For the past two summers (2012 and 2013), I’ve been fortunate enough to spend July in Paris, doing research for my dissertation.1 I had been to Paris before, visiting for a week when I studied abroad in France, but now that I’ve gotten deep into French religious history, visiting Paris took on a whole new meaning. For example, my sister and I went to mass at St. Médard, a church that was made famous by the Jansenist convulsionnaires. I also visited St. Jacques-du-Haut-Pas, a parish with a connection to Jansenism and the tomb of the Abbot of Saint-Cyran, and St. Étienne-du-Mont, which is the final resting place of Blaise Pascal and Jean Racine.

However, there are two little-known sites that I encourage anyone interested in French religious history to go see: the former convents of Port-Royal du Paris and Port-Royal des Champs. I’d like to use this blog post to explain why you might want to visit these sites.

Now I’ve already done a lot of name-dropping in this post and people may not recognize all these names if you’re not up on your early modern church history. You may be wondering why in the world you’d be interested in visiting these two former convents, so I’ll provide a brief historical overview. 

Port-Royal des Champs was a Cistercian convent. It was located to the southwest of Paris in the valley of Chevreuse. This was the convent where Simon Marion placed his granddaughter as coadjutrice to the abbess, by lying about her age and pulling on his connections with the royal family and the abbot of Cîteaux. His granddaughter, Jacqueline Arnauld (known by her religious name, and how I will refer to her for the remainder of this post, as Mère Angélique), became abbess in 1602 at only ten years old. She explains this at the very beginning of her account of her reform2, saying:

In the name of the Very Holy Trinity, Father, Son, and Holy Spirit, I am writing by obedience an account of that which has happened in this house, in the fifty-two years since I was brought there to be its abbess, on the 5 July 1602, aged only ten years [and] ten months, by a very great disorder, common in that time, when there was no longer any discipline practiced for promotions to benefices, nor almost any regularity in our order.

Mère Angélique Arnauld by Philippe de Champaigne (1654)

This illustrates just how unreformed the convent was at the time she became abbess.  It seems so scandalous to us today that a 10-year-old girl would be appointed abbess of a convent, but we have to remember that at that time convents had become places where superfluous daughters were placed and the leadership positions were coveted by well-to-do families to further their social standing. Although there was a movement toward reform beginning in France at this time, influenced by the Tridentine directives, it had not yet filtered down to Port-Royal.3 To make what could be a very long story short, in 1609, Mère Angélique had a conversion experience based on a visiting preacher’s sermon about the Incarnation and Christ’s humility in becoming human. So, she decided to reform the convent strictly according to the Rule of St. Benedict. Her reform led to the expansion of the convent and they eventually moved from the valley of Chevreuse to Paris, before finally occupying both locations under one superior.

Angélique’s reform flies in the face of many assumptions about religion and gender in this period of history. Recently, Barbara Diefendorf and Daniella Kostroun have done research into this area, showing how women had great agency in the Catholic Reformation in France, even when “hidden away” behind a cloister.4 For Angélique, the cloister was part of her reform, allowing her to separate herself from a corrupt world, but also an act of defiance as she implemented the cloister in spite of her family’s resistance. This defiance culminated in what is known as the journée du guichet [literally translated: the day of the grille], where she met her family in the parlor and only spoke to them through the cloister window, forbidding them entrance to the convent as had been their custom. She explained, “I refused him [her father] the door; at [this refusal] he was in such anger that he… assur[ed] me that he would not see me [again] in his life, and that he had extreme grief to see that my spirit had been corrupted, and that he recommended for me to at least be [more] moderate.”5

Keep in mind, Mère Angélique was implementing this reform when she was only seventeen years old.

