clergies, leaving the majority of parish priests with only a fixed salary - the so-called portion congrue - that was badly eroded by inflation in the second half of the century.
In addition to its economic and social influence, the French clergy still wielded significant political power. Even at the end of the ancien régime and at the beginning of the Revolution, individual bishops continued to hold major ministerial positions in the royal government. Moreover, since the sixteenth century the Gallican church had developed one of the most powerful bureaucracies in the country. A General Assembly of the Clergy met at regular intervals to vote 'free gifts' of money to the crown, while two 'agents-general' and a permanent staff of assistants jealously guarded the clergy's tax privileges and other prerogatives. By threatening to lower or withdraw its contributions, the clergy might substantially influence specific decisions of the crown.
Among both the clergy and the laity, Catholicism remained vital and active in France to the very eve of the Revolution. Indeed, it might be argued that the Catholic Reformation, long hampered by wars and problems of finance, reached a pinnacle of success in the kingdom only in the mid-eighteenth century. By the early decades of that century every French diocese had a designated seminary - usually within the diocese itself- for the training of its parish clergy. The priests formed by such institutions were arguably better educated and prepared for pastoral care than ever before. Intellectual and moral standards were reinforced by regular conferences and retreats for clergymen, and by periodic pastoral visits by the bishops or their representatives. The bishops themselves were for the most part responsible administrators, leading morally acceptable lives. However, in 1789 all, without exception, were aristocrats, and many held themselves at a substantial social and pastoral distance from the commoner parish clergy - especially by comparison with their episcopal predecessors of the seventeenth century. Their greatest failing was perhaps their non-residence, with many dwelling in Paris or on family estates for substantial periods of time and administering their dioceses through their vicars-general.
As for the lay population, the overwhelming majority of the popular classes closely identified with a Catholic religion which continued to frame the central moments of their lives and their work. In rural areas, where over 80 per cent of the population lived, there was near universal participation in catechism and the 'Easter duties' of confession and communion during Lent. Equally impressive was the huge output of religious books of all kinds, published to the very end of the ancien regime, especially by presses outside Paris. Whatever the importance of secular books in the French capital, the great bestsellers of the age for France as a whole were undoubtedly the cheap lives of saints, books
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