The Library of a Convulsionist curé: Jacques-Louis Rocheboüet (1685-1743)

One of my favorite objects in the Grolier Club Library is the manuscript library catalogue of Jacques-Louis Rocheboüet (1685-1743). Rocheboüet was a Jansenist and a Convulsionnaire curé living in France in the first half of the eighteenth century. His catalogue is interesting both for the books it contains and for its peculiar aesthetic appeal.

Rochebouet portrait
Portrait de Jacques Louis de Rochebouet
Photo (C) RMN-Grand Palais (musée de Port-Royal des Champs) / Franck Raux

Jacques-Louis Rocheboüet was born in 1685 to Calvinist parents who converted to Catholicism early in his youth. Educated at the Collège Mazarin, he served in various positions at Alès (or Alais) Cathedral in the former province of Languedoc before obtaining his position as curé at the church of Saint Germain-le-Vieil in Paris. He was an ardent supporter of Jansenism, a Catholic religious movement grounded in the teachings of St. Augustine that emphasized asceticism, original sin, human depravity, the necessity of divine grace, and predestination. In many of its tenets, such as its emphasis on individual conscience, Jansenism opposed the absolutism practiced by the French monarchy, and it generated much controversy in both political and religious spheres. It was particularly attractive to members of the lesser clergy, such as Rocheboüet, who were drawn to its anti-hierarchical, anti-authoritarian principles.

Convulsionism was a faction of Jansenism that developed in the wake of the death of François de Pâris (1690-1727), a beloved French Catholic deacon known for his asceticism and strong dedication to Jansenism. Soon after the death of Pâris in 1727, pilgrims began flocking to his tomb in the parish cemetery of Saint-Médard in Paris, where many reported miraculous healings. By the middle of 1731, some visitors to the tomb—often women, and often of the lower classes—began to experience bodily convulsions. The number of pilgrims experiencing convulsions steadily increased (whole crowds were reportedly seized with them) and the movement began to draw a great deal of public attention, both in Paris and the provinces. In response, alarmed authorities closed the Saint-Médard cemetery in 1732, driving the Convulsionnaires to hold clandestine meetings in private homes and elsewhere. Adherents of the sect emphasized mortification of the body—sometimes through violent beatings and physical torture—apocalypticism, and a sense of persecution modeled after the struggles of the early Christians under the Roman Empire. By the beginning of the 1740s, due in part to the increasing violence of the movement, the Convulsionnaires had lost much public support and faced internal divisions as well as persecution.

Rocheboüet was described by a modern historian as “One of the staunchest and most outspoken ecclesiastical supporters of the cult” (Kreiser 231). He was one of two curés singled out (unsuccessfully) by the Archbishop of Paris for formal exile or banishment in advance of the publication of the Archbishop’s decree banning the cult of deacon Pâris. He held meetings of the Convulsionnaires in his home and supported the controversial practice of grands secours in which physical violence was used to “assist” individuals during convulsionist episodes. His death on 10 March 1743 prompted a lengthy, laudatory obituary in the underground Jansenist journal Nouvelles Ecclésiastiques. 

Rocheboüet’s  library catalogue is entitled “Catalogus librorum domini Jacobi Ludovici de Rocheboüet, praesbiteri doctoris theologi, nec non Sancti Germani-Veteris in civitate Pastoris. Ordine materiarum & authorum seriè alphabetico. Digestus offerebat Carolus Guillaume Bibliopola Parisiensies.” It is dated 1741, two years before the owner’s death. The title indicates that the collection was being offered for sale by Charles Guillaume, a Parisian bookseller. According to his obituary, Rocheboüet’s health began to fail two years before his death, which may have prompted the sale.

Catalogus librorum domini Jacobi Ludovici de Rocheboüet, 1741. Title-page.

The catalogue lists 2877 volumes arranged by subject. Most are religious and theological works, but there are smaller sections devoted to legal texts and the arts and sciences as well. Rocheboüet’s religious sympathies are evident in the numerous works by prominent Jansenists, such as Antoine Arnauld, Robert Arnauld d’Andilly, Pierre Nicole, Blaise Pascal, and Pasquier Quesnel. Over 30 works by St. Augustine are listed as well as texts by the founding father of Jansenism, Cornelius Jansen (1585-1638). Written in larger letters than any other name in the catalogue is Carré de Montgeron, whose La vérité des miracles de M. de Pâris démontrée contre M. l’Archevêque de Sens was a monumental defense of convulsionism.

Catalogus librorum domini Jacobi Ludovici de Rocheboüet, 1741, p. 70.

Rocheboüet also had numerous editions of the Bible, including de Sacy’s “Port-Royal” Bible and other Jansenist-friendly editions. Literature documenting religious controversies of the time, such as the Chinese rites controversy, are present.

Catalogus librorum domini Jacobi Ludovici de Rocheboüet, 1741, p. 80.

The catalogue, although not expertly produced, was made with painstaking care. The text is written in a neat hand in black and red: red was used for headings, page numbers, inventory numbers, the number of volumes, personal names and, in the first few gatherings, for all capital letters, formats, and dates. Each page has a double frame surrounding the text block. Signatures were added to the first few gatherings but not carried through to the end. Three decorated initials appear in the first few sections.

Catalogus librorum domini Jacobi Ludovici de Rocheboüet, 1741, Table.

Stenciled ornaments (usually fleur-de-lis) are used throughout for decoration and as section dividers. A table of contents and author index is provided to help navigate the catalogue, and an elaborate table at the end tallies the number of volumes (2877). The binding is an attractive green-stained vellum with Dutch gilt paper endleaves. The level of care taken in the production of the catalogue is surprising considering it was essentially a sale catalogue.

Unfortunately the fate of the library is unknown, although it was most likely sold piecemeal by the bookseller, Guillaume. A contemporary inscription at the end, “Demigier 1752,” may provide a clue.

The Grolier Club purchased the catalogue from International Antiquariaat in October 1963.

By Meghan Constantinou

Further Reading

Armand Arouet, Voltaire’s Jansenist brother.” Rodama: A Blog of 18th century & Revolutionary French Trivia, April 24, 2016.

Kreiser, B. Robert. Miracles, Convulsions, and Ecclesiastical Politics in Early Eighteenth-Century Paris. Princeton: Princeton University Press, 1978.

Nouvelles ecclésiastiques, ou Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire de la constitution Unigenitus (pour l’année 1743), May 14, 1743, p. 69-72 & May 22, 1743, p. 73-76.

Strayer, Brian E. Suffering Saints: Jansenists and Convulsionnaires in France, 1640–1799. Eastbourne [England]; Portland, Or.: Sussex Academic Press, ©2008.

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