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Heresy Hunting: The Monk and the French Revolution

  • James Whitlark

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  • James Whitlark
    Texas Tech University

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Previous studies have connected The Monk and the French Revolution as well as that novel and anti-Catholic polemics. [1] Pursued separately, these connections are unsatisfying: in 1794 (when Lewis commenced The Monk , the Revolution was topical, but obvious correlations between it and the book seem slight; instances in The Monk of anti-Catholic prejudice are massive, but apparently far from topical.

Actually, the two connections were interrelated. Burke's Reflections on the Revolution in France (1790) maintains, "We know, and what is better we feel inwardly, that religion is the basis of civil society, and the source of all good and of all comfort." [2] His "Thoughts on French Affairs" (1791) insists "It is a Revolution of doctrine and theoretick dogma . It has a much greater resemblance to those changes which have been made upon religious grounds, in which a spirit of proselytism makes an essential part." [3] The rhetoric of the day mixed sacred and secular, most obviously with the execution of Louis XVI, a political and religious symbol. An even greater source of metaphysical horror was the de-Christianizing (1793): the old calendar of religious holidays replaced with an Enlightenment one; [4] its new festivals sometimes celebrated with "goddesses" on altars; campaigns of desecration headed by former monks; many ecclesiastical buildings destroyed leaving "naked dancers and drunken children in the ruined churches and among the gravestones "; and all but the most compromising priests persecuted, exiled, or killed. [5] In 1794, Robespierre was executed, largely for having introduced a cult of the Supreme Being, which, despite being far from Christianity, was still too theistic for the extremists. By 1795, Christianity seemed to have been eradicated. [6]

Very plausible at the time was the notion that the whole revolution had been a plot against Christianity. The most massive documentation of that charge appears in the first volume of Abbé Augustin Barruel's 1797 essay Mémoires pour servir à l'histoire du jacobinisme. [7] Much of his argument, however, had been anticipated by other works, including Abbé Jacques François Lefranc's diatribe of 1791, Le voile levé pour les curieux ou les secrets de la Révolution révelés à l'aide de la francmaçonnerie and his 1792 sequel, Conjuration contre la religion catholique . The cast of characters of this conspiracy varied from author to author, including at one point or another the Illuminati of Bavaria, the masons, the Jesuits, and the devil himself. [8]

What, though, was the real driving force behind this conspiracy? Catholics tended to assume that it was Protestantism. [9] Conversely, Protestants blamed the Catholics. [10] "Popery was no longer [to Britain] the enemy as such, but it was frequently cited as the influence that had created the despotic state of affairs from which the Revolution had emerged. Protestant England had made 1688 possible; Catholic France had made 1789 and 1792 inevitable." [11] Furthermore, philosophes had Catholic (primarily Jesuit) educations, obtaining habits of thought that they retained even while rejecting Christianity. Thus, for instance, Helvétius writes "[in formulating an excellent system, o]ne must look upon oneself as the founder of a religious order who, in dictating his monastic rule, has no regard whatsoever for the conventions and prejudices of his future subjects". [12] Aware of such Catholic notions among anti-clericists, Burke writes, "These Atheistical fathers have a bigotry of their own; and they have learnt to talk against monks with the spirit of a monk." [13]

Generally, Protestants lumped any deviation from their own sect with Catholicism. Cartoons, for instance, showed Methodist ministers as secret Jesuits. [14] Despite Burke's Reflections 's emphasizing his "zeal" as a Protestant, both Thomas Paine and Mary Wollstonecraft, in their replies to it, imply that his conservatism is ultimately Catholic. [15] The Birmingham riot of 1789 came partly because the Dissenter Priestley had written about laying gunpowder under superstition—superstition being one of those catchwords for crypto Catholicism. His language, however, reminded Anglicans of the Roman Catholic terrorist Guy Fawkes, so the rioters assumed that the Dissenters would likewise try to bomb Parliament. [16]

