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Jean Mabillon and the Debate on the Regular Origins of Secular Canonesses in Seventeenth-Century France

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  15 May 2023

Department of History, Ghent University, Sint-Pietersnieustraat 35, 9000 Gent, Belgium


This paper reviews the classic perception that the debate on the regular origins of secular canonesses in early modern France consisted of a clash between authors who sought to legitimise the members’ current status and privileges, and prominent scholars such as Jean Mabillon whose sole aim was to present a truthful account of the past. Through a case study of the abbey of Remiremont it shows that local commentators gained a nuanced understanding of that community's past and present identities, while Mabillon and others relied on second-hand arguments and flawed methods to make a case for a regular reform.

Research Article
Copyright © Cambridge University Press 2023

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This article was written with the financial support of the Research Foundation-Flanders (FWO). I am grateful to Stéphanie Ysard of the Archives municipales in Remiremont and the staff of the Bibliothèque Stanislas in Nancy for their valuable assistance during my archival research. My thanks also to Corinne Marchal for sharing several of her forthcoming studies, to the anonymous reviewer of this article for their helpful commentary and finally to Melissa Provijn for commenting on the final text.


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4 Hills, Helen, ‘Nuns and relics: spiritual authority in post-Tridentine Naples’, in van Wyhe, Cordula (ed.), Female monasticism in early modern Europe: an interdisciplinary view, Aldershot 2008, 1138Google Scholar; Melton, Barbara Lawatsch, ‘Loss and gain in a Salzburg convent: Tridentine reform, princely absolutism, and the nuns of Nonnberg (1620 to 1696)’, in Tatlock, Lynne (ed.), Enduring loss in early modern Germany: cross disciplinary perspectives, Leiden 2010, 259–80CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Vanderputten, Steven, Dismantling the medieval: early modern perceptions of a female convent's past, Turnhout 2021, 165–91CrossRefGoogle Scholar.

5 Hirsch, Marianne and Smith, Valerie, ‘Feminism and cultural memory’, Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society xxviii (2002), 119CrossRefGoogle Scholar at p. 5. A similar phenomenon can be observed at the end of the ancien régime, when many leaders of female religious communities in France used performative statements that drew on historical arguments in order to protest against the impending dissolution of their house. On this see Betros, Gemma, ‘Liberty, citizenship and the suppression of female religious communities in France, 1789–90’, Women's History Review xviii (2009), 311–36CrossRefGoogle Scholar, and Steven Vanderputten, ‘Discourses of resistance, resilience, and resignation: the secular canonesses of Bouxières and their multiple response to the French Revolution (1790–91)’, in Cormac Begadon and Gemma Betros (eds), Female religious and narratives of the French Revolution, 1789–1850: identity, memory, and history (forthcoming).

6 Chedgzoy, Kate, Graham, Elspeth, Hodgkin, Katharine and Wray, Ramona, ‘Researching memory in early modern studies’, Memory Studies xi (2018), 520CrossRefGoogle Scholar at pp. 13–14.

7 Lowe, Nuns’ chronicles, 52–5.

8 Among a vast bibliography that subscribes to this dichotomous view of ‘medieval’ and ‘modern’ memory cultures see, for instance, George Huppert, The idea of perfect history: historical erudition and historical philosophy in Renaissance France, Urbana, Il 1970, 20–6.

9 Corinne Marchal, Un Âge d'or des chapitres nobles de chanoinesses en Europe au XVIIIe siècle: le cas de Franche-Comté, Turnhout 2021, 160–9.

10 On his life and legacy see, in the first place, Daniel-Odon Hurel (ed.), Le Moine et l'historien: Dom Mabillon, oeuvres choisies, Paris 2007 (with a biographical preface by Henri Leclercq), and Jean Leclant, André Vauchez and Daniel-Odon Hurel (eds), Dom Jean Mabillon, figure majeure de l'Europe des lettres: actes des deux colloques du tricentenaire de la mort de Dom Mabillon, Paris 2010.

11 Lettre de dom Jean Mabillon à un de ses amis touchant le premier institut de l'abbaye de Remiremont, Paris 1687, now in Hurel, Le Moine et l'historien, 870–87.

12 Augustin Calmet, Histoire de Lorraine, Nancy 1746–57, i, pp. cxxviii–xxx; Georges Durand, L'Église Saint-Pierre des Dames de Remiremont, Epinal 1929–36, i, pp. x–xv. On similar evidence from the eighteenth-century abbey of Baumes (a house of regular noble canonesses) in Franche-Comté see Marchal, Un Âge d'or des chapitres nobles, 164.

