Further, Father, Further!

David A. Bell

  • The Wanton Jesuit and the Wayward Saint: A Tale of Sex, Religion and Politics in 18th-Century France by Mita Choudhury
    Penn State, 234 pp, £43.95, December 2015, ISBN 978 0 271 07081 0

In the autumn of 1730, a 20-year-old woman in the southern French port of Toulon claimed that her spiritual director, a middle-aged Jesuit, had repeatedly forced her to have sex with him. When she became pregnant, he made her drink a potion that induced an abortion. He denied everything and accused her of slander. The case went to trial before the sovereign court of Aix-en-Provence, and lawyers for both Catherine Cadière and Father Jean-Baptiste Girard published dozens of accusatory briefs that circulated freely, sometimes with print runs in the thousands. The most popular ones made their way into translation, in Britain, Germany and the Netherlands. Underground news sheets reported further details to readers throughout Europe, while a newspaper as far afield as Boston, Massachusetts promised to carry as much about the affair ‘as is fit to be printed’. Hundreds of songs and poems appeared, including, in London, the hilariously awful ‘Spiritual Amours’. Its author, a certain ‘Jeremy Jingle’, had no love lost for

That compound of a goatish Lecher
And a most edifying Preacher …
To him Adultery, Fornication
Were nothing more than Recreation.

Within a year, most people in Western Europe who could read probably knew about Girard and Cadière, and a large proportion of them were following the case’s every twist and turn. The story lingered in public memory long after the complex trial of 1731. Erotic engravings of the pair’s supposed encounters were popular for decades. References abounded in popular literature. And in 1748, the story became the basis for the century’s bestselling work of French pornography, the novel Thérèse philosophe, which contained explicit descriptions of the anagrammatical Father Dirrag seducing his student, Mademoiselle Eradice, while hidden witnesses discoursed learnedly on materialist philosophy.

Some scholars have linked the scandal to the early stirrings of the French Enlightenment. Montesquieu had written Persian Letters ten years earlier, and Voltaire was working on his deeply subversive Philosophical Letters, which were published in 1733. Both these works treated revealed religion in general, and Roman Catholicism in particular, with scepticism and scorn. Both urged their readers towards tolerance and freethinking. Perhaps the case became a cause célèbre because the French public saw in the abusive Jesuit everything they were learning to distrust about an oppressive Catholic Church.

While Thérèse philosophe certainly qualifies as an Enlightenment text of sorts, the works that circulated during and immediately after the trial itself contain few if any traces of religious scepticism, or freethinking of any kind. The lawyers for both Cadière and Girard claimed their clients were religious paragons and accused the other side of consorting with dark powers. Cadière called Girard ‘the devil of Uncleanness’, while his lawyer wrote that ‘we agree with our adversaries about the power of demons.’ Even Jeremy Jingle claimed that Girard had had supernatural help:

But now, to cast her into Trances,
And fill her Mind with various Fancies,
By Magick Art he calls from Hell
The chiefest Fiend that there does dwell.

The French underground newspaper that did the most to publicise the case insisted it was part of the eternal struggle between good and evil, and likened its protagonists to figures from scripture.

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