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Saintetés croisées

St. Genevieve in the Revolution : Sylvain Maréchal’s Counter-History

Sainte Geneviève dans la Révolution “contre-histoire de Sylvain Maréchal”
Sheila Delany


Dr. Delany is author of many articles and books in medieval and early modern literature and culture including on Chaucer, Christine de Pizan, Elias Levita and others. Her 1998 study of Osbern Bokenham, Impolitic Bodies (Oxford U.P.), won the first Labarge Prize awarded by the Society of Canadian Medievalists for best book in medieval studies. Her new book, published by University of Alberta Press, is an annotated translation of Maréchal’s Nouvelle légende dorée, extending her work in medieval hagiography and her lifelong interest in revolutionary history.

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1St. Genevieve was by no means without a presence in revolutionary France. Nor were all the other saints, whether local or national, ancient or modern, real or fictional. This is because the high Middle Ages—golden age in the making and worship of saints—was not quite dead by 1789 but survived in three dominant institutions of French life: the monarchy, the nobility with its feudal powers and privileges, and the Catholic Church (Delany, “Afterlife”, 29-30).

2Not only by force did all three maintain their power within the population at large but also by indoctrination. Among the most popular and most effective means of indoctrination was hagiography: stories of saints that inculcated the “virtue” of submission to divine will, the redemptive value of suffering and humility, the moral beauty of poverty, the superiority of faith over family ties and citizenship, and belief in eventual reward for the virtuous but punishment for the wicked oppressor. These stories were kept before the rural and urban population in every medium: oral, textual, and visual. Statuary and paintings in churches and in public places, the church edifice itself often dedicated to a saint, the weekly sermon, names of cities and streets, the cheap “bibliothèque bleue” versions of hagiographical legends that were sold throughout the country, familial or neighborhood reading circles in which these legends were repeated, the ubiquitous household almanacs with a saint for each day —all affirmed the importance of saints and their cults, their anniversaries, their influence.

3The Revolution, we need to remember, did not begin as an anti-royal, anti-Catholic or even anti-religious movement. Its original aim was constitutional monarchy on the British model along with a constitutional Catholic church that would eliminate the most blatant abuse and corruption in the clerical hierarchy. It need not surprise us, then, that St. Genevieve was a prominent presence in a notable public event reported in Révolutions de Paris, one of the most widely read radical journals in the country:

'' Occupé des intérêts puissans de la nation, nous avions renoncé à parler de ces fêtes militaires, de ces processions, objets d’amusemens & de luxe, que chaque jour on voit renouveller dans cette capitale ; car si le pain & les loix nous manquent, du moins le faste & la dévotion nous consolent. Aujourd’hui, cependant, il se présente une de ces processions qui attire l’attention publique : ce sont les citoyens gardes nationaux des districts du fauxbourg Saint-Antoine qui se sont réunis, ayant à leur tête les jeunes vierges de ces cantons, dont le cortège nombreux va [se] faire bénir à Sainte-Genevieve, & mettre sous la protection de cette patrone de la capitale, un modele de la bastille. Ce modele, de la hauteur de quatre pieds, rappelle le moment du siege de cette forteresse…Ici l’on a tout imité, les armes, les hommes, le [sic] drapeaux, les canons, & ce modele a produit toute l’illusion que l’on pouvoit en attendre. (Révolutions de Paris # 10, Monday, September 14, 1789) ''

Occupied with important national affairs, we have ignored those military celebrations and processions, objects of entertainment and expense, which daily are seen to proliferate in this capital ; for if we lack bread and laws, at least splendor and devotion console us. Today, though, one of those parades appears which draws public attention: it is the national guard citizens from neighborhoods in the Saint-Antoine suburb who have reunited, headed up by young virgins of those neighborhoods. Their numerous cortege is going to be blessed by Saint Genevieve and to place under the protection of this patron saint of the capital, a model of the Bastille. This model, four feet high, recalls the moment of the siege of this fortress…They have imitated everything, the weapons, the men, the flags, the cannons, and this model produced all the effect one might have expected. [my translation]

4To be sure, such a juxtaposition of revolution and piety would be impossible a few years later, when antireligious sentiment was more pronounced, especially during the short-lived and ill-organized “dechristianization campaign” of late 1793-94. But that is precisely what strikes the modern reader: that the Bastille, symbol of popular revolt, is not only associated with but blessed by the symbol of combined Church and monarchy, for among St. Genevieve’s accomplishments is said to be her role in helping convert Clovis I, the first Christian king of France and founder of the Merovingian dynasty.