The point is that anti-Catholic stereotypes had become both very malleable and topical, with new complex associations, raising as yet unanswered questions. [17] Should Catholicism be blamed because its authoritarianism may have prepared the way for the Terror? Or should it be pitied as the chief victim? Did the decrease of Catholic power on the continent mean that time was ripe for Toleration of Catholics in Britain? Or was there a new Catholic threat? During the early 1790s, the French launched agents to exacerbate religious discontent in Ireland and caused thousands of their own Catholics to emigrate to Britain, increasing Protestant anxiety. [18]

Since the Reformation, Protestantism served as the British superego, advocating rationality, morality, practicality, work, and other dull pursuits. The id was projected on Catholicism. Camille Paglia goes so far as to contend: "Protestant rationalism is defeated by Gothic's return to the ritualism and mysticism of medieval Catholicism, with its residual paganism." [19] Her oversimplification ignores the pervasiveness of anti-Catholicism in the Gothic novels, yet her impression contains a certain truth. To the extent that those romances credit beliefs presumed by the Protestant mainstream to be Catholic superstition, Gothicism contains buried within it a pro Catholic nostalgia counter to its anti-Catholic surface. This tension became turbulent and urgent, since the French Revolution awakened Catholic/Protestant debate. [20]

Written near the height of French de Christianization, The Monk embodies this tension, but set in Spain. If, as was broadly assumed, Catholic authoritarianism was the precondition of the Terror, what better way to study that tyranny than where it was most notorious—the Spanish Inquisition (also the setting of Godwin's rumination on the ancien régime , his novel St. Leon ). Indeed, if the most extreme English paranoia of 1794 were justified, the repressiveness of Spanish society made it a candidate for an even greater Terror than France had known. The Monk begins with the corruptness of a Madrid congregation:

Scarcely had the Abbey Bell tolled for five minutes, and already was the Church of the Capuchins thronged with Auditors. Do not encourage the idea that the Crowd was assembled either from motives of piety or thirst for information. in a city where superstition reigns with such despotic sway as in Madrid, to seek for true devotion would be a fruitless attempt. [21]

The "superstition" is "despotic"—at least metaphorically political. Wickedly seeking some vestige of amusement on the Sabbath, these continentals come in immoderate numbers, losing en masse their individual consciences. Thus, when Leonella and Antonia seek a seat, despite the age of the former and the beauty of the latter, "exclamations of displeasure" arise from those reluctant to be pressed further (8). The scene foreshadows the even greater lack of gallantry when a mob murders an abbess, destroys her convent, and tries to slaughter all her nuns.

The cast of characters is that of anti-revolutionary works such as Burke's Reflections . First, there is the religio political demagogue. Ambrosio, has command of his monastery and great influence beyond it, because of his ability to deliver such sermons as the one that begins the book. Comparably, Burke commences his Reflections with Price's sermon, all the more dangerous because of its "pulpit eloquence." [22] According to Burke, Price is an "arch pontiff with all the plenitude, and with more than the boldness of the papal deposing power in its meridian fervour of the twelfth century." [23] Metaphorically, Price (the Dissenter and friend of Revolution) is a Papist, someone who takes religious authority beyond its proper sphere.

Next of the anti-revolutionary stereotypes is the Crowd. Lewis later editorializes: "[Ambrosio] knew not how uncertain is the air of popular applause, and that a moment suffices to make him to day the detestation of the world, who yesterday was its Idol" (299). Applied to an abbot, the word "Idol" recalls Protestant denunciations of supposed idolatry in Catholicism, while the fickle mob brings to mind the alleged idolatry of revolutionaries both in their treatment of their leaders and their setting up statues of the goddess of Reason. In other words, Catholicism, in its supposed lack of sexual and other restraint, allegedly breeds idolatrous Crowds, which retain their vices even when they lose their faith.

Finally, arrive the most pitiable victims of mob discourtesy and violence—women. A famous (or infamous) passage in Burke's Reflections tries to win sympathy for the queen exposed to an arrest that has overtones of a gang rape. Obviously, Lewis also much employs the Gothic device of endangered, innocent women, whether their enemy is some evil confessor or an anti-clerical crowd. Related to this pattern are the sexist stereotypes so often noted in Burke: Protestant England as masculine and sensible; the Catholic continent as feminine and credulous. In the Gothics, to demonstrate the folly of continental credulity, women in particular embody superstition (e.g., comic old Catholic spinsters complaining of purgatorial ghosts) and suffer as victims of it (e.g., virgins pining away in nunneries).

