Searching for Secular Canonesses in Modern Literary Sources (Part II)

by Isabelle Cochelin

 

One day will come, I can feel it, when these documents [on the Chapter of Remiremont] will be looked for and collected with care, and when people will even be astonished that they had been neglected for so long.[1]

 

One would expect that the best literary sources to teach us about secular canonesses would be their memoirs. It is telling of the way late eighteenth-century Chapters functioned, however, that not all such memoirs are informative. For a variety of reasons, some secular canonesses spent very little, if any, time in their communities.

Such was the case for Madame de Chasteney, a canoness (in name) at Épinal from age 14 in 1785 until the Chapter’s dissolution during the French Revolution. It is also true of the Baroness of Oberkirch, who expected a position in one of the three German Protestant Chapters by age 4 (in 1758) and was admitted by 1766; she mentions her admission en passant in her memoirs, merely to explain why someone called her a comtesse in 1769 – the title (and a stipend) had come with her (symbolic) admission.[2] At times, therefore, the title was purely honorary and financially rewarding, with no requirement to live in the Chapter.

This is not true of the memoirs of the Comtesse Marie Antoinette E. de Messey de Bielle (1778-1854): even though she never became a canoness in Remiremont, where she spent her childhood, she discusses life within the Lorraine Chapter at length in her roughly twenty-five-page-long work. Another motivation for writing was that the history of Remiremont in the second half of the eighteenth century was intertwined with the glory of the Duchy of Lorraine and three generations of her family’s women. When the French Revolution forced her and the canonesses of Remiremont to leave the Chapter, she became at some point a secular canoness in Munich, but does not even mention the fact. Her link to the Munich Chapter was probably only honorary and financially advantageous.

I know of two editions of her memoirs. The one used by most (if not all) scholars was compiled by a specialist of local religious history, the canon Charles Chapelier (d. 1924), under the erroneous title of Memoirs of … ex-canoness of Remiremont (abbreviated from now on as « Chapelier »).[3] There is also an anonymous and undated printed booklet, titled Deux chapitres-nobles et deux chanoinesses (Fig. 1), that focuses on her family, the Messeys, and includes the family genealogy at the end. It must have been published some fifteen years later, as the most recent date the editor mentions is 1902 (p. 65).

Fig. 1: anonymous and undated printed booklet with a revised version of of the Comtesse’s memoirs Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, 8o Lm3 3228

The so-called Souvenirs occupy pages 11-33; I will refer to them from now on as « the Messey ». I believe these two editions were based on two distinct manuscripts of the memoirs, and the most recent (used for the second edition) presents a slightly updated version by the memorialist herself, the Comtesse.[4] The texts are available through Gallica and I will cite them when a passage is available in both editions, each easily distinguishable by its page numbers, in the 200s for Chapelier.

The Comtesse was writing (at least in the older version) for a niece, whom she addresses as “my dear child” (ma chère enfant: p. 11, 14, and 25; 243, 247 and 259). Chapelier suggests it was the wife of her nephew Gustave, as the latter is mentioned on p. 30 of the newer version, a section absent from Chapelier – and that the work is an “intimate talk” (intime causerie: p. 260, a sentence taken out of the most recent version, p. 25).

The Souvenirs are tinged with nostalgia for a disappeared world, and it is unlikely that pre-Revolutionary life at Remiremont was as idyllic as she portrays it. There were complex politics and social inequalities at play that would have been invisible to a child’s eyes. It is, nevertheless, a rich source of information, giving us a point of view at the threshold, between the inside and the outside, of the life of secular canonesses. The Comtesse’s situation was liminal because her aunt – who was a Remiremont canoness, and was planning to make her her Dame-niece – raised her in her own house within the Chapter (see Fig. 2). The Comtesse was there when she was about four years old – she remembers Princess Charlotte of Brionne who stayed for few months at Remiremont in 1782 when she became abbess – and perhaps even earlier.

