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.

Backed by his sister’s drapery firm in the Auvergne (a handy source of soutanes and child labour), Migne embarked on the Patrologiae with as much zeal as it would take to sell them. His principal collaborator, Dom Pitra, unearthed manuscripts, assembled an international team of editors and produced a new edition of Tertullian. Much of the Patrologiae, however, was pirated, reproduced from unreliable editions and unattributed. Migne, whose name appears in every volume, claimed to hold strong views on ‘the deplorable vanity of names’.

Bloch believes that the Patrologiae was the shop-window of Migne’s advertising genius. There were hire-purchase schemes, temporary price reductions, free lives of St Theresa of Lisieux, incentives for enlisting colleagues and an excellent mail-order service. Editors were bribed to reproduce Migne’s hyperbole as their own. He claimed to have 50,000 letters of praise from his fellow priests (who never numbered more than 47,000). One implausible encomium was attributed to Affre, Archbishop of Paris, who had condemned La Voix de la vérité and its lying editor, but who died, conveniently, on the barricades in 1848. The Patrologiae were promoted with all the ostentatious humility Migne had witnessed in his superiors: ‘Of what use are all other printed works! Mere children’s games, of which the greatest is nothing compared to ours!’ More impressive than the Labours of Hercules or the construction of ten cathedrals, this enormously useful work was undertaken without the help of government or church, most of his subscribers being ‘foreigners, Protestants or Greeks’.

Migne’s industrial Vatican was the amazing Ateliers Catholiques on the southern edge of Paris at Montrouge. The Ateliers were capable of turning out two thousand quarto volumes every 24 hours. They had approximately 10 per cent of the printing capacity of a highly mechanised département. For Migne, this meant that he existed in a special time-zone where one minute was equal to three years of monastic labour. In 1854, there were 596 workers at Montrouge, smelting, typesetting, editing, printing, proofreading, binding, accounting and, according to Ministry spies, scheming and agitating: Migne recruited criminals, revolutionaries and defrocked priests – anyone who might be prepared to enjoy the moral advantage of unusually low wages (but with a bonus of 25 centimes for every typo discovered). The Ateliers were part medieval scriptorium (no singing or idle conversation), part sweatshop; a symbol with several practical functions which proved how effectively a monastic regime could adapt itself to modern industry. Migne’s Jerusalem in a satanic mill was described by a visiting journalist in 1868:

An employee said to me: come into the warehouse, take Bible Street on your right, then Bossuet Street on your left, and at the end you will find M. l’abbé Migne on Fathers of the Church Square. I crossed long aisles formed of enormous piles of books in quarto and at the far end I found the abbé Migne pointing out, on Fathers of the Church Square, the place reserved for Tertullian’s building.

The Ateliers also contained a library, a bookshop, a bindery, a chapel, an organ and harmonium factory, Migne’s own apartment and an artist’s studio, misleadingly termed a ‘museum’. The museum sold ‘at the lowest possible price’ paintings, statues, altarpieces, Stations of the Cross and other religious paraphernalia. There was some complaint about the aesthetic quality of the altar paintings. Migne, ever the man of reliable criteria – moral or otherwise – had an answer. There was nothing wrong with the paintings: ‘Christ is rendered according to the laws of true perspective.’

What Migne’s life showed, over and over again, was that as soon as some ecclesiastical work is carried out more efficiently than usual it becomes a parody of itself. This applies to the saving of souls as much as to the fabrication of Stations of the Cross that will not be ‘affected by humidity’. The abbé spotted a hole in the market for Masses: there were not enough priests to perform them all. Result: a centralised Mass service. The cost to Migne was 75 centimes (unless the priest accepted books as payment), and he charged 1.50 fr per Mass. Migne was condemned by the authorities in Rome, but, with hindsight, all his activities have that ambiguity which allows Bloch to present him as a herald of Modernism: ‘At worst Migne joined the sin of usury to that of simony; at best, he charitably harnessed his considerable organisational capacities to the present needs of mid-century Catholicism under siege.’ In short, ‘the ends justify the Mignes.’

From what remains of Migne’s mind when all the ulterior motives are removed, we can assume that he believed in what Baudelaire termed ‘the salvation of the human race by the balloon’. His might have been the face in the painting in L’Education sentimentale which shows Jesus Christ driving a steam locomotive through a virgin forest – a painting which might easily have come from the Ateliers Catholiques of Montrouge. Migne himself compared his publications to the tunnel blasted under Mont Cenis, through which he would drive the train of the Fathers. As a poem published in 1845 would have it: ‘Only God’s work goes faster than the locomotive!’ – and, Migne might have added, only the Holy Spirit can fit itself into smaller spaces. With the shrinking of time and space made possible by the invention of continuous paper, rollers of glue and molasses and the steam-powered press, all the writings of the Church Fathers could now be ingested by a single person. Faith had suddenly become efficient. ‘What an economy of time!’ Migne exclaims prophetically in volume 218, column four of the Patrologia Latina: ‘It’s better than the railway, and even the balloon – it’s electricity!’

Migne’s choice of tunnel was slyly symbolic: a subterranean link between France and Italy, in other words between l’abbé Migne and the Pope. Mgr de Beauregard, still waving his censorious flag, would be crushed under the wheels of progress and Migne, as he told his almost unacknowledged collaborator, Dom Pitra, would be borne on triumphantly to the Vatican: ‘My well-established destiny, unless prevented by death, is to go to Rome as soon as I have finished and to deposit myself a copy of all my great publications.’ ‘I am curious to know if the Holy Father knows of my existence,’ he wondered, shortly before discovering that his enemies had denounced him to the Pope as a ‘speculator’. In fact, it was too late to lock the engine-shed door: Migne had already thundered through the Vatican – ‘M. Migne has thus fulfilled the dream of many a Pope; he has through his industrial acumen and his inexhaustible energy carried off a revolution in printing’ – and the momentum of his gigantic enterprise would carry him on, ‘directly to heaven’.

