Tag Archive: religions

The holy phial – part 2

Legend has it that, during Clovis’ baptism, a dove from Heaven brought a phial containing holy oil.

Such a surprising story has obviously met with some scepticism from Historians, and even from people of the Church…  Some Benedictins, like Dom Mabillon, some Jesuits, like Father Jacques Longueval, some Bollandist Fathers, etc., have, over the centuries, delivered severe criticism of Hincmar’s text and have quite simply declared that it is only a legend…

All of these good ecclesiastics refuse to believe in the miraculous apparition of the holy phial.  And their objections have been taken up by the Historian Leber who lived in the XIXth Century.  He very curiously begins by refuting this story, not for “cartesian” reasons, but for material ones.

He doesn’t say:  “I don’t believe it because a dove can’t come from the sky with a phial in its beak.”  He says:  “I don’t believe it because there must certainly have been enough oil to proceed with the baptism…”  Here is his text:

“It is said that at the moment of baptizing Clovis, the holy oil not being there, Heaven deigned to supply it by sending a phial filled with a divine liqueur whose perfume filled the whole church.

“This fact does not have a believable character.  It is difficult to believe that the oil which was supposed to serve for the baptism of a monarch had not been prepared or brought ahead of time into the sanctuary, or that there was not enough of it to accomplish the ceremony.  As no-one was counting on a prodigy, the necessary precautions must have been taken.  The oil must have been prepared, not only for the King, but for six thousand subjects who were baptized with him;  or, according to Gregoire, three thousand soldiers and more, not counting the women and children.  The negligence that is supposed here cannot be conceived.  The fact is not likely in itself.”


During the coronation of French Kings (here, Louis XVI), the holy phial was brought in great ceremony to Reims by members of the Order entrusted with its safekeeping.

There is another fact that troubles the Historians quite a lot:  none of the chroniclers who were contemporary to the prodigy mention it:  neither Gregoire de Tours, who recounts the baptism of Clovis however, nor Fredegaire, his continuator, nor Bishop Avitus, nor even Saint Remi in his testament…

Saint Remi only writes:

“Deus…  plurima signa ad salutem praefatae gentis Francorum operari facit!”

That is to say that some prodigies were done by God for the conversion of the Francs…  Some authors have concluded rather hastily that by “prodigy”, we must understand “holy phial”…  Which is known as “soliciting a text”…  In fact, the more rigorous Historians consider that this sentence of Saint Remi is extremely vague and that we do not have the right to see in it any allusion to the holy phial.  On top of which, if this prodigious event happened during Clovis’ baptism, a dazzled Saint Remi would not have just made a vague allusion to “prodigies”;  he would have related the fact in all its details…


In fact, the first chronicler to really speak of the holy phial is Hincmar, Archbishop of Reims, who wrote in the IXth Century, that is to say four hundred years after the event…  He claims to have taken his information from ancient chronicles.  Which ones?  He doesn’t say.  Therefore, Hincmar has been accused of completely inventing the story of the dove.  However, a few researchers have discovered that the story of the holy phial was known before Hincmar spoke of it, and that it belonged, in the form of a legend, to Reims folklore.


The reconstituted holy phial was used for the last time on 29 May 1825 during the coronation of Charles X. Since then, it is part of the treasure of the Reims Cathedral.

The genesis of it has been reconstituted.  Clovis’ baptism having been the most important event in the History of the christianization of Frankish Gaul, it could be thought that fairly early – around the VIth or VIIth Century – the Reims priests must have shown to pilgrims the phial used by Saint Remi.  This phial, authentic or false, it doesn’t matter, was considered a relic.  And we know that sacred objects were frequently conserved in recipients in the form of a dove which were suspended inside the churches, above the altar…  As well as that, on the drawings, the fresques, the mosaics which represent a ceremony of baptism, there is often a dove – the Holy Ghost – which descends onto the head of the new Christian…  It was enough for the good people to see this reliquary in the form of a dove holding a phial in its beak, and a mosaic showing Clovis’ baptism, for the mixture to give birth to a legend…  A legend which the good Hincmar, in good faith, reported to us…


And for over one thousand years, he was believed.  He made a mistake, but we must however recognize that it was a great idea.  An idea which was used for the first time in 869, during the Coronation of Charles the Bald, and which consisted in using Clovis’ balm for the unction of the Kings of France…  By this find, not only did he serve the interests of the city of which he was the Pastor (the Archbishops of Reims became in this way the consecrators of their sovereigns), but he made the Kings of France the only monarchs made sacred by the use of an oil from Heaven, which placed them above all of the Kings of Christendom.

This is how a marvellous story, born of a legend, was able to give, for around one thousand years, to forty Kings, the power and the prestige which was necessary for them to make France…



The holy phial

Legend has it that, during Clovis’ baptism, a dove from Heaven brought a phial containing holy oil.

The History of France begins with a marvellous story.  On 25 December 496, the streets of Reims are packed with a joyful crowd awaiting an extraordinary procession.  The Franc Chief, Clovis, who has decided to convert to christianism, has to go, in great pomp, surrounded by the principal prelates of Gaul, from the former Palace of the Roman Governor, situated near the Basee Gate – porta Basilica – to the baptistery where Remi, Bishop of the little city, awaits him.

All of the streets are decorated.  Gregoire de Tours tells us that

“the squares were shaded by coloured hangings and the churches hung with white curtains”.

As for the pool where the new Christian was to be, according to the rite, plunged three times, it was splendidly decorated.  The chronicler tells us, as well, that perfumes had been poured around and that odorous candles were burning, in such a way

“that all the people were impregnated with a divine odour and that God was filling the spectators with such grace that they thought that they had been transported amongst the perfumes of Paradise”.

The holy phial was used for over one thousand years for the Coronation of France’s Kings.

Along the streets, while waiting for the procession, well-informed people are saying that this baptism is the consequence of a vow that Clovis had made during a battle.  For a long time, Clotilde – daughter of the Burgond King Chilperic -, whom he had married in 493, had been begging him to abandon the cult of the gods Wotan, Ziu and Freia, to convert to the religion of the Christ;  but the Franc had been hesitating.  However, a few months earlier, while he was fighting against the Alamans, luck seemed to be against him and he had addressed the heavens like this:

“God of Clotilde, You whom my wife affirms to be the son of the living God, if you give me victory over these enemies, I will believe in You and will have myself baptized!”

Immediately after this prayer, the Alamans had fled in great disorder.  A miraculous victory for which Clovis rejoiced because it assured him the whole of northern Gaul with uncontested authority over the Gallo-Romans and the Germanic Francs…


For a long time, the holy phial was kept in this reliquary placed inside Saint Remi’s tomb.

The Remois, who are waiting and chatting near the Cathedral built by Saint Nicaise ninety-seven years earlier, are suddenly silent.  A buzzing of religious chants is announcing the arrival of the cortege which soon arrives on the square.  At its head is the Remois clergy preceded by a cross-bearer, then come Remi, who had instructed the King in christian dogmas, and different Bishops whose mitres, croziers and amethyst rings amaze the good people.  Monks and clerics follow, singing hymns of glory.  Finally, Clovis appears, alone, dressed in the white robe of catechumens.  Behind him walk two young women whose ravishing names – Alborflede and Lantechilde – have been circulating through public rumour.  They are his sisters.  They too are to receive baptism, along with the three thousand warriors at the back of the cortege, three thousand Francs with enormous moustaches hanging on their virginal tunics, who are advancing and trying to look meditative.