Fig. 2: House of a secular canoness in Remiremont. Found on the website “Au Pays de Mes Ancêtres

The Comtesse was being trained for a succession that never took place. In 1786, when the future Comtesse was eight years old, her aunt had to “adopt” the Prince de Condé’s daughter as her Dame-niece instead, so that the latter would become the new (and the last) abbess of the Chapter (p. 22-26 and p. 255-61). Her aunt’s sense of duty for her community (esprit de corps, p. 24 and p. 258) and the politics of Lorraine took precedence over family ties!

We find in the Souvenirs many of the themes already raised in an earlier blog. The magnificent performance of the secular canonesses’ liturgical celebrations, due to their striking clothing and the angelic looks of their younger members, is praised by the Comtesse, as Françoise Boquillon and Corinne Marchal (among other scholars) have already mentioned. The Comtesse’s point of view is here an external one, completing Guénard’s (whose novel was discussed in the earlier blog): she shows us the canonesses arriving in their choir with valets holding their long ermine-trimmed capes, and then the grille closing behind them without hiding them (p. 18-19 and p. 252-53): so close and magnificent, and yet untouchable…

She explains also how a very young voice sometimes sang unaccompanied, the child canoness moving alone, effortlessly, with her long cape, between the altar, the stalls, and the lectern while singing (p. 19 and p. 253-54). The future Comtesse obviously hoped for years to become one of these young voices behind the grille. It is also telling that she speaks of the liturgical activities of the canonesses frequently, already insisting upon it by the second page of her memoirs, when giving a historical and then structural overview of the Chapter and its activities. Here, the Comtesse’s point of reference is that of an insider. Obviously, her aunt attached importance to her religious activities as a Dame and transmitted this sentiment to her niece. Not all the canonesses necessarily viewed their positions in this religious light, but this text shows that at least some did.

Another key sentiment in the Souvenirs, possibly inherited or at least shared with her dear aunt, is one of “patriotism”: the Comtesse is very much attached to the distinct identity of Lorraine, first annexed to the Kingdom of France in 1738 and more definitely incorporated by 1766. Even though the memoirs were written decades after these events, they still resonate with the sadness of the Lotharingian nobility that had lost its independence from the French king.

The best example concerns the medallions that usually adorned the habits of all secular canonesses (seen in the illustrations of the previous blog). The Comtesse wrote that this adornment – acquired as recently as 1774 by Remiremont, thanks to a non-Lotharingian abbess – was resented by the canonesses, as it reminded them of the “new domination of France over the Chapters of the whole Lorraine” (p. 20). Indeed, the editor of the Messey explains in a note that the name of Louis XV was engraved on it; not something one would want to wear on one’s bosom if one was a patriot of Lorraine!

This fact brings us to an important theme within the Souvenirs and probably in the life of secular canonesses, at least in Remiremont: politics at all levels, not only regional (as we just saw two examples in relation to the Prince of Condé and the medallions), but also, to a lesser extent, European (for instance p. 16 and p. 249). It is worth highlighting this point: some of these women of the highest aristocracy were deeply interested in politics and played a role when necessary and possible.

Fig. 3: Portrait of Anne Charlotte de Lorraine, abbess of Remiremont (1738-1773), copy from the studio of Bernard Verschooten (1728-1783). Carlo Bonte’s auctions website.

