The Historiography of the Pre-Suppression Jesuit Mission in France
(7,936 words)

Eric Nelson

Last modified: January 2017


The Society of Jesus’s future French province was also its birthplace. While studying at the University of Paris, Ignatius of Loyola met the other six founding members of the Jesuits and this small group first bound themselves together through a vow taken on August 15, 1534 in the crypt of a church on Montmartre just outside the French capital. Despite this historical link to the kingdom and the support of many prominent French aristocrats and churchmen, the Society experienced a mixed reception in France during the religious wars. It grew rapidly from the mid-sixteenth century, founding colleges in many French cities, but never received official royal recognition despite Henri III (r.1574–89) taking a Jesuit confessor. Opponents, particularly among Gallicans at the University of Paris and Paris Parlement, branded the Jesuits as a subversive foreign influence that threatened the French church and state. Their critics gained the upper hand in 1594 when they secured the Society’s expulsion from much of France for its alleged role in an attempted act of regicide. However, in 1603, Henri IV (r.1589–1610) rehabilitated the Jesuits starting a new phase in the Society’s mission during which it thrived with royal support and protection. By 1650, it had become one of the largest, most influential religious orders in the kingdom. Royal confessors were drawn exclusively from the ranks of the Society for all but six years between 1608 and 1764. Jesuits also served as spiritual advisors and confessors to many important French churchmen, nobles, and magistrates. The Society’s extensive network of colleges across the kingdom provided the chief source of education for the French Catholic elite into the mid-eighteenth century. Members of the Society conducted evangelizing missions in rural regions and cities and among a wide spectrum of the population from elites to galley slaves and dévot Catholics to Protestants. During the second half of the seventeenth century, the Society became embroiled in a series of heated disputes in France that pitted Jesuit Molinist and probabilistic theology against the austere Augustinian theology promoted by Jansenists thinkers. With the support of Louis XIV (r.1643–1715), the Jesuits prevailed in these disputes. However, during the decades following Louis’s death the Society’s opponents among Jansenists, parlementaires, and philosophes created an increasingly hostile environment for the Jesuit mission, ultimately engineering its suppression in 1764.


First Histories

The first histories of the Jesuits in France appeared in print in 1594 and took the form of plaidoyers (legal briefs) produced for court cases in which the University of Paris sought the closing of the Jesuit college in the capital. The two most influential plaidoyers written by Étienne Pasquier (1529–1615) and Antoine Arnauld (1560–1619) presented broad condemnations of the Society’s presence in the kingdom, arguing that from the start the Jesuits had been a foreign and disruptive group in French society that had actively sought to destabilize the kingdom, corrupt its youth, undermine the Gallican church and overthrow the monarchy.1 Many more anti-Jesuit works offering similar histories of the Society’s presence in the kingdom appeared in print over the next two decades, the most important of which was Pasquier’s Le catéchisme des jésuites first published in 1602 as part of the debate surrounding the rehabilitation of the Jesuits in France.2 In his Catéchisme, Pasquier expanded on his plaidoyer by including detailed critiques of the Society’s constitutions and organization along with lengthy descriptions of alleged Jesuit misdeeds across Europe and beyond. Pasquier’s encyclopedic account was drawn on by critics of the Jesuit presence in France for centuries to come, establishing a basic narrative of Jesuit involvement behind the scenes in political intrigue, foreign plots, and assassinations during the religious wars. This interpretation of the early Jesuit mission in France evolved remarkably little in the centuries that followed, with later anti-Jesuit writers merely incorporating further examples of more recent alleged Jesuit activities into the narrative advanced by Pasquier. While anti-Jesuit publications dominated the polemical debate, Jesuit apologists did respond to their detractors. Louis Richeome (1544–1625), the Jesuit controversialist and later assistant to the superior general for France, wrote several tracts in the 1590s defending the Society and Pierre Cotton (1564–1626), confessor to Henry IV and Louis XIII (r.1610–43), took up the mantel of Jesuit apologist during the first decades of the seventeenth century.3 These works responded to specific accusations of anti-Jesuit writers, largely ceding the contours of the historical debate to their opponents.

During the same period, a new type of history writing flowered in France. Its proponents adhered to an analytical and source-based approach to the past that had gained currency in French humanist and legal circles during the sixteenth century. While conceived as universal histories, they primarily focused on France. The Jesuits featured prominently in these works and as Myriam Yardini has noted, "What is striking above all in these Histories [...] is that they are not only for or against the Jesuits, but that they are passionately so and without nuance."4

As one might expect, Protestant universal historians embraced a narrative of the Jesuits that emphasized the Society’s role in the political intrigues and violence that wracked France during the religious wars. In his Histoire universelle, Agrippa d’Aubigné (1552–1630), the soldier, poet, and Huguenot stalwart, cast the Jesuits as committed allies of Spain and effective opponents of peace in France.5 In his Histoire des choses mémorables avenues en France, the more moderate Protestant Jean de Serres (1540–98), an advocate for religious reconciliation, linked the Jesuits to a series of events in the religious wars—especially regicide plots—that for him warranted their expulsion in 1594.6

For several French Catholic historians, the Society of Jesus’s mission in France threatened to undermine or even destroy the Gallican church and French monarchy. Having built his reputation as a lawyer and intellectual in no small part through his opposition to the Society of Jesus’s mission in France, it is not surprising that Pasquier produced the history most in line with his more polemical Catéchism.7 In 1596, Pasquier inserted into his Recherches historiques the full text of his plaidoyer for the University of Paris under the title "De la secte jésuite" and, in 1606, added another chapter on the incompatibility of the Jesuit constitutions and mission with French law and the customs of the Gallican church.8 In his influential Historiarum sui temporis, Jacques-Auguste de Thou (1553–1617) produced the most complete account in a universal history of the Society’s first decades in France. Like Pasquier, De Thou asserted that the Society was heavily involved in the political intrigue that destabilized French society and undermined the Catholic faith during the religious wars, even if he was able to distinguish on occasion between individual Jesuits who were capable of doing good and the Society as a whole which posed a serious threat to the kingdom.9

Not all universal historians of the period produced such negative histories of the Society’s first half-century in France. The convert to Catholicism and official historiographer of Henri IV, Pierre-Victor Palma-Cayet (1525–1610) took a more even-handed approach to the Jesuit mission, presenting accusations against the Society alongside similarly detailed Jesuit responses.10 In his Histoire des derniers troubles de France, the Jesuit educated playwright, historian, and lawyer, Pierre Matthieu (1563–1621) offered the most positive account of the Society’s mission in France. In it, he cast the Jesuits as sent by God to combat the new heresies and framed the attacks of their anti-Jesuit opponents in the tradition of past unjust persecutions of saints.11 He also offered a very positive assessment of Jesuit educational foundations and incorporated lengthy refutations of accusations made by their enemies. While he recognized that on occasion Jesuits had participated in public affairs, his emphasis on their contributions to French society contrasted sharply with other universal histories from the same period.