The ceremony is therefore going to last all day and the little people display intense jubilation about it.  Not that they are particularly fond of religious spectacles, but because they guess that there will be rejoicings attached to this one.  The arrival of this crowd of new converts into the Church’s bosom is, in fact, going to be accompanied by feasts and drunkenness, these excesses being absolved in advance by their pious pretext.


The Grand Prior of Reims Abbey wearing the holy phial reliquary around his neck.

When the cross-bearer arrives in front of the baptistery, the cortege stops.  Remi then gives a sign to Clovis who walks with a firm step towards the pool, his long hair undone.  With no hesitation, he enters the icy water, and the Bishop of Reims pronounces this sentence which would traverse the centuries:

“Bow your head gently, proud Sicambre!  Worship that which you have burnt, burn that which you have worshipped!…”

After which, the King having confessed his faith in God All-Powerful and in the Trinity, Remi plunges his head into the water three times, in the name of the Father, the Son and the Holy Ghost.

Clovis leaves the pool, met by a priest who covers him in a big towel and rubs him down with respect.  Dried, the King goes into a neighbouring room to dress in a new linen tunic.  He re-appears immediately afterwards.

The public, let into the bapistery, then gets ready to watch the second part of the ceremony:  Confirmation.  The ritual is known:  the Bishop is going to anoint the newly baptized man’s forehead with holy oil;  a few psalms will be sung and all will be finished.  The drinking and feasting awaited by the little people could then begin.

This is when a prodigious event takes place, related by Hincmar, Archbishop of Reims, in the IXth Century in his Vie de saint Remi, and which is still being recounted, more than one thousand three hundred years later.

Here are the facts such as he reports them:

“As Remi and Clovis were arriving at the baptistery, the cleric who was carrying the oil was stopped by the crowd, so that he was unable to get to the baptismal font.  Therefore, at this font blessed by divine will, the holy oil was lacking.  And as the crowd of people was preventing anyone from either entering or leaving the church, the holy pontiff, raising his eyes and hands to heaven, tacitly started to pray and shed tears.  And suddenly, a dove whiter than snow brought in its beak a little phial full of holy oil, the suave odour of which, much superior to that of the incense and the candles, struck all who were present.  The holy pontiff having taken this little phial, the dove disappeared.”

Immediately, Remi, completely untroubled by this marvel, proceeds to anoint Clovis with the holy oil that has been miraculously brought, before a crowd that must have been astounded…


After the destruction of the holy phial during the Revolution, what was left of the original holy oil was collected and placed in this reliquary, by order of Charles X.

After the ceremony, the holy phial – as its name will be from then on – was piously carried by Remi to a safe place.  Later, it would be placed inside a dove of gold.  Those who saw it tell us that it was in slightly opaque glass or crystal, that its size was that of an average fig, that its neck had a whiteish colour, that its stopper was made of red taffeta, and that the oil that it contained exhaled the most exquisite perfume.  Some chroniclers, like Froissart in his Description of the Coronation of Charles VI, even affirm that the oil came back all on its own after each royal unction, and that its volume consequently never diminished.  The Historian Dom Guillaume, in the XVIIth Century, assures us that a “famous doctor” whose name he unfortunately does not give us, believed that “this celestial balm had been made by the hands of angels”.

So, Clovis’ baptism is marked with a divine sign.  And this sign would be used by the Kings of France for more than a thousand years for political ends.  In fact, the celestial origin of the holy phial would raise France to the rank of eldest daughter of the Church, suggest the idea of a ceremony for the taking of power being integrated into the religious liturgy:  Coronation;  make this Coronation a true initiation capable of transforming the sovereign into a King-Priest and a Healer King – who could cure the King’s Evil, for example – in other words, give a sacred character to the royal function…

A marvellous adventure which would make all the sovereigns of the world jealous and lead the English Kings to “invent” a holy phial – Saint Thomas a Becket’s – so as to found their monarchy on bases just as solid as that of the French…

This holy phial, now a “divine sign”, was used during the Coronation of almost all of France’s Kings up until the Revolution.  But on 16 Vendemiaire year II (7 October 1793), the Conventionnel Ruhl broke it with a hammer on the steps of Louis XV’s statue, in the middle of the Place Royale in Reims.


However, the holy phial did not disappear completely.  A few pieces of debris containing a bit of balm were collected by Abbot Seraine, Curate of Saint-Remi.  This balm, mixed with other blessed oils, was locked up in a new reliquary and was used for the Coronation of Charles X.  All that is left of the oil used at Clovis’ baptism is still part of the Reims Cathedral’s treasure today…


To be continued.

Robespierre was presented as the new Messiah by a woman calling herself the "Mother of God".

If Robespierre was finally defeated, it was perhaps because of a woman, an obscure prophetess, whose name History has not even retained.  In 1793, the “enrages”, assembled around the bloody Hebert, resolved to put an end to the Church.  Their spokesman, Chaumette, a philanthropist, the inventor of a guillotine on wheels which greatly facilitated the choppers’ work, is seized with a veritable anti-Catholic frenzy.  In the cemeteries, he has the crosses replaced by statues of Sleep, since the soul cannot be immortal, and he asks the “swearing” bishops to throw away the mitre, crook and ring, and to proclaim:

“All the titles of the charlatanism are deposited at the People’s Tribunal, we are regenerated!”

In Notre-Dame’s choir, he has an immense mountain in cardboard constructed.  On its slopes, women with naked breasts suckle babies to make them good little soldiers of Liberty.  One would look in vain for an effigy of saints.  In their place, there is a monumental statue which represents the People, brandishing a club.  A temple of political philosophy replaces the main-altar.  One distinguishes there the busts of all of the Fathers of the Revolution…

And it’s the same thing, often more laughable, in the cathedrals of Bourges, Le Mans, Limoges, Pau and elsewhere, where prostitutes organize mad Bacchanalias.

The Festival of the Goddess Reason, which degenerated into an appalling Bacchanalia, was replaced, at Robespierre's request, by the Festival of the Supreme Being.

Robespierre has more taste and spirit than these people.  And a higher ambition.  He doesn’t want to extirpate religious sentiment from the hearts of the French.  But he wants them to embrace a new religion.  That they replace the adoration of the Church God by the cult of the Supreme Being, founded on reason and fraternity.