Of course, there is also another reason for feminine victims—an almost pornographic frisson if they are both vulnerable and beautiful. A typical Gothic novel is not just about the deserved punishments of Catholics but also their guilty pleasures. A villain's blasphemies render his or her eroticism the more vivid and perverse. For instance, in The Monk , "A single Lamp, burning before the Statue of St. Rosolia, shed a faint light through the room, and permitted [Ambrosio] to examine all the charmes of the lovely Object before him" (300). The saint can shed but faint light and no protection over her owner for the statue is no God, but a Catholic idol. Ambrosio, who previously came very close to having sex with a painting of the Virgin, here reduces the living virgin to a similar "Object" of evil devotion.

He spends much of the book in "a confused Chaos of remorse, voluptuousness, inquietude, and fear," (226) because he cannot resist secret temptations. Both in the novels and in anti-revolutionary literature, a strident theme is secret evil, lurking in the hidden passageways, rooms, and crypts of Gothic stone. Villains lose all self control away from public scrutiny. Victor Sage writes, "There are [according to stereotype, for Catholics] no conscious, no internal checks on spiritual pride. The self of a Catholic, to the Protestant imagination, is not approachable; it does not exist in the body, but elsewhere." [24] Catholic social control is through confession and other external ceremonies, supposedly making Catholic countries extroverted, Protestant ones introverted—a distinction that pervades later commentary on the French Revolution. [25] Reputedly a Catholic has difficulty distinguishing virtue from public reputation. Thus, Ambrosio, Madrid's "Idol," succumbs to secret "vanity":

He was no sooner alone, than He gave free loose to the indulgence of his vanity. When He remembered the Enthusiasm which his discourse had excited, his heart swelled with rapture, and his imagination presented him with splendid visions of aggrandizement."


"Vanity" is Burke's favorite allegation against philosophes and revolutionaries alike. Wollstonecraft then repeatedly turns it against him, implying his being almost Catholic in his hidden vice.

Purportedly, coming from an extroverted culture, the philosophes had difficulty finding what beyond reputation (i.e., vanity) would insure the moral behavior of those who lost their faith. Oddly, the philosophe Paul Holbach ended hoping for vestiges of superstition to help preserve righteousness. He writes, "Thus it is that the murderer, during the night, even when awake, believes he sees the mourning ghosts of those whose throats he has cruelly cut; he sees the horrified stare of the enraged crowd which cries aloud for vengeance." [26] Similarly, "Bewildered by fear, [Ambrosio] fancied that his flight was opposed by Legions of Phantoms; Where ever He turned, the disfigured Corse seemed to lie in his passage, and it was long before He succeeded in reaching the door" (304). Having largely lost his faith, instead of properly worrying about Hell, Ambrosio is here tormented by a superstitious fear of ghosts.

That, at least, is a Protestant way of looking at the scene. In a Radcliffe novel, where the supernatural can always be explained as mere Catholic superstition, the Protestant interpretation would be the only one. [27]The Monk , however, may credit the existence of the bleeding nun's ghost and even Elvira's. Although Protestant and Catholic debates about the existence of ghosts have been quite complex, one key point has been the doctrine of purgatory. Jacintha presumes that Elvira's ghost comes from Purgatory (328). Similarly, the nuns say of a mysterious voice, "Doubtless, it proceeds from some Soul in pain, who wishes to be prayed out of purgatory: but none of us here dares to ask it the question" (362). Although sounding like anti-Catholic satire, these passages establish a connection in the reader's mind between ghosts and the Catholic doctrine of purgatory. As to the bleeding nun, Agnes initially vents some very Protestant like doubts about that specter, only to find that the haunting is real. Furthermore, the ghost is constrained by a Catholic exorcist and finally banished by a mysterious figure, who employs Catholic paraphernalia, including a crucifix. The ghost's last wish is for thirty masses for her soul, so, even after death, she continues in this Catholic belief. The devil asks Ambrosio, "Was Purgatory meant for guilt like yours? Hope you that your offenses shall be bought off by prayers of superstitious dotards and droning Monks?" (434). The implication seems to be that, for some, purgatory does exist.

