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The Catholic Historical Review 89.2 (2003) 305-306
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La Contre-Réforme et les Constitutions de Port Royal. By F. Ellen Weaver. (Paris: Les Éditions du Cerf. 2002. Pp. 242. €29 paperback.)
There is no question that F. Ellen Weaver's study of Port Royal's Constitutions is a must-read book for scholars of Port Royal and Jansenism. But the work also has value for those interested more generally in monastic reform in the Counter-Reformation period. One can divide the eight chapters of this book into two basic sections. The first section compares and contrasts Port Royal's Constitutions with those of other convents. The second section tracks the development of Port Royal's Constitutions as they change over time. For the specialist, the first section provides a compelling answer to the question: To what extent does Jansenism—a controversial reform movement that developed at the Port Royal convent—represent a departure from more mainstream Catholic reform efforts in seventeenth-century France? By comparing Port Royal's Constitutions with those of other contemporary Cistercian and Benedictine convents, Weaver shows that Port Royal's reform remained more faithful to the original Cistercian [End Page 305] interpretation of the Benedictine Rule than that of many other convents. If Port Royal appeared radical or "innovative" to its contemporaries, this was not because it adopted new practices and beliefs, but rather because it rejected someof the institutional and spiritual customs (such as royal nomination of abbesses and an Ignatian emphasis on spiritual exercises) that had become commonplace in post-Tridentine France. Although Port Royal did adopt some key elements of Counter-Reformation religiosity (most significantly a perpetual adoration of the Eucharist), its reformers remained as faithful as possible to the original Benedictine Rule. In short, Weaver argues that many of the practices that critics condemned as "Jansenist" at Port Royal were genuinely Cistercian in origin.
For those interested in monastic reform more generally, Weaver's analysis of the genesis and publication of various editions of Port Royal's Constitutions between the years 1648 and 1721 has important methodological implications. By showing how the nuns revised and published their Constitutions several times in response to external politico-religious controversies, she reveals a more permeable boundary between the internal life of the convent and the outside world than historians have previously assumed. Her method is particularly significant to the study of women because it shows how the nuns grappled with these outside political struggles through the seemingly disengaged language of personal piety and religious practice.
It should be noted that this book is a translated and updated version of Weaver's The Evolution of the Reform of Port Royal: From the Rule of Cîteaux to Jansenism (Paris: Editions Beauchesne, 1978). Weaver's most substantive update was to replace the sociological framework of her first study with a more historical framework grounded in the reform decrees of Trent. Beyond this adjustment, other changes involved reorganizing chapters and the materials within chapters, adding new quotes from primary sources to strengthen her claims, and extending the length of many of her original quotes to add greater nuance to her analysis. Although these changes certainly have produced a tighter, more focused text, readers (especially those without the command of French) can still reap the benefits of Weaver's solid yet elegant analysis of Port Royal's Constitutions from the original English text.