The canonesses were also very concerned with the politics of the Chapter itself. The anonymous author who introduced the Messey considers collegiality (with the free election of the abbess) as one of the main characteristics of the noble Chapters:

The essential principle of the constitution of the aristocratic abbeys (insignes abbayes) remained intact throughout the ages: the government of chapters remained elective; the abbesses governed under the control and with the participation of the Chapter; their election was approved by the pope and their power moderated by collegiality.[5]

This is something of an exaggeration, since some Chapters did not control the election of their superior. Nevertheless, many passages of the Souvenirs demonstrate that the canonesses did have a significant say in the internal administration of the Chapter, including the admission of newcomers (p. 16-18 and p. 250-52), with the later edition adding an “in Chapter” (en plein Chapitre), as a key point in the description of the admission process, to avoid any ambiguity on the decision process. The Comtesse also took pains to explain what she meant by “Chapter” (the noble agrégation, which she calls elsewhere the “corporation”, p. 18 and p. 252) and “chapter”, the meeting space, reworking these passages between the two editions (p. 12 and p. 244, and p. 23 and p. 257), all proof that this collegial aspect was fundamental in her eyes. She insists as well on the significant territory it oversaw (Fig. 4) and the power the Chapter exerted, remaining silent on the prerogatives of the abbess (by choice or by ignorance, as her aunt had been a simple canoness):

[The Chapter] owned numerous lordships that depended solely on it and extended over a significant part of Lorraine. The French king did not send a garrison into the city of Remiremont, and his troops could not even cross the territory. The Chapter had high justice, that is, right of life and death. It had its police lieutenant, its civil officers, in one word, full and total jurisdiction… All matters of importance were deliberated by the Dames assembled in Chapter and resolved by them.[6]

Fig. 4: Map of the territories controlled by the Chapter (in blue) within the Duchy of Lorraine (pale yellow), in 1683. Drawn by Brostoler — Travail personnel, CC BY-SA 4.0

Politics were always at play in these communities, with the canonesses always on their guard, always fighting for their rights.

I would like to end with what struck me the most in the Souvenirs: the Comtesse’s love for and pride in the way of life of the Chapter of Remiremont, sentiments she must have inherited from her aunt and ones that many canonesses likely felt for their own communities. This community (which she joined so young) was her family and her world; it is clear she would also have very much liked for it to have been her future.

She specifies that she called her aunt Mère (“Mother”, p. 13 and p. 246) and that the latter had “adopted” her (p. 15 and p. 248). Admission during childhood (likely leading to a strong sense of identity with the Chapter) may have been common: the only aunt of the author from whom we have a definitive date of birth, 1736, the eldest of all her aunts, had a stipend at Remiremont by 1744 (see the family tree in Messey, p. 62) and was, therefore, seven or eight at the oldest, when she joined. The Comtesse mentions as well “little Dames” aged between seven and twelve (p. 12 and p. 245); in fact, the last Remiremont canoness alive at the time she was writing was one who had been seven at the outbreak of the Revolution (p. 33 and p. 268).

Once a canoness had a stipend and her own house within the Chapter, she could adopt a Nièce de prébende (p. 17-18 and p. 251): the Comtesse’s aunt was no more than twenty-seven when she became a Mère for the Comtesse (even though the latter never became a Nièce de prébende in the end); these adoptions created one more tie between these women and their communities.[7] The same aunt also had three sisters in Remiremont (p. 14 and p. 247), and the memoirs mention a cousin (p. 13 and p. 246) and one “intimate friend … to whom she confided all her thoughts” (p. 23 and p. 257, p. 24 and p. 258).

We must, therefore, imagine a group of women of all ages, many close to each other by various ties, biological or not. The pride of the Comtesse for this way of life can be seen in her exclamation that of her five aunts who became canonesses, only one left to get married, and this was the one who went to Maubeuge, not Remiremont (p. 14 and p. 247)! She comes back to this issue later in her memoirs, saying: “in general, these Dames of Remiremont did not get married or only rarely; their status was so agreeable (agréable) and beautiful that they were little disposed to change it for another” (p. 20 and p. 254). As was the case with her aunt, her love for the Chapter was greater than the one for her biological family: her mentions of her father and uncles are sparse.