13 ‘Historische Gelehrsamkeit ist denn auch selbst mit politischen, sakralen und medialen Ansprüchen und Vorgaben durchwoben’: Patrick Fiska, Ines Peper, Thomas Stockinger and Thomas Wallnig, ‘Historia als Kultur – Einführung’, in Thomas Wallnig, Ines Peper, Thomas Stockinger and Patrick Fiska (eds), Europäische Geschichtskulturen um 1700 zwischen Gelehrsamkeit, Politik und Konfession, Berlin 2012, 1–19 at pp. 2–3. See also Judith Pollmann and Erika Kuijpers, ‘Introduction: on the early modernity of modern memory’, in Erika Kuijpers, Judith Pollmann, Johannes Müller and Jasper van der Steen (eds), Memory before modernity: practices of memory in early modern Europe, Leiden 2013, 1–23.

14 See Daniel-Odon Hurel, ‘Les Bénédictins de Saint-Maur et l'histoire au xviie siècle’, Littératures classiques (special issue entitled L'Histoire au XVIIe siècle) xxx (1997), 33–50; ‘Les Mauristes, historiens de la congrégation de Saint-Maur aux xviie et xviiie siècles: méthodes, justifications monographiques de la réforme et défense de la centralisation monastique’, in Ecrire son histoire: les communautés régulières face à leur passé, Saint-Etienne 2005, 258–74; and ‘Écriture de l'histoire et identité bénédictine: le rôle de Jean Mabillon (1632–1707) et des Mauristes’, in Andreas Sohn (ed.), Benediktiner als Historiker, Bochum 2016, 41–52, esp. pp. 41–2.

15 Idem, ‘Ecriture’, 42–4.

16 Jean Delumeau, ‘Dom Mabillon, “Le plus savant homme du royaume”’, Comptes rendus des séances de l'Académie des Inscriptions et Belles-Lettres (2007), 1597–1604; Maciej Dorna, Mabillon und andere: die Anfänge der Diplomatik, trans. Martin Faber, Wiesbaden 2019, 135–42. See also Daniel-Odon Hurel, ‘L'Historiographie de Mabillon aux xixe et xxe siècles: restauration monastique (années 1830), commémoration (1908) et démystification’, in Daniel-Odon Hurel (ed.), Erudition et commerce épistolaire: Jean Mabillon et la tradition monastique, Paris 2003, 15–51.

17 Michel Pernot, ‘La Querelle de l'abbesse et du chapitre à Remiremont au temps de Dorothée Salm (1661–1702)’, in Michel Parisse and Pierre Heili (eds), Les Chapitres de dames nobles entre France et Empire, Paris 1998, 135–54.

18 For instance, at the Benedictine nunneries of Saint-Pierre and Sainte-Marie in Metz, the members had only stopped making vows in the second quarter of the seventeenth century and over the next decades started to refer to themselves as canonesses: Corinne Marchal, ‘La Circulation du modèle séculier de chapitre noble par les relations entre les compagnies de chanoinesses (Franche-Comté-Lorraine, fin du xviie siècle–xviiie siècle)’, in Marie-Elisabeth Henneau, Corinne Marchal and Julie Piront (eds), Entre ciel et terre: oeuvres et résistances de femmes de Gênes à Liège (Xe–XVIIIe siècle). Although Mabillon did not intervene in the above two cases, we know that he wrote at least one set of instructions for the Benedictine nuns of Dieppe to avoid such a scenario and to impose a stricter observance of the Rule: Instruction sur le renouvellement de vie par Dom Jean Mabillon, religieux de la Congrégation de Saint-Maur, ed. de Bouis, Rouen 1874.

19 Hilary Bernstein, Historical communities: cities, erudition, and national identity in early modern France, Leiden 2021.

20 Michel Pernot, ‘Les Débuts de la réforme tridentine au diocèse de Toul (1580–1630)’, in Louis Châtellier (ed.), Les Réformes en Lorraine, 1520–1620, Nancy 1986, 89–112; Gérard Michaux, ‘Une Grande Réforme monastique du xviie siècle: la congrégation bénédictine de Saint-Vanne et de Saint-Hydulphe’, in Noëlle Cazin and Philippe Martin (eds), Autour de la congrégation de Saint-Vanne et de Saint-Hydulphe, Bar-le-Duc 2006, 81–103.

21 Barbara B. Diefendorf, Planting the cross: Catholic reform and renewal in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century France, Oxford 2019.

