This post is a part of our “Faith in Revolution” series, which explores the ways that religious ideologies and communities shaped the revolutionary era. Check out the entire series.
By Corinne Gressang
If students know about any aspect of the French Revolution before class, it is nearly always the Reign of Terror and subsequent dechristianization between 1792 and 1794. The National Assembly and its successor, the Convention, instituted anti-clerical measures, renamed Notre Dame Cathedral the “Temple of Reason,” and closed religious convents and monasteries. In hindsight, most see these two years of religious persecution as supporting the narrative that the Revolution had to be, and was always, anti-religious. However, was it necessary to destroy religion to make way for a new more rational and reformed France? Perhaps the goals of the Revolution and active religious orders were not so far apart. For a few brief years between 1789 and 1790, religious women, and even some revolutionaries, believed nuns could be useful to the republic; that they could serve both God and France.
The problems Enlightenment thinkers, and later the revolutionaries, had with monasticism stemmed from their belief that religious houses were contrary to natural rights and “useless” to the nation. Increasingly, religious houses, much like the aristocracy, were only a drain on France’s public resources. By the 1760s, Enlightenment critiques and economic insolvency indicated religious houses needed reform, particularly among the contemplative orders. In the Encyclopédie, an eighteenth century attempt to catalogue all of human knowledge and a great example of Enlightenment thought, philosophe Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot argued, “the aim here is only to examine the usefulness of foundations in general with regard to the public good, or rather to show the inconveniences of it: may the following considerations contribute to the philosophical spirit of the century, to be disgusted by new foundations, and to destroy a superstitious remnant of respect for the old!” It was against such critiques that the nuns were ready to defend themselves. Active religious congregations, involved in charity, teaching, nursing, almsgiving, and raising orphans, proved they were not detrimental to the public good by arguing that their goals aligned with the revolutionary project. Furthermore, they performed useful service to the public good through teaching and providing medical care. Active religious orders were not passengers riding on the backs of peasants, as portrayed above; instead, they performed difficult, dangerous, and time-consuming work for little or no pay, with only the promise of future treasure in Heaven.
At the Visitation convent of St. Marie in Autun, the sisters argued that their house served as one of the few places that cared for the sick in their town, and therefore, performed a useful public function. In the fall of 1790, the National Assembly took an account of the property and the people inhabiting all the convents in France. In addition to the names and ages of all the members, some mother superiors took this opportunity to describe their purpose and defend their utility. This particular convent wrote, “The object of our institution […] was to provide a retreat for infirm persons, of all ages, to widows and to those with a delicate [constitution], […]. The desire to make ourselves more useful has engaged us since the establishment of this house to us duties to the education of youth.” This convent argued that its usefulness to society had always been a high priority, and it owed a duty to educate the citizens. They sought to be useful to their communities. The revolutionaries envisioned a nation where every person would have a role, and for women, that role was to educate and raise good French citizens. In leveraging their service, the nuns hoped to carve out a space for their houses in a new French order. Rational education about natural rights was the cornerstone to building a new, more enlightened France. Nuns, although not mothers, could still assist in raising French citizens. While the revolutionaries argued these women’s duty to educate stemmed from their position as Frenchwomen, the religious houses saw their duties as stemming from God. As long as the revolutionaries did not question in whose name they performed their duties, perhaps nuns could be a part of France’s new social and political system.
Similarly, in the same 1790 series of letters to the National Assembly accompanying the census documents, the Ursuline convent in Angoulême made the argument that their education of young people was just as important for the new French state as it had been for the Church. Their convent was “specially instituted and established for education of the very young and especially poor girls, and obliged to educate them for free[…]. They also have a boarding school usually composed of forty or so boarders, most of whom are small children and they neglect nothing to make themselves useful to the public.” This care for young children, giving them a place to stay and be educated, provided an invaluable resource for the public well-being. These nuns framed their work as not only useful to God, but, more importantly, as performing a vital public service to the community. By justifying their activities in 1790 through the usefulness of their service, these female religious orders satisfied their religious vocation while simultaneously integrating themselves into the revolutionary project.