On 18 Floreal Year II, more prosaically 7 May 1794, he has voted by the Convention, where no-one dares to contradict him any more, the Act of the birth of a religion, of which, by divine right, it could be said, he will be the High Priest.  For  a little more than a month.  This is already much too much for the partisans of absolute atheism.  Of course Hebert has just been cut in two, but his friends, among the Jacobins and even in the Convention, are searching and agitating.  While Robespierre is establishing with the painter David and the poet Chenier the rites and canticles of the new religion, they are seeking how to knock this Being off its altars along with its infernal pontiff.  They search with the desperate obstination of those for whom the path from the tribunal to the blade is becoming shorter every day.  In the end, they will find what they are looking for…

This same day in May 1794, two men discretely climb the six storeys of a miserable-looking house in the Rue de la Contrescarpe.  They are secret agents, or rather Comite de Salut Public informers.  Their names are Heron and Senart, and they have been sent there by Vadier, a Montagnard Deputy who execrates Robespierre just as much as his divinity, and Barere, nicknamed “l’Anacreon de la guillotine”, because the sight of its well-filled basket inspires him to spout exquisite literary flowers.  As for the two spies, you might as well say that they are frankly scoundrels:  Heron is a former long-haul sailor whose men call him simply “le Chef”.  Perhaps he takes his authority from the fact that he never goes anywhere without a very complete artillery:  under his jacket he carries two espingoles, small pistols, and a second belt with other pistols of a more considerable calibre, plus a large dagger and a little tiny styletto.  His wife, a beautiful Cancalaise to whom he is very attached, cheats on him with a First Lieutenant of the Beauce Regiment and flees with 800,000 pounds, a fortune which must surely owe nothing to his sailor’s pay.  He has just introduced a request with his influent friends that has a good chance of coming to something:  that of having his wife guillotined very urgently…

Senart, on the other hand, is a scrupulous person.  The son of a Prosecutor of Chatellerault, he passes for noble and has even married a goddaughter of Louis XVI and Marie-Antoinette.  Never does he ever assemble his military Commissions, which comb the provinces, without making them attend Mass first.  He is meticulous in everything:  elected Prosecutor of Tours, he establishes the guillotine there without delay “on a solid base in masonry”.

Heron advises his acolyte to look pious as he knocks twice, then three times, with one knuckle on the landing door.

After a fairly long moment, a servant shows her nose and asks if they have come for the Mother of God.  If so, they’ll have to wait, because she isn’t up yet.

It is eleven o’clock;  the two fellows take root in the dark, cramped entry.  Heron reminds Senart that he is supposed to have just come from the country.

Then, a man dressed in an immense white riding-coat and carrying a toque in petit-gris fur appears.  He raises an oil lamp toward the visitors’ faces and traces a sign of recognition on his forehead which Heron hastens to repeat.  Before he can say a word, the servant-girl reappears and says emphatically:

“Come!  Mortal men, towards immortality!  The Mother of God permits you to enter!”

She precedes them into a chamber which is fairly vast, but just as dark, where she lights a triple chandelier and arranges, on some low steps, three blue and red armchairs.  Then she says:

“Time advances!  The Mother of God is going to appear to receive her children!”

At this moment, a military man arrives carrying his bonnet under his arm, a long blade at his side, followed by a female citizen that the man with the toque greets as being “l’Eclaireuse”.  Another one comes from the rooms at the end and is called “la Chanteuse”, and again another, who is singularly beautiful and is called “la Colombe”.  The “Eclaireuse” rings a bell.

“Brothers, here is your Mother!”

The curtains of an alcove open and a tall, dry, diaphanous person appears.  Her head and hands are of phenomenal thinness and are shaking with senile trembling…

Senart, who has remained prudently behind, now counts a good ten people who are taking their places on stools and types of chaises longues.  Those present rush to kiss Catherine Theot’s slipper with fervour, crying out:

“Glory be to the Mother of God!”

In his corner, Senart is having trouble not to laugh.

A collation is served, but only for the prophetess.  Two pretty girls tenderly wipe her face and lips afterwards.  In a sour, broken voice, she then pronounces these words:

“Children of God, Your Mother is among you.  I am now going to purify the two profanes!…

To be continued.

Medicine at the Time of the Pharaohs

If our knowledge of Mesopotamian Medicine is obviously full of holes, that of the Egyptians is much better known to us.  We have many, copious sources.  The most remarkable is uncontestably the papyrus baptised Ebers, the name of the Egyptologist who bought it from peasants-tomb robbers in 1872.  This papyrus dates from the beginning of the XVIIth Dynasty but it copies several older texts which have not come down to us.  These passages go back to the Ancient Empire (2800-2300 before the present era).  Because of this, the Ebers Papyrus can be considered as one of the oldest in the world, if not the oldest.  It is twenty metres long and comports no fewer than one hundred and eight pages of remedies.  We have here a sort of medical dictionary constructed according to a real plan, but where, from our point of view, the best and worst are side by side.

Another major, even capital, source:  The Edwin-Smith Papyrus, bought in 1862 by an American archeologist.  It measures 4.68 metres and is entirely consecrated to traumatic pathology analysed in forty-eight chapters.  It dates from the XVIIIth Dynasty.  For Ange-Pierre Leca, it is a model of its type which admirably anticipates Hippocrates’ medical treatises.  He exposes:

“Here, there is no black magic, but facts of an astonishing, clinical observation, no mysterious malady where incantation often takes the place of a remedy, but well-observed lesions, correctly described, to which were applied physical treatments.”

The language is that of today’s clinicians.  Circumspection is the rule, diagnosis is drawn from attentive observation of the symptoms.  Here is one example:

“If you examine a man having an open wound in his head, penetrating right to the bone and perforating his cranium, you must palpate his wound;  if you find him incapable of looking at his two shoulders and his chest, if his neck is painful and stiff… “

The treatment follows:

“Now, after having stitched it, you must apply fresh meat on the wound on the first day.  You must not bind it […]  You must then treat it with fat, honey and dress it each day… “

The great Medicine historian, Charles Lichtenthaeler, does not hide his admiration.  For him, the Edwin-Smith Papyrus is the first known document to class in good order all of the illnesses and traumatisms, according to the schema “from the head to the feet”.  The presentation of today’s medical manuals derives from this classification invented in Egypt, thousands of years ago.  He also points out that the Egyptian practicians were the first to highlight the causal relations between the clinical phenomena..  He cites this particularly pertinent observation of that which we call paraplegia:

“If you examine a man having a luxation in a vertebra of the neck and if you find that he can no longer control his two arms and his two legs because of this, while his penis is in erection because of this and that urine is falling from his member without him being aware of it…  You will say about him:  a man who has a luxation in the vertebra of his neck [this is] a malady for which we can do nothing.”

Apart from the Ebers Papyrus and the Edwin-Smith Papyrus which constitute major references in Egyptian Medicine, there are other sources which are more minor for they are specialised (in gynaecology, proctology, paediatrics) or very encumbered by medico-magical formulae, which reduce their interest, at least in our eyes.  For, from the Egyptians’ point of view, Magical Medicine was extremely important and exercised a seduction that was very much superior to the Empiric Medicine prescribed by the Edwin-Smith Papyrus.  But there again, we must not imagine that there was a distinct separation of the two.  In the same way that today, we can entrust the disappearance of our warts, either to the healer or the dermatologist, so could the Egyptian patient call upon either the doctor or the healer, both competences sometimes melting into one and the same person.

The magical action obeyed the homeopathic precept:

“Same attracts same”.