Admittedly, an adamantly Protestant reading is possible: when the devil talks of succubi or of purgatory he, as the father of lies, might be doubted. Similarly, as largely a story within a story, some suspicion may fall on the tale of the bleeding nun while the vision of Elvira's ghost may be hallucinatory (even though she is prophetic). The work is equivocal. However, in terms of Catholic/Protestant debates equivocation was supposedly reserved for the Catholic side. Faced with political, scientific, and industrial revolutions, the 1790s evidenced a semi conscious nostalgia for the Catholic past. It underlay the vogue of the Gothic. Abbeys became beautiful sites for rumination so long as they were safely in ruins. Catholic superstitions were no longer quite as threatening—indeed, might acquire a fascinating quaintness—so long as the French led the Continent into dismissing them.

Burke pictures Britain as all the more modern because it retains a monkish foundation. He writes: "And after all, with this Gothic and monkish education (for such it is in the ground work) we may put in our claim to as ample and as early a share in all the improvements in science, in arts, and in literature." [28] Taking her cue from this, Wollstonecraft's reply repeatedly denounces him for his "Gothic" attitudes. [29] This debate over the relationship between the "Gothic" and the French Revolution has relevance to The Monk . Burke sees no danger in being whimsical and nostalgic about the "Gothic" (i.e., monkish, Catholic) past—a lack of caution that Lewis shares. Wollstonecraft, however, calls Burke to task as the heresy hunter Thomas James Matthias wished Lewis be brought to trial for blasphemy.

At about the time the French stopped guillotining people for not being irreverent enough, an anti-vice society probably asked the attorney general to ban The Monk for alleged blasphemy. [30] Certainly, numerous reviews made that charge—but only after the author was identified as a member of Parliament. [31] Here again, as with Burke, the explosive mixture is politics and religion. To join the two in any questionable way was to be treated like the ancient enemy of Anglicanism, Catholicism. Thus, the blasphemies of Lewis's Catholic characters are taken to be his own.

The most denounced passage was Elvira's expurgating the Bible to keep her daughter ignorant of the facts of life. This innocence helps Ambrosio in his manipulation of her, so the plot shows the folly of such bowdlerizing. One of the most persistent Protestant charges against Catholicism was that it discouraged the reading of the Bible in its totality. Furthermore, a theme throughout The Monk is that the Catholic attempt to render people unnaturally innocent leaves them unprepared to resist evil. This result is most notable in Ambrosio himself because of his education: "[The monks] painted to him the torments of the Damned in colours the most dark, terrible, and fantastic, and threatened him at the slightest fault with eternal perdition" (237). Finally, Elvira's criticism of the Bible is said to contain "exactly" what Abbot Ambrosio found in it (259). What better evidence of error than its being confirmed by the book's religious villain!

Lewis is exaggerating tendencies in Catholicism in order to satirize them. Nonetheless, there is an ambiguity such that the narrator may either be paraphrasing Elvira's blasphemy or sharing it. The Jesuit trained philosophes and their Sans culottes followers had gone from Catholic hesitancy about Bible reading to ridicule of the alleged indecencies of scripture. Thus, the time led Lewis's critics to search for something comparable amid the degenerate Catholic voices of The Monk and blame its author for them. Nuns' lusting after young Theodore, a monk turned robber who pronounces a burlesque wedding ceremony, the cruel abbess with her secret machinations, and all the other disreputable ecclesiastics appear with no Protestants to counterbalance them. Implicitly, the book is Christian, since the devil makes such a point of tempting Ambrosio into renouncing Creator and Redeemer (434). [32] Nonetheless, Robert Geary contends "The Monk nullif[ies] God, Providence, and the agencies of redemption, yet reveal[s] depraved and demonic energies which cannot be exorcised." [33] Although not literally true, that impression does justice to the bleak mood of the book. When its mob goes from Catholic "superstition" to burning a convent, "The Roofs came tumbling down upