In a previous ‘Behind the scenes’ blog, we looked at how we had gone about representing that key aspect of eighteenth-century French society which was religion. One of the ways we did this was to include characters who either had an official spiritual role or were conspicuously religious. Three characters in this regard who are central to the novel are Brother Stefano, Abbé de Bernis and Thibaut Bechard. One of the ironies behind these characters is that the two who hold official positions within the Catholic church, Stefano and Abbé de Bernis, are less concerned about God and spirituality than the man who doesn’t hold a religious office, Thibaut Bechard. We have done this, of course, to depict the notorious moral hypocrisy, abuse and double-standards that had dogged the Catholic Church for generations and which was to be a contributing factor behind the French Revolution. However, the different characters also illuminate different ways in which people engaged with this secular-religious duality.
Brother Stefano and Abbé de Bernis represent two ends of the institutional religious spectrum. At the bottom of the hierarchy, you have Stefano. He has weighed up the opportunities that life was offering him: back-breaking manual labour for little reward, or a guarantee of shelter, regular meals and no taxes in exchange for celibacy (although even that was more honoured in the breach than the observance) and carrying out fairly undemanding religious duties. As Casanova notes: “This lazy fellow was a man about thirty, red-haired, very strong and healthy; a true peasant who had turned himself into a monk only for the sake of living in idle comfort”. Our Stefano, however, may be opportunistic but he is not cynical. He understands that in Old Regime France he is part of the problem of the First Estate and the reason why so many others do without. He understands and suffers pangs of conscience now and then but not enough to change who he is. Our Abbé de Bernis, on the other hand, is entirely cynical. He exists in the far more rarefied secular-religious world where the religious (but not the spiritual) and the political are inseparable. Religious offices are a source of wealth, status and power, as likely to be gifts of court favour and political advancement as they are to do with ministering to spiritual need. De Bernis wouldn’t think twice about this. What interests him is power. In fact, he is too savvy and immersed in Enlightenment ideas to believe in even a modicum of official Church dogma. He is far more likely to be a deist than a theist. Thibaut Bechard is in some ways the most intriguing of the three characters combining as he does cold, Hobbesian rationality, religious fanaticism and a willingness to commit brutal acts of violence. His dedication to protect Louis XV is rooted in his religious and Hobbesian beliefs. Louis was an absolute monarch underpinned by the doctrine of divine right. In protecting Louis from harm Bechard sees himself as carrying out God’s will. Like the philosopher Thomas Hobbes, he also believes society will descend into a state of perpetual civil war unless it is governed by one all-powerful God-given ruler. He regularly attends the confessional and scourges his body in an attempt to purge himself of his sins. He recognises his crimes but he is also an incredibly vain and egotistical man who believes that he has been chosen by God to do what he does and that, ultimately, he will be forgiven.
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