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A Family Forever Linked to Jansenism

ISSUE:  Winter 2000
The Travails of Conscience: The Arnauld Family and the Ancien Regime. By Alexander Sedgwick. Harvard.$45.00.

For generations historians have discussed the intimate links between members of the Arnauld family and the history of Jansenism in the 17th and 18th centuries. Emeritus Professor Alexander Sedgwick of the University of Virginia has earlier contributed to this international discussion with a 1977 book (Jansenism in Seventeenth-Century France: Voices from the Wilderness) plus several pertinent articles and essays and is a recognized authority in the field. In his most recent study, The Travails of Conscience, he usefully reviews the changing fortunes of the extended Arnauld family from the 1500’s through the mid-18th century. The effective organization of material is enhanced by Sedgwick’s talent for exposition and his clear, graceful prose style.

Though the earlier history of the Arnaulds stretches back into the realm of legend, by all accounts the family fortunes began when Antoine, born around 1490, moved from the Auvergne to Paris in the mid-16th century. After having rendered legal service to the crown in regional courts, he defended royal financial interests before the Parlement of Paris, the most important law court in the kingdom. To his prestige as a lawyer, he added military fame when he commanded a company of cavalry in the first stages of the religious wars. Antoine, a Protestant, was accorded protection by Catherine de Medici at the time of the St. Bartholemew’s massacre in 1572; shortly thereafter he converted to Catholicism. Sedgwick believes it “likely that a mutually beneficial arrangement had been made whereby he was assured of continued preferment in return for his conversion.” Antoine soon purchased a venal office, auditor of accounts in the Chambre des Comptes, an office that ensured his elevation to the nobility.

Wealth, property, offices, innumerable social connections—all served to increase Antoine’s influence. His prestige was further burnished when he acquired the noble estate of La Mothe and took the name of La Mothe-Arnauld. Married twice (each wife from a prominent Huguenot family in the Auvergne), he had one child from the first marriage and 13 from the second; all survived childhood. When Antoine converted, most of the children as well as his second wife, Anne Forget, remained Huguenots.

Catholic and Huguenot allegiances continued in the family over the generations, though many converted to Catholicism during the 17th century. Such conversions were usually made by men for reasons of political and social opportunism while female converts tended to be more steadfast in the matter of religious belief and generally less disposed to accommodation. To be sure, many families in early modern France splintered into Protestant and Catholic branches, with recurring patterns of conversion and, occasionally, reconversion. Significantly, the Arnaulds displayed a strong sense of family feeling above and beyond religious differences. Observers in the Ancien Régime and commentators since have alike found it piquant that the Catholic Arnaulds should have gravitated to Jansenism: rooted in Augustinian assumptions and theology, Jansenists were often accused of leaning towards Calvinism. Sedgwick notes that some prominent 16th-century Arnaulds had stridently denounced the Jesuits; their descendants in the following century continued such criticism at a time when the Jesuits were the arch-foes of Jansenism within the Catholic world.

Many of the abiding beliefs of the Arnaulds were bitterly contested. Sedgwick makes clear that “at the heart of these beliefs was a profound mépris du monde (contempt for the world), which in one way or another pitted members of the Arnauld family against what they had come to believe was a corrupt world.” Yet for all their high-minded spiritual meditations, there were a few contradictions conducive to success in this world. Despite their mépris du monde, they appreciated the usefulness of family influence at the court, and of assiduous fund-raising to support their religious projects. Opposition to venal offices did not lead them to turn down such offices. Indeed, part of their family’s fortune was built on accommodation with the ways of the world: Arnaulds ruthlessly seized the property of those unable to pay their debts.

In the course of his narrative, Sedgwick deftly illustrates the ways in which family members assisted younger male relatives, grooming them for their future careers—a practice aptly captured in the expression, enfant de la balle, denoting the son of a groundskeeper at a tennis court who from an early age is prepared to succeed his father. The training of Robert Arnauld (grandson of the aforementioned La Mothe-Arnauld) is a perfect example of such a process. Baptized and reared a Catholic, he received lessons in the art of government from his uncle Claude, a Huguenot who was a treasurer of France under Henry IV.After Claude died in 1602, Robert was tutored by another Huguenot uncle, Isaac, “about to become an intendant des finances, with whom he worked closely until the latter’s death in 1617.”

Such tutelage, combined with shrewd marriage strategies, served to advance numerous family interests. The ceaseless pursuit of pensions, offices, and properties by ambitious French families (in effect miniature dynasties) was further impelled by the need to support large families. Here, too, Robert Arnauld—upon his marriage, his name was transmuted to Arnauld d’Andilly—exemplified a familiar pattern. Himself one of 20 children, 10 of his 15 children survived childhood. Six were girls. Robert’s sister Angélique observed that the number of daughters was enough “to make one’s hair turn white.” (In the event, all six were placed in the convent of Port-Royal at an early age.)

Angélique was well-situated to judge the matter. She had been placed at Port-Royal at a young age, professing her vows as a nun at the age of 10.Family machinations aimed to set her up as abbess, but under canon law she was underage. Her grandfather, Simon Marion, “without the slightest qualm, asserted in the request for authorization that his ten-year-old granddaughter was seventeen.” Angélique took up residence at the convent “just short of her eleventh birthday.”