22 Marie-Catherine Vignal Souleyreau, ‘Religion et politique en Lorraine au tournant des xvie et xviie siècles’, Europa Moderna: revue d'histoire et d'iconologie i (2010), 60–107.

23 Vignal Souleyreau, ‘Religion et politique en Lorraine’, 69–72. See also René Taveneaux (ed.), Saint Pierre Fourier et son temps: actes du colloque organisé à Mirecourt, les 13 et 14 avril 1991, Nancy 1992.

24 Vignal Souleyreau, ‘Religion et politique en Lorraine’, 72.

25 On the seven houses of secular canonesses in early modern France (Remiremont, Poussay, Bouxières, Epinal, Saint-Louis of Metz, Denain and Maubeuge) see Parisse and Heili, Les Chapitres de dames nobles; Corinne Marchal, ‘Définir et inventorier les chapitres nobles de la France du xviiie siècle’, Revue d'histoire de l'Église de France ic (2013), 115–26; and Jean Heuclin and Christophe Leduc (eds), Chanoines et chanoinesses des anciens Pays-Bas: le chapitre de Maubeuge du IXe au XVIIIe siècle, Villeneuve-d'Ascq 2019. On recent trends in the study of early modern secular canonesses see Vanderputten, Dismantling the medieval, 27–30.

26 Marchal, ‘Les Chapitres nobles’ and ‘La Circulation du modèle séculier de chapitre noble’. These institutions are often considered together with a larger cohort of noble houses of regular canonesses, discussed in Corinne Marchal, ‘Les Chapitres nobles de dames lorrains et comtois au xviiie siècle: les caractères uniformisateurs d'une identité nobiliaire d'exclusion’, in François Roth (ed.), Lorraine, Bourgogne et Franche-Comté: mille ans d'histoire, Moyenmotier 2001, 271–88.

27 Françoise Boquillon, Les Chanoinesses de Remiremont (1566–1790): contribution à l'histoire de la noblesse dans l'église, Remiremont 2000; Marchal, ‘Les chapitres nobles’, and ‘L'Utilisation du temps libre par les membres des chapitres nobles de Franche-Comté au xviiie siècle’, in François Lassus and others (eds), Mélanges offerts au professeur Maurice Gresset, Besançon 2007, 485–94.

28 Ulrich Andermann, ‘Die unsittlichen und disziplinlosen Kanonissen: ein Topos und seine Hintergründe, aufgezeigt an Beispielen sächsischer Frauenstifte (11.–13. Jahrhundert)’, Westfälische Zeitschrift cxlvi (1996), 39–63; Steven Vanderputten, Dark age nunneries: the ambiguous identity of female monasticism, 800–1050, Ithaca, NY 2018, 124–34.

29 Vanderputten, Dismantling the medieval, 172–4; Emile Gaspard, ‘Abbaye et chapitre de Poussay’, Mémoires de la Société d'Archéologie de Lorraine xiii (1871), 88–129 at pp. 102–3; Georges Poull, Les Dames chanoinesses d'Epinal, Haroué 2006, 87–9; Michel Pernot, ‘Catherine de Lorraine, abbesse de Remiremont: réflexions sur l’échec d'une réforme’, in Remiremont: l'abbaye et la ville, Nancy 1980, 95–127.

30 Pernot, ‘Catherine de Lorraine’, 95–6; Boquillon, Les Chanoinesses, 103–4.

31 RAM, 2, fos 53r–59v.

32 RAM, 2, fo. 61r–v.

33 RAM, 2, fos 62r–67v.

34 RAM, 2, fos 81r–84v.

35 RAM, 2, fos 59v–61r.

36 Visitatio et reformatio ecclesiae S. Petri oppidi Romaricomontis in Lotharingia, Como 1614.

37 ‘par la tradition il paroissoit constant que la regle de St. Benoist avoit été observée à Remiremont, quelle devoit l'etre encore’: BNF, Nouvelles acquisitions françaises 3692, p. 374.

38 ADV, G 989, pièce 11.

39 ADV, G 898, pièce 5.

40 ADV, G 103, pièce 11; RAM, 2, fo. 74r.

41 Charles Pfister, ‘Catherine de Lorraine (1573–1648)’, Mémoires de l'Académie de Stanislas 5th ser. xv (1897), 242–326 at p. 269.

42 Over a hundred years later, in the mid-eighteenth century, the Benedictine monk Augustin Calmet reported that some of the canonesses were so incensed that they enlisted the services of a magician to make a life-size wax effigy of Abbess Catherine, which they then took turns to stab in the heart. The fact that Calmet chose this anecdote to convey the canonesses’ anger shows that he felt little inclination to investigate its rational causes and instead preferred to ridicule these women as superstitious: Histoire de Lorraine, vii. 176.