Equipped with research in the Archives Nationales, Bloch positions himself at several points along the abbé’s railroad. Each chapter deals with an aspect of his publishing career: police reports, plagiarism, self-advertisements and financing. Bloch’s main point of contemporary reference is Balzac’s Illusions perdues. Finding a mirror for Migne’s reality in the Comédie humaine is not without its dangers and induces a suspicion that Migne himself may not have existed in the normal sense. Worse still, a splendid photograph on the back flap shows the cigar-smoking author (who has also written a novel, Moses in the Promised Land) fly-fishing in the mountains, striking an epic, interrogative stance, as if suffering from acute incongruity, as one who has recently been beamed down from an orbiting library, or is suddenly wondering why God makes his most successful servants so dishonest and endearing. After toying with the idea of direct influence, Bloch wisely casts both Migne and Balzac back into the historical flood that threw them up. Migne only managed to read about one tenth of his own publications and surely had no time for Illusions perdues. Nor is there any evidence that Balzac was aware of Migne’s doings, though his own plans to promote the 17-volume Comédie humaine by offering life insurance to subscribers have exactly the same air of self-contradictory practicality.

However, no historian can study the period through Balzac’s microscope and sit up again with both eyeballs the same size. Like Oscar Wilde, Bloch experiences one of those magical moments when fiction exerts a retroactive influence on history. Balzac’s bankrupt perfumer, César Birotteau, succeeds in passing himself off as a real person – one of the self-made men, according to Bloch, whom Balzac apparently encountered in the Paris of the 1820s and 1830s. Birotteau claims his place as such in the index, between the Bishop of Orléans and the managing editor of the Journal des faits, Blot de Poly, whose name and function, ironically enough, were invented by Migne as an administrative convenience.

This almost exclusively Balzacian backdrop raises a more serious question about contextualising activities which now seem beautifully simple in their moral turpitude. An unwritten, influential rule of popular biography is to be as accurate as possible in tiny material details and as anachronistic as possible in psychological and social matters. The biographer acquires a contrasting moral purity and the whole period is packed out with incorrigible rogues and pompous victims.

One criticism of Illusions perdues was precisely this exaggerated vision of habitual practices – for example, using the violence of the anonymous book review as a metaphor of absolute power wielded with impunity. Yet at the time the book review, the advertisement and the idea of literary property itself were still in a fluid state. This is the age whose most popular writer – Alexandre Dumas – ran a novel ‘factory’ and sauntered through the garden of world literature, secateurs in hand. The play which is usually described as the first blow struck for Romantic drama in France – Dumas’s Henri III et sa cour – contains sizeable portions of Schiller’s Don Carlos, which had played a similarly important role in German literature 42 years earlier. When presented with the evidence, Dumas resorted to the Mignean notion of collective creation – ‘Men do not invent; Mankind invents’ – and pointed out that God himself was a plagiarist since he copied human beings from his own image. Migne claimed to believe that property was ‘the most sacred thing in the world after religion’ – so sacred that it could not be allowed to remain in the possession of an individual. To use the burglar’s euphemism, he was liberating editions and manuscripts locked up in libraries and private collections, exploiting new possibilities as they arose and proving once again that, even for the celibate, the urge to reproduce is irresistible.

Mercifully, Bloch’s sense of humour has none of that condescending mock-bewilderment commonly applied to the foreign or the ancient. At times, he sounds like a Post-Modern Lucien de Rubempré, splashing about, gleefully amazed, in the ‘mud-heap’ of commercialisation which fatally depresses Balzac’s hero: but the implied anachronism also produces illuminating links between past and present. It enables Bloch to promote Migne as a forerunner of the department store and to place him on a continuum running from St Paul to the Tupperware party: the quality of the merchandise is increasingly irrelevant, still more the nature of its contents.

The anonymous voice of a collective (manipulated by a single ventriloquist), the fantasy of ‘complete impartiality’, the marketing of ‘raw truth’ purified of ideology by the detergent of commercial criteria, and that extreme convenience which absolves the product of all possible sins – all this propels the study of Migne towards its latest happy ending (unfortunately missing from the book, though strongly implied by Bloch’s reflections). A hundred and sixty years after Mgr de Beauregard tried to shut him up, the abbé has finally been plugged into the mains and the Patrologia Latina, faults and all, is now available on CD-Rom at a price of £30,250 – slightly more expensive than The English Poetry Full-Text Database.

As John Sutherland observed in his review of the EPFTD (LRB, 9 June), hitherto undetected plagiarisms can now be detected. The pleasant irony in Migne’s case is that his own plagiarisms are even more likely to pass unnoticed. Migne comes with an extra free gift: the opportunity to consider the religious implications of CD technology applied to scholarship (as opposed to scholarship applied to the technology). For all its hysterical celebration of anticipated achievements, an early prospectus for Migne’s publications sounds uncannily like an early announcement of The End of Scholarship as We Know It and the advent of what Sutherland calls ‘the scholar nerd’, who replaces the time-consuming elaboration of ‘insights’ with the devising of elegant algorithms: ‘Here we have a unique example of submission to authority. What power the possibility of universal reading made available by the editors will render to Catholic principle! And what a rude blow will this same possibility of universal reading deliver to the Protestant principle of individualism and the rational principle of philosophism?’

Now that Migne has found such a sympathetic publicist, and seen his 1800 hours of labour packed into a few inches, he is well on his way to becoming the patron saint of the scholar nerd.