From Jansenist Controversies to Suppression

During the reigns of Louis XIII (r.1610–43) and Louis XIV (r.1643–1715) the Society’s mission grew and prospered in France. Public opposition to the Jesuit presence in the kingdom receded as did the publication of polemics and histories that purported to recount the Society’s past activities in France. Instead, in the second half of the century, the Society’s Jansenist critics, most notably Blaise Pascal (1623–62), focused primarily on what they identified as the spiritual and theological shortcomings of Jesuit Molinist and probabilistic theology and their related ethical teachings. These Jansenist critics broke no new ground in terms of the history of the Jesuit mission in France. Many French Jesuits immersed themselves in these debates, which may in part explain why no Jesuit historian produced a history of the Society’s mission in France during this period. The only sustained examinations of aspects of the Society’s history in France appeared in studies of related topics. For instance, César Egasse Du Boulay’s (1610–78) Historia Universitatis Parisiensis, which was published in 1673, included significant sections chronicling in a reasonably even-handed manner the now historic disputes between the university and the Jesuits in the previous century.12

Thanks to royal and papal support, Jesuit theological positions triumphed politically over those of their Jansenist opponents in a series of disputes that culminated in the papal bull Unigenitus in the early eighteenth century. But the Society’s prominence in these debates and close association with a monarchy, which was perceived by some to have acted tyrannically in enforcing Unigenitus, brought together opponents who ultimately engineered the Society’s suppression in France in 1764. Enlightenment philosophes were one prominent group who criticized the Jesuits, focusing for instance on the Society’s participation in what they viewed as pointless theological debates. While their attacks were not primarily historical in nature, figures like Voltaire (1694–1778) in his Histoire de Louis XIV (1713–84), David Diderot (1713–1784) in the entry on Jesuits in the Encyclopédie, and Jean Le Rond d’Alembert (1717–83) in his Sur la destruction des jésuites en France did draw on what had by now become established historical examples put forward by Jesuit opponents to substantiate some of their criticisms.13

The Jansenists proved to be far more dangerous opponents of the Society. While the Jansenist spiritual movement had largely been defeated by the early eighteenth century, the nature of Jansenism had evolved. No longer was it defined exclusively by the theology of its proponents; instead it had become partly political in nature. Jansenists still opposed Jesuit Molinist and probabilistic theology and related ethical teachings, but now also objected to the Society’s perceived support for foreign papal authority and an authoritarian or tyrannical French monarchy. Some also viewed the Jesuits as possessing their own nefarious agenda in which they sought to dominate the Catholic Church and secular governments everywhere. In this new context, the history of the Society’s mission in France came under renewed scrutiny by their opponents. Substantial volumes of primary sources from earlier periods were collected and published. A new edition of Pasquier’s works, for instance, appeared in print in the 1720s, while Jean-Antoine Gazaignes’s (1717–1802) impressive five-volume collection of mostly anti-Jesuit writings stretching back to mid-sixteenth century entered publication just as the Society was suppressed.14 This return to the sources inspired opponents to write new histories of the Society. Perhaps the most systematic and influential of these was Louis-Adrien Le Paige (1712–1802) and Christophe Coudrette’s (1701–74) four-volume Histoire générale de la naissance et des progrès de la Compagnie de Jésus en France.15 Steeped in primary sources, this work drew on historical examples to advance the thesis that Jesuits were blindly obedient to their superiors and engaged in a plot to seize control of the Catholic church and ultimately to rule the world.

Some of their opponents’ publications sought to construct a history of the Jesuit mission’s recent past in France. For instance, the weekly Jansenist publication Les nouvelles ecclésiastiques along with a series of pamphlets, some of which fabricated events, brought current news of Jesuit scandals and moral failings in France to the public’s attention.16 In the late 1750s, a series of events made the history of the Jesuit mission in France central to current debate. In 1757, Robert-François Damiens’s (1715–57) attempted assassination of the king, revived interest in histories that linked the Society with the regicides of Henri III and Henri IV and works by Jesuits on tyrannicide that had been censured in France.17 Meanwhile, the bankruptcy of a Caribbean trading company led by the Jesuit Antoine La Valette (1708–67) raised issues of how the Jesuits were organized and whether they were subject to French law. In 1761, Charlemagne Lalourcé (b.1751), a lawyer representing a creditor in the case, published a five-hundred-page memoir on this topic steeped in historical examples.18 In it, Lalourcé argued that the history of the Society proved the dangers associated with its despotic structure and organization of which the La Valette case was just the most recent example. Collectively, the dozens of anti-Jesuit histories and polemics produced in the first half of the eighteenth century offered little that was fundamentally new concerning the history of the Society’s mission in France, largely repeating the works of earlier authors but in the context of contemporary debates.

In the decades leading up to their suppression in 1764, the Jesuits proved ineffective in countering their opponents’ histories of their French mission. What energies that French Jesuits put into the writing of history focused primarily on textbooks for use in their schools and the collection and publication of the relations of foreign Jesuit missions administered by the French province. An alternative, Jesuit history of the pre-suppression mission would have to wait until their restoration in 1814.