Therefore, an illness diagnosed as a cancer of the uterus, where the odour of the tumour smells like burnt flesh, was treated by fumigations of burnt meat…  Another action could guide the therapist:  that which sees in the illness the incrustation of demons inside the organism which must be chased out, in particular by incantations recited by the patient himself, his doctor, his family, his servants, and repeated according to a magical number, four or seven times.  Here are a few samples:

“Flow onto the ground, pus!  Flow onto the ground!”

“Disappear, larva which comes in the dark, which slyly enters through the nose […]  Have you come to embrace this child?  I will not permit you to embrace him… !”

“Turn back, serpent, take away your poison which is in the member of him whom you have bitten.  See, Horus’ magical virtue is stronger than yours!”

To chase away demons, they counted a lot on amulets which preserved from illness.  The most common are the ankh cross, the djed pillar, the oudjat eye, the knot of Isis…  All amulets which can be found in abundance in funeral furniture.  They do not prevent recourse to a pharmacopoeia based on diverse dejections of donkey, snake, lizard, hippopotamus, crocodile or ibis which act by “sympathetic magic”.  These excrements are supposed to push the illness which is devouring the patient, out of his body.  Such is the meaning of this exhortation:

 “Oh death, death, disguised, hidden, which resides inside my body, in my members!  Here, I bring you excrements to eat!”

To safeguard their health, all Egyptians placed themselves under the protection of divinities to whom they assigned a specific role:  Bes, the grotesque dwarf brought protection and comfort to him who was sleeping;  Thoueris, the goddess-hippopotamus concerned pregnant women;  Hekket, the goddess with the frog’s head provoked successful births…  But it is Horus who was the most frequently used:  it was enough to drink water in which the ink of a magical formula had been dissolved, or which had flowed over a stela representing Horus surrounded by crocodiles, serpents and scorpions, to be cured of one illness or another, or to be protected from bites and stings.


To be continued.

Louis XV.

On Monday 2 May, there is an improvement in the King’s health.  His temperature is lower, his urine is abundant and clear, and the suppuration seems to indicate that the process of expulsion of the illness has started.  The optimism is not, however, general, and Doctor Lorry discretely declares to one of his friends:

“The King is better, everyone is clamouring victory.  He will go on like this until the 11th, then the smallpox will turn to its worst, and on the 13th, he will no longer be alive.  Believe my experience, he has a smallpox from which one does not return.”

The improvement is however confirmed on 3 May.  The Duke de Belle-Isle reports in his Journal de la maladie du Roy, that Cardinal de La Roche-Aymon, the Grand Chaplain, has come to congratulate the patient

“for the notable improvement in which he was, and that he attributed it principally to the fervent prayers of forty hours that Monsignor the Archbishop had ordered”.

The Countess du Barry in 1789.

But it is on this same day that the sovereign understands, on his own, that he is suffering from smallpox.  For the partisans of Madame du Barry and the Duke d’Aiguillon, this is a catastrophe.  Their fears are quickly confirmed, for, in the evening, the patient sends his chambervalet, Laborde, to find the favourite.  Poor Jeanne, who has watched by the King’s bedside each night, the daytime being reserved for his daughters, hesitates.  She is, according to the Duke de Croy, “held back and encouraged by her Party” and herself wishes “to go away”, in these circumstances where she might risk being reproached for the death of her royal lover in a state of mortal sin.  She obeys the King’s order, however, when he says to her around midnight:

“My duty is to God and to my people.  So, you must retire from the Court tomorrow… “

Louis XV.

On 4 May the patient’s state worsens, with the ceasing of the suppuration.  He is made to drink Spanish wine to start it up again but, inexorably, “the poison turns inward”.  Around ten o’clock in the morning, the Duke d’Aiguillon receives instructions about Mme du Barry’s departure.  She leaves Versailles in the middle of the afternoon.

At midday, the Archbishop de Paris comes again to celebrate Mass in the King’s bedchamber, and Louis lets him know, on two occasions, that he is aware of the nature of his illness.  However, the Archbishop does not seem in any hurry to evoke the necessary sacraments – the Duke d’Aiguillon’s Party is still insisting to the Grand Chaplain, Cardinal de La Roche-Aymon, that they would kill the patient.  The Duke de Croy reports that the King’s daughters are still

“in the appalling dilemma of wanting him to confess himself, and of fearing that the revolution of fright and sacrifice would kill him”.

Louis XV.

The situation remains stationary on the 5 and 6 May.  The dying man’s mind is weakening, while no-one yet decides to administer the Last Rites to him.  Even worse, Abbot Maudoux, the Curate of Saint-Louis de Versailles, who demands to hear the penitent, is kept away.  Convoked on the evening of 5 May, the Grand Chaplain does not go to the patient’s bedside, and he has to wait until the night of 6 to 7 May, around two o’clock in the morning, when, in a moment of lucidity, Louis XV orders the Duke de Duras to call Abbot Maudoux.  He even has to repeat his demand, for the Duke pretends not to have heard him.  And even then, to justify himself in the eyes of the gathered courtiers, he thinks himself obliged to declare:

“Messieurs, you hear it, the King orders me to have his Confessor brought to him”.

A bit of time is gained, because of the inability of being able to find the required Confessor, to the point that, around four o’clock in the morning, the King worries about it.  The Confession can at last take place half-an-hour later.  In the morning, Cardinal de La Roche-Aymon administers the Last Rites.

This day of 7 May is marked by a real improvement, and La Martiniere is able to declare to the monarch, who has asked him to take his pulse,

“that it is better than before your Confession and if Your Majesty permits me to speak to him frankly, it will be even better when he has received Holy Communion, that will calm you”.

It is just the improvement that precedes the end.  The fever redoubles, the suppuration ceases and calls to the innoculator, Robert Sutton, remain unanswered.  During the day of the 9th, the Duke de Croy reports that

“the scabs are stopping the King from being able to see […].  He has a mask like bronze, made bigger by the scabs […] his mouth open, without the face being deformed elsewhere, nor showing agitation, sort of like the head of a Moor, a Negro, wax-like and swollen”.

Around nine o’clock in the evening, the dying man asks for Extreme Unction and the Prayers for the Dying.  Abbot Maudoux remains the whole night near his penitent.  In contradiction to the black legend which presents a dying Louis XV tormented by anguish and terrorised by the vision of infernal flames, all of the direct witnesses report that the King faced death courageously and calmly.  The next day, a violent storm strikes Versailles while the royal family is praying in the chapel, and it is a little after three o’clock in the afternoon, after an agony which had begun two hours beforehand, that the King fades away in the arms of Laborde, his chambervalet.


The risks of contagion explain why the inhumation is organized according to a simplified rite.  This ceremonial is the same as that which had accompanied the funeral of the Grand Dauphin, Louis XV’s grandfather, and of the Duke de Bourgogne, Louis XV’s father, both dead from smallpox in 1711 and 1712.  That puts paid to the myth which says that the King’s funeral takes place in secret because of the King’s unpopularity.  The remains are placed, surrounded by perfumed linen, inside a lead coffin placed inside another coffin of oak.  Two days later, the King’s body is taken to Saint-Denis.

Louis XVI.