5Although anonymous, the notice in Révolutions de Paris is likely to have been written by Sylvain Maréchal, who worked for the journal as writer and editor throughout its short life (late 1789-early 1794). Its style resembles Maréchal’s; typical of him are the sarcastic comment about spectacle as consolation for hunger and stability, and, further on (but not quoted here), references to Greece, Rome and “l’immortel Jean-Jacques” [Rousseau]; an exhortation to citizens to complete the well-begun but faltering revolution; a denunciation of priests complicit in despotism; and—another Maréchal feature—several footnotes. Maréchal would continue to report on events concerning women, culture and religion: these were his special interests, on which he had already written and would continue to write until his death in 1803.

6Unlike most revolutionaries, Maréchal was a lifelong militant atheist; religion in general—not only Catholicism-- was his constant bête noire. The Fragmens d’un poème moral sur dieu (1781), claiming to be printed at “Atheopolis”, is a collection of scattered quotations and aphorisms about atheism; it includes “l’epitaphe de l’auteur”:

'' Cy repose un paisible Athée.
Il marcha toujours droit, sans regarder les cieux.
Que sa tombe soit respectée :
L’ami de vertu fut l’ennemi des Dieux.''

7In 1784 Maréchal lost his position as assistant librarian at the prestigious Mazarin Library upon publication of his Livre échappé au déluge, a parody of biblical genres that expressed rationalistic views on religion, royalty, war and other topics. This was defiantly followed with the explicitly anti-religious “Noël anacréontique”, which proposed Eros as a superior deity to God. Later, his Dictionnaire des athées anciens et moderns (1800) and his rationalistic-literary study of the Hebrew and Christian bibles, Pour et contre la bible (1801), continued this theme into the early Napoleonic era as propagandistic interventions against the revival of Catholicism after the defeat of the Revolution’s radical phase (Delany, “Pour et contre”).

8If Maréchal was indeed the author of the journal notice cited above, he would already have been at work on the text I shall foreground in this paper: the satirical legendary La nouvelle légende dorée, published in 1790. Thanks to his ardent support of the Revolution, Maréchal had regained his position at the Mazarin Library, a vast collection of materials old and new relating to philosophy, religion and many other subjects. There he would have had the opportunity to explore the literature of hagiography, much of it incorporated into his “New Golden Legend”. The title, of course, refers to Jacob Voragine’s Legenda aurea (Golden legend), the great thirteenth-century compendium made for the use of priests in composing their sermons, but many other sources find their way into Maréchal’s text. What is new about his legendary? A number of things, and to illustrate them I shall focus on his treatment of St. Genevieve.

9Not unique but unusual was Maréchal’s choice of the all-female legendary. Few hagiographers have made this choice, as is understandable considering that only about a quarter of saints, and few authors, were women. For Maréchal, this format was audience-driven, for I believe he meant his legendary as a propagandistic intervention into the revolutionary movement, targeting the devout woman reader in order to disabuse her of religious illusions and replace them with the values of family and citizenship. In 1790, when anti-clerical and anti-religious sentiments were not uncommon in Paris, and were spreading to the provinces, this doubtless seemed a realistic hope. But many rural women (and men) clung to their faith with its miracles, saints, and local priests. Expressions of anti-religious or seriously rationalistic views proved especially dangerous after the government’s 1794 turn against atheism; accordingly, the new Festival of the Supreme Being of June 8 of that year replaced the previous year’s Festival of Reason. In this climate it is easy to see that Maréchal’s legendary could have little effect, doomed almost from the start to remain “livre rarissime” (Karmin, 1911, p. 266).

