Rural Religious Life in the 18th Century?
July 11, 2020 10:12 AM   Subscribe

I'm writing a piece that takes place in a small village in 18th century rural France. My research has hit a bit of a wall in finding resources that give me a sense of what the day-to-day relationship with the church would be for a villager of the time, and specifically what a wedding of the time might look like for a lower-class individual. Open to earlier time periods, other European countries, and tangential perspectives!

I know this is a fairly niche subject, but honestly the historical accuracy of my piece isn't paramount so mainly I'm looking to just get some basic framework to bounce off of. If you happen to have any insight into or resources about religious village life in other European countries of the time or preceding centuries, that would work, too. I'm also interested in extrapolation from related knowledge or even films/television which you think could give me some insight. This is a blind spot for me, so anything could help.

In my research I see that pre-Revolution France was Roman Catholic, especially in the more provincial areas—though in more urban areas the Chruch's grip was beginning to slip. But looking for information on churchgoing, courting, and wedding ceremonies, everything I'm finding is focused on the upper class or on large cities. I can't seem to find much on what religious life or marriages would look like for a more rural setting.

In my story I have a young couple moving from a more urban environment to a rural community to get married and settle down—before getting wrapped up in some fun genre nonsense. What I'm having trouble finding is what the preparation for that wedding might be, what the ceremony might look like, and what the roles of the bride and groom would be during that ceremony. The size of the village is flexible, but I was thinking something on the smaller side of 200-800. I'm also curious about the makeup of a church in a village that size might be—outside of a priest, would there be other full-time clergy members and if so what would their roles and duties be? Any insight is appreciated!
posted by gregoryg to Society & Culture (4 answers total) 5 users marked this as a favorite

Best answer: Look at The Return of Martin Guerre, by Natalie Zemon Davis, although it’s earlier.

Also check out Carlo Ginzburg, he does amazing microhistories of rural Italy during the Inquisition. He’s specifically interested in how the rhetoric and reach of the church did or didn’t extend out to the margins.

I bet if you can find people who cite Ginzburg it’ll bring you a broader range of small scale historical research. He pretty much invented a field as far as I can tell.

Look for the phrase “reading history against the grain.”
posted by Lawn Beaver at 1:11 PM on July 11, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: There's one book that will give you all you need, and it's a classic: John McManners, Church and Society in Eighteenth-Century France (1998), volume 2 on 'The Religion of the People', pp 18-27 on marriage customs.

A few extracts to give you the flavour. On betrothal:

Before the formal preliminaries to a wedding began, there were, according to social class and locality, negotiations on practical matters between the two families. The young people might have reached an understanding, or maybe it was being organized for them. In the countryside, there were established rituals for the negotiation. Father and son might proceed to the house of the girl; they would be offered refreshment, but the father would say, ‘We have not come here to eat or drink but to ask the hand of your daughter’—the son might add, ‘We have been in love for a long time’. Then the girl's family would pay a return visit to check on the viability of the household she would be joining—looking into the barns and the linen chest, and even the dung heap (good manure being a sign of careful husbandry).

On the marriage ceremony:

When the long‐awaited day came, it was filled with folk observances as preludes and epilogues to the sacramental ceremony. The bridegroom and his youthful entourage would go to the house of the bride's family: the bride would hide and have to be found, disguise herself among her companions and have to be detected, or run away and have to be caught. Then the procession would form, the musicians leading, the bride on her father's arm, the groom with the two mothers, then the train of attendant young men and women, distinguished from the throng by festooning themselves with ribbons. The bride would be dressed predominantly in red (white was coming in, but only in high society); she would wear a lace apron, symbol of approaching domesticity, and be crowned with flowers.

On the festivities:

After signing the register in the vestry, the bridal throng left the church, as they went throwing small coins or handfuls of grain to the children of the village. Often enough there was a breakup of organization at this point, as many adjourned to the local tavern, a practice censured by the bishops. In due course, all reassembled at a banquet in the house of the girl's father, when the new husband served at the tables, while his friends stole a shoe of the bride to prevent her from running away, and a garter to be cut up and auctioned piecemeal. Songs would follow, not without innuendoes, ending with the 'chanson de la mariée', warning her of future tribulations. There would be dancing, with the bride leading the ball and dancing in turn with the young men of the escort. Far into the night came the 'escapade des mariés': the happy pair would escape to the bedroom and be followed there by the young people in comic masks offering them 'la rôtie', a soup laced with wine and spices supposed to be aphrodisiacs.

If you have an academic subscription, you may be able to get the book online (try this link). Also on Google Books (try this link).
posted by verstegan at 1:44 PM on July 11, 2020 [2 favorites]

Best answer: It's a while since I read it, so can't remember whether it mentions weddings specifically, and it's a bit later than your period, but I think you'd find Gillian Tindall's Celestine: Voices from a French Village interesting if you haven't already read it.
posted by paduasoy at 12:40 AM on July 12, 2020

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