After the Restoration

The nineteenth century was the high point for anti-Jesuitism in France.19 Three times in the seven decades following their restoration the Jesuits became a focal point in French secular political debate. Jesuit opponents, primarily on the left of the political spectrum, produced numerous polemics and a number of more substantial histories that recounted the well-established anti-Jesuit narrative of their pre-suppression mission.20 As the leading historian of the Jesuit myth in France during the nineteenth century has summarized: "The record of intrigue and criminality which passed, in anti-Jesuit eyes, for Jesuit history was in general highly standardized, at least for the period before the order’s suppression was concerned."21

As the nineteenth century progressed, French historians became increasingly imbued with the values of the new scientific history, in particular faith in primary sources and the methods of using them advocated by Leopold von Ranke (1795–1886). In this context, some secular French historians produced sustained examinations of the Society’s pre-suppression mission that were not directly inspired by contemporary political debates. Basing his study on the correspondence of papal nuncios and archival material in Paris, François-Tommy Perrens (1822–1901) provided a more nuanced and contextualized account of the Society’s expulsion from much of France in 1594 and its subsequent reintegration into the kingdom after 1603 as part of a broader study of the French church and state in the decades following the religious wars.22 Similar careful archival work by Édouard Maugis (b.1858) on the Parlement of Paris during the reign of Henri IV, Édouard Puyol (1835–1904) on the controversial Gallican Edmond Richer (1560–1631), and Charles Jourdain (1817–86) on the University of Paris during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries led to further reassessments of the Society’s mission in France.23 Finally, the legal scholar Aristide Douarche (1850–1916) produced two substantial works, the first focused the court cases pitting the University of Paris against the Jesuits in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries and the second on the Lavalette bankruptcy case and its relation to the suppression of the Society in 1764.24 However, in all but the last of these works the Society of Jesus was not the scholar’s primary focus and so the Jesuits and their mission were still examined through the prism of French political and religious history.

Likely inspired by the twenty-first Jesuit general congregation’s decree in 1829 that the Society should collect and preserve sources pertaining to its past, a number of Jesuit historians embraced the new scientific history to construct accounts of the Society’s pre-suppression mission in France. Between 1863 and 1886, the prolific editor of documents Auguste Carayon, S.J. (1813–74) produced twenty-three volumes in his Documents inédits concernant la Compagnie de Jésus, much of which pertained to the Jesuit mission in France and its colonies.25 During the same period, another Jesuit Jean-Marie Prat (1809–91) produced a history of the controversial Jesuit theologian Juan Maldonado’s (1533–83) time at the University of Paris and a monumental five-volume history of the Jesuits in France during the lifetime of Pierre Cotton.26 Prat included substantial primary-source collections at the conclusion of both studies. In 1907, Alexandre Brou, S.J. (1862–1947) published his two-volume work Les jésuites de la légende dedicated to identifying and chronicling different strains of anti-Jesuit thought from the Society’s foundation to his day.27 While this study examined the Jesuit legend in general, it focused primarily on developments in France and provided a careful examination of the creation and promotion of the Jesuit myth. The Jesuits and their supporters also wrote a number of well-researched histories of specific foundations—including those in Paris, La Flèche, Angoulême, Poitiers, and Montpellier—and Camille de Rochemonteix (1834–1923) produced a substantial biography of Louis XIII’s Jesuit confessor Nicolas Caussin (1583–1651).28


The Most Recent Century

By the opening of the twentieth century Jesuit scholars and their supporters had established a revisionist historiography of the Society’s pre-suppression mission in France. This Jesuit historical school provided a much more positive assessment of the Society’s activities and partially shifted focus from high politics and religious debates to the Society’s educational, missionary, and cultural contributions and especially histories of their local foundations. In many ways, this school culminated in the Jesuit Henri Fouqueray’s (1860–1927) monumental five-volume Histoire de la Compagnie de Jésus en France.29 This meticulously researched history drew on sources in the Jesuit Roman Archives, the Vatican, and numerous archives across France. Fouqueray sought to produce the most comprehensive history of the Society’s pre-suppression mission to date, addressing the political and theological disputes that dominated the field but also devoting whole chapters to the activities of colleges and other Jesuit evangelizing initiatives in the kingdom. Unfortunately, Fouqueray passed away before completing his project. The final volume concludes in 1645.

From the middle decades of the twentieth century, historiography of the Jesuit pre-suppression mission in France developed in new directions. For the first time the field was largely decoupled from contemporary political and religious debates within France. Moreover, scholars who were not Jesuits themselves started to take an interest in who the Jesuits were and their activities in fields including education and the arts. Finally, for the first time, Anglophone scholars joined their French counterparts in studying the Society’s activities in France. This scholarship has both reassessed established historiography on the Jesuit mission, especially in terms of political history, and embraced new approaches to social, cultural, and intellectual history.


Political Histories

An important set of studies have returned to critical moments in the political narrative of the Jesuits in France, revising our understanding of these events. In his L’assassinat d’Henri IV, Rolland Mousnier (1907–93) began this process by largely exculpating the Jesuits of any role in the series of regicide attempts that ultimately cost both Henri III and Henri IV their lives.30 Drawing on extensive research in the Jesuit Roman archives, A. Lynn Martin’s Henri III and the Jesuit Politicians reassessed the role of the Jesuits in the French religious wars depicting an order split amongst itself and at times beyond effective control from Rome.31 Far from the long-established image constructed by their opponents of a monolithic order that promoted Spanish and ultramontane interests in France, the Jesuits in Martin’s study were split into rival camps reflecting similar rifts in wider French society. Martin concluded his study just before the final convulsion of religious violence in France associated with the Catholic League. Eric Nelson took up the story from there in his The Jesuits and the Monarchy by reexamining the expulsion of the Society from a large portion of the kingdom in 1594 and their subsequent recall and reintegration after 1603.32 Nelson rejected the notion that Henri IV only sanctioned the Jesuit return under pressure from the pope, instead showing how the king used the negotiations surrounding Jesuit rehabilitation to redefine the Society’s legal position in France through an act of royal clemency. According to Nelson, it was this new relationship between monarchy and Jesuits that redefined the Society’s mission in France in the years and decades that followed making it a leading force in the seventeenth-century French Catholic church. In his The Jesuits and the Thirty Years War, Robert Bireley, S.J. explored the influence of Jesuit confessors in France, Spain, and the empire.33 He found a great diversity among the confessors, not the coordinated group feared by their detractors, with French confessors toeing a strongly Gallican line. Jean-Pascal Gay’s study of the generalate of Tirso González (in office, 1687–1705) has examined in great depth the demands of Louis XIV that the Society reorganize its provinces to reflect the new geopolitical realities in Europe.34 In The Jansenists and the Expulsion of the Jesuits in France and The Damiens Affair and the Unravelling of the Ancien Régime, Dale Van Kley reexamined the events leading up to the suppression of the Society in 1764, showing that the Jansenists were the driving force behind the suppression and that it was part of wider political and religious debates in the kingdom concerning royal and sacerdotal "despotism."35


