Elizabeth C. TINGLE. Purgatory and Piety in Brittany 1480-1720. Ashgate, 2012, pp. 308, ISBN 978-1-4094-3823-6.
Reviewed by Pierre HEGY, Adelphi University, Garden City, NY11530

This thorough piece of research is of great interest not only to historians but also those interested in the evolution of doctrines and religious practices. I will review this book in the latter's perspective.

A preliminary chapter gives background information about religious life in Brittany, in Western France. One main characteristic was the centrality of purgatory and the number of Masses offered for the dead. Thus in the provincial town of Nantes, there were twelve parishes and six convents (p. 25); in one of these parishes in about 1545 many private Masses were offered in side chapels besides the Mass at the main altar, namely "at least three on Mondays, two on Wednesdays, four or five on Fridays, Saturdays and Sundays," that is, about twenty Masses per week, mainly for the souls in purgatory (p. 31). Besides Masses in parishes, there were also many requiem services in convents which were ubiquitous: 123 new convents were founded in Brittany between 1580 and 1680, in addition to the existing ones (p. 23). The clergy was plethoric: about one priest per 100 inhabitants (p. 19).

Chapter 3 surveys the publications of the period, most of which described the doctrine and practice of satisfaction. God forgives all sins at baptism, but "Christians who offended after baptism had to make amends through penitence and temporal penalties. This is satisfaction. If satisfaction is not completed during a person's lifetime, the debt remained after life" to be paid in purgatory ( p 51). One could shorten one's stay in purgatory "through the application of the sacrifice of the mass" and indulgences. This doctrine was upheld by the Council of Trent in its Session VI in 1547.

The most interesting chapter from a sociological perspective is the one on "perpetual foundations for intercession" (chapter 4). Anyone could create a foundation to have Masses celebrated forever through the transfer of money or property. An easy way was through one's will. About one in five testators requested a perpetual foundation; the average number of masses requested was about 100 (p. 90). These masses could be divided between several altars, churches and convents. Moreover, there was a choice, besides the requiem Mass at the funeral, of an octave Mass, or a Mass once month, or thirty Masses over 30 days, or annual Masses forever. In one diocese there were already 1,238 foundations in existence by 1550, or 448 in the city of Nantes mentioned above. The author provides a graph showing the increase of foundations over time: between 1550 and 1650 foundations increased from about 20 to about 70 new ones every year, before collapsing after 1700. Surprisingly, "the majority of foundations were of people of modest fortunes" (p. 96). It seems that most people invested in foundations for the afterlife, and as a consequence the church grew richer, with more priests and convents needed to satisfy the demand. As we know, these foundations (called chanceries in England) were expropriated by Henry VIII in 1545, and disappeared in France in the turmoil of the French Revolution.

Chapter 6 provides information about parish life, confraternities, and indulgences. The parish church was always surrounded by a walled cemetery, the resting place of all past members of the village. Mondays were usually devoted to intercession for the dead; throughout the year the dead were remembered with processions around the cemetery and the sprinkling of graves with holy water. In 1495 the bishop of Nantes ordered that in every parish the faithful by alerted at midnight by a crier to pray for the dead (p. 179). The author provides examples of many small donations, for instance the bequest of rye for the lamp of the sanctuary or two quarts of wheat in exchange for prayers. At the other end of the spectrum, a canon from the Vannes cathedral requested 10,000 Masses to be said at his funeral (p. 182). Since the Mass stipends varied considerably between main altar and side altars, and between parish, convent, and private chapels, one could seek more Masses or more prestige from one's investment. Membership in a fraternity was highly prized, since such organizations provided dignified burials and continued prayers for their members.

One last chapter describes the situation of clergy. Before Trent, many bishops and pastors did not reside in their assigned position; their job was performed by substitutes and sub-parochial priests surviving from Mass stipends. As the Trent reforms were enforced locally, most bishops and parish pastors joined in the movement and increased their control over the liturgy and the laity. A drastic change happened at the beginning of the 18th century: new foundations for the dead dropped drastically; existing ones disappeared through devaluations and seizure of property; most priests were trained in seminaries, and the numerous chaplains living from Mass stipends disappeared. A form of Christian life centered on death, the purgatory and indulgences came to an end.

This piece of research provides a rich panorama of Christian life that is all the more striking that it is different from our own. Highly recommended.


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