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Preaching for the Eyes: Priests, Actors, and Ceremonial Splendor in Early Modern France


In 1656, Jean-Jacques Olier, founder of the Seminary of Saint-Sulpice, urged his students and readers to think of the ceremonies of the mass as "preaching for the eyes." His emphasis on the liturgy as something that should be not just heard but also seen signaled a shift in Catholic worship away from the auditory toward the visual, as well as a call for priests to acquire what we would now call performance skills so as to "preach" with their bodies. This dissertation argues that ecclesiastical action against actors flared in France between the 1660s and 1730s because the foundation of seminaries two decades earlier had turned parish priests into liturgical performers as part of a larger effort to professionalize the secular clergy. This professionalization helps solve a puzzle presented by the cultural history of the theater in early modern France. Although virulent, religiously informed anti-theatrical discourses punctuated France's golden age of theater, France's parish priests appear to have applied anti-actor policies inconsistently. A third of French bishops declared actors "public sinners" during the second half of the seventeenth century, thereby requiring clergymen to exclude performers of all kinds (bateleurs, baladin, farceurs, comédiens) from the sacraments, an exclusion that diminished a person's civil identity, social standing, and legal rights. And yet in most cases parish priests administered the sacraments as soon as an actor renounced the stage even if the renunciation was thereafter reversed. Sacramental reabsorption rather than exclusion was therefore the norm. Why this game? By analyzing the interactions between priests and actors in the parish of Saint-Sulpice, where a seminary, a fair ground, and the Comédie-Française existed side by side, I propose that France's secular clergymen expressed their stance against the theater ceremonially instead of textually. The logic of their ceremonial negotiations has nonetheless remained inscrutable to historians without an excavation of priestly performance practices. Seminary documents - liturgical handbooks, seminary rules, ecclesiastical conferences, instructional pamphlets, parish records, and seminary correspondence - make such an excavation possible. Based on twelve months of archival research at the Archives de la Compagnie des prêtres de Saint-Sulpice, the Archives nationales de France, and the Bibliothèque nationale de France in Paris, among others, I show how parish priests in France used ceremonial splendor, or éclat, to differentiate masses from plays, to assert their local authority when actors encroached on parish turf, to distinguish priestly self-presentation from role playing, and to influence ecclesiastical authorities who had the power to issue edicts against actors. Ceremonial splendor enabled a nuanced - although ultimately failed - response to the theater, a response that incorporated theatrical elements while rejecting the theater's way of organizing bodies and objects in space and time.

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