I hope these few lines will have convinced you to read the Comtesse’s Souvenirs, especially in its latest rendering, as it offers an unparalleled foray into the life of secular canonesses in the late eighteenth century. We can see the little Comtesse playing alone in a room on the ground floor of her aunt’s house while the latter, unwell, is saying her canonical hours at home (p. 22 and p. 256), or imagine them taking strolls in the countryside outside the Chapter (p. 11 and p. 243). I know many women today who could project themselves easily in such a world, but alas almost none would have the necessary pedigree!

[1]  “…un jour viendra, je le pressens, où ces documents [sur le Chapitre de Remiremont] seront précieusement recherchés et recueillis, où l’on s’étonnera même de les avoir négligés aussi longtemps.” Marie Antoinette E. de Messey de Bielle, Souvenirs, in Deux chapitres-nobles et deux chanoinesses (Besançon: Impr. de l’Est. S.d.), p. 11.

[2] Madame de Chasteney. Mémoires de Madame de Chasteney, ed. A. Roserot. Paris, 1896; see Françoise Boquillon, “La religion des chanoinesses nobles à travers leurs écrits”, L’écriture du croyant 125 (2005) 93. Henriette Louise (von Waldner) baronne d’Oberkirch. Mémoires de la baronne d’Oberkirch sur la cour de Louis XVI et la société française avant 1789, ed. Suzanne Burkard. Paris: Mercure de France, 1970.

[3] « Mémoires de Mme la Comtesse Marie-Antoinette de Messey, ancienne chanoinesse de Remiremont », Bulletin de la Société philomatique vosgienne, 1888, p. 241-68.

[4] A good example of the differences between both texts concerns the descriptions of the two highest in hierarchy after the abbess: the doyenne and the secrète. The passage in the Messey (p. 11) clarifies the tasks of the latter in comparison to the same passage in Chapelier (p. 245-46). One proof that the changes were made by the Comtesse is her comment about her father, which is present only in the most recent version (mon père, p. 15). The overall differences are not major, except in the last pages dedicated to the French Revolution, which are laden with anguish. In the later version, many sections have been moved around, and additional family and military details added. In one case, it was a conscious choice on the part of Chapelier not to cite a specific episode; he inserted instead two sets of three points (p. 29 vs 264). The absence of such signal of omission for the other missing passages indicates, I think, that they were absent from the manuscript used by Chapelier. Except for the first and last two pages, the informative footnotes in the two editions are also different. Probably, the second editor knew of Chapelier’s text, but created a new version, specifically for the extended Messey family, based on a different manuscript.

[5] “Le principe essentiel de la constitution des abbayes insignes demeura intact dans le cours des âges: le gouvernement des chapitres resta électif; les abbesses gouvernèrent sous le contrôle et avec le concours du Chapitre; leur élection était approuvée par le Saint-Siège et leur pouvoir modéré par la collégialité.” (Messey, “L’Abbaye de Remiremont”, p. 5-6).

[6] “Il possédait de nombreuses seigneuries qui ne relevaient que de lui seul et s’étendaient sur une forte partie de la Lorraine. Le roi de France n’envoyait point de garnison dans la ville de Remiremont, et ses troupes ne pouvaient même passer sur le territoire. Le Chapitre avait la haute justice, c’est-à-dire droit de vie et de mort. Il avait son lieutenant de police, ses officiers-civils, en un mot, une pleine et entière juridiction… Dans toutes les affaires importantes, les délibérations étaient tenues par les Dames assemblées en Chapitre et résolues par elles” (p. 16 and p. 249). There is an interesting footnote in Messey (p. 16), absent from Chapelier, explaining how the abbess could exercise pardon over some prisoners, for Easter, Rogations and the vigil of the Saint-Barthelemy; they would then join the barefoot procession to the collegial church.

[7] I calculated that the aunt had turned fifteen at the earliest in 1770 when her own aunt died (p. 15 and p. 248).



Cite this blog post
Isabelle Cochelin (2022, December 10). Searching for Secular Canonesses in Modern Literary Sources (Part II). The Other Sister. Retrieved April 22, 2024, from https://doi.org/10.58079/sloo

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