- Les registres des consistoires des Églises Réformées de France—XVIe–XVIIe siècles: Un inventaire by Raymond A. Mentzer
Over the past few decades, historians have increasingly come to realize that the registers of consistories, institutions created to promote morality and discipline among Reformed Protestants, are extremely rich sources that shed precious light on the piety, mores, and everyday life of common folk, both men and women, who for too long have been largely left out of the historical narrative of the Reformation. Raymond Mentzer, the dean of historians of French consistories, has provided a most valuable tool for scholars. He has painstakingly scoured archives, libraries, and private collections to provide this superb inventory of all known surviving registers of consistories from the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries.
Part 1 of this work consists of a lengthy and quite useful introduction, in which Mentzer discusses the origin, structure, and responsibilities of consistories. The prototype for these institutions was the consistory of Geneva, created by John Calvin and entrusted with enforcing Reformed morality. Calvinists placed great emphasis on discipline, and certain Reformed leaders went beyond Calvin and insisted that discipline was one of three marks of the true church (the other two being the right preaching of the gospel and the proper administration of the sacraments). Starting in the 1550s, consistories were established wherever Protestant communities developed in France. Presided over by a pastor, the consistories ordinarily met once a week and consisted of the pastors, elders, and deacons. Among the consistories’ most important responsibilities was overseeing the worship service, with special attention paid to the celebration of communion or, as Calvinists preferred to call it, the Holy Supper, which was celebrated four times a year. Consistories determined who was worthy of receiving the Supper and excluded those who [End Page 643] were poorly instructed in matters of the faith or had not repented of serious sins they had committed. Church finances and poor relief were also under the purview of consistories, which also oversaw lessons for instruction in the catechism for both children and adults.
Extant consistorial records represent a small fraction of the records that existed prior to the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes; Louis XIV’s campaign to eliminate all traces of the Reformed faith was the greatest obstacle to their survival. Nothing is extant, for example, from La Rochelle, the most famous Protestant city in seventeenth-century France. Mentzer’s exhaustive efforts uncovered 309 registers originating from 156 different churches. More than a third of these are found in Paris, mostly in the Archives Nationales or the Bibliothèque du Protestantisme Français; 179 are found in municipal or provincial (départementales) archives, whereas a few are now housed outside of France, in places such as Geneva and even Charleston, South Carolina. The best preserved registers are those of the consistory of Nîmes, which, apart from a lacuna covering 1563–78, are extant for the period 1561–1685. Mentzer notes that the registers of a few consistories remain in private hands and are, unfortunately, inaccessible to researchers. He adds that with very few exceptions, most notably of Nîmes, the extant consistorial registers are generally too fragmentary to lend themselves to extensive quantitative analysis.
Mentzer offers a good brief discussion of the historiography of consistories. Some historians, including those who embrace the confessionalization paradigm, stress the consistories’ role in imposing social discipline. Others view the consistory as more a form of mandatory counseling service than a tribunal; such scholars find that consistories above all promoted harmony in the Reformed community and that there was a certain negotiation between authorities and the rank and file in defining appropriate behavior.
Arranged alphabetically by town, the inventory is quite detailed, indicating the location of all registers, the number of folios, and the dates they cover. This...