Louis XVI is now King of France.  Immediately, the conditions in which his grandfather has disappeared (and, before him, two other generations of dead Dauphins, they too of smallpox) raises the question of innoculation.  Of all of Europe’s princes, the new sovereign and his two brothers, the Counts of Provence and of Artois, are the only ones not to have been innoculated.  The operation, having become relatively common over the previous thirty years, has, at the time of Louis XV’s death, already opened the way for the future eradication of the disease.


To be continued.

Louis XV.

Louis XV.

While the Faculty’s representatives busy themselves around the dying monarch, the affrontment of the clans and factions is in full swing at the door of the royal bedchamber.  Jacob Nicolas Moreau indignantly says:

“Everybody is thinking of himself.  Nobody is thinking of the King or of the State.”

It is a sacred union against Madame du Barry and the Duke d’Aiguillon.  Among them, the partisans of Choiseul, the King’s three daughters, and the Clerical Party which hasn’t forgotten the expulsion of the Jesuits…  In his Correspondance politique et litteraire, Metra, although hostile to the King, comes to pity

“the unfortunate Louis XV.  The most appalling intrigues were being woven right up to the foot of his death-bed.  In his last moments, there were three or four cabals which were tearing each other apart, even in his bedchamber.  Some wanted the priests to take hold of his person, the others wanted to get him away from their power.”

In a letter adressed to his sister on 5 May, Prince Francois-Xavier de Saxe also evokes

“all the indecent and unworthy cabals and intrigues which are taking place here, and which horrify.  If it weren’t for my attachment, and if I dare say, my love for the dear and worthy King, which makes me remain here, I would like to be far away so as to see and hear nothing.”

In fact, two principal camps are going to affront each other:  that of Mme du Barry and the Duke d’Aiguillon on the one hand, and that of the partisans of Choiseul on the other.

The Countess du Barry in 1789 at Louveciennes where she retired after the King's death.

A former fashion salesgirl, Jeanne Becu, the mistress of Jean du Barry, was noticed in 1768 by Louis XV;  her vivacity lit up the elderly sovereign’s final years.  However, Choiseul’s disgrace, in 1770, is attributed to her, as well as the creation of the triumvirat which unites Chancellor Maupeou, Abbot Terray and the Duke d’Aiguillon.  Obviously, the King’s death would endanger the political changes which have occurred over the course of the last few years.  Even the administration of the Last Rites is dangerous:  by imposing the banishment of the favourite, it would shake up a good number of acquired positions (the memory of the departure of Madame de Chateauroux, thirty years earlier, is still raw).  Mme du Barry’s partisans intend, therefore, to hide the gravity of his illness from the King for as long as possible, so as to avoid the ultimate Confession, which would be the signal for the banishment of the favourite, an act which could very possibly be definitive.  Even if the King recovers, he will have then taken the engagement to escape the state of mortal sin into which his guilty liaison had plunged him.  At his age, and fearing an approaching death, it is probable that he would not reverse Jeanne’s banishment, which would have the same disastrous consequences for the Party whose spokeswoman she had become.  The Duke d’Aiguillon and his followers are therefore going to insist that the gravity of the patient’s state not be revealed to him, and that the administration of the Last Rites be deferred for as long as possible.

The partisans of Choiseul, who had been disgraced four years before, remain hopeful on this point.  They fear that they will be reproached with the sovereign’s eventual death if they insist on the administration of the Last Rites, which could strongly shock the patient’s mind.


Louis XV.

The hostilities had begun in a muffled way as early as 29 April, even before the eruption of the redness which will reveal the nature of the illness.  It then concerned the imposing of a third blood-letting on the patient.  Now everyone knows that the King considers, according to the witness report of the Duke de Croy,

“that one must not go to the third blood-letting unless one has christianly prepared oneself for death”.

So, prodded by the Duke d’Aiguillon’s Party, the doctors, Bordeu, Lorry and Lemonnier, renounce performing the third blood-letting.  When the illness declares itself, the debate gets nasty – the Duke de Croy, the most reliable witness to the events, gives this account of it:

“Some were saying that it would be appalling, through prejudice, to kill him on purpose by frightening him;  others that it would be appalling to risk leaving him to die without sacraments, which would be without precedent since Clovis.”

The doctors fearing that the slightest fright could “make the poison turn inward” and finish off the patient, it is decided not to inform him of his state, with the agreement of his three daughters.

Disappointed, Choiseul’s partisans think for an instant that they are going to reverse the situation for their own benefit when the arrival at Versailles of the Archbishop of Paris is announced.  No-one doubts that he is coming to the Palace to hear the royal patient’s Confession.  With his habitual gruffness, Christophe de Beaumont is readying himself to bluntly reveal to the sovereign the gravity of his illness and demand the immediate departure of Mme du Barry.  Her partisans play their last card by mobilising  Madame Adelaide, the King’s eldest daughter, thanks to Madame de Narbonne, her governess.  Mme Adelaide begs the Prelate to say nothing about the smallpox and the Last Rites, for the motive that such words would be fatal to the patient.  On Sunday 1 May, the Archbishop comes to celebrate Mass in the royal bedchamber but retires without having had a private conversation with the patient.  Followed by his chamber-pot – for he is afflicted with very painful nephritic colics – he goes to Mme Adelaide who exhorts him to discretion so as to avoid making “the poison turn inward” in her father’s body.  Convinced, the Prelate is then buttonholed by the Duke de Richelieu who also dissuades him from evoking the Last Rites during his next interview with Louis XV.  This interview will last only a few minutes and it is mainly the King who enquires about his visitor’s health.  An attitude that is surprising at the very least, and which makes several witnesses indignant.  The Duke de Croy reports that

“the Archbishop de Paris, dying of gravel, came this day, saw the King, that it was great question of the Archbishop’s malady, and then that’s all;  and, extraordinary thing, that the Archbishop returned to Paris”.

Jacob Nicolas Moreau is no less indignant:

“Instead of sending away all these base courtiers and doing his job, the Archbishop contented himself with answering the questions that the King asked him about the Archbishop’s own health;  His Majesty talked to him about his nephritis, had his pulse taken by his doctors, and the poor Prelate left…”

The Archbishop of Paris’ strange attitude has a reason.  The Prelate, it is true, detests Louis XV, even though it is the King who had him named Archbishop of Paris in 1745;  but it is also the King who decided the expulsion of the Jesuits.  As well as that, he knows that Louis XV risks dying in a state of mortal sin.  However, he is not in a hurry to send him a priest.  Why?  Because he fears that the banishment of the favourite might result in the return of Choiseul, his sworn enemy.

To be continued.

Auguste Comte.

Clotilde de Vaux.

Auguste Comte survives Clotilde de Vaux by eleven years.  He publishes Le Catechisme positiviste and La Synthese objective ou Systeme universel des conceptions propres a l’etat normal de l’Humanite, which are the bases of a new religion, of which Aldous Huxley will say:

“It’s catholicism, minus christianism.”

He prepares the organisation of the temples, the positivist sacraments, the discipline particular to the faithful, the particular devotions for the “holy figures” of women, those of Clotilde, her mother and her female servant.  The New Religion of Humanity has for essential motto:  “Love for principle, Order for base, Progress for goal.”  In Paris, the “Very Holy Metropolis”, will be raised the first sanctuary of positivism, Rue Payenne, in the house where Clotilde died.