Social and Cultural Histories

Beyond these revisionist political histories, scholars of social, cultural, and intellectual history have been attracted to the Jesuit pre-suppression mission. The focus of their research has reflected a wider shift in Jesuit historiography away from, as John W. O’Malley, S.J. has put it, "How was the Society of Jesus an agent of the Counter Reformation?" to "What was the Society of Jesus like?" or "What were the Jesuits like?"36 The rich surviving sources no doubt played a part in this, as did the variety of activities undertaken by Jesuits in French society. "Les jésuites parmi les hommes" colloquy in 1985 consciously examined this shift in focus, bringing together in Clermont-Ferrand dozens of French and Anglophone scholars from a variety of disciplines to explore the new directions in the field.37

In his The Jesuit Mind, A. Lynn Martin focused on what the first generations of Jesuits were like, seeking, in the tradition of Lucien Febvre (1878–1956) and Marc Bloch (1886–1944), to identify with all its nuances the mental world of the Jesuits.38 The strength of this study lay in its sources, some five thousand letters written by Jesuits in France between 1550 and 1580 to the Jesuit headquarters in Rome. Through Martin’s skillful analysis, these letters bring to life the experiences of individual Jesuits, the struggles of the overstretched mission and challenges faced by the Society in inculcating the Jesuit way of proceeding in its members. Martin’s study remains the most revealing to date on the everyday lives and mental worlds of French Jesuits in the sixteenth century, but its exclusive reliance on a single source limits the scope of its conclusions. In Beginning to Be a Jesuit, Patricia M. Ranum addressed the same question of what it was like to be a Jesuit through the publication in English translation with a detailed scholarly introduction of the anonymous Instructions for the Paris Novitiate—a rule book written in 1685 for novices undertaking their first two years of formation in the French capital.39 This remarkable manuscript recorded detailed instructions for novices on how to undertake nearly every activity prescribed in daily schedules, providing a unique window into the everyday life of late-seventeenth-century Jesuit novices. While touched upon in many studies, few works have focused on Jesuit relationships with patrons and especially elite women in France. That is why Susan Broomhall’s article "Devoted Politics" on Jesuits and women at the Valois court is a welcome contribution to the field.40

Social and cultural historians have also focused in recent decades on activities in the dozens of Jesuit colleges scattered across the kingdom. The final section of the Jésuites parmi les hommes essay collection published after the colloquy of the same name in Clermont-Ferrand reflects the rich new lines of inquiry in this field.41 Entitled "École, thêatre et culture," it included over a dozen contributions on Jesuit educational, theatrical, and artistic activities. Some of the most innovative work on these topics has focused on the Collège de la Trinité in Lyon, primarily because of the extraordinary rich survival of sources for this important institution. Georgette de Groër, Joseph Picot, and Georges Guitton’s provide the best overviews of the institution.42 Recent work on specific aspects of the college’s activities provide a sense of the variety of new directions pursued by scholars interested in the Society’s impact on learning and culture across France. Pierre Guillot’s Les jésuites et la musique examined the neglected topic of the Society’s use of music by exploring attitudes toward it and its evolving uses at the college over two centuries.43 The essays in part one of Les jésuites à Lyon XVIe-XXe siècles published in 2005 explored education, architecture, and the impressive library of the college before its suppression in the 1760s.44 Stéphane Van Damme’s Le temple de la sagesse has assessed the impact of the Jesuits on oral, visual, and written representation in Lyon and the Jesuit role in the institutionalization of cultural life in the Lyonnais during the Enlightenment.45

Beyond studies of the Collège de la Trinité, historians have focused on Jesuit efforts to catechize and strengthen the faith of Catholic populations through the organization of confraternities, preaching, and mission work. Louis Châtellier’s (1935–2016) two studies L’Europe des dévots, which examined Jesuit Marian sodalities, and La religion des pauvres, which explored rural missions, focused significant attention on the activities of French Jesuits across the kingdom, contextualizing their activities in France in wider contexts.46 Jean Brunet has taken a much more focused approach to Jesuit missionary activity in rural France by bringing together in a single volume the Jesuit Pyrenees mission reports produced between 1635 and 1649.47 They provide revealing insights into Jesuit missionary strategies, chronicling how the Society worked with bishops and often supportive local communities to bring new Tridentine ideas and practices to the region. Similarly, Anne-Sophie and Jérôme Cras have produced an accessible French edition of Julian Maunoir’s Latin journal of his missions in rural Brittany between 1631 and 1650.48

The most encyclopedic work to date on Jesuit establishments in France and the activities that took place in them is the five-volume Les établissements des jésuites en France depuis quatres siècles edited by Pierre Delattre, S.J. (1876–1961).49 This impressive work includes histories of every foundation in France. While the individual entries were produced by a large group of contributors and therefore vary in quality, most provide concise well-researched introductions to individual foundations, many of which had previously been neglected by scholars. Each entry also includes a detailed bibliography at the end identifying sources for further study of that foundation. Pierre Moissy, S.J. has produced a two-volume study of Jesuit churches in the assistance of France that provides a similarly encyclopedic survey of Jesuit places of worship in the province.50


Intellectual and Spiritual

The profound impact of the Jesuits on French learning and expression during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries has been a fertile field of inquiry. Marc Fumaroli’s magisterial work L’âge de l’éloquence identified the Jesuits as central to the development of French rhetoric in the seventeenth century and crucial to the triumph of Richelieu’s cultural program in the 1620s, which effectively brought an end to serious political rhetoric until the eighteenth century.51 Fumaroli’s remarkably nuanced and tactful reading of the sources shows how the Jesuits and Gallicans, despite their confrontations, ultimately came to very similar conclusions about the elements of a Classical style that defined French eloquence during the seventeenth century. While Fumaroli’s study was groundbreaking in its originality, it owed a great deal to the work of François de Dainville, S.J. (1909–71) to whom Fumaroli dedicated L’âge de l’éloquence. Dainville’s early death deprived the field of his full impact, but his essays on Jesuit education, which were gathered together posthumously in a single volume entitled L’éducation des jesuites, remain an important source for the study Jesuit teaching and learning in France.52 More recently, Philippe Rocher has produced a scholarly survey of Jesuit education in France from the Society’s foundation to the present.53