Her reform also led her to meet Jean Duvergier de Hauranne, the Abbot of Saint-Cyran, connecting the convent to the movement known as Jansenism. (Saint-Cyran was friends with Cornelius Jansen, for whom the movement was named and whose book, the Augustinus (1640), sparked the initial controversy.) Jansenism is an allegedly heretical movement that is characterized primarily by an Augustinian view of grace, rigorism in relation to the sacraments, and the hatred of the Jesuits.6 I would add, as some scholars do7, the tendency to withdraw from the world and shun worldly honors.

Now, to summarize an even more convoluted story, the nuns of Port-Royal were eventually asked to sign a formulary saying that they agreed with the condemnation of five propositions about grace as heretical and that they agreed that these propositions were found in Jansen’s Augustinus. Mère Angélique never had to sign, however, due to her death in 1661. Many of the other nuns resisted; they argued that they shouldn’t be required to condemn a book by their signature that they hadn’t read, especially since there was no scholarly consensus about whether or not the propositions were found in said book. This led to the destruction of the convent, about which Daniella Kostroun has already written8:

On October 29, 1709, King Louis XIV sent his royal lieutenant of police, along with 200 troops, into the valley of the Chevreuse, twelve miles west of Paris, to shut down the convent of Port-Royal-des-Champs. Sixty years earlier, Port-Royal had been a flourishing community containing more than 150 nuns. By 1709 there were only twenty-two left, all over the age of fifty and several of them infirm. On arrival, the lieutenant assembled the nuns in the convent’s parlor and read them an order from the royal council stating that they were to be removed from the convent “for the good of the state.” He then presented them with lettres de cachet (special royal warrants signed by the king) sentencing each nun to exile in separate convents across France. They had only three hours to pack their belongings, eat a final meal, and say good-bye to one another. He then loaded them into carriages and drove them away. Shortly after that, Louis XIV’s men exhumed Port-Royal’s cemetery, dumped the remains in a mass grave, and razed the buildings to the ground.

DSCN2403Now you might ask how one could visit a convent that was “razed to the ground,” but the site is now a national museum. The museum is in the location formerly held by the male solitaires, men (many from the Arnauld family) who decided to retire from the world. It is open every day but Tuesday, while the ruins are only open on the weekends and holidays. If you’re interested in going, you can take a train out from Paris and then a bus to the museum, but I recommend renting a car to make it all easier. When we went, we made it into a pilgrimage and walked from the train station through several tiny French towns, all the way to the ruins.

DSCN2414It is difficult to fully express what visiting these ruins meant for me, since my dissertation is about Mère Angélique, the abbess whose reform of the convent in 1609 ultimately led to its destruction a hundred years later. I can only express it almost as a sense of awe. I was walking on the grounds where Mère Angélique had walked. This was where she had her conversion experience that led to her reform. This is where she prayed, lived, and wrote.


In a way, this experience of awe was common throughout Paris as I discovered different locations that had some connection or another to the history of Jansenism.

IMG_0061For example, I was completely in awe when we accidentally discovered the former location of Port-Royal du Paris because we found a place to have dinner across the street. Port-Royal du Paris has since become a maternity hospital, which is somewhat fitting for a former convent. I did not have the opportunity to visit inside yet, but I am assured that the cloister and the original chapel are intact. If you do visit, I suggest sitting across the street at l’Académie de la Bière for a drink or a bite to eat.

I recommend a visit to either Port-Royal for anyone interested in gender and the history of religion or French religious history in general. There are many more sites in Paris of broader interest to the history of Jansenism as well, including the Bibliothèque de Port-Royal, the go-to location for the study of all things related to Jansenism. As a city, Paris has so much to discover in terms of its religious history and I know if/when I have the chance to go back, there will still be more for me to discover.

