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Pauvreté, cultures et ordre social

Jean-Pierre Gutton

Église et société

Confraternities, curés and communities in rural areas of the diocese of Lyons under the ancien régime

Note de l’éditeur

Article initialement publié dans Religion and society in Early Modern Europe 1500-1800, Kaspar von Greyerz (ed.), London, George Allen and Unwin, 1984, p. 202-211.

Texte intégral

  • 1 References to the documents will be found in: J.-P. Gutton, « Reinages, abbayes de jeunesse et conf (...)

1The theme of « religion and community » allows us to analyse the relations existing between resident community and parish. I have chosen to treat this question within the reference points of the old diocese of Lyons, an area in which I have undertaken or directed research in religious history. This vast enough area then included the departments of Rhône and Loire, while another part, and in some ways an important one, was comprised of Isère, Ain and the Jura. I hope to demonstrate that the ties between community and parish were very complex, considering that the parish was given life by many forces which were not necessarily convergent1.

2For the most part, Lyonnais resident communities under the ancien régime did not have anything more than a very loose structure. Nothing is found here to compare with the villages of Languedoc or, more markedly still, of Provence. Communities had only few possessions; in particular, there was a town hall only in exceptional cases. Few archives, or none at all, are preserved outside those in private hands, and the community’s representative – the syndic – was not always a permanent institution. The essential business was to collect taxes for the king’s account, and the important persons were the consuls, or consul, who were assessors-collectors. Therefore, the community remained very close to its administrative origins, which were those of the tax unit.

3Nevertheless, resident communities led an intense collective life. In simple terms, the supports of this collective life were situated in an interspace, difficult to define, but situated between the resident community and the parish. Let me describe the situation which prevailed until about 1600-50. The collective life of the village was assured in the first place by confraternities of the Holy Spirit which sometimes exchanged this name for that of the patron saint of the place. The whole community was gathered together by these confraternities: living and dead, rich and poor. Certain confrères made a donation to the confraternity, asking to be maintained after their death, to benefit from the prayers of all. There were therefore living and dead confrères, and at mealtimes the dead confrères were represented by the poor. One of the aims of the confraternity was mutual assistance. This was shown by a common meal and also by distributions – bread, « lard », beans, peas, cheese, salt, wine – handed out at the time appointed for the feast of Pentecost. These distributions, although they may have been called « aumônes » (alms), were never linked to a state of poverty, but to the confrère’s rank. The confraternity generally united the whole village, rich as well as poor. And there are still more tangible signs of assimilation by the confraternity of place and community. In the Lyonnais region, as in others, the origin of the community seems tied, in part, to the existence of these confraternities. The first syndics of the community may have been those of the confraternity of the Holy Spirit. At Irigny at the beginning of the fifteenth century, two « procureurs de la ville et paroisse » censed the confraternity’s vineyard in the name of the community. At the end of the same century, the « prudhommes » of the confraternity of Saint-Cyr-au-Mont-d’Or were similarly called « procureurs de la communauté de Saint-Cyr ». At Condrieu, the consuls of the community were rectors of the confraternity. Together with other factors (development of fiscality, the Hundred Years’War, and so on), the confraternities of the Holy Spirit facilitated the consolidation of communal autonomy in the sixteenth century. They permitted a local group to arrange and to serve an apprentice-ship in municipal life.

4Another characteristic of these confraternities of the Holy Spirit was the possession of often important goods, acquired through donations and bequests. This capital consisted of rents, lands, vines and houses, and these possessions were sometimes administered as goods of the community. Furthermore, the « maison de la frairie » might be the place where the community assembled, as was the case at Ceyzériat and Rive-de-Gier, or the presbytery might have been the confraternity’s property. This confusion between confraternity of the Holy Spirit and community could, finally, be carried much further. A document dating from 1601 shows that at Ceyzériat, entry into the resident community and use of common lands were tied to admission, after payment of a fee and acceptance, to the confraternity of the Holy Spirit.

