Religion in France on the eve of the Revolution

The strength of religion and the church in France on the eve of the Revolution has been much debated by specialists in the field. For Michel Vovelle and a number of French historians, the Catholic Church was already in full decline at the end of the ancien régime and the term 'de-Christianization' might well be used for describing certain trends among the laity. In the view of John McManners, by contrast, the period constituted a 'golden age of the French Church'. 'Never', he argues, 'had there been ... so many laymen living lives of well-informed belief and pious practice'.1 In fact, as we shall argue here, there are elements of truth in both interpretations, depending on the period, the region, and the social group under consideration.

The overwhelming majority of the French population in 1789 - some 28 million souls - had been baptized in the Roman Catholic Church. Though it had been seriously challenged during the Wars of Religion, Catholicism had made a remarkable recovery in the seventeenth century, and by the end ofthe ancien régime it totally dominated the French religious landscape, with tens of thousands of churches, chapels, monasteries, convents, schools, and hospitals

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