienced the French wars of religion and their daughters who were less given to penitential mortifications of the flesh and more inclined toward charitable service. Only when Marie Deslandes fainted one day did her daughter, Madeleine de Lamoignon, discover that her mother, whom she had accompanied on charitable rounds for many years, regularly wore a hair shirt and constricting iron bands to mortify her flesh. "Like their mothers," the author tells us, " the younger women remained profoundly Christocentric, and yet they tended to attach themselves more to the example of the living Christ as teacher and friend to the poor than to the agonies of his passion that had been the favorite subjects of meditation for Barbe Acarie and her peers." (p. 241)

While she ranges far afield to trace the linkages between religious communities in Paris with others throughout France and beyond, Diefendorf, by contrast with Rapley, is more focused on the Parisian cultural milieu. Expertly navigating a labyrinth of manuscript records in Parisian archives and libraries and breathing life into an abundance of primary printed sources, she tells an affecting story of individual women, their families, and their social networks lay and clerical. Diefendorf has a long acquaintance with the prominent Parisian families who provide the dramatis personae of her narrative. In the introduction to Beneath the Cross: Catholics and Huguenots in Sixteenth-Century Paris (1991), Diefendorf explained her need to go beyond the primarily sociological analysis of sixteenth-century Parisian magistrates that had been the subject of her first book, in order [End Page 497] to understand the religious mentalities and personal relationships that made possible the lurid massacres of Saint Bartholemew's Day in 1572. The puzzle for her was to explain how the otherwise cautious, even-tempered, and reasonable men that she thought she knew could have been drawn into such a frenzy of blood-letting. The present study draws its deft psychological colorations and its filigree of specific familial relationships from long reflection on the mentalité of the Parisian elite and its most sensitive and intelligent daughters, who felt impelled to provide personal and collective atonement for evils beyond human understanding—evils suffered, witnessed, inflicted or countenanced.

Her account begins, then, with the ascetic impulse and the creation of new orders such as the Feuillants, recognized by the Pope in 1587. Describing "Mademoiselle Acarie and her circle," the author explores the likelihood that Acarie drew on a variety of medieval sources to formulate a Christocentric vision of a contemplative life outside the cloister and did not merely follow in the footsteps of influential contemporary clerics such as Benoît de Canfield or the Carthusian Richard Beaucousin. In a chapter on "first foundations" she evokes the role of Barbe Acarie and her circle in establishing a French Carmelite order, sloughing off the tutelage of Mother Ana...


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pp. 497-500
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