10The major innovation of Maréchal’s legendary was, of course, its appropriation of a medieval genre to negate all that that genre was meant to do. This was accomplished with a variety of rhetorical devices (to be elucidated below), their purpose to exhume the social realities buried between the lines of official versions of saints’ lives. That is why I frame the text as a “counter-history”, using the theory of David Biale and Amos Funkenstein. In studying the work of Gershom Scholem on kabbala, the Jewish mystical tradition originating in the thirteenth century, Biale wrote that Scholem’s recovery of the irrational side of Jewish tradition, which had been more or less ignored or devalued by rationalistic Jewish scholarship, was a source of renovation, a reordering of priorities. Counter-history, Biale writes, is “the belief that true history lies in a subterranean tradition”, producing a revisionist historiography that “transvalues” old theories and facts (Biale, Kabbala, p. 11). Funkenstein generalized this idea to historians and other writers whose function is polemical. Their method consists of the systematic exploitation of the adversary’s most trusted sources against their grain. Their aim is the distortion of the adversary’s self-image, of his identity, through the deconstruction of his memory (Funkenstein, Perceptions, p. 36).

11The adversary’s self-image, writes Funkenstein, is replaced “with a pejorative counter-image” (Funkenstein, Perceptions, p. 48). In all, there could hardly be a more accurate definition of Sylvain Maréchal’s strategy in his legendary as he replaces the usual gallery of chaste virgins and pious matrons with a parade of lesbians, cruel mothers, alienated wives and spoilt daughters, sensual masochists, selfish wasters of family fortune, gullible victims, purveyors of lies and illusions, wasted lives.

12I have avoided referring to our text as a “mock” legendary, because it does not simply employ the conventions of hagiography to a comical end. For example, Alexander Pope’s Dunciad or Rape of the Lock are considered “mock epic” because they deploy the conventions of epic for trivial and clearly non-epic events. Maréchal does not practise that technique; on the contrary, his legends are drawn from numerous authoritative sources, often with direct quotation. In this he differs from the centuries-old French tradition of mock-legends amply documented by Jacques Merçeron, in which such figures as St. Jambon (ham), St. Andouille (sausage), St. Fainéante (do-nothing) or St. Greluchon (betrayed lover) make their appearance in mock sermons, jokes or amusing stories. How, then, does Maréchal achieve his desired effect of undermining the traditional saint’s life and converting it into a counter-history; how does he read “against the grain”? We may use the story of St. Genevieve as a paradigm for several techniques in his repertory.

13Of the approximately 350 saints and “semi-saints” (blessed or beatified but not canonized) in Maréchal’s collection, Genevieve is an especially difficult target for ironical debunking. Unlike some major saints, she was not a fictional character but—despite the “guerres génovéfaines” (Poulin, p. 116) of a century ago— now accepted as historically real, attested by several ancient documents ; so although fictional and religiously edifying material (such as miracles) would be added, the main outlines cannot be attributed to unbridled imagination or ideological zeal. Unlike many saints, she was unmarried, so did not abandon a husband and children to follow her vocation; though a committed virgin she did not spend her life immured in a convent. Nor was she a martyr, so, despite ascetic practices, she cannot be blamed for extreme masochism, lack of citizenship, or compulsive anti-authoritarianism. On the contrary, as a wealthy, educated landowner she was much engaged in public life in the Paris-Tours region, traveling, undertaking architectural projects, counseling royalty in the persons of Clovis and Clotilde, and playing a significant, if minor, role amid the complex relations of Romans, Gauls, Franks, Catholic administrators, and the local population in Lutèce (later Paris) during the convulsive years of the dying Roman empire.

14A skeletal version of Genevieve’s life tells us that she was born at Nanterre, near Paris, about 423 (perhaps earlier, about 420: Heinzelmann, Les vies, p. 26) and may have herded sheep; that at the age of 7 she heard a sermon by Bishop Germain of Auxerre and on the spot consecrated herself to a life of chaste devotion. Later she moved to Lutèce, living with such austerity that some found her self-denial excessive. In 451, when the town was threatened by the army of Attila the Hun, she persuaded the population not to abandon the city but to pray; Attila diverted his troops from the city and attacked Orleans instead. In 464, when Lutèce was besieged by the Franks under Childeric, she procured food for the population; the Franks treated the population mercifully. Genevieve was said to have been instrumental in the conversion of Clovis, Childeric’s son, who thus became France’s first Catholic king; he founded a basilica in which she was buried along with Childeric and his queen, Clotilde.

