Justine Carr and Karen Carter, Department of History
In France during the 18th century, parish priests had a very particular relationship with their parishioners. While the parishioners were dependent on the priest to receive the different Catholic sacraments, the priests, usually underpaid, depended on the parishioners to provide them with food and money. In the small town of Mareuil-sur-Ay, Champagne-Ardenne, France, in the mid-eighteenth century, the parishioners were not pleased when their beloved priest Antoine Corbier died and was replaced by Nicolas-Hyacinthe Vernier. While the parishioners had been very satisfied with Corbier’s work, they soon became quite unsatisfied, shocked, and even angry at Vernier’s attitude, lifestyle, and his inability to provide them with the Catholic sacraments. Indeed, according to the six-hundred-page record of the court case, the complaints of the parishioners of Mareuil seem justified. They describe him as lazy, very strict, unwilling to care for the poor and the sick, impatient, and they accuse him of having affairs with several women—including the village’s schoolmistress. The testimony against Vernier seems damning enough to “fire” him, but the mystery of the court case lies in the fact that Vernier was reinstated as curé of Mareuil. When questioned by the court, Vernier defended himself by constantly denying the accusations, accusing the parishioners of not being pious or worthy enough to receive the sacraments, and blaming his poor health.
The research on this project was started by Dr. Karen Carter of the history department, who discovered the part of the court case against Vernier. The case forms the backbone of her current book project, which examines the relationship between parish priests and their parishioners. However, after reading, transcribing and translating the 600-pages court case, Dr Carter realized that there were pieces of the case missing necessary to the understanding of the somewhat unexpected results of the case. The missing parts of the case that I was in charge of finding were the following: “Recolement” September and October 1771, “Confrontation” September and October 1771, “Addition d’information” November 1771, “Recollement des temoins entendus par addition” November 1771, “Confrontation desdits temoins de laddition” November 1771, Information done at the request of the accused, 125 temoins, August 1769.
With the help of Dr. Carter and the research guide of the departmental and regional archives previous to my departure for France, there were already different places where I could search for these missing pieces. When arriving at the archives in Reims, where Dr. Carter had previously found the court case, I wanted to have a look at the actual case that I had read previous to my trip to France. When I received the box containing the court case, I discovered many other documents, which I discovered were all related to the court case. The hundreds of pages of documents could go from a letter written by Vernier himself to the prosecutor, to a doctor’s note excusing a lady’s absence in court.
After finding all this new information, I had to sort if and find out what it corresponded to. The hardest part of my research project was definitely reading the documents, organizing them by date and by type of document. Some of them were in very poor conditions, damaged by water and time, none of them available in numeric format. Once I had completed this task, I was able to turn in the pictures, classified according to the categories listed previously.
There were two main outcomes from this research project. The first one was a personal outcome: this research project allowed to walk in the steps of a historian and to do research work, as a historian would do but as an undergrad student. This opportunity was very valuable to me as I prepare to go to graduate school.
Secondly, this project contributed to a bigger research project undertaken by my mentor Dr. Carter. Although this project is a case of micro history (it concentrates on the village of Mareuil-sur-Ay), it has a broader significance. By studying the relationship between the inhabitants and their curé, we can see the expectations of the people and the attitude that they wanted their curé to have. We can also the curé’s involvement in many secular affairs and in the lives of the parishioners: in order to receive the different sacraments of the Catholic Church, the people were dependent on their curé. The Catholic Church’s influence was very high in pre-Revolution France, which is one of the things that the revolutionaries wanted to change. During the French Revolution, the Catholic Church lost many of its lands, and France shifted towards secularism. The court case of Mareuil and the complaints against the curé fits in the larger picture of people’s dissatisfaction with the Church.