How do we know that anyone outside of the convents themselves were convinced nuns could have anything to offer a new rational French republic? Jacques Antoine Creuzé-Latouche was a representative to the Estates General and an early member of the Jacobins, who wrote an open letter to an ex-nun in 1790 which described the useful service this former nun could perform in her community. He told her, “you can usefully fill your days, by your care and your instructions to the children […], your neighbors, your friends. […] you will teach them the declaration of human rights, so that they will get into these rights early, to respect them all their lives in others, and never to divest themselves of them.” However, Creuzé-Latouche’s letter to an ex-nun also demonstrated the unsustainable conflict in trying to integrate the skills of teachers and nurses into the revolutionary project. His vision would require the nuns to abandon all religious trappings of their profession. This vision of a secularized sisterhood that could replace the religious devotion to God with the devotion to the French state ignored the fact that both their service and their identities as religious women were tied to the nuns’ hopes for salvation. With the Constitution of the Clergy in 1791 and the accompanying oath, the French state demanded loyalty to the state rather than service. This change placed nuns in an impossible position. The identity of a useful citizen-nun who could work for both God and France was no longer possible. By the fall of 1792, nuns could no longer serve two masters.
Their utility served as both a rebuttal to the Enlightenment and Revolutionary Era critiques and their religious calling. Using the language of the Revolution, the nuns inserted themselves into the political debates to carve out a place for their continued existence. They came prepared to make arguments for their compatibility with revolutionary goals. From the standpoint of 1790, there was a small but vocal group of nuns and revolutionaries who imagined that useful nuns had a place in the new French Republic. In revisiting the presumed incompatibility of rational Enlightenment thought with religion, a different path to Revolution could have existed: one that was both religious and revolutionary.
Corinne Gressang is a PhD candidate at the University of Kentucky. She is scheduled to defend her dissertation Breaking Habits: Identity and the Dissolution of Convents in France, 1789-1815 in February of 2020.
Title image: Je les donne au diable de bon coeur : extrait d’un auteur patriotique, 1789.
Betros, Gemma. “Liberty, Citizenship and the Suppression of Female Religious Communities in France, 1789–90,” Women’s History Review, Vol. 18, No. 2, (2009), 311–336.
Choudhury, Mita. Convents and Nuns in Eighteenth-Century French Politics and Culture Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 2004.
Hufton, Olwen. Women and the Limits of Citizenship in the French Revolution (Toronto: University of Toronto Press), 1992.
Langlois, Claude. Le Catholicisme au Feminin: Les Congrégations Françaises à Supérieure générale au XIX siècle. Paris: Les Editions du Cerf, 1984.
Murphy, Gwénaël. Rose Lauray, religieuse poitevine (1752-1835). La Creche: Geste Editions, 2002.
 Furthermore, the counter-revolutionary forces that led the most violent resistance to the revolution in Vendée called themselves the “Catholic and Royal Army.”
 The bold is added by me for emphasis. It is not in the original text. Anne-Robert-Jacques Turgot, baron de L’Aune, “Fondations” in L’Encyclopédie ou Dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, par une Société de Gens de lettres (1751-1772), page 7 :71.
 Archives Nationales, D XIX 1, 185. Hereafter, Archives Nationales will be abbreviated AN.
 Much of the revolutionary thinking was inspired by Rousseau’s Emile. Historian Jennifer Popiel argued that women had an equal role in forming the new society through their sway over their husbands and their ability to produce and raise children of the republic. Jennifer Popiel, Rousseau’s Daughters: Domesticity, Education and Autonomy in Modern France (Durham: University of New Hampshire, 2008), 46.
 AN, D XIX 1, Dossier 6, 117.
 The Jacobins were a radical political club during the French Revolution. They are associated with Robespierre and the Reign of Terror.
 Although Creuzé-Latouche does not give the name, Gwënael Murphy suspects this letter is written to Rose Lauray, a Pointevine nun who left her convent before the convents were dissolved in 1790.
 Bibliothèque nationales de France, LD 4 3485, Creuzé-Latouche, « Lettre de M. Creuzé-Latouche : membre de l’Assemblée nationale, à Madame ***, ci-devant religieuse, sortie de la communauté de ***, en vertu des décrets de l’Assemblée nationale » (1791), 47-8.
One thought on “Useful Nuns and Revolutionary Possibility”
“These nuns framed their work as not only useful to God, but, more importantly, as performing a vital public service to the community.”
It does lead you to wonder if the Terror could have been avoided if only the revolutionaries had considered a more moderate approach to things such as religious communities and reform, instead of fracturing society by going to such extremes. In their eagerness to build a new order, they deprived themselves of what was useful in the old. A missed opportunity.
PS: Good luck with your upcoming Defense! Your dissertation sounds fascinating.