Today I tip my hat to Jeanne Guyon, a 17th-century Catholic woman mystic, whose religious practices—especially her mode of intensive, interior, constant prayer intended to maintain oneself in the presence of God—and writings lead to her persecution by officials in both the French government and the Catholic Church in France.
Like many early modern women authors, Jeanne was born (1648) to a wealthy family, and her parents had her educated. She was thus privileged with the ability to commit her beliefs to text. Although she became a mystic and author later in life, Jeanne was not an apt pupil, but nevertheless continued to be educated by nuns in various convents as her family moved repeatedly. Though she apparently lacked the makings of a scholar, Jeanne was devoted to her religious life from early on. She desired, at one time, to become a nun, but agreed instead to marry at 15.
After 12 years of marriage, Jeanne was widowed and left with 3 surviving children. As a widow, Jeanne began to teach her beliefs about and methods of prayer, causing controversies in France (and beyond). She was accused of heresy and imprisoned several times (including a 7-year-stint the Bastille). However, she also enjoyed considerable support from many elites. In St. Cyr, Madame de Maintenon, who ran a girls school, invited her to lecture to her pupils.
Jeanne’s adulthood was rife with gains and losses of friends and support (she was asked several times by local authorities to leave towns in which she settled). Indeed, de Maintenon eventually became one of many who cut ties with Jeanne once her controversies caught up with her as she moved from place to place. Even the support of pious courtiers, however, did not prevent her imprisonment after the publication of her book, A Short and Easy Method of Prayer. During her imprisonment Jeanne was forced to renounce her book in exchange for her release. In 1693, with the aim of clearing herself of the socio-religious taint of heterodoxy (Jeanne always considered herself a Catholic), Jeanne requested that Bishop Bossuet (a foremost Catholic cleric who enjoyed the favour of Louis XIV) review her work. He found much of it unorthodox and Jeanne subsequently promised to cease teaching. After a year off the radar, Jeanne tried her luck again. She went to Meaux, home of Bossuet’s cathedral, straddling the line between prisoner and penitent. After 6 months there she escaped with a “certificate of orthodoxy” bearing Bossuet’s signature.
Jeanne’s escape led to her imprisonment in the Bastille. She was released in 1703 on the condition that she live with her adult son in Blois and remain under the supervision of the local bishop. Although she had renounced her writings years before, Jeanne remained devout until her death in 1717, and Blois became pilgrimage site even during her lifetime.
There are a couple of reasons that I wanted to write about Jeanne today (beyond my interest in women mystics). First and foremost, much of the readily available/public sources that discuss Jeanne centre the men in her life. During her earlier years as a spiritual writer and teacher, much is made of one man’s influence over her mind. After her ideas began gathering momentum, another man’s importance to the rise in their popularity is emphasised. Given the patriarchal nature of early modern (and modern) society, I’m sure these men were influential and important, but ultimately Jeanne was the mystic. It was Jeanne who wrote about prayer, her ecstasies, and her experiences of God’s own presence, and it was she who wanted to teach her method of prayer to others. Secondly, Jeanne reminds me to be compassionate when studying history. She didn’t heroically stand by her teachings in the face of indefinite imprisonment; she renounced her greatest work and went on living piously. These actions might not have been as noble as some of those we’ve written about on this blog, but they can remind us that historical hotties respond to hostility in many different ways because at the end of the day they’re “just” people.