5One of the roles of the confraternities of the Holy Spirit lay in the organisation of the patronal feast. This was a great affair – involving organisation of the « fête baladoire », where dancing, gaming, tournaments, sometimes a real theatrical representation took place – which demonstrates once again the role of these confraternities in giving cohesion to the community. However, in this task the confraternities of the Holy Spirit were joined by other groups to which they were attached by ties which are hard to unravel. These were the « kingdoms » (royaumes) and the youth of the parish.

6The royaumes, or reinages, are to be found throughout central France and particularly in the area of Lyons. A « kingdom » consisted of the annual public auction sale of titles: king, queen, dauphin, constable, page, chamberlain, and so on. These auctions took place in the church or church porch, and sales were made in wax or oil more often than in livres tournois. The proceeds would also be used for the maintenance of church lighting. For the title-holder, the « kingdom » was a manifestation of piety, but it was also a token of belonging to the community. Newcomers sought these ephemeral and expensive titles. Above all, the « king » was charged, at least in certain cases, with the organisation of the patronal feast, a heavy and sometimes costly task. And it is here that links with confraternities are difficult to specify. At Montarcher, a parish of upper Forez, the confraternity of St Pantaléon, patron of the parish, was in charge of the patronal feast. A baile of the confraternity, appointed each year, paid for musicians on the day of the feast of St Pantaléon and the following Sunday. But the parish register shows that the last nomination of the baile dates from 1497. Three years before that date a new organisation, a « kingdom », had taken charge of the feast. Kings and queens of St Pantaléon and, on the other hand, of the Assumption, which name had been joined in 1496 to those of the Holy Spirit and the patron saint of the parish, were elected. Moreover, two « septchaux » (sénéchaux) had more particular responsibility for the feast. This example suggests a dependence between the two institutions: a hypothesis – and a simple one – which I do not propose to extend in the absence of further proof, but which is confirmed to a small extent by an incident which happened in 1538 at l’Hôpital-sous-Rochefort. There the confrères refused to pay a contribution to the king towards the expenses of the feast, notably covering the expenses of the tambour-players.

7There remains a third institution, that of youth. It can carry the name of « abbeys of youth », « enfants de la ville », or more simply « garçons de paroisse ». It often represents not so much collective youth as the group of celibates, without ties, unstable persons, as against the stable world of marriage. Hence responsibility for defending and carrying high the community’s honour in the brawls which so often accompanied festivities and fairs fell to this group. Its tasks also included the policing of meetings between young men and girls and of marriages. The « garçons de paroisse » kept watch on the conduct of young girls, for misconduct could bring the community into bad repute. They watched to prevent young men from other areas or widowers from spiriting away any of the village girls of marriageable age. The demands for monetary compensation or charivaris which followed marriages in which husband and wife were of disproportionate ages are thus explained. The jurisdiction of « garçons de paroisse » extended also to young married couples on whom strange ordeals could be imposed on the first Sunday in Lent. Finally, in many communities the responsibility for organising the patronal feast lay with the « garçons de paroisse ». Thus it is evident that confusion over the confraternity of the place, the royaume and the « garçons de paroisse » can be insoluble. In each village one or other of the three institutions was responsible for the feast; but in all cases, under different names, the same men were involved. There are in addition, other proofs of the links between confraternities, reinages and « garçons de paroisse ». At Boën, the confraternity’s house included frescoes depicting the Holy Spirit, the patron of the parish, but also St Nicholas, the patron of youth. In such a village, auctions benefiting the reinage were split up into « dances » and this method of appointing kings and queens corresponded to the method by which youth abbots were sometimes chosen. Elsewhere the kings had a right of jurisdiction comparable to that of the youth abbots. At Saint-Symphorien-sur-Coise, on St Symphorien’s and on St Bartholomew’s day (24 August) he had the right, surrounded by officers, to judge certain offences – notably adulteries – committed between 22 and 24 August. This jurisdiction is comparable to that of the youth abbots. And when, towards the mid-seventeenth century, reinages were suppressed, they were replaced, in the organisation of the feast of St Symphorien, by an association of young people.