43 Anne-Marie Helvétius and Michèle Gaillard, ‘Production de textes et réforme d'un monastère double: l'exemple de Remiremont du viie au ixe siècle’, in Jeffrey F. Hamburger (ed.), Frauen – Kloster – Kunst: neue Forschungen zur Kulturgeschichte des Mittelalters, Turnhout 2007, 383–94; Eduard Hlawitschka and others (eds), Liber memorialis von Remiremont, Dublin 1970, i, pp. x–xi; Vanderputten, Dark age nunneries, esp. pp. 56–9.

44 Jean Bridot, Chartes de l'abbaye de Remiremont des origines à 1231, 2nd edn, Turnhout 1997, nos 19, 33, 57, 64, 76, 171.

45 Ibid. nos 44, 53, 56.

46 François de Rosières, Stemmatum Lotharingiae ac Barri ducum, Paris 1580, v. 288v–289r.

47 Lettre de dom Jean Mabillon, 879.

48 De Salm's position at the time of her election was a delicate one. Her appointment as coadiutrix to the incumbent abbess in 1566 had taken place around the time that the Council of Trent denounced the very existence of that office. While this turned her into something of an emblem of the secular organisation of Remiremont, at the same time her relationship with the chapter members was fragile due to a conflict they had with her father: Victor-Augustin Bergerot, ‘L'Organisation et le régime intérieur du chapitre de Remiremont du xiiie au xviiie siècle’, Annales de l'Est xiv (1900), 35–73 at pp. 56, 59.

49 A. Guinot, Étude historique sur l'abbaye de Remiremont, Paris 1859, 188.

50 Sébastien Valdenaire, ‘Registre des choses mémorables de l'église de Remiremont’, Bibliothèque municipale, Nancy, 575.

51 Nicolaus Serarius, Comitum par genere, potentie, opibus, heroicaque virtute inclytum B. Godefridus, Vuestphalus, S. Romaricus, Austrasius, Mainz 1605, 91–144.

52 RAM, 2, fos 79v–81r.

53 Johannes Marnavitius, Sacra columba ven. capituli A.A.E.E. canonicarum sancti Petri Romaricensis, Rome 1629.

54 Ignace Philibert, ‘Antiquités des Monts de Vosge’, RAM, 2, fos 132r–201v at fos 184v–185v.

55 Stéphane Gaber, La Lorraine meurtrie, 1616–1648, Nancy 1991.

56 R. P. Meurisse, Histoire des evesques de l’église de Metz, Metz 1634, 97–8.

57 Jean Ruyr, Recherche des sainctes antiquitez de la Vosge, province de Lorraine, 2nd edn, Épinal 1634, 51–2.

58 Charles Huchère, ‘État général de l'insigne église collégiale et séculière Saint-Pierre de Remiremont’, RAM, 3, fos 2r–36v, esp. fos 20v–24r.

59 BNF, manuscrit Latin 12780, fos 494r–495v.

60 Vita prima sancti Romarici, in Lucas d'Achéry and Jean Mabillon (eds), AASS Ordinis Sancti Benedicti, Paris 1668–1701, ii. 415–20 at pp. 415–16.

61 A set of handwritten notes by Mabillon reveals that he was also looking into the Benedictine origins of Maubeuge at this time: BNF, Latin 12694, fo. 293r.

62 Mabillon's handwritten notes suggest that the primary evidence from Remiremont that he had been able to access was limited to just five manuscripts from the abbey church (two missals, a duirnal, a breviary and a calendar) that Abbess de Salm had sent him for inspection: ibid. fos 288r–293v.

63 Pernot, ‘La Querelle’, 135–54; Boquillon, Les Chanoinesses, 114–16.

64 Jean Mabillon, De re diplomatica, Paris 1681, 321.

65 Charles George, ‘Histoire monastique de Remiremont’, Bibliothèque municipale, Epinal, 215, fo. 7r.

66 Du Heaume de l'Oratoire, ‘Discours sur létat séculier des dames chanoinesses de Remiremont’, Bibliothèque Stanislas, Nancy, 413/1, fos 1–35.

67 Ibid. fo. 22r.

68 George, ‘Histoire monastique de Remiremont’, fo. 7r.

69 RAM, 20, fos 61r–71r.

70 ‘on comprendra aisément a quoy est exposée une communauté ou il y a beaucoup de jeunes filles qui n'ont point fait de voeux, dont la maison est située dans un grand paysage de trouppes, et qui n'ont ny reglement par ecrit ny autorité qui puisse les retenir dans les bornes de la bienseance’: RAM, 19, fo. 3r.

