Susan E. Dinan, Women and Poor Relief in Seventeenth-Century France: The Early History of the Daughters of Charity, Ashgate, 2006.

Susan E. Dinan, Women and Poor Relief in Seventeenth-Century France: The Early History of the Daughters of Charity, Ashgate, 2006. £45.00, ISBN 0 7546 5553 9 (hardback), pp x + 190

 Reviewed by Margaret Jackson-Roberts, independent researcher

This book, which was originally presented as a PhD dissertation for the University of Wisconsin, is one in a series entitled Women and Gender in the Early Modern World. As such it challenges the received view of a single order of Tridentine moral reform imposed upon all religious institutions and seeks to indicate the scope for subversion: “It becomes quite clear that although the Council of Trent excluded women and lower-level clergy, they became central actors in shaping the outcomes of Trent and reinterpreting conciliar mandates to fit their spiritual, physical and social needs” (p1).

The particular social and religious circumstances prevailing at the time in France, following the Wars of Religion, meant that immediate full implementation of the conciliar decrees of Trent was impossible, and this together with great social deprivation was sufficient to allow a non-enclosed body of religious women to slip past ecclesiastic prohibition. The Gallican church in effect turned a blind eye.  The Daughters of Charity were almost uniquely able to escape the Tridentine requirement (expressed in the papal bullCirca pastoralis,issued in 1566 by Pope Pius V) that all religious orders of women should be enclosed by initially maintaining a pretence, at the instigation of their founders, St Vincent de Paul and St Louise de Marillac (canonised in 1934) that they were not a religious congregation in the traditional sense but rather a confraternity of holy women like the Beguines.  Thus, they were able to remain unenclosed in order to prosecute their declared mission of caring for the poor and sick in a time of disturbance by war, plague, and religious turmoil in France. In doing this they ultimately proved to be indispensable, and were finally granted official approbation in 1668 as a non-enclosed body by the Bishop of Paris and Pope Clement IX. Before this they were tolerated, partly out of extreme social necessity, and also because they were seen to pose no threat to the Catholic faith. The political climate of France following the bitter wars of religion in the late sixteenth century and the accommodation reached with the Huguenots in the Edict of Nantes (1598) was favourable to a more tolerant religious regime than that favoured by Rome. The Tridentine injunctions were not ratified by the Gallican church, which maintained transalpine independence of thought and operation from Rome, until 1615 and they never received royal permission to be published in France.

The Daughters of Charity originated in a company of 20 pious married women that was assembled by Vincent de Paul whilst he served as priest in charge of the parish (not diocese, paceDinan, p 35) of Châtillon-les –Dombes near Lyon in 1617, with the purpose of visiting the sick and poor in order to feed and tend them whilst offering spiritual comfort. The actual visits were made by women of relatively humble origin, while more aristocratic Ladies of Charity acted as fundraisers and managers in the early days. Financial support was given in the beginning by the French Queen, among other influential people, and the Daughters became a fashionable cause. All moneys received went into a common fund, with fiscal autonomy for each house, managed by a Sister Servant, and a strict account of all expenditure was maintained. Regular visitations ensured adherence to standards both of life and probity. Several Daughters died prematurely after coming into contact with plague victims; such a one was Marguerite Naseau, who became a role model for subsequent Daughters of Charity.

In 1629 de Paul appointed his helpmate, the illegitimate aristocrat Louise de Marillac, to be the supervisor of the groups of Daughters around Paris. He seems to have enjoyed the support and protection of the Bishop of Paris, Jean-François-Paul de Gondi, later Cardinal de Retz (died 1679). By 1660 there were some 100 houses of Daughters of Charity, and this had increased to 250, some of them in southern France and Belgium, by 1711.  By the eighteenth century there were houses in Italy, Spain, Russia and Lithuania. The Motherhouse in Paris trained all new entrants initially but another seminary was later opened at Eu near Rouen and a third in Warsaw. In 1712 the company was organised into 14 provincial units, increased to 20 in 1718.

Over time the work of the congregation encompassed teaching catechism and basic literacy to girls, caring for orphaned and abandoned children, also nursing and administrative work in hospitals; it is perhaps for this last function that they are best remembered, as well as for the cornette headdress that was adopted in 1685 for practical reasons of weather-protection and only abandoned after the second Vatican Council.  Dinan argues that ‘The Daughters of Charity changed the nature of charitable services and health care in early modern France’. (p 116).  Hitherto provision of care for the poor and sick was wholly reliant upon individual acts of local charity which varied considerably across France. The foundation and spread of the Daughters of Charity provided a successful and nationally applicable large scale matrix for subsequent generations to institute and improve upon.

It is an interesting story, marred only by some degree of unpruned repetitions and numerous typographical errors which should have been corrected at proof-reading stage, eg “auspicious” for “inauspicious” on p 79, omission of the name of the foundling hospice on p 8, and confusion over the name of the Sister Servant at Nantes, who appears as Elizabeth in the text on p 115 but as Isabelle in fn 110 on the same page. Finally, although Dinan briefly sketches the later history of the Daughters, including the effects of the French Revolution and the Nazi Occupation, she does not mention the effect that expulsion of the religious orders from France in 1902 had on the company.