Counterrevolutionary Catholicism in western France: The battle of belief at Machecoul, 1774-1914

Edward John Woell, Marquette University


The religious structures, practices, teachings, and beliefs of Machecoul, a commune in the department of the Loire-Atlantique, constitute the focus of this dissertation. The study addresses two essential questions that continue to confound historians. First, to what degree was the Counterrevolution in western France (1793-1800) shaped and influenced by religion? And second, why did this region become a bastion for ardent Catholic belief and practice during the nineteenth century? Written under the premises that such questions can be resolved through microanalysis, and that fully understanding mentalities of the past requires a long-term perspective, the dissertation considers the 140-year history of merely one rural parish centered in the heart of the Vendeen insurgency region. The chronology itself is divided into three periods, namely the late Old Regime (1774-1788), the Revolution and Counterrevolution (1789-1800), and the Concordatory period (1801-1914). Moreover, religion is broken down into three distinct entities: "structures" consisting of the hierarchy, the local clergy, the religious orders, and the local institutions that they oversaw; "practices and teachings" comprising ritual and official pedagogy; and "beliefs" involving attitudes of those participating in the ritual and attending the institutions. Emphasis is given to how religious belief contributed to the region's volatile political landscape, and conversely how the political turbulence transformed religion at the parish level. Religion, the study concludes, was integral to the Counterrevolution in western France, but not necessarily in a motivational role. The region became a bulwark of Catholicism in the nineteenth century largely as a result of--ironically--the destructive Counterrevolution. Among other things, the insurgency helped to create a unique kind of Christianity called "counterrevolutionary Catholicism," a religion which was characterized by the exultation of a mythic past, the sacralization of the Counterrevolution, a prophetic condemnation of the contemporaneous, and a demonstrative militancy on behalf of believers. This counterrevolutionary Catholicism was both responsible for, and the beneficiary of, a "battle of belief" waged by the Church at Machecoul throughout much of the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries.

Recommended Citation

Woell, Edward John, "Counterrevolutionary Catholicism in western France: The battle of belief at Machecoul, 1774-1914" (1997). Dissertations (1962 - 2010) Access via Proquest Digital Dissertations. AAI9811412.