8Little importance can be attached to the inextricable ties between the three institutions which one continually comes up against. The important thing is that they held village society together. In fact, since community and parish did not coincide, it was really the parish which was united by these institutions. The community as a tax unit played a very insignificant part in this; and the curé’s role in this respect was not pre-eminent. What is important is that lay power was expressed through institutions which, being parochial, were independent of the hierarchy. This situation, however, was to change gradually over the last two centuries of the ancien régime. Under the influence of Tridentine reform, curés, henceforth much less close to the people, fought against these three forms of association and, at least in the case of the first two, busied themselves transforming them, even to the point of distorting their meaning.

9Even before the Tridentine reforms were implemented, the confraternities of the Holy Spirit were to fall first victim of this development. Royal legislation in the sixteenth century, particularly the Ordonnance of Orléans, had denounced the banquets of confraternities and ordered them to be suppressed. Effective suppressions there had been. In February 1561, at Saint-Symphorien-sur-Coise, Charles IX’s Letters Patent appropriated the possessions and revenues of the confraternity in order to found a college. In 1566 Letters Patent authorised the creation of a college at Boën, foreseeing that it would be set up « in the house of the confraternity of the said place » and that it would annexe the revenues of the confraternities of Boën and of surrounding villages. The Wars of Religion, on the other hand, ensured that a certain number of rents were paid no longer. Above all, the bishops and curés occupied themselves in transforming these confraternities. They set out to purify them, which is to say they attacked almsgiving and the Whitsuntide banquet at the same time. Alms had to be distributed to the « true » poor, not simply to anybody. Here is a new conception of assistance: almsgiving is no longer considered pleasing to God in all cases and conducive to the love of one’s neighbour, therefore to solidarity; rather, it should not encourage ideness and sloth and therefore it should be selective. As for the banquet, it was one of the aspects of communal conviviality repudiated in favour of devotion. In one of the very rare cases where the creation of a new confraternity of the Holy Spirit was permitted, the letters of authorisation specify that the curé who presides over the confraternity will partake of the meal which will be

« a frugal meal in which the confrères will partake to maintain fellowship and proper understanding amongst themselves, at which meal the said curé assists with his vicar, during which meal the statutes and rules of the said confraternity are read and which, as much for the assembly of the said confrères as for refection, shall not last but an hour and a half or thereabouts, from which they shall not go out but to be present at Vespers ».

10Such an attitude was systematised by a ruling made in 1749 by the Archbishop de Tencin at a meeting with all the confraternities of the Holy Spirit: only those confrères concerned with helping the poor through the confraternity’s funds might remain in the association; almsgiving and the meal were suppressed, the revenues of the confraternity were to be distributed, in money or bread, to the poor; all of these measures were to be put into operation under the curé’s authority. In the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the curé, with the title of « conseiller », was one of the officers of the confraternity, and even before the publication of this ruling he assisted at the Pentecostal meal, drew up the list of persons benefiting from almsgiving and occasionally oversaw the distribution of alms. In fact there are many examples, before as well as after this general ruling, of an evolution of this kind. In 1671, in the parish of Ailleux in Forez, the confraternity’s house was reunited to the church, the banquet suppressed and the revenues diverted to repair of the church and poor relief. It is true that in 1705 the curé had to start afresh the fight again the banquet. At Saint-Germain-Laval, the confraternity’s revenues were misappropriated by a person who was looking after the church buildings. It was the curé of the not inconsiderable village who, in 1726, made him restore the revenues and, once recovered, put them to use in the maintenance of a hospital for the poor. In 1738 he asked the residents to use these revenues to establish the nuns of Saint-Joseph-du-Puy in the parish. These religious women were at that time concerned with the sick, the poor and the instruction of children. Similarly, at Neuville-sur-Saône the confraternity of the Holy Spirit disappeared in the mid-seventeenth century and its possessions went to a « poor-relief department » presided over by the curé. It is therefore clear that, in all cases, if the confraternity’s goods stay in service of the community, it was henceforth under the control of the curé, who acted as the administrator. That residents had perceived the danger in this dispossession is shown by the occasional instances of resistance to these changes. In 1641, at Saint-Romain-le-Puy, they boycotted an auction sale of the ruined buildings of the confraternity. The proceeds of the sale were to have been used for the construction of the presbytery. In 1671, at Rive-de-Gier, many residents were opposed to the tranfer of the goods of the confraternity of the Holy Spirit to the Hôtel-Dieu and church lighting fund. In 1751 the syndics and twenty-five inhabitants of Pérouges were opposed to the suppression of alms-giving, the Pentecostal banquet and the unification of the goods of the confraternity and those devoted to the fabric of the church. All of these were rearguard actions, but they are evidence of the slowness of changes taking place in the resident community.

