- The Catholicisms of Coutances: Varieties of Religion in Early Modern France, 1350–1789 by J. Michael Hayden
J. Michael Hayden has two objectives in this book. The first is to describe the complexity of religious beliefs and practices of men and women living in the Diocese of Coutances in western Normandy from 1350 to 1789. Hayden chose Coutances on the basis of the ample quantity of surviving sources, above all a long series of parish visitation reports and ordination records. To refer to beliefs and practices in their various forms, he speaks of “catholicisms,” a word intended to draw attention to the multiplicity as well as the blending of official and unofficial modes of belief. [End Page 158]
After two initial chapters—one on the diocese’s geography and history and the conditions of life of its inhabitants and a second outlining the elements of “official” Catholicism and the hodgepodge of “unofficial” popular practices—Hayden turns to examining the catholicisms of individuals and groups across four centuries. He devotes chapters to the bishops, the clerical elite, men and women living in religious orders, the parish clergy, and the laity. These five chapters are the heart of the book, and the result is a top-to-bottom, richly detailed picture of what people believed and did as Catholic Christians. An eighth chapter looks at the beliefs and practices of Protestants in the diocese as well as “deists,” a term used to designate individuals whose exposure to Enlightenment ideas led them to reject official Catholic teaching. In the light of the extensive description that Hayden gives to Catholic belief and practice, this discussion of “other catholicisms” in Coutances is somewhat underwhelming. Deism seems to have attracted few adherents, and he is not able to do much more beyond offering some generalizations. Protestants, on the other hand, were prominent in the diocese. However, whereas Hayden is keen to show the diversity of beliefs and practices that existed within early-modern French Catholicism, he treats Protestants as an undifferentiated block of believers.
Hayden’s second objective is to account for present-day patterns of Mass attendance across the diocese. He proposes that patterns of religious observance in the twentieth century are by and large the same as they were in the early-eighteenth century. In the absence of records of Mass attendance for the Old Regime, Hayden uses rates of clerical vocation to establish the level of Catholic practice in a parish. He assembles a wealth of quantitative data to support his claim that areas that have high rates of Mass attendance today had high numbers of men seeking religious vocations in the first third of the eighteenth century. In this way, Hayden challenges Timothy Tackett’s argument that twentieth-century patterns of religious practice can be traced back to the choice made by parish priests to swear (or not) the oath required by the Civil Constitution of the Clergy. In the Diocese of Coutances, at least, levels of Catholic practice were in place a full half-century before the Revolution. It must be said, however, that this argument could be more effectively made. Much of the evidence that Hayden uses to build his case appears in five appendixes, but he does not offer readers much guidance for making sense of the numbers. Nevertheless, historians interested in developments in religion across the centuries will want to consider this book’s methodology.