- Histoire des Filles de la Charité, XVIIe–XVIIIesiècles. La rue pour cloître
The Filles de la Charité, or Daughters of Charity, were founded by Ss. Vincent de Paul and Louise de Marillac in 1633 and grew into the largest female religious community serving the poor and ill in Ancien Régime France. In 1789 the community had approximately 3000 members and was associated with approximately 420 hospitals and parish charities (indeed, one nursing sister in three in 1790 was a Daughter of Charity [p. 300]). The women took annual rather than perpetual vows and were not cloistered but lived “in the world” in a way that transcended the general Tridentine move toward claustration. As the book’s title proclaims, the cloister of a Daughter of Charity was the street. Although there has been considerable continuity in the community’s work up to the present day, the first two centuries of its existence were fundamental in both establishing the character of the group through the inspiration of its founders and in developing a highly centralized management structure that allowed its expansion throughout France and was copied, often in precise detail, by many other female communities. By the time of the French Revolution, the group was widely admired across the political and religious divide. Temporarily dissolved as an institution in the [End Page 816] Revolution, it was reestablished by the late 1790s and endorsed by Napoleon. A new and more global chapter in its history opened up in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. In 1965 there were more than 45,000 sisters in 4000 institutions, although its membership has fallen since then.
The Daughters of Charity have a quite extraordinary history that has been almost wholly neglected, partly because the community has been more committed to aiding the poor and ill than to considering the archiving and writing of their own history. This state of affairs also may have endured because of an overdeveloped sense of discretion about the origins of cofounder St. Louise—only in 1958 was it publicly acknowledged that she was illegitimate (p. 19). Only within the last two decades have their central archives been opened, allowing a far richer coverage than that previously available via the archives of the Congregation of the Mission, the Archives Nationales, and the numerous institutions in which they served. Matthieu Brejon de Lavergnée is the first historian to have immersed himself in those archives, and he has emerged with an absolutely exemplary study of the history of the community from its origins to the French Revolution, which sets out both a framework for understanding the community and conveys a unique sense of the texture of its members’ lives (for example, there are superb sections on the material culture of life as a Daughter of Charity).
The basic requirement for a Daughter of Charity, according to an eighteenth-century internal circular, was a “good spirit, a good body and good will” (p. 272). Quite how women of this sort, far more of whom were from lowlier social backgrounds than other women religious, were educated, trained, and incentivized to serve their lifetime in what were base and menial tasks is a key part of the story. Brejon de Lavergnée rightfully places emphasis on the unusually centralized yet supply-management structure that emerged following the “watershed” (p. 231) of the death of the founders c. 1660, in facilitating the passage from charismatic to more bureaucratic organization styles (while maintaining spiritual motivation). Adaptation to an outside world is another important feature of the history—the late-eighteenth century in particular highlights some significant issues of morale. By this fine study, Brejon de Lavergnée puts all historians of religion in his debt and also provides the raw materials that will now need to be digested by historians of women, work, medicine, and relief of the poor.