11At the same time as they fought against old confraternities, Tridentine curés favoured new devotions. In particular, two types of confraternities, those of the Rosary and Holy Sacrament, were created, whether by initiative or by the encouragement of pastors. At the time of the pastoral visits of 1657 and 1662, the Archbishop Camille de Neuville declared the existence of 296 confraternities. Out of this total, 124 were confraternities of the Rosary and 48 confraternities of the Holy Sacrament. These figures merely indicate a temporary situation. In fact, the confraternities in honour of the Virgin, and notably those of the Rosary, were established at the beginning of the seventeenth century; but it was not until the second half of the seventeenth century that the confraternities of the Holy Sacrament were established, foundations which continued to bemade until the mid-eighteenth century. Confraternities of the Holy Sacrament, means of eucharistic devotion, were particularly characteristic of Tridentine reform. Now, the role of the curé was not limited to the creation of the confraternity. In the villages the curé was at the head of the association, bearing the title of rector. His name was first on the list of confrères, preceding those of one or several vicars, members, like him, of the confraternity. He guided the parishioners in the choice of the feast of the confraternity, nominated the officers who directed it and, more important still, examined the accounts. He frequently possessed a key to the coffer where the confraternity’s archives were preserved. When the confraternity had no premises of its own, and met in the parish church, this coffer was found in the sacristy. Control of a confraternity’s finances seemed to be a guarantee of propriety in public activities. A return to the practices of the confraternities of the Holy Spirit was thus avoided. If, finally, even the reception of new members took place in the curé’s presence, control of the new confraternity was all the more effectively in his hands. This fashion of controlling new confraternities was, of course, a way of diffusing Counter-Reformation devotion. Altars consecrated to intercessory saints of a rural type – Blaise, Antoine, and so on – were henceforth dedicated to the Rosary or Holy Sacrament. It was also a way of controlling the leisure activities of rural folk. The synodal statutes which recommended curés to establish a confraternity of the Très Saint Sacrement specified very clearly that the feasts, supervised by them, would proceed without « dances publiques... vogue ou autres divertissements » (public dancing... parades, or other entertainment). Moreover, feasts of new confraternities occasionally had the aim of competing with traditional feasts.