15How, then, does Maréchal meet the challenge of Genevieve? Here is his treatment of the narrative:

'' Vers l’an 429, Germain et Loup, tous deux évèques et tous deux saints, s’arrêtent en passant, à Nanterre. Germain remarque une petite fille de onze ans, la prend à part, la fait diner avec lui, et au dessert lui fait jurer de mourir vierge. Il n’étoit peut-être déjà plus tems. Cette petite fille, c’est la bienheureuse Geneviève. Une maladie dont on ne dit pas le genre, lui survint quelque tems après avoir fait son voeu et sa consécration à la virginité. Elle fût trois jours évanouie. Nous regardons cette évanouissement de trois jours, comme un des plus signalés miracles dans la vie de cette sainte. Tout le monde ne prit cependant pas ces vapeurs en bonne part. Le lecteur remarquera que Geneviève séjournait alors à Paris.

Cette circonstance peut jetter un coup de lumière sur la nature de ses indispositions. Germain revint à Paris dans ce tems, et l’on ne doute pas qu’il ne prit vertement la défense de celle qu’il avoit mise au nombre de ses vierges. L’évèque étant parti, les mauvaises langues recommencèrent leur caquet contre sa protégée. On alla si loin, que le bon prélat fut obligé de lui envoyer un diacre chargé d’agnus, qui appaisa les mécontents et délivra G.

Les Parisiens ne connoissoient pas le trésor qu’ils possèdoient en sa personne. Childéric, père de Clovis, dont on connoit la conversion conditionnelle, assiégea la capitale des Gaules, et s’en étant rendu maître, voulut en massacrer tous les habitans ; pour cet effet, il avoit fait clore les portes ; elles s’ouvrent à la présence de G. Cette autre Esther sort des murs de Paris et sans en être attendue, s’offre, pour le disarmer, aux désirs du prince, qui apparemment eut pour elle les yeux d’Assuérus ; et les Parisiens durent leur salut au pieux abandon de leur patrone.

Un miracle plus difficile à croire que celui que nous venons de rapporter, fut la reconstruction de l’église de saint Denis, que Geneviéve fit avec la même facilité que Dieu, quelques milliers d’années plus haut, bâtit le monde, ouvrage d’un souffle.''

16About 429, Germain and Loup, both bishops and both saints, stopped while passing through Nanterre. Germain notices a little girl of eleven, takes her aside, has her dine with him, and at dessert makes her swear to die a virgin. Maybe it was already too late. This little girl is the blessed Genevieve. An illness of unspecified type comes over her some time after having made her vow of consecration to virginity. She was unconscious for three days. We view this fainting spell as one of the most outstanding miracles in this saint’s life. However, not everyone took these vapors in a good way. The reader will observe that Genevieve lived at the time in Paris.

17This circumstance can shed a ray of light on the nature of her illnesses. Germain returned to Paris at this time and there is no doubt that he undertook the lively defense of her whom he had placed in the number of his virgins. The bishop gone, evil tongues recommenced their cackle against his protégée. They went so far that the good prelate was obliged to send her a deacon carrying a blessed candle, who pacified the complainers and rescued Genevieve.

18The Parisians didn’t know what a treasure they possessed in her. Childeric, father of Clovis, whose conditional conversion is known, besieged the capital of the Gauls and, having vanquished it, wanted to massacre all the inhabitants; to that end he had had the gates closed; they opened in the presence of Genevieve. This other Esther exits the walls of Paris and, without being expected, offers herself, in order to disarm him, to the desires of the prince, who apparently had eyes for her as Ahasuerus did [for Esther], and the Parisians owed their salvation to the pious abandon of their patron saint.

19A miracle more difficult to believe than the one we have just reported, was the reconstruction of the church of saint Denis, which Genevieve did with the same ease that God, a few thousand years earlier, built the world, a breath’s effort.