Auguste Comte dies in 1857, having fixed for the next ten years the atheist masses and the solemnities of Clotilde’s cult, the whole liturgic ensemble of a religion without God which must, according to his illuminated wish, conquer the West and make human consciousness enter into the age of progress.

He had prepared this posthumous triumph for the year 1867, the date at which must be published the “sacred correspondance”.  But, in 1867, Paris is not celebrating the positivist New Religion of Humanity.  Paris is celebrating the Universal Exhibition and the music of Offenbach.

In his Will, Auguste Comte expresses the wish to be united in the grave with his cherished Clotilde.  The family of the young woman, who has never accepted the philosopher, opposes this.  Seventy-five years after the death of August Comte, his disciples at last obtain the transfer of Clotilde’s remains into the grave of the pontiff of Humanity, at the Pere-Lachaise Cemetery.  Alas, the Virgin Mother’s tomb not being waterproof, only a bit of mud, “a silt froth”, according to the police report, is found.

Their bodies never embraced.  Their bones never mingled.


This last part of Auguste Comte’s life is not very well-known.  The encyclopaedias and big dictionaries give a large place to the philosopher Auguste Comte, who prepares contemporary materialism.  But they are discrete on the transfiguration of Clotilde into the Virgin Mother of Humanity through crazy love, and on Auguste Comte, the high priest of a new religion.

Emile Littre (the author of the famous dictionary of the French language, an atheist, Free Mason, and friend of Auguste Comte) puts a certain distance between himself and the philosopher when he goes into his amorous and mystical phase.  He writes, about the meeting with Clotilde:

“From then on, this phase took on a determined character, and it stamped the seal of sentiment on the conception that he was elaborating.”

Which could be a respectful way of saying that Auguste Comte has gone mad.

When he goes for the first time to the home of Clotilde de Vaux’ parents, he is suffering from nervous troubles, insomnias, melancholy, oppressions, general weakness.  He is exhausted by his enormous works.  But it must also be said that, in 1826, (at the age of twenty-eight), shortly after his marriage with a former prostitute, he tries to commit suicide.  He spends ten months interned in Doctor Esquirol’s clinic.  He has delusions of persecution and of grandeur, followed by melancholic depression.  His mother, who is very religious, takes advantage of this to have the religious marriage of her son celebrated by Abbot Lamennais, who has not yet become famous.

[In France, the State is completely separated from Religion.  A person who wants to marry, must have a civil ceremony – usually at the Mairie (town hall) – for it to be legal.  The religious ceremony, if performed, is not actually called a “marriage”.  It is called a “blessing”.  It is often performed on the same day as the civil ceremony, the family going directly from the town hall to the place of worship, but not always.  A religious ceremony can be performed at any time after the legal civil ceremony, but it can’t be performed before it.]

Is this a return of his mental disorders?  Perhaps.  But he shows, in his mental construction, a firmness, a constancy, a systemic spirit which is quite extraordinary.  He detaches himself from the idea of death, of mortality.  While bizarre, this is also lucid.  It can even be said that he exploits what could be called madness, precisely to escape madness.  Andre Therive, who has studied Auguste Comte’s last years, says:

“For, in the end, these methodical exercises of prayer and meditation, his systematic construction of a completely human deity, of an entirely interior transcendance, are perhaps the absurd games of a wandering mind, but they are also a sure way to stay calm, to keep the rudder well in hand in the middle of storms, where many others would have sunk.”


Temples of the positivist religion exist Rue Payenne, where Clotilde lived, and Rue Monsieur-le-Prince, where Auguste Comte lived.  A few disciples still celebrate the cult of Clotilde, the Virgin Mother of Humanity, there.  There are around ten positivist temples in the world.  According to Auguste Comte, the West should have two thousand, four hundred of them in France.  For each one, seven priests and three assistants, chosen by an examination (like at the Polytechnique).  The clergy should count twenty thousand Western philosophers.

Announcement of the death of Miguel Lemos, the founder of the Positivist Church of Brazil.

Curiously, it is in Brazil that the religion of Humanity dreamed by Auguste Comte has known its triumph, with a strong number of faithful.  In Rio, there is a great temple of positivism.  And the Brazilian flag is the positivist emblem conceived by Auguste Comte.  A green flag, with the globe of the world surrounded by a ribbon which carries the Comtist words: “Order and Progress” – “Ordem e progresso”.


Auguste Comte founded sociology as a positivist science, and rejected the theological and metaphysical ages of human History.  But he thought that Man could not live without a religious sentiment.  He wanted to build, by the strength of his subjectivity considered as such, a sort of imitation of catholicism without the christianism, without a revealed dogma.  He invented a whole symbolism, out of his own life, so poor in love and so rich at heart.  And he wanted this symbolism to serve as a religious guide to the men of the new ages.  He made a bet that his own mental construction would be truer than reality, truer than the world.  He wanted to make immortality without a reference to God, through the power of his mind and of his feelings alone, and give Clotilde eternal life in this way, not as a real goddess, but as an image of what is the purest in Humanity.  It is perhaps delirious.  But it is a noble delirium.

Louis Pauwels, whose work I have translated, says of Auguste Comte that he was a

“poor man and a great mind who became mad with love.  A considerable laic thinker who became mad with holiness…”


In the magnificent Caodaist temple in Tay Binh, the faithful worship not only the god Cao Dai, but also Auguste Comte and Clotilde de Vaux.

Auguste Comte.

Clotilde de Vaux.

Auguste Comte’s only night with Clotilde de Vaux will be the one spent at the dying woman’s bedside, while her parents watch in the next room, furious at the philosopher’s presence.  She suffocates, there is the death rattle, and at Dawn, she murmurs to him:

“You will not have had me for companion very long.”

The next day, a scene erupts between a haggard Auguste Comte and Clotilde’s parents, supported by her brother, a Comte disciple, who loses his temper with his master.  Auguste Comte wants to forbid the family to enter “this sacred home”.  He demands to be left alone with the dying Clotilde:

“Your sister belongs to me, to Humanity!”

He is uplifted by a mystical exaltation:

“Through me, she will be more illustrious than any other woman!”

He is ordered to leave.  He falls to his knees, sobbing.  The father asks him to go, giving him his word that he will call him back before it is too late.  He is called on Palm Sunday.  He holds the hand that is growing cold and flees without a word.


He decides that his love, which has not vanquished a living woman, will vanquish death.  He resolves to immortalise her, and to impose this immortality on the whole world.  He builds her a temple at the bottom of his heart.  This philosopher of Reason and Progress, for whom the mind needs to empty itself of all metaphysics, conceives the crazy ambition of placing Clotilde on the altars of a new religion.  In the eyes of the world, he is only a poor professor, unhappy in love, unconsolable about the death of a young woman who had accorded him nothing.  But, in the domains of superior realities, there will be a love greater than life, capable of raising a little literary bourgeoise who dies of tuberculosis, to the rank of supreme figure of Humanity.  Of course, for the positivist, who believes only in palpable and visible matter, the disincarnated soul of Clotilde has no objective reality.  But it will have a subjective surreality:  Clotilde will live eternally, upheld by a philosopher’s powerful brain, and men will worship in Clotilde, the mental construction raised by Auguste Comte to the memory of a being who is identified with the Being of the whole of Humanity.