  1. This was thanks to funding from Saint Louis University and the American Catholic Historical Association. You can read my report about my research last summer here
  2. “Au nom de la Très Sainte Trinité, Père, Fils et Saint-Esprit, je fais par obéissance une relation de ce qui s’est passé dans cette maison, depuis cinquante-deux ans que j’y fus conduite pour y être abbesse, le 5 juillet 1602, âgée seulement de dix ans [et] dix mois, par un très grand désordre, ordinaire en ce temps-là, où il ne se pratiquait plus aucune discipline pour les promotions aux bénéfices, ni dans notre ordre presque aucune régularité” (Jacqueline Marie-Angélique Arnauld, Relation de la Mère Angélique Arnauld, ed. by Jean Lesaulnier, Chroniques de Port-Royal 41 (1992):11, hereafter cited as “L”; Jacqueline Marie-Angélique Arnauld, Relation écrite par la mère Angélique Arnauld sur Port-Royal, ed. by Louis Cognet, Les cahiers verts (Paris: Editions Bernard Grasset, 1949), 29, hereafter cited as “C”. The Lesaulnier edition is the critical edition of this text, but in the United States it seems that the Cognet edition is more widely available in libraries, so I cite both.) 
  3. For more information on these efforts toward reform, see Barbara Diefendorf, From Penitence to Charity: Pious Women and the Catholic Reformation in Paris (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2002). 
  4. Diefendorf, From Penitence to Charity, and Daniella Kostroun, Feminism, Absolutism, and Jansenism: Louis XIV and the Port-Royal Nuns (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2011). 
  5. “Et je lui refusai la porte, dont il fut si en colère qu’il s’en voulait retourner à l’heure même, m’assurant qu’il ne me verrait de sa vie, et qu’il avait une extrême douleur de voir qu’on me pervertissait l’esprit, et qu’il me recommandait au moins d’être [bien] sage.” (L21; C51. The bien only appears in Cognet’s edition, not Lesaulnier’s.) 
  6. I say allegedly because the term Jansenist was used pejoratively and those accused of being Jansenists never applied it to themselves. Additionally, all the characteristics used to describe Jansenism were common in France at the time, so you cannot use those characteristics by themselves to identify anyone as a Jansenist. 
  7. See, for example, Alexander Sedgwick, Jansenism in Seventeenth-Century France: Voices from the Wilderness (Charlottesville, VA: University Press of Virginia, 1977). 
  8. Kostroun, Feminism, Absolutism, and Jansenism, 1. The nuns resistance to the formulary is a fascinating history, involving issues of gender in the early modern period, and can be found in Kostroun’s book and Daniella Kostroun, “A Formula for Disobedience: Jansenism, Gender, and the Feminist Paradox,” The Journal of Modern History 75, no. 3 (2003): 483-522, available via JSTOR

4 thoughts

  1. Just saw your post today. Great photos, Elissa! Port-Royal is not my specialty, but I did recently take a look at Laurence Plazenet’s fascinating recent anthology, which includes a lot of of the nuns’ testimonies that haven’t been easily available.
    I’m intrigued by your dissertation topic. While there’s a lot to admire about P-R, their campaign against “frequent communion” has always seemed problematic to me–or was that just “le grand Arnauld”?

    1. Thank you!

      It was definitely not just le grand Arnauld who argued against frequent communion, but also Saint-Cyran. I’m sure other Jansenists wrote about the sacrament as well, but off the top of my head I don’t know specifically of any writings on the topic. I’ll know more about Angelique’s views when I get more deeply into her writings. I’m focusing on her views on penance, but these two sacraments are clearly linked in Jansenist thought.

      Jean Lesaulnier is currently spearheading the publication of Angelique’s Oeuvres, of which the first volume may be appearing this year.

  2. I was curious to know about the quotation which came my way today through eMail. The Quote is 2. “Perfection consists not in doing extraordinary things, but in doing ordinary things extraordinarily well. ” — Angelique Arnauld, Abbess of Port-Royal

    I was trying to find the source of the Quote – any book or article with a view to understand the larger context. Your write-up and pictures have made it worthwhile for me. I still have to find the real source of the quote and wonder whether you know about the source

    1. I don’t know off the top of my head, but it seems like the kind of thing that would come from one of her letters. I’ll keep my eye out for it in my research.

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