20Let us pause here to analyze the preceding. We note, first, that Maréchal does not begin with Genevieve herself but opens her story with the two bishop-saints responsible for her consecration. His concern throughout the legendary is not simply the individual saint but rather the entire institutional environment in which she lives; thus we are often told of the (usually baneful) role of confessors, spiritual advisors, monastic communities, preachers, nuns, missionaries, bishops, etc. For this pair of ecclesiastical travelers (who in 429 were en route to Britain to combat the Pelagian heresy there), the treatment hints at a scenario of child molestation or even seduction; at the very least, a scenario of lecherous adult men with a little girl. The details chosen from official versions, and the details omitted, produce a particular impression. Nothing is said of a sermon entrancing the girl, or of a spontaneous vow. Instead, initiative is transferred to the bishop. Germain notices the child (why would he?), takes her aside (again, for what reason?), has her dine with him (apparently alone, without her parents) and even provides dessert. Her conversion is now no product of an inspiring sermon but rather of an enticing dinner plus dessert, at the end of which the generous sugar-daddy extracts a promise. As for the child, her age is increased from the usual and rather sentimentalized 7 to 11, transforming her from an innocent small child into a pre-adolescent “nymphet”—who may, moreover, already have had some sexual experience, as the narrative voice hints in a snide aside. Later, we hear that she is only one among “ses vierges”: the community of local virgins, but here made to sound like a virtual harem of nubile girls. With or without the salacious skew, Genevieve is being diverted from what Maréchal, along with most revolutionaries and intellectuals of the day, considered her “natural” role: to marry and reproduce.

21Lest this beginning be considered gratuitous slander of the Church, we need to remember that sexual impropriety was far from unusual among clerics, then or at any other time. Elsewhere (Nouvelle légende, s.v. Chantal), Maréchal refers to the sensational case of Father Girard, in which an influential Jesuit in Toulon was brought to trial for seducing, impregnating, and giving an abortion to the young woman, Marie Cadière, whose confessor and advisor he was. Although the lengthy trial took place in 1731, its proceedings were printed and reprinted in French and in English; it gave rise to numerous literary treatments down the century (ballads, novellas, etc.) and was known throughout Europe. It was only the tip of the iceberg, though, and in Maréchal’s day the misbehavior of clergy, especially the highly placed, was notorious. It is a tradition extending from the Middle Ages (think of the fabliau priest-lover) to our own day, unfortunately.

22Some time thereafter, Genevieve falls ill; the author directs our attention to its unknown type, thus raising a question the reader might not have had on his or her own. He refers to her three-day faint as “vapors”: a medical term denoting a nervous condition (such as hysteria or melancholy) caused by the emanation of humors (fluids) from a diseased organ. Connected as it is with the consecration that just precedes it in the narrative, we are invited to see this illness as one of sexual frustration: again, for Maréchal, a violation of nature. This suggestion is reinforced by the comment just afterward that she lived at the time in Paris, for “the vapors” was considered an affliction of frustrated society ladies, so that residence in that city helps to explain the saint’s “indispositions”.

23The saint is apparently not popular in Paris, and people gossip about her. Her mentor, Germain, arrives to mount a vigorous defense. Again this is an issue of selectivity, for in an orthodox version the populace is shown to be wrong, but for Maréchal their gossip may be well founded. Later, Germain sends a substitute priest armed with a candle blessed by the pope and bearing the image of a lamb (agnus). Another more clearly eroticized candle will appear later in the narrative, but even here we may suspect a phallic image in the large, white taper that aids in the deliverance of Genevieve from a quasi-hysterical torpor.

24Eroticization continues in the account of a major alleged achievement of the saint, in which her influence on Childeric, Merovingian king of the Salian Franks, is represented as a seduction modeled on that of Esther and Ahasuerus. In the biblical story—which elsewhere Maréchal calls a magnificent political romance composed in honor of the Jewish nation (Delany, “Pour et contre”, p. 74)—the Jewish Queen Esther uses feminine wiles and trickery to get the uxorious King Ahasuerus to punish her people’s enemy, Haman, and thus to save the Jews from persecution. Here, a similar tactic is attributed to Genevieve, with the added irony of a Jewish analogue for the Catholic saint. At a time when the issue of Jewish emancipation was much in the public eye through debates, treatises, newspaper articles and speeches in the National Assembly, the analogue would have had special bite. Whether for or against emancipation, everyone accepted the concept of supersession—that Judaism had been replaced or superseded by Christianity. Figuralism, the notion that Christian events replicated Jewish ones but with different meaning (e.g., baptism as a new, spiritual version of Noah’s flood, or Jesus’s cross as the spiritualized version of the Tree of Knowledge, etc.) was part of this discourse. What Maréchal gives us in his use of the Hebrew bible here is thus an ironically pointed figuralism that works to the detriment, not the advantage, of the saint.