There is something desperate, absurd, sublime and deeply touching here.


The Temple of the Religion of Humanity still exists at 5 rue Payenne, in Paris. Clotilde died in this house in 1846.

On Good Friday 1846, the year of Clotilde’s death, he organises the sanctuary and the ritual.  The sanctuary:  the red armchair in which she had sat, surrounded by her relics:  bouquets of dried flowers, letters, gloves, handkerchief.  The ritual…  kneeling, acts of faith, meditations, re-lecture of the correspondance.

Morning prayer must take place from half past five to half past six, on the knees, before Clotilde’s altar.  The believer begins by saying these words:

“It is better to love than to be loved.  The only real thing in the world is to love.”

A special commemoration of fifteen minutes follows.  Then comes a general commemoration of twenty minutes.  The priest, Auguste Comte, passes in review all his souvenirs.  He evokes fragments of his correspondance with Clotilde, in chronological order:

He:   “My direct flight of Universal Love is accomplished with the continual stimulation of our pure attachment.”

She:  “This is my life’s plan:  affection and thought.”

He:   “Let us love each other deeply, each in his own way, and we will still be able to be truly happy one through the other.”

She :  “You are the best of men, you have been for me an incomparable friend and I am honoured as much as I am happy by your attachment.”

He:   “It is therefore only to you, my Clotilde, that I will owe not leaving this life without having worthily felt the best of human nature’s emotions.”

She:  “I am not beautiful, I have only a little expression”, etc.

In Viet-Nam, the Caodaists, who had already made Victor Hugo (in the bicorn) a god, have placed Auguste Comte in their Pantheon.

The officiant then kneels for twenty minutes before Clotilde’s flowers, and says:

“Dead or alive, my saint, you must always remain the centre of the second life for which I am essentially in your debt.  Your painful transformation from a sad existence to a glorious eternity must never alter the motto that I have had you approve:  ‘Eternal love and respect’.”

There are other prayers which must be said standing, near the altar.  Here are a few lines:

“Universal Love, assisted by demonstrable Faith directs pacific activity.”

“Goodbye my chaste eternal companion!  Goodbye my beloved!  Goodbye my cherished pupil!…”

The conclusion is pronounced kneeling, the relics once more covered.  Then, in an oration, the priest venerates the three highest figures of salvational Femininity:  Clotilde;  her elderly mother Rosalie (who has never liked him much, and, a fervent Catholic, holds his thoughts to be heretical); and her servant, an indifferent, decent woman, whom he wants to consider as his own daughter.  The three saints of his religion:  a fantomatic spouse, a not very maternal mother, a servant transfigured into an adopted daughter.

There is a prayer that the officiant must say seated in his bed, then a prayer lying down.  There is a prayer for the middle of the day, another which is said while kissing a lock of Clotilde’s hair.  The final oration ends with these heartrending words:

“Bad people are often more in need of pity than the good.”


From then on, he lives like a priest.  On 11 February 1852, he proclaims the apotheosis:  the identification of Clotilde with the myth of the Virgin Mother of Humanity.  He has finished one of his great works:  La Politique positive, preceded by this solemn dedication:

“To the holy memory of my eternal friend, Clotilde de Vaux, who died before my eyes on 5 April 1846, at the beginning of her thirty-second year.  Goodbye, my holy Clotilde, you who were for me a wife, a sister and a daughter!  Your angelic inspiration will dominate all the rest of my life and preside my unending perfectionment, by purifying my sentiments, increasing my thoughts, and ennobling my behaviour.  May this solemn assimilation to the whole of my existence worthily reveal your still unknown superiority!  As the principal reward for the noble works which I am still to accomplish through your powerful invocation, I shall perhaps obtain that your name becomes inseparable from mine in the most distant memories of grateful Humanity.”

To be continued.

Auguste Comte founded a religion to immortalise the woman he had loved.

This philosopher’s theoretic work had considerable influence on the future of ideas.  He was struck by love late in life, and, after having brought to the world the first scientific and materialist conception of human history, became the priest of a new religion, in memory of his beloved.  This French philosopher, whose ambition was to abolish the metaphysical mentality, was transformed into a high priest by devouring love.


Auguste Comte introduced a new word into the French language:  l’altruisme.  He invented a science and gave it a name:  sociology.  He founded a philosophy:  positivism.

Contemporary egalitarianism comes from altruism.  Sociology today dominates the human sciences.  Positivism has engendered modern materialism.

The fundamental idea of this Polytechnician is that new habits must be given to intelligence, because of the state of the sciences.  A science of social phenomena must be founded from the objective concepts of mathematical analysis.  Humanity has known three states:  the theological state, where the divine powers are used by Man as principles of explanation and action;  the metaphysical state, where the divine powers are replaced by impersonal and abstract forces.  We are entering into the positive state.

He publishes his famous Cours de philosophie positive while teaching Astronomy for seventeen years to un-registered students, at the Mairie du IIIe arrondissement.  He lives with difficulty from his tutorial functions at l’Ecole polytechnique, where his teaching is admirable.  Guizot refuses him a Chair in History of Mathematical and Physical Sciences at the College de France, because of his Republican opinions.  For the same reason, he is refused the Chair of Geometry at the Polytechnique.  He is forty-seven.  He is poor.  He lives alone, separated from his wife after a disastrous conjugal life.  Having lost his post of Examiner at the Polytechnique, he is without resources.  John Stuart Mill and a few rich English intellectuals support him.  Then, Emile Littre adheres to his ideas and opens a subscription to help him.  It is at this epoch that he makes the acquaintance of the sister of one of his disciples, Clotilde de Vaux.


Clotilde de Vaux is the young woman whom Auguste Comte will turn into the Virgin Mother of Humanity.

She is thirty-one.  She is slim and pale, of a cold beauty.  She lives both in her own apartment, Rue Payenne, and in that of her parents, which is almost next-door.  Her husband has left her, after a few swindles.  She has never known love, and has no child.  She writes little novels, the kind of which Hugo would say:

“She would do better to knit herself something.”

Auguste Comte visits her family.

Clotilde’s mother finds that he is acting rather strangely of late, and asks her daughter if he is courting her.  Clotilde denies that he is.

As a matter of fact, he isn’t really courting her.  He talks about philosophy with her, of quibblers and pedants, occasionally declaring to her that he doesn’t know what would become of him, if he couldn’t see her any more.

However, he starts to become pressing, signing notes :  “Your devoted spouse.”  She answers with cold kindness:  “You have the heart of a knight, my excellent philosopher.”  Or:  “In the hours of suffering, your image floats before me.”  And she calls him “My tender father”.

He dreams of receiving her in his shabby lodgement.  Will he take her in his arms?

“My organization has received from a tender mother certain intimate cords, eminently feminine, which have not yet been able to vibrate, through lack of having been appropriately caressed.  The time has at last come to develop its activity…  It is by your salutary influence, my Clotilde, that I await this estimable improvement.”