The ideas of French Jesuit spiritual thinkers in the seventeenth century have attracted considerable scholarly attention. Appearing in print between 1916 and 1933, Henri Bremond’s (1865–1933) seminal eleven-volume Histoire littéraire du sentiment religieux en France remains the foundational work in this field.54 Bremond, a former Jesuit who left the order before beginning his study, revived from obscurity the spiritual thought of French Jesuits including Louis Lallemant (1578–1635) and Jean Joseph Surin (1600–65). Bremond contrasted their more mystical spirituality with ascetical approaches to Ignatian teachings. In his important article "Crise sociale et réformisme spirituel au début du XVIIe siècle," Michel de Certeau (1925–86) built on Bremond’s insights by showing how multiple spiritual traditions, many with mystical tendencies, co-existed with some tensions among the Jesuits of the French mission during the opening decades of the seventeenth century. For Certeau these alternative spiritual outlooks reflected differing visions of the Society. Those with mystical tendencies sought a life with more contemplative prayer and a more mobile vocation less committed to institutions. A Companion to Jesuit Mysticism provides up-to-date entries on important French Jesuit mystics including Lallemant, Surin, Claude La Colombière (1641–82), and Jean-Pierre Caussade (1675–1751).55 Surin, whose ideas were more radical than most, has been the subject of several important studies. De Certeau published his correspondence with a scholarly introduction that serves as his best biography to date, and more recently Patrick Goujon has further examined Surin’s correspondence in his Prendre part à l’intransmissible: La communication spirituelle à travers la correspondence de Jean-Joseph Surin.56 Certeau also explored Surin’s activities as an exorcist in his classic work La possession de Loudun.57

Many studies explore the impact of Jesuits on the spiritual currents associated with the French Catholic Reformation, although few that address this issue focus specifically on the Society. For instance, in his study of the early life of Pierre de Bérulle (1575–1629), Jean Dagens shows how the Society of Jesus profoundly influenced the future cardinal’s spiritual formation as he considered joining the Jesuits before founding the Oratorians.58 The influence of Jesuit confessors and spiritual directors was particularly pronounced among female religious orders including the Carmelites, Ursulines, and Filles de Nôtre Dame. This theme is explored in studies like Elizabeth Rapley’s The Dévotes on female monasticism and education in France and works on individual foundations like Marie-André Jegou’s study of the Ursuline house in Paris.59

The relationship of the Jesuits to the Enlightenment has also been the subject of significant recent scholarship. Catherine Northeast’s The Parisian Jesuits and the Enlightenment examined the intellectual world of eighteenth-century Jesuits in Paris and their relationships with Enlightenment thought, particularly the non-Augustinian belief in the essential innocence of human nature.60 Northeast finds the Jesuits far less well-organized than their enemies perceived and their religious views not that far removed from those of the Enlightenment. Stéphane Van Damme’s Le temple de la sagesse, noted earlier, offers a nuanced study of the Jesuit impact on cultural life in Lyonnais during the Enlightenment.61 Meanwhile, Mita Choudhury’s The Wanton Jesuit and the Wayward Saint explores a scandalous trial from 1731 in which the Jesuit confessor Jean-Baptiste Girard (1680–1733) was accused by Catherine Cadière (b.1709) of seduction, heresy, abortion, and bewitchment. Her microhistorical approach to this famous case provides new insight into how, in the hands of their Jansenist enemies, scandals like this one undermined the standing of both the Jesuits and the monarchy in the kingdom.62

Finally, two recent collections of essays have added considerably to our understanding of Jesuit visual culture during the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries. Claude-François Ménestrier: Les jésuites et le monde des images explores Jesuit artistic culture through the extraordinary career of Ménestrier (1631–1705) who both produced a wide variety of spectacles and iconographic programs and authored treatises on coats of arms, emblems, medals, and art during the height of the French baroque period.63 Le chair et le verbe explores the nature and uses of images by Jesuits in France in a variety of contexts including art, rhetoric, poetry, ballet, and theater.64 Together, these two volumes speak to the rich multidisciplinary synergies currently being developed by scholars interested in Jesuit artistic and cultural production.


Future Directions

The last half-century of scholarship on the pre-suppression mission in France has opened up broad new lines of inquiry that offer exciting opportunities for further research. I can only highlight a few in this short overview. Aside from Martin’s excellent The Jesuit Mind and Ranum’s recent study of the Jesuit novitiate in Paris, little work has been undertaken on who the Jesuits were in France and their worldviews. There are good reasons for this. The individual letters from rank and file Jesuits that Martin relied upon were preserved in far greater numbers before 1600 than after. However, annual letters from Jesuit foundations and synopsizes of the Jesuit central administration’s outgoing correspondence along with other useful documents are preserved in the Archivum Romanum Societatis Iesu in Rome, primarily in the Galliae, Franciae, Aquitaniae and Lugdunensis collections.65 More material on the family backgrounds, lives, and activities of individual Jesuits survives in local and departmental archives in France. Also, it should be noted that Martin did not exhaust the potential uses of the roughly five thousand letters produced by Jesuits before 1580. They remain a treasure trove of information on the Society’s early mission in France. Finally, Jesuit roles in cultivating female spirituality and their relations with female patrons deserve further study in the context of France.

Much more could also be done on the day-to-day running of Jesuit colleges across the kingdom and their role in wider intellectual and cultural currents in their communities. Northeast and Sagesse have recently focused on these themes in Paris and Lyon respectively during the eighteenth century, but beyond what can be gleaned from mostly nineteenth century studies of individual colleges little work has been done on these themes in earlier time periods and smaller cities. A study that looked at the broader cultural and intellectual roles of the Society in local communities would help to contextualize works on individual institutions. Delattre’s encyclopedic study of individual establishments provides an ideal first resource for identifying manuscript and printed sources for specific Jesuit foundations.66 Excellent recent scholarship on Jesuit theater productions, use of music, and other cultural activities in localities across France have just scratched the surface of these rich lines of inquiry.