12This last aspect is still more clear with respect to the church’s attitude to « kingdoms ». This demonstrates that the clergy not only opposed traditional culture but were also drawn at the time of the Tridentine reform into a battle for control of youth, at least celibate youth. It is hard to avoid the impression that, given the two institutions which provided for youth, reinages and abbeys of youth, the church decided to christianise the first and stamp out the second. A decisive choice, certainly; but perhaps the consequences were fatal, for the institution which survived, and remained for a long time the most active, was really that of the « garçons de paroisse », abbeys of youth. And this may partly explain the church’s subsequent loss of male youth. The facts are there, at all events. Tridentine sensibility was shocked by the noisy demonstrations of the reinages. The Lyonnais branch of the Compagnie du Saint-Sacrement decided, in 1646, to « solliciter l’abolition de l’usage de crier les royaumes dans les églises, attendu le scandale qu’ils y causent » (request the abolition of calling royaumes in the churches considering the scandal they cause there). One of the members of this same company, Noël Chomel, denounced the custom which consisted in throwing holy water by the handful over the « king ». The work of purification was conducted with effect. The auction sale no longer took place in the church, but in the open air. New « kingdoms » were created, under the influence of, and sometimes at the suggestion of, the curé. Thus, from 1638 to 1655, in the parishes of Charly and Vernaison, reinages were instituted in honour of St Anthony, St Vincent, Notre-Dame d’aoust, St Roch, St Denis, St Laurence, St Nicholas, St Mary-Magdalen, St Abdon and St Sennen. Certain « kingdoms » were, from that time, exclusively feminine, as a sort of counterbalance to the ancient, very masculine, royaumes. Women or children were the most common members of village reinages dedicated to this or that saint. These new « kingdoms » were royaumes of devotion. Someone became king or queen, and was placed under the protection of the Virgin or of a saint. The proceeds of auctions sometimes served for the maintenance of a confraternity, or to supply the church with wax or oil. Sometimes statues were commissioned with this money. And the « kingdom’s » festivities were quiet ones, even if the celebration occurred on the day of a traditional feast, the better to christianise it.

13It remains to be said that new confraternities and reinages were not capable of constituting by themselves the framework of village social life. In what was often a loosely structured form, but a lively one, the « garçons de paroisse » formed a pocket of resistance to the influence of Tridentine curés. As organisations without written statutes their archives have not come down to us. Their tangles with authorities have simply left traces in judicial documents. The brawls which accompanied village festivities, in the course of which the honour of the village was defended by the « garçons de paroisse », ensured that the protocols of the maréchaussée (the mounted constabulary) speak clearly of their role in these circumstances. Similarly, their conflicts with the curés can be encountered in the papers of ordinary jurisdiction, and occasionally in those of ecclesiastical courts. In 1683 the curé of Beaujolais parish, Saint-Étienne-la-Varenne, refused to confess two boys who had danced in the fête-baladoire; he shunned the wax offered by the « king » of the patronal feast. In 1777 the curé of Claveisolles beat a young man of the village with a stick, following a hot pursuit. The reason was apparently the theft of some cherries; in fact the youth was part of a group of young people who played music before the great door of the church. In 1779 several curés of the diocese supplicated the Parlement of Paris for an injunction which would prohibit young people gathering at patronal feasts. They complained, in their plea, of debauches, violent behaviour and brawls occasioned by these assemblies.

  • 2 The following thesis, prepared at Lyons for the degree of Ph.D., may be consulted to great advantag (...)

14The merit of having been the first to attempt to quantify the evidence of these conflicts in judicial archives falls to an American historian, Philip Hoffman2. Using criminal pleas from the bailiwick of Beaujolais, and by taking samples, he obtained the results shown in table 14.1.

Conflicts between curé
and parishioners


Before 1650








Table 14.1 Conflicts between Curé and Parishioners in the Bailiwick of Beaujolais Shown as a Percentage of the Total Number of Proceedings Examined

These conflicts were centred less on material problems (tithes, repairs to the presbytery, and so on) than on fundamental differences – opposition to religious reforms, resistance to the curé’s influence in community organisations, tensions between the curé and local elites or youth groups. It should also be noted that Hoffman’s inquiry established two important points. First, it is the men (and notably the young people) who turn up in these proceedings. This confirms a known fact: the Counter-Reformation, which was running into difficulties where male power was concerned, was better assimilated by women. Secondly, the proportion of pleas coming from lay persons reached a notable climax from 1751 to 1788.