To this philosopher’s mumbo-jumbo born of congested desire, she answers:

“I would have seen you yesterday, if I hadn’t been very ill.  I do not want you to become ill or unhappy because of me.”

She comes one day at last to his home.  She sits in his red armchair.  He is arranging some papers in front of her, like a notary.  He makes the remark that they are alone, that the female servant is leaving.  He shows her the bedroom from a distance:  a sepulcral cupboard-like space at the end of the austere apartment.  She chatters about one thing and another, keeping her eyes on the folds of her gown.  He calculates the budget for a life together, adding up figures.  She speaks of her health and finds that the room is too hot. And finally, she interrupts his household calculations by telling him that, if he is her friend, he must understand that he has to wait even longer.  A few months, for example, to give her time to get better.  Then she rushes out.

She writes to him during the night:

“Give me time.  We would expose ourselves to too many regrets now.  Be generous in everything.”

This should tell him that he does not really inspire desire in the young woman.  But he does not understand and insistently quibbles:

“The irrevocable token that I ask of you on my knees.”


“Without this token of alliance, I could not regard you as so irrevocably mine as I recognize myself to be yours.”

Or again:

“The principal knot of our exceptional situation.”

And these heavy clogs of the positivist lover:

“This unique decisive guarantee of indissolubility of our union.”

The chaste muse replies:

“Exercise your noble intelligence on yourself, and do not again try to bring me to regrettable actions (in other words:  I declare to you that I haven’t the least desire for you).”

And she politely signs:

“I am, of those obliged to you, the most grateful and the most affectionate.”

Soon, phthisis finishes by tiring her.  She can hardly walk, she breathes with difficulty, she is covered in perspiration, her pulse is galloping.  He is still begging her to give herself to him.  One day, he steals a rapid kiss from her lips.  And excuses himself with this extravagant letter:

“I should have especially felt, yesterday, that I was then affected by a gastric trouble, because of which my breath, although habitually very pure, was found to be momentarily not worthy of being mixed with yours.”

A kiss with bad breath:  the only union of the flesh.

To be continued.

The black plague was a cataclysm of great amplitude.  No region nor country was spared, with a few very rare exceptions.  Countrysides were devastated, cities were haunted by terror.  In this decor, the search for pleasure became a priority, and sometimes even a ritual.  Such was the case in certain sects, like that of the brothers of the Free Spirit, which singularly touched Germany, as an account from Bavaria attests:

“And when they came to the confession, and were assembled, […]  they extinguished the lights and fell on each other, man on man, woman on woman, whoever was available.  Each one must see with his own eyes his wife or his daughter violated by others, for they proclaimed that no-one could commit sin beneath the belt.  Such is their belief.”

Homosexuality and incest were allowed and justified by the belief that Christ had consummated a liaison with Mary Magdalene…

After having rendered the Jews and the Church responsible for the plague, the only thing left to do was to blame God.  And if there were hardly any manifestations of pure atheism, hate for God became one of the dogmatic bases of another sect, the luciferians.  To the first words of the prayer “Our Father which art in heaven”, the members of the community added:

“If He is in heaven, it is only by force and injustice”.

They proclaimed also that his reign would one day be replaced by that of Lucifer in whom they placed all their hopes of redemption.

These revolts, including their most delirious or hysterical madness, obviously diminished as the pandemic retreated.  But their repercussions on the evolution of religious feeling in Europe were considerable.  Death appeared more and more frequently in graphic images.  The traditional skeleton, which represented it, was replaced in Campo Santo in Pisa, by an old woman brandishing a scythe, dressed all in black, with wild hair, exorbited eyes and clawed feet.  This image haunted minds to the point of becoming an obsessional motif in Art, at the end of the Middle Ages.


During all this time, the dying, the sick and the survivors lived in the company of the two real, and only, culprits responsible for the catastrophe, without fearing them:  the rat and the flea, familiar animals, who shared the home, the food and the clothes of the men of the Middle Ages, so familiar even, that they were never suspected.  No medical source mentions them, even though the rat, since the legend of the Pied Piper of Hamelin, had already been associated with the idea of epidemic.  The exact nature of the illness was only definitively identified in 1894 by the French scholar of Swiss origin, Alexandre Yersin, with the discovery of the bacillus known as Yersin (Yersinia pestis):  a rat illness transmitted to Man by the flea, direct transmission from man to man being then made possible by saliva.  The term “bubonic” plague was then more in reference to the boils, symptoms of the illness.  But for all of the XIVth Century, the illness was firstly “the black plague” or “the black death” – an allusion to the dark patches provoked by the gangrene which covered the bodies of the sick.  For the immense majority of Europeans, it appeared to be a totally new plague.  However, it was not the first time that it had ravaged the Western world:  between 541 and 544, a first pandemic had caused hecatombs from Ethiopia to the Rhine, with a recrudescence in 557 which sporadically afflicted Europe until the end of the VIIIth Century.  But this precedent was ignored, or had been forgotten, by the men of the XIVth Century…

Meanwhile, to the impression, shared by many faithful, that the end of the world and the Last Judgement were near, succeeded, with the epidemic’s retreat, a stupefying appetite for living and a prodigious genesic instinct:  in 1352, in Cologne, 4,000 marriages were celebrated, although 21,000 people had died the preceding year.  Five years later, most of the European cities had returned to their former population levels:  the global population of Europe, Russia included, rose to 65 million inhabitants in 1400, while it was at 47 million in the year 1000, and 32 million in the year 600.  It is to be noted that in Asia, on the other hand, it was only at 203 million in 1400 against 212 million in the year 1000.

This vital instinct finds a shining illustration in the fact that the black plague, if it accelerated the evolution of customs and mentalities, hardly influenced the course of political events which were happening at the same time in the West.  Everything was already going badly in the French kingdom.  On 23 August 1346, Philippe VI had been crushed at Crecy by Edward III, and, one year later, Calais fell into the hands of the English.  At the moment when the pandemic spread to France, nothing seemed to be able to resist the dynastic pretensions of the Plantagenets.  So, the only notable consequences of the great plague on the course of the Hundred Years War were, on the one hand, a sizeable reduction in the military personnel of both camps, and on the other hand, a very relative temporisation which delayed until 1355 the inevitable rupture of the treaty signed on 28 September 1347.

But, even more than the demographic jump which followed, we must insist on the phenomenon of survival.  For, indubitably, the black plague could have made all trace of Humanity completely disappear from Europe.  This survival seems to be due to two principal factors.  Firstly, certain regions like Auvergne or Franconie were spared by the pandemic, without any explanation ever being found for this fact.  Secondly, the illness was not always mortal.  Certain patients possessed a genetic stock able to produce anticorps, or had naturally acquired this immunity by natural vaccination.  As Jacques Ruffie and Jean-Charles Sournia have observed:

“Certain people doubtless transmitted to their descendance a genetic capacity for resistance, to which the future generations owed their survival”.

Whatever it was, the survivors of this epidemic asked themselves why divine will had inflicted such a punishment on them.  Suffering is only bearable if it engenders a better world.  The sense of injustice and doubt which followed this catastrophe put an end to a long period of submission.  The black plague, by waking each individual’s individual conscience, contributed to the creation of modern Man.

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