Finally, more work still needs to be done on the Jesuit role in the political and spiritual life of France. Older collections of documents available on-line provide good entries into these subjects. In particular, scholars can easily access the Carayon and Gazaignes multi-volume collections and the final volume of Prat’s history of the Jesuit mission in France during the lifetime of Pierre Cotton.67 By leaving to one side the traditional historiographical debates of the past that inspired publication of these collections, scholars including Mousnier, Nelson, and Van Kley have shown that one can gain important new perspectives on the Society’s activities in France from these sources.


For more bibliographical information, consult Boston College Jesuit Bibliography: The New Sommervogel Online (NSO).


^ Back to text1. Estienne Pasquier, Le plaidoyé de M. Pasquier pour l’Université de Paris deffeneresse: Contre les jésuites demandeurs en requeste (Paris: Abel l’Angelier, 1594); Antoine Arnauld, Plaidoyé de M. Antoine Arnauld advocat en parlement & cy devant conseiller & procureur general de la defuncte roine mère des rois: Pour l’Université de Paris demanderesse; Contre des jésuites defendeurs des 12 & 13 juillet 1594 (Paris: Mamert Patisson, 1594). Note that while Pasquier originally composed his plaidoyer for a case heard in 1564, it was likely reworked in 1594 for publication: see Eric Nelson, The Jesuits and the Monarchy: Catholic Reform and Political Authority in France (1590–1615) (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2005), 23n38.

^ Back to text2. Claude Sutto has produced an excellent modern scholarly edition of this important work: Étienne Pasquier, Le catéchisme des jésuites ou examine de leur doctrine, edited by Claude Sutto (Sherbrooke: Éditions de l’Université de Sherbrooke, 1982). For a full account of other polemical tracts produced from the 1590s through 1615, see Nelson, Jesuits and the Monarchy, passim.

^ Back to text3. Louis Richeome, Très humble remonstrance et requête des religieux de la Compagnie de Jésus, au roi très chrétien de France et de Navarre, Henri IV (Bordeaux: Simon Millanges, 1598); Louis Richeome, Responses pour les religieux de la Compagnie de Jésus au plaidoyer de Simon Marion (Villefranche: Guillaume Grenier, 1599); and under the pseudonym René de la Fon La plainte apologétique (Bordeaux: Simon Millanges, 1603). Pierre Coton, Response apologétique à l’Anticoton et à ceux de sa suite (Pont: Michel Gaillard, 1610).

^ Back to text4. Myriam Yardeni, "L’entrée des jésuites dans l’historiographie française," in Les jésuites parmi les hommes aux XVIe et XVIIe siècles (Clermont-Ferrand: Association des Publications de la Faculté des Lettres et Sciences Humaines de Clermont-Ferrand, 1987), 219–30, here 226.

^ Back to text5. Agrippa d’Aubigné, Histoire universelle, 11 vols. (Geneva: Droz, 1981–2001).

^ Back to text6. Jean de Serres, Histoire des choses mémorables avenues en France sous le regne de Henri II, François II , Charles IX, Henri III et Henri IV (Geneva: Antoine Blanc, 1598).

^ Back to text7. For more on Pasquier’s career, see James H. Dahlinger, Saving France in the 1580s: Writings of Etienne Pasquier (New York: Peter Lang, 2014), 13–32.

^ Back to text8. Étienne Pasquier, Les recherches de la France, reveuës & augmenté de 4 livres, 4 vols. (Paris: Mettayer & Huillier, 1596). For the later additions see Étienne Pasquier, Les œuvres d’Estienne Pasquier, 2 vols. (Amsterdam: La Compagnie des Libraires Associez, 1723).

^ Back to text9. For the earliest edition, see Jacques-Auguste de Thou, Historiarum sui temporis partis primæ, 2 vols. (Paris: Ambrosium and Hieronymum, 1604). For a complete edition in French see Jacques-Auguste de Thou, Histoire universelle de Jacque Auguste de Thou depuis 1543 jusqu’en 1607, 16 vols. (London: n.p., 1734).

^ Back to text10. Pierre-Victor Palma Cayet, Chronologie novennaire ou l’histoire de la guerre sous Henri IV (1589–1598), 3 vols. (Paris: Richer, 1608); Pierre-Victor Palma Cayet, Chronologie septenaire (1598–1604) (Paris, J. Richer, 1606).

^ Back to text11. Pierre Mathieu, Histoire des derniers troubles de France soubs les régnes de Henry III et de Henry IIII (Lyon: n.p., 1610).

^ Back to text12. César Egasse Du Boulay, Historia Universitatis Parisiensis, 6 vols. (Paris: Petrum de Bresche and Iacobum de Laize-de Bresche, 1673).

^ Back to text13. Voltaire, Le siècle de Louis XIV (London: R. Dodsley, 1752); Denis Diderot, "Jesuites," in Encyclopédie, ou dictionnaire raisonné des sciences, des arts et des métiers, ed. Denis Diderot and Jean le Rond d’Alembert (Paris: André le Breton et al., 1751–66); Jean Le Rond d’Alembert, Sur la destruction des jésuites en France, par un auteur désintéressé (, 1765).

^ Back to text14. Pasquier, Œuvres; Jean-Antoine Gazaignes, ed. Annales de la société des soi-disans jésuites: Ou recueil historique chronologique, 5 vols. (Paris:, 1764–67).

^ Back to text15. Louis-Adrien Le Paige and Christophe Coudrette, Histoire générale de la naissance et des progrès de la Compagnie de Jesus et l’analyse de ses constitutions & privileges, 4 vols. (Amsterdam: Aux Depens de la Compagnie, 1761).

^ Back to text16. For a good survey of publications during this period see Dale Van Kley, The Jansenists and the Expulsion of the Jesuits from France, 1757–1765 (New Haven: Yale University Press, 1975) and Alexandre Brou, S.J., Les Jésuites de la légende, 2 vols. (Paris: Victor Retaux, 1907).

^ Back to text17. For a good survey of the publications surrounding this affair, see Dale Van Kley, The Damiens Affair and the Unravelling of the Ancien Régime, 1750–1770 (Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1984).

^ Back to text18. Charlemagne Lalourcé, Mémoire à consulter, et consultation pour Jean Lioncy, créancier et syndic de la masse de la raison de commerce établie à Marseilles, sous le nom de Lioncy frères, et Gouffre contre le corps et société de P.P. Jésuites (Paris: P. Alex. Le Prieur, 1761).

