- Women and Poor Relief in Seventeenth-Century France: The Early History of the Daughters of Charity
Recent studies have challenged the view that the role of women was increasingly circumscribed in the era of the Catholic Reformation. In From Penitence to Charity, Barbara Diefendorf argues that lay and religious women in the late sixteenth and seventeenth century engaged in active spirituality, shaping Catholic values and institutions and even assuming quasi-sacerdotal roles. Susan Dinan furthers our knowledge of women's religious activities in this period with this study of Louise de Marillac's Daughters of Charity. Although the Council of Trent tried to enforce strict clausura on nuns, Dinan shows this would have had a devastating effect on the women involved, and would have caused serious problems for the state, which depended on the social and educational services provided by religious women. Dinan makes several arguments: first, "that the Daughters of Charity [End Page 1223] escaped the cloister by aggressively managing their self-presentation in order to avoid being formally labeled as a religious order, and thus preserved their independence" (3); second, that the importance of local politics in shaping the Catholic Reformation must be taken into account; third, that the Council's goals were incompatible with the realities of convent life and the surrounding society; and fourth, that the Daughters remained uncloistered because they posed no threat to the Church. Their services as teachers, nurses, and "social workers" were vital in seventeenth-century France.
Dinan demonstrates that from the foundation of the Daughters of Charity by Louise de Marillac and Vincent de Paul, the leaders deliberately misrepresented the activities of the group in order to maintain freedom and independence. The sophisticated infrastructure and training developed by de Marillac, and the changing needs of the French church and state in the seventeenth century soon made them indispensable. Dinan shows (as did Diefendorf) that in France, "innovations were tolerated when it was clear that they would help to secure Catholicism" (25). The Daughters survived as a result of their leadership, emphasis on secular status, exploitation of the Church's guidelines, and their usefulness to society.
At a time when other female religious orders were being strictly enclosed, Vincent de Paul's Congregation of the Mission had broadly interpreted church rules to carry out what Trent envisioned: education. In the process, he often employed women, deliberately misleading Church authorities by using the label of lay confraternities. His collaboration with Louise de Marillac led to the creation of the Daughters of Charity under her supervision. Both recognized that important female figures in French society had the capability to enlist other dévotes for charitable work. In the process, de Marillac changed the growing institution. While Ladies of Charity managed the group, Daughters of Charity, who generally came from the bourgeois and artisanal classes, were trained to carry out social services. In 1668, the Daughters received Church recognition as a noncloistered confraternity.
One of the most important aspects of Dinan's book is her understanding of the nuanced ways in which the leaders manipulated the system. Wearing special clothing that separated them from worldly women yet did not suggest irrevocable vows, Daughters were able to visit the poor in their homes, thus creating "a new, holy identity that allowed them to transgress social expectations" (57). The Motherhouse in Paris quickly expanded throughout France, as the services performed by the Daughters became invaluable to the state. "Serving God through serving the poor" was their motto. De Marillac's administrative skills were essential in allowing new communities to flourish — sending girls out two at a time and keeping them for limited times in a given area allowed them to learn from one another without developing ties that could conflict with their mission. In their roles, Daughters often taught catechism to rural girls, coming dangerously close to transgressing religious boundaries. Even after the death...