15It is time to draw conclusions from all these facts, or to attempt to do so. There are a number of ways in which the increasing number of conflicts between parishioners and curés at the end of the ancien régime, and their being more often due to the initiative of lay persons, might be explained. Is it, perhaps, a proof of that « déchristianisation » which historians trace at different periods? We will return to this question. In any case, it demonstrates that villagers were not happy to accept assaults by Tridentine curés on ancient customs and institutions. In this respect, there is a difference from the town, where proceedings involving curé and parishioners are almost unheard of. Catholic reform penetrated later in the countryside. Here the curé was a cultural intermediary, of a culture which can be qualified in general terms as that of the town. From the moment when the curé no longer contented himself with participating in ancient practices by blessing them but set out to play a reforming role in the parish, it was inevitable that repercussions would follow, and so much more so when the concern of the reformer led to intervention in the temporal domain, that of charity, for example. Thus the curé became a kind of ambassador, encouraged by the Crown which was happy to find someone on the spot to pass on its directives which to a remarkable extent lacked local officials to carry them out. The action of the curés favoured centralisation and the creation of more structured institutions which were likewise more dependent on central power, for example, that of oligarchically structured councils, or that controlled by intendants. The curé played a greater role when the traditional parish was obliterated in favour of the tax unit which became the new administrative framework. It was in more secular institutions that the curé was to play, above all in the eighteenth century, an important role.

16All of this kept pace with the rise of the state, and of a classic culture suspicious of old autonomies. And when there was less fear that the misconduct of young girls and women would attract a curse on the commuity, the influence of youth groups could only decrease. The admistrative influence of curés on the village level thus appears to have been linked to the progress of centralisation and, finally, to central power. The parish was formerly a way of tying the community together; at the end of the ancien régime the parish, now represented by the curé, could have a dissolving effect on the old ties. In summary, the Tridentine parish was integrated in the rise of a community which was traditional no longer but which under the control of the state, became an administrative unit. This administrative unit multiplied gatherings beyond those of Sunday, named those accountable known by the intendant and accepted the written word and the reading of ordinances drawn up in French.

17There is another conclusion which I consider important. It relates to « déchristianisation ». The combined efforts of state and Tridentine curés were evidently not very favourable to the role of the parish. There was a laicisation of local life, in favour of transforming the parish into a tax unit and, above all, of central power. Urban culture imposed by the Tridentine reform did not, perhaps, favour christianisation in the country, as Jean Delumeau suggests. In the end, wishing to organise youth groups, the church chose to christianise the reinages and fight against the « garçons de parroisse ». In the long term at least, this signifies that it made its choice against the structure which remained the most active and which would have the most longevity. A whole series of studies now emphasises the resurgence of youth associations in the revolutionary period and in the nineteenth century. Finally, as it did this, the church consistently favoured women above men. Might this be one of the reasons for the quicker detachment from the church of men compared to women?

18In the history of the village, even more than in other fields of historical research, it is possible to understand the past only by seeing it as a whole.


1 References to the documents will be found in: J.-P. Gutton, « Reinages, abbayes de jeunesse et confréries dans les villages de l’ancienne France », Cahiers d’Histoire, Vol. IV (1975), p. 3 -53; id., Villages du Lyonnais sous la monarchie (XVIe-XVIIIe siècles), Lyon, 1973; id., La Sociabilité villageoise dans l’ancienne France: Solidarités et voisinages du XVIe au XVIIIe siècles, Paris, 1979.

2 The following thesis, prepared at Lyons for the degree of Ph.D., may be consulted to great advantage, particularly for its analysis of proceedings between curés and parishioners: Philip Hoffman, Church and community: the parish clergy and the Counter Reformation in the diocese of Lyon: 1500-1789 (typescript), Yale University, 1979.

© LARHRA, 2006

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