^ Back to text19. For a full account of these developments see Geoffrey Cubitt, The Jesuit Myth: Conspiracy Theory and Politics in Nineteenth-Century France (Oxford: Clarendon, 1993).

^ Back to text20. While too numerous to list here, some of the most substantial histories include Jacques-François Goubeau de la Bilennerie, Histoire abrégée des jésuites et des missionnaires pères de la foi, où il est prouvé que ces religieux et toutes corporations ecclésiastiques régies par L’Institut de la Société de Jésus, ne sont tolérables chez aucunes nations policées, 2 vols. (Paris: Delaunay, 1820); Eugène Monglave and Prosper Chalas, Histoire des conspirations des jésuites contre la maison de Bourbon en France (Paris: Ponthieu, 1825); Mathieu-Mathurin Tabaraud, Essai historique et critique sur l’état des jésuites en France (Paris:, 1828); Adolphe Boucher, Histoire dramatique et pittoresque des jésuites, depuis la fondation de l’ordre jusqu’à nos jours, 2 vols. (Paris: Cavailles, 1845–46); Auguste Arnould, Les jésuites depuis leur origine jusqu’à nos jours: Histoire, types, mœurs, mystères (Paris: Dutertre, 1846); Wladimir Guettée, Histoire des jésuites, composée sur les documents authentiques en partie inédits (Paris: Huet, 1858). A second edition of Guettée’s work appeared in 1872. See also, Cubitt, Jesuit Myth.

^ Back to text21. Cubitt, Jesuit Myth, 188.

^ Back to text22. François-Tommy Perrens, L’église et l’état en France sous le règne de Henri IV et la régence de Marie de Médicis, 2 vols. (Paris: A. Durand et Pedone-Lauriel, 1872).

^ Back to text23. Édouard Maugis, Histoire du Parlement de Paris de l’avènement des rois Valois à la mort de Henri IV à Paris, vol. 3 (Paris: A. Picard, 1916); Édouard Puyol, Edmond Richer: Étude historique et critique sur la rénovation du Gallicanisme au commencement du XVIIe siècle, 2 vols. (Paris: Th. Omer, 1876); Charles Jourdain, Histoire de l’Université de Paris au XVIIe au XVIIIe siècle (Paris: Hachette, 1862).

^ Back to text24. Aristide Douarche, L’Université de Paris et les jésuites (XVIe et XVIIe siècles) (Paris: Hachette, 1888); Aristide Douarche, Étude historique sur la banqueroute du P. Lavalette et la destruction des jésuites au XVIIIe siècle (Paris: Durand & Pedone-Lauriel, 1880).

^ Back to text25. Auguste Carayon, S.J., Documents inédits concernant la Compagnie de Jésus, 23 vols. (Poitiers: H. Oudin, 1863–86).

^ Back to text26. Jean-Marie Prat, S.J., Maldonat et l’Université de Paris au XVIe siècle (Paris: Julien Lanier, 1856); Jean-Marie Prat, S.J., Recherches historiques et critiques sur la Compagnie de Jésus en France du temps du P. Coton, 1564–1626, 5 vols. (Lyon: Briday, 1876–78).

^ Back to text27. Brou, Jésuites de la légende.

^ Back to text28. Camille de Rochemonteix, S.J., Nicolas Caussin, confesseur de Louis XIII, et le cardinal de Richelieu (Paris: A Picard, 1911); Camille de Rochemonteix, S.J., Un college de jésuites aux XVIIe & XVIIIe siècles: Le Collège Henri IV de la Flèche, 4 vols. (Le Mans: Leguicheux, 1889); Gustave Dupont-Ferrier, Du Collège de Clermont au Lycée Louis-le-Grand (1563–1920): La vie quotidienne d’un collège parisien pendant plus de trois cent cinquante ans, 3 vols. (Paris: E. de Boccard, 1921–1925); Albert de Massougnes, Les jésuites à Angoulême (1516–1792) (Angoulême: Charentaise G. Chasseignac et Compagnie, 1880); Joseph Delfour, Les jésuites à Poitiers (1604–1762) (Paris: Hachette, 1902); J.-M.-F. Faucillon, Les collèges des jésuites de Montpellier (1629–1762) (Montpellier: Jean Martel, 1857).

^ Back to text29. Henri Fouqueray S.J., Histoire de la Compagnie de Jésus en France des origines à la suppression, 5 vols. (Paris: Picard, 1910–25).

^ Back to text30. Rolland Mousnier, L’assassinat d’Henri IV: 14 mai 1610 (Paris: Gallimard, 1964). This study is available in translation: The Assassination of Henry IV: The Tyrannicide Problem and the Consolidation of the French Absolute Monarchy in the Early Seventeenth Century, trans. Joan Spencer (New York: Scribner, 1973).

^ Back to text31. A. Lynn Martin, Henry III and the Jesuit Politicians (Geneva: Droz, 1973).

^ Back to text32. Nelson, Jesuits and the Monarchy.

^ Back to text33. Robert Bireley, S.J., The Jesuits and the Thirty Years War: Kings, Courts and Confessors (New York: Cambridge University Press, 2003). For a biography of a royal confessor, see Georges Guitton, Le Père de la Chaize, confesseur de Louis XIV (Paris: Beauchesne et ses fils, 1959).

^ Back to text34. Jean-Pascal Gay, Jesuit Civil Wars: Theology, Politics and Government under Tirso González (1687–1705) (Farnham: Ashgate, 2012).

^ Back to text35. Van Kley, Jansenists and the Expulsion of the Jesuits; Van Kley, The Damiens Affair.

^ Back to text36. John W. O’Malley, S.J., "The Historiography of the Society of Jesus," in The Jesuits: Cultures Sciences and the Arts, 1540–1773, ed. John W. O’Malley, S.J., Gauvin Alexander Bailey, Steven J. Harris, and T. Frank Kennedy, S.J. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000), 24.

^ Back to text37. Les jésuites parmi les hommes aux XVIe et XVIIe siècles (Clermont Ferrand: Association des Publications de la Faculté des Lettres et Sciences Humaines de Clermont-Ferrand, 1987).

