Migne and Moody

Graham Robb

  • God’s Plagiarist: Being an Account of the Fabulous Industry and Irregular Commerce of the Abbé Migne by R. Howard Bloch
    Chicago, 162 pp, £19.95, June 1994, ISBN 0 226 05970 7

‘The day of the Lord so cometh as a thief in the night’ (I Thessalonians 5.2). In 19th-century France, it came in the shape of the abbé Jacques-Paul Migne. Between 1840 and 1870, with the help of several hundred poorly-paid workers and the latest in steam-powered printing, Migne undid the effects of the French Revolution, reversed the Reformation, created ‘the two most beautiful historical monuments to be found anywhere in the world’ and directed ‘the greatest publishing enterprise since the invention of printing’.

The abbé said as much himself in the advertisements accompanying his best-known compilations: the Patrologia Latina (218 volumes) and the Patrologia Graeca (166 volumes). But, as R. Howard Bloch explains, Migne not only herded all the Church Fathers together and sold them using marketing techniques that are a Modernist work of art in their own right, he also published four hundred other books under the collective title Bibliothèque universelle du clergé (including 99 volumes of Orateurs sacrés and three encyclopedias), owned and managed ten newspapers, worked 16 hours a day, lived the life of a ‘martyr’ and averaged one book every ten days for thirty years.

How did he do it? A poorly educated man from the Auvergne, who arrived almost penniless in Paris in the early 1830s, Migne antagonised bishops and ministers with his ‘troublesome, pesky, confused spirit’, attacked jeering yobbos in the street with his umbrella, bullied his underpaid workers and considered his closest rivals to be Hercules, Gutenberg and the Pope. Bloch describes his unstoppable hero as ‘Balzacian’, and there is a strong smell about him of that suicidal willpower and megalomaniac piety that fuelled the Comédie humaine. Balzacian, too, was the abbé’s apocalyptic experience when, in 1868, he saw 35 years’ work disappear in a river of molten metal after a disgruntled worker set fire to the printing works. Characteristically, he was insured to the hilt and recovered to complete the famous Indexes to the Patrologiae. He died, blind, in 1875.

Following his French biographer, A.-G. Hamman, Bloch finds a more specific reason for Migne’s auto-proliferation. At the age of 31, he was a curé in the backwater of Puiseaux, fifty miles south of Paris, notable only as an orator with a large head and ‘the look of an eagle which exhales nonetheless the most unctuous sensitivity’, and for the fact that he seemed to experience secularisation as a personal insult. Migne was denounced by the authorities for being disrespectful to the tricolour placed on the altar as a prank by ‘anticlerical liberals’. By way of explanation, he composed an inflammatory two-hundred-page brochure on the relation between Church and State: De la liberté, par un prêtre. It was confiscated, unread, by the Bishop of Orléans, Mgr de Beauregard. Bloch sees this attempt to silence the abbé as the crucial event of his early life. The Bishop had stepped on a spring that would spend the next 44 years uncoiling itself with disproportionate violence.

The unrepentant Migne set up in Paris as a newspaper editor – sometimes running more than one paper at the same time, which was against the law. Reminded of this by the Ministry of the Interior, he retorted that La Vérité canonique, the Journal des faits and La Voix de la vérité were editorless digests of other newspapers: ‘the editor is a pair of scissors.’ Not surprisingly, the pair of scissors was accused of plagiarism; also of publishing false news and attempting to bribe a postal employee. All this was excellent training for the Patrologiae. Migne’s steam-powered press was the ‘impartial’, anonymous voice of Truth, expressing its individuality only in the unimpeachably practical: La Voix de la vérité offered advice on all things ecclesiastical, from church maintenance to coping with bullying bishops. Under the Second Empire, this impartiality was enough to give Migne the reputation of being a republican. It also makes him a significant figure in the history of the French press.

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