25The skepticism in the last sentence cited above, about Genevieve’s role in building a basilica for St-Denis, first bishop of Paris and martyr buried there, is echoed by modern historians (e.g., Heinzelmann, Les vies, p. 96): no miracle, but rather the support of municipal institutions would have enabled this wealthy woman to initiate and supervise such a project. Maréchal deflates the supernatural pretensions of some orthodox versions with a hyperbolically ironic comparison to God’s instantaneous creation of the world—which, of course, as an atheist he would also have rejected.

26At this point Maréchal’s vita turns away from the legend, introducing the narrator in his own voice with a direct (albeit still heavily ironic) address to the reader about methodology in this genre :

'' Nous ne nous sommes attachés qu’aux faits certains et peu connus. Quant aux autres, nous nous ferions un scrupule d’en conserver la tradition. Nous copierons seulement ici quelques couplets de chanson addressés à une aimable veuve, pour montrer à nos bénins lecteurs, jusqu’à quel point on s’est permis la license d’écrire sur les choses les plus respectables. Pour réfuter les incrédules libertins, il suffit de les citer. ''

We are committed only to certain and little known acts. As for others, we would hesitate to maintain their tradition. We will copy out here only a few couplets of a song addressed to a friendly widow, to show our kind readers the point to which one is permitted the freedom to write on the most respectable things. To refute libertine disbelievers, it suffices to cite these couplets.

27The stanzas that follow are certainly by Maréchal himself; he was well known as a composer of both erotic and political songs. Insertion of lyric or other poetry into a narrative was not uncommon in French medieval literature of various genres, both prose and verse, as Maureen Boulton has shown (although her list does not include any saints’ lives: Boulton, Song, 295-97), and, given the eighteenth-century vogue for medievalism documented by Gossman and others, it is likely that the scholarly Maréchal would be aware of this practice. Here, the song continues the eroticization already prominent as a technique of demystification. This is done in a particularly medieval way, appropriating the vocabulary of religion for the purpose of amorous pursuit. Imagery in the last stanza recalls the final scenes of Jean de Meun’s portion of the Roman de la rose with its architectural allegory of the female body; indeed the word “enceinte” (enclosure/pregnant) in that stanza may point to the finally impregnated heroine of that famous work. This was clearly a favorite metaphor for Maréchal, providing the conceit of another, earlier, song of his which develops the image in much greater detail: the narrator presents himself as a chaplain serving a lovely chapel located in a covered woods shrouded in mystery; it has a double altar of white marble at which the devoted chaplain performs his office day and night with two little acolytes and never more than one candle (Maréchal, “Une fin” in Marion, pp.140-141). Here is the lyric attached to the legend:

Adressés à une aimable veuve, qui avoit Geneviève pour patrone

Courez en diligence,

Trop crédules Badauts !
Pour gagner l’Indulgence
Que l’on prodigue aux Sots.
D’une autre Geneviève
Nos cœurs se sont épris,
Qui nous feroit mieux qu’Eve
Chasser du Paradis.

Run promptly (or : in a carriage [diligence]),
Too credulous passersby !
To win the indulgence
Wasted on fools.
By another Genevieve
Our hearts are captured,
Who, better than Eve,
Would get us chased from Paradise.

De Paris la Patrone
Est vierge, nous dit-on.
Cependant on lui donne
Marcel pour Compagnon.
Même champ les rassemble
Auprès de leurs moutons ;
Mais étoient-ils ensemble
Toujours en oraisons?

The patron saint of Paris
Is a virgin, so they say.
Nevertheless she is given
Marcel as companion.
The same field joins them
Near their sheep ;
But were they together
Always in prayer ?

Choisis donc, ainsi qu’elle,
Un Compagnon d’amour.
Prends-la pour ton modèle ;
Tu feras Sainte un jour.
L’almanach de Cythère
Fera place à ton nom ;
À veuve qui fait plaire
On a dévotion.

Choose, therefore, as she did,
A companion of love.
Take her for your model ;
You’ll be a saint some day.
The almanac of Cythera
Will include your name ;
To a widow who pleases
One has devotion.

