Seminar – Anne Vila on ‘Solitudes/Multitudes in Eighteenth-Century France: The Curious Case of the Jansenist Convulsionnaires’

In the third paper in our 2020/21 seminar series, Anne Vila from the University of Wisconsin-Madison shows us how solitude figures in the assemblies organised by the Jansenist convulsionary movement in 18th-century France.

Although sometimes set in opposition, the modern conditions of solitude and multitude have common roots in Enlightenment-era theorising about human nature and the self in relation to society. The eighteenth century was marked by a deep tension between solitude and sociability, spiritual inwardness versus outward engagement. One of the most striking examples of that tension involved a group known as the Jansenist convulsionnaires, who created a faith movement around the healing powers they attributed to the deceased deacon François de Paris.

In this talk, I will explain how the holy recluse Pâris became the centre of a cult that commentators from the 1730s to the 1940s described as an outbreak of ‘epidemic’ or ‘gregarious’ mysticism. After exploring selected hagiographies of Pâris, I will consider how the convulsionnaires employed not only solitude and seclusion but also crowd behaviour to defend and expand their movement and the beliefs that underpinned it.  I will delve particularly into their highly controversial, brutal practices known as ‘great’ and ‘lethal’ relief.  Finally, I will consider how eighteenth-century French physicians, anti-convulsionist theologians, and philosophers used notions of solitude and multitudes to demystify the convulsionary movement – from the baffling psychic phenomena displayed by the Convulsionaries themselves, to the odd attraction they held for contemporary audiences.

This seminar will take place online.

All are welcome but booking is required. Please click here to register your attendance.