^ Back to text38. A. Lynn Martin, The Jesuit Mind: The Mentality of an Elite in Early Modern France (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1988).

^ Back to text39. Patricia M. Ranum, Beginning to Be a Jesuit: Instructions for the Paris Novitiate circa 1685 (St. Louis: Institute of Jesuit Sources, 2011).

^ Back to text40. Susan Broomhall, "Devoted Politics: Jesuits and Elite Catholic Women at the Later Sixteenth-Century Valois Court," Journal of Jesuit Studies 2, no. 4 (2015): 586–605 (doi: 10.1163/22141332-00204003).

^ Back to text41. Les jésuites parmi les hommes, 373–541.

^ Back to text42. Georgette de Groër, Réforme et contre-réforme en France: Le Collège de la Trinité au XVIe siècle à Lyon (Paris: Publisud, 1995); Joseph Picot, Les jésuites à Lyon de 1604 à 1762: Le Collège de la Très Saincte Trinité (Lyon: Éditions aux Arts, 1995); Georges Guitton, Les jésuites à Lyon sous Louis XIV et Louis XV: Activités, luttes, suppression, 1640–1768 (Lyon: RR. PP. Jesuites de Lyon, 1953).

^ Back to text43. Pierre Guillot, Les jésuites et la musique: Le Collège de la Trinité (Liège: Mardaga, 1991).

^ Back to text44. Étienne Fouilloux and Bernard Hours, eds., Les jésuites à Lyon XVIe–XXe siècle (Lyon: ENS Éditions, 2005).

^ Back to text45. Stéphane Van Damme, Le temple de la sagesse: Savoirs, écriture et sociabilité urbaine (Lyon, XVIIe–XVIIIe siècle) (Paris: Éditions de l’École des Hautes Études en Sciences Sociales, 2005).

^ Back to text46. Louis Châtellier, L’Europe des dévots (Paris: Éditions Flammarion, 1987); Louis Châtellier, La religion des pauvres, les missions rurales en Europe et la formation du catholicisme modern, XVIe–XIXe siècle (Paris: Aubier, 1993). Both of these works are available in English translation Europe of the Devout: The Catholic Reformation and the Formation of a New Society, trans. Jean Birrell (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1989); The Religion of the Poor: Rural Missions in Europe and the Formation of Modern Catholicism, c.1500–c.1800, trans. Brian Pearce (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1997).

^ Back to text47. Serge Brunet, ed. Relation de la mission des Pyrénées (1635–1649): Le jésuite Jean Forcaud face à la montagne (Paris: Comité des Travaux Historiques et Scientifiques, 2008).

^ Back to text48. Anne-Sophie Cras and Jérôme Cras, Miracles et sabbats: Journal du Père Maunoir: Missions en Bretagne (1631–1650) (Paris: Les Éditions de Paris, 1997).

^ Back to text49. Pierre Delattre, S.J., ed. Les établissements des jésuites en France depuis quatres siècles: Réportoire topo-bibliographique publié à l’occasion du quartrième centenaire de la fondation de la Compagnie de Jésus, 1540–1940, 5 vols. (Enghien: Institut Supérieur de Théologie, 1949–57).

^ Back to text50. Pierre Moisy, S.J., Les églises des jésuites de l’ancienne assistance de France, 2 vols. (Rome: Institutum Historicum Societatis Iesu, 1958).

^ Back to text51. Marc Fumaroli, L’âge de l’éloquence: Rhétorique et "res literaria" de la Renaissance au seuil de l’époque classique (Geneva: Droz, 1980).

^ Back to text52. François de Dainville, S.J., L’éducation des jésuites: XVIe-XVIIIe siècles (Paris: Éditions de Minuit, 1978).

^ Back to text53. Philippe Rocher, Le goût de l’excellence: Quatre siècles d’éducation jésuite en France (Paris: Beauchesne, 2011).

^ Back to text54. Henri Bremond, Histoire littéraire du sentiment religieux en France depuis la fin des guerres de religion jusqu’à nos jours, 11 vols. (Paris: Bloud and Gay, 1916–33). See especially volume five.

^ Back to text55. A Companion to Jesuit Mysticism, ed. Robert A. Maryks (Leiden: Brill, 2017).

^ Back to text56. Jean Joseph Surin, Correspondence, ed. Michel de Certeau (Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1966); Patrick Goujon, Prendre part à l’intransmissible: La communication spirituelle à travers la correspondence de Jean-Joseph Surin (Grenoble, Jérôme Millon, 2008).

^ Back to text57. Michel de Certeau, La possession de Loudun (Paris: Julliard, 1970).

^ Back to text58. Jean Dagens, Bérulle et les origines de la restauration Catholique (1575–1611) (Paris: Desclée de Brouwer, 1952).

^ Back to text59. Elizabeth Rapley, The Dévotes: Women & Church in Seventeenth-Century France (Montreal: McGill University Press, 1990); Marie-André Jegou, Les Ursulines du faubourg Saint-Jacques à Paris 1607–1662 (Paris: Bibliothèque de l’École des Hautes Etudes, 1983).

^ Back to text60. Catherine M. Northeast, The Parisian Jesuits and the Enlightenment: 1700–1762 (Oxford: Voltaire Foundation, 1991).

^ Back to text61. Van Damme, Le temple de la sagesse.

^ Back to text62. Mita Choudhury, The Wanton Jesuit and the Wayward Saint: A Tale of Sex, Religion and Politics in Eighteenth-Century France (University Park: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2015).

^ Back to text63. Gérard Sabatier, ed., Claude-François Ménestrier: Les jésuites et le monde des images (Grenoble: Presses Universitaires de Grenoble, 2009).

^ Back to text64. Édith Flammarion, ed., La chair et le verbe: Les jésuites de France au XVIIIe siècle et l’image (Paris: Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2008).

^ Back to text65. For more on the holdings of the Jesuit archive in Rome, see

^ Back to text66. Delattre, Les établissements.

^ Back to text67. For Carayon’s collection, see; for the Gazaignes collection, see; for Prat’s volume, see, accessed October 10, 2016).

Cite this page
Eric Nelson, “The Historiography of the Pre-Suppression Jesuit Mission in France”, in: Jesuit Historiography Online. Consulted online on 30 March 2017 <>
First published online: 2016

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