À ta chapelle sainte
Avec zèle on ira ;
Dans son étroite enceinte
Un cierge on brulera.
De nos Vierges tremblantes
Geneviève est l’appui,
De nos Veuves souffrantes
Tu calmeras l’ennui.

To your holy chapel
With zeal men will go ;
In its narrow enclosure
A candle will be burnt.
Of our trembling virgins
Genevieve is the support,
Of our suffering widows
You will calm the nerves.

28Details drawn from various versions of the life are turned to sexual innuendo: the boy who helps little Genevieve herd sheep, the community of Nanterre virgins, and of course the phallic candle. This object appears twice in orthodox versions of the legend: once in the hand of a priest sent to calm her detractors, again in a miracle associated with the dedication ceremony at the new basilica, when Genevieve’s candle could not be extinguished by wind and rain (Schmidt, Sainte Geneviève, p. 164). Thus the saint has often been depicted holding a long white taper.

29Let me, then, review the rhetorical devices deployed by Maréchal in re-creating the legend as an anti-religious tract. Eroticization is a primary tactic, and lest we think it far-fetched we may note that some contemporary scholars, such as Virginia Burrus and John Boswell, have in a sense done exactly what Maréchal did in reading “between the lines” so to speak, to extract the erotic possibilities of hagiographical texts. Naturalization of the supernatural is another favored approach: the visionary trance is nothing but the vapors; again, modern scholars, following the lead of Caroline Bynum, have noted the social advantages and personal liberties accruing to women who chose the cloistered life. Biblical reference to a Jewish analogue, normal in Catholic figuralist interpretation of the Hebrew bible and common enough in eighteenth-century religious discourse, in this case twists figuralism in a way unflattering to the Catholic saint. Direct address to the reader, appealing to his or her judgment, along with ironic comments in the first person, help to remind the reader that any written text—any version of a saint’s life-- is a human effort, subject to authorial motive and to a reader’s evaluation. A related technique of distanciation—what Viktor Shklovsky called “defamiliarization”—is the faux-naïve narratorial voice in which Maréchal tells much of the tale. Occupatio, a favorite classical and medieval trope, creates doubt in a reader’s mind by claiming ignorance on questions the reader would not have thought of otherwise. Pun and homophonic wordplay are scattered throughout. A similar arsenal of devices occurs throughout Maréchal’s legendary: no surprise for an author steeped in classical, medieval and early modern cultures through the literatures made available to him by an elite education and by his profession as librarian at the Mazarin Library.

30Maréchal could have witnessed, and doubtless would have approved, the fate of Genevieve’s monuments in his own day. The saint’s relics were publicly burnt in 1793 and dispersed. The reliquary, like many others, was melted down for the war of defense against counter-revolutionary foreign powers and internal rebels: ordinary metals for cannon, gold or silver for money to ransom prisoners. Can we be sure the saint would have objected to such use of her wealth for the protection of her city once again? The basilica itself, founded by Clovis, where Genevieve was buried along with the royals, went through renovations and repurposing down the centuries. In 1791 it was renamed the Pantheon, designated as a mausoleum for French cultural heroes. As such, it too went through several turns from religious to secular and back again during the nineteenth century; today it combines lay and secular functions.

31My contact with St. Genevieve came in the seaside village of Cassis, where I spent the autumn of 2009. One day, passing the usually deserted little church, I heard a choir from within, and the square outside was crowded with uniformed and decorated officers. When I inquired as to the occasion, I was told that it was the feast of St. Genevieve. She is the patron saint of Paris, I replied; why is she being celebrated in Cassis? Because, came the answer, she defended the city and now she is the patron saint of all police in France. And indeed the church was filled with police from the region and their families and friends; the choir sang, a sermon followed. I didn’t discover why the ceremony was held well before January 3, the saint’s official feast day, but it sufficed for me to know that the ancient cult still survives.

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Electronic reference

Sheila Delany, « St. Genevieve in the Revolution : Sylvain Maréchal’s Counter-History », Conserveries mémorielles [Online], #14 | 2013, Online since 26 June 2013, Connection on 19 January 2022. URL :

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Sheila Delany

Emerita, Simon Fraser University

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