Grimmelshausen, the author of the 17th-century German masterpiece , Simplicissimus, compared society to a tree with the peasantry down below and the nobility in the upper branches where there was “a perpetual climbing and swarming . . .for each would needs sit in those highest and happiest places.” Certainly the beginning of Angélique’s career, launched with a lie, was fully in keeping with the obsessive scramble for places in the upper branches of French society. But then a totally unexpected shift occurred, giving rise to a distinct chapter in the French Catholic Church during the 17th century.

The teenage girl had a deep religious experience which in turn prompted a thorough reform of the convent. She reestablished cloture, refusing admission even to her parents beyond the area for visitors. Despite fierce attacks and deep resentment, the young abbess persisted, galvanized by a passage in the gospel of St. Matthew: “Blessed are they that are persecuted for righteousness’ sake.” Soon regarded as one of the leaders of the vigorous reform movement in France, Mère Angélique was invited to visit and restructure other convents. When she transferred her convent to Paris—though Port-Royal-des-Champs did not close—the stage was set for a series of tumultuous clashes on a variety of jurisdictional and theological issues.

The succeeding chapters relate in absorbing detail the ways in which the titanic controversy over Jansenism impacted the family and its supporters. The increasing importance of the abbé de Saint-Cyran at Port-Royal and his role as spiritual adviser and confesser to Mere Angélique, the defense of Jansen’s Augustinus, and the tidal wave of controversy and acrimony that ensued—all are introduced and given due weight. Sedgwick assumes the reader’s familiarity with the larger picture and many key developments that roiled the Church and society; for instance, Pascal’s role in the saga is noted almost in passing. For the most part, the author eschews discussions of fine theological matters and concentrates on the emotional upheaval and stress occasioned by staccato attacks from the crown and the papacy acting largely in unison.

In a fascinating chapter on “The Arnauld Family during the Fronde,” Sedgwick quotes from Angélique Arnauld’s letters to the queen of Poland (the former Marie de Gonzague, a benefactress of Port-Royal) and to others. Her letters are a mine of information for the social historian, detailing the sheer confusion and threats of anarchy that gripped Paris during the civil war. Meanwhile, Angélique’s youngest brother, Antoine Arnauld—known as le grand Arnauld because he was very short—emerged as a principal defender of Jansenists by applying his brilliant legal mind to theological issues. A passage at the end of this chapter encapsulates much of the spirit of the book:

The Arnaulds’ defense mechanisms were inherent in their mépris du monde.. . . In their minds Port-Royal had become a citadel against which the enemies of the truth were arrayed. . . . When Angélique Arnauld admitted that she harbored “rebellious sentiments,” she spoke for the “friends of truth” as a whole. The Arnaulds believed that they lived in a particularly corrupt age and that they were bound by conscience to resist those forces contributing to that corruption. Their willingness to defend their religious ideals regardless of the stature of their adversaries and the cost to themselves made the Arnaulds frondeurs in spite of themselves.

Angélique died in 1661, the year in which Louis XIV assumed personal power. In the first half of his reign, Angélique’s niece became abbess of Port-Royal. The feisty and eloquent Angélique de Saint-Jean, like her aunt, embodied the truth of Sedgwick’s observation that “Throughout the long history of monastic institutions, the convent had provided its leaders with opportunities to exercise their authority and to become independent in ways that were less available to women ensconced in the patriarchal structure of the family.”

During this period, the family engaged in a delicate balancing act: seeking to advance the political fortunes of Simon Arnauld de Pomponne, son of Arnauld d’Andilly, without caving in on other fronts. Pomponne eventually became ambassador to the Netherlands and to Sweden and then secretary of state for foreign affairs after Hugues de Lionne’s death in 1671.He remained at that post throughout the Dutch War, always conscious that “his career depended on the loyalty and obedience of the members of the family.” Ultimately, such circumstances proved impossible for le grand Arnauld: he emigrated to the Netherlands in 1677 and never returned to France. Pomponne was dismissed from office in 1679 and did not return to the ministry until 1691.His uncle Antoine, still in exile, had small hope that Pomponne’s return to grace would lead to his own return to France. He died abroad in 1694, fortunately spared knowledge of the subsequent destruction of both Port-Royal convents in 1709 and 1710 by a vengeful king.

By amazing good fortune, the marquis d’Argenson, the chief of police who supervised the destruction of the Paris convent in 1709, chose not to destroy the archives of Port-Royal which included memoirs and necrologies. Instead, he entrusted them to a Jansenist, thus ensuring the survival of a remarkable record of protest and principled opposition to government policies and decisions. It amounted to an arsenal of examples and inspiration when the material was published in the 18th century. In a concluding passage, Sedgwick distills the significance of Arnauld family activities in French history:

The dramatic struggle of the Port-Royal community against the tyranny of church and state, sustained in memory by the recently published memoires, necrologies, and correspondence of the nuns of Port-Royal. . . .resulted in the destruction of Port-Royal. The cry of tyranny, first used by Arnauld in defense of his and his family’s religious ideals against the illegal and unjust measures taken by the Catholic hierarchy, was raised by the Jansenist-Gallican opposition a century later against the very monarchy that Arnauld’s ancestors had once served so well. Snatched from oblivion . . ., the Arnaulds . . .rode into battle once again, phantom warriors, to avenge the destruction of Port-Royal-des-Champs as part of a campaign that less than a hundred years after its destruction would bring down the Old Regime.

Sedgwick includes a good genealogical chart together with extensive notes, lists of manuscript sources and printed primary sources, plus a generally serviceable index. A map indicating the centers of Arnauld family activity and property holdings would have been welcome, but that is indeed a very minor regret in light of the solid scholarship that distinguishes this work. Highly recommended for university libraries.


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