DOI: 10.4324/9780415249126-DA063-1
Version: v1,  Published online: 1998
Retrieved April 17, 2024, from

1. Rise and fall of Port-Royal

In June 1599, Jacqueline Arnauld was chosen as coadjutrix of the Cistercian abbey of Port-Royal-des-Champs, south of Paris near Versailles. On 5 July 1602, under the name of Mother Marie-Angélique de Sainte-Madeleine (Mother Angélique), she succeeded Jeanne de Boulehart as abbess. At that time, the crucial role that Port-Royal would play in the religious, political, philosophical and cultural world of seventeenth-century Europe could not have been anticipated.

A sermon preached by a visiting friar in March 1608 was the occasion of the spiritual conversion of Mother Angélique and, with the advice of Cistercian abbots and a number of spiritual directors from various orders, she introduced the strict rules of the Cistercians into the abbey of Port-Royal. The reform of Port-Royal thus coincided with the vast movement of monastic reform which characterized the Counter-Reformation: Port-Royal soon gained a considerable reputation and the reform spread to other monasteries of the Cistercian order. In May 1625, the nuns of Port-Royal-des-Champs were transferred to the new abbey of Port-Royal in Paris and, in July 1627, the community was transferred from the jurisdiction of the Cistercian order to that of the archbishop of Paris. After the creation of the Institut du Saint-Sacrement in 1633, the community became the subject of intense rivalry among the leading spiritual directors in Paris: the Oratorians around Bérulle, Sébastien Zamet (Bishop of Langres), Octave de Bellagarde (Bishop of Sens), and Jean Duvergier de Hauranne (Abbot of Saint-Cyran). The latter became the spiritual director of Port-Royal in 1635. He was a friend of Cornelius Jansenius (Bishop of Ypres), and their spiritual ambitions were based on a return to the authority of Augustine, to positive theology, and on opposition to the influence of the Jesuits in France. This had political implications, in so far as Saint-Cyran could be said to belong to the ‘parti dévot’, strongly opposed to Richelieu’s foreign policy of alliance with Protestant nations to resist the pressure of the Habsburgs in Spain and Austria. Jansenius’ pamphlet Mars gallicus (1635) is an indication of the political resistance to official foreign policy and, on the 14 May 1638, Saint-Cyran was arrested and imprisoned in the dungeon of Vincennes. He was released only after the death of Richelieu in 1643, and died himself a few months later.

Nevertheless, by this time, the movement of spiritual reform at Port-Royal had gained considerable impetus. In January 1637 a well-known lawyer, Antoine Le Maistre, retired from the professional world to seek spiritual guidance at Port-Royal-de-Paris; his example was followed by others and, in mid-1638, these ‘Solitaires’ withdrew to Port-Royal-des-Champs, accompanied by the school (‘Petites Ecoles’) of Port-Royal, recently founded in Paris. The great work by Jansenius, Augustinus (1640), aimed to give a faithful résumé of Augustinian theology and revived old quarrels on the nature and power of divine grace. On 6 March 1642, the papal bull In eminenti condemned the work of Jansenius and in 1643 and 1644 Antoine Arnauld produced his De la Fréquente communion and his defence of Jansenius. Port-Royal was henceforth to be known as the centre of ‘Jansenist’ (or, as Port-Royal theologians claim, ‘Augustinian’) theology. In 1649, Nicolas Cornet, ‘syndic’ of the Faculty of Theology of the Sorbonne, reduced Jansenius’ doctrine to seven articles and submitted them to the Vatican for examination; five of them were condemned in the papal bull Cum occasione, published on 31 May 1653, and this condemnation was renewed in the bull Ad sacram on 16 October 1656. This same year, a condemnation of Jansenist theology was demanded of all ecclesiastics. The resistance of the nuns of Port-Royal drew political persecution on the abbey, since Mazarin sought to exploit the Jansenist quarrel in his negotiations with the Vatican.

The year 1655 was important in the development of public opinion concerning theological affairs. The occasion that sparked events was the refusal of communion to the duke of Liancourt, a friend of Port-Royal, by Charles Picoté, a vicar of Saint-Sulpice, on the grounds that the duke had provided accommodation in his house for Toussaint Desmares and Amable de Bourzeis, both notorious Jansenists. Antoine Arnauld wrote two lengthy letters in defence of the duke, which had little effect, but the theologian then asked Pascal to try his hand: from January 1656 onwards, the Provincial Letters were an immediate success and contributed to the popular image of Jesuit casuistry and moral laxism (see Pascal, B.). Moreover, despite the expulsion of Antoine Arnauld from the Sorbonne, the Jansenist cause seemed to be under divine protection when, in March 1656, Pascal’s niece, Marguerite Périer, was miraculously cured of a dangerous eye infection. Debates on the ‘miracle de la Sainte-Epine’ led Pascal to develop the notion of historical testimony and thus embark on the project of an apology, of which the Pensées provides the unfinished sketch.

But political interests proved too strong for Port-Royal. First Mazarin, then King Louis XIV, were each determined to eliminate this source of potential resistance to monarchical power. The abbey was forbidden to receive new nuns, the boarding school for girls was suppressed as were the ‘Petites Ecoles’, and the ‘Solitaires’ were expelled. The abbey was thus condemned to die and, despite the ‘Peace of the Church’ (a respite from persecution between September 1668 and April 1679), the exile of Antoine Arnauld and Pierre Nicole and the tight control exercised by the archbishop of Paris brought an end to Port-Royal. The last nuns were dispersed in 1709, and the abbey was destroyed the following year.

In 1713, the papal bull Unigenitus, condemning 101 propositions extracted from the book of Réflexions morales (1693) by Pasquier Quesnel, created new conflicts that lasted throughout the eighteenth century. Jansenism now left the moral and theological field and began a Parliamentary and political career.

Citing this article:
McKenna, Antony. Rise and fall of Port-Royal. Port-Royal, 1998, doi:10.4324/9780415249126-DA063-1. Routledge Encyclopedia of Philosophy, Taylor and Francis,
Copyright © 1998-2024 Routledge.

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