71 BNF, Nouvelles acquisitions françaises 3693, p. 52.

72 Pernot, ‘La Querelle’, 144–5; Boquillon, Les Chanoinesses, 114–16.

73 Pernot, ‘La Querelle’, 147.

74 Lettre de dom Jean Mabillon, 870–87.

75 F. Vincent, ‘Éclaircissement sur l'Eglise de Remiremont’, Bibliothèque Stanislas, Nancy, 578, fos 14v–20r.

76 Daniel-Odon Hurel, ‘Entre Histoire et tradition: le “Discours de la méthode” de Mabillon’, in Hurel, Le Moine et l'historien, 849–63 at p. 853.

77 RAM, 12, fos 242–60.

78 ‘tous les savans croient que ce titre est supposé’: ADV, G 839, 1er cahier, fo. 4r.

79 Rodolphe Thierry, ‘Observations sur un manuscrit intitulé Histoire de l'abbaye de Remiremont’, RAM, 3, fos 102r–113r at fo. 105r.

80 Mabillon applied this strategy in several of his other works too: Dorna, Mabillon und andere, 136. Its influence on historical scholarship is felt even today, as some historians continue to mistakenly cite medieval papal charters that reference the Rule of St Benedict as reliable evidence of a convent's Benedictine identity in that period: Marchal, Un Âge d'or des chapitres nobles, 164.

81 Calmet, Histoire, i, pp. cxxxxvii–viii.

82 Rodolphe Thierry, ‘Traité ou dissertation sur létat séculier de l’église de Remiremont’, RAM, 3, fos 93r–101v.

83 François De Riguet, Sistème chronologique, historique des évêques de Toul, Nancy 1701, 227–65. A monk of Senones named Claude de Bar reportedly authored a pamphlet opposing de Riguet's views: Yves Guermont, ‘Notes de Dom Calmet sur l'abbaye de Remiremont’, Mémoires de l'Académie Nationale de Metz cli–clii (1967–9), 77–84 at p. 78.

84 RAM, 3, fo. 101v.

85 RAM, 20, fos 54r–60r.

86 Favier, Jean, ‘Deux lettres de Dom Jean Mabillon à la princesse Dorothée de Salm, abbesse de Remiremont’, Annales de l'Est vii (1893), 446–50Google Scholar at p. 447.

87 Thuillier, Vincent (ed.) Ouvrages posthumes de D. Jean Mabillon et de D. Thierri Ruinart, Paris 1724, iii. 471–3Google Scholar at p. 472.

88 ‘Tout ce que je viens de dire n'est aucunement dans le dessein de choquer qui que ce soit: mais comme on m'a prié de dire mon sentiment, je le dis de donne foy, et sans aucun prejugé, ne souhaitant autre choses que les choses demeurant dans l’état ou elles sont dans l'abaye de Remiremont, la paix, l'union, et le bon ordre y regne, et que le Dieu de paix que l'on y sert avec tant de dignité, y soit honoré par un vray culte intérieur qui ne peut subsister sans union ny sans charité’: RAM, 20, fos 98r–101r at fo. 101r.

89 Jodart, Henri, Dom Thierry Ruinart (1657–1709): notice suivie de documents inédits: sa famille, sa vie, ses oeuvres, ses relations avec D. Mabillon, Paris 1886, 153–7Google Scholar.

90 RAM, 3, fos 114r–115v.

91 BNF, Français 18919, fos 34r–37v.

92 Pernot, ‘La Querelle’, 150.

93 RAM, 20, fos 72r–74v.

94 Boquillon, Les Chanoinesses, 118–19.

95 Christelle Poirier, ‘Le Chapitre de dames nobles de Bouxières-aux-Dames’, unpubl. MA diss. Nancy II 2001–2, 118.

96 Marchal, Corinne, ‘L'Éducation et la culture des chanoinesses nobles dans la France du xviiie siècle’, in Mélanges offerts à Roger Marchal: de l'éventail à la plume, Nancy 2007, 181–94Google Scholar; Vanderputten, Dismantling the medieval, 27.

97 Hippolyte Hélyot, Histoire des ordres monastiques, religieux et militaires et des congrégations séculières, Paris 1714–19, vi. 405–12; Calmet, Histoire, vii. 170–90.

98 Mathieu Gesnel, ‘Essay d'histoire du monastère du Saint-Mont’, RAM, 3, fos 152r–191r at fo. 155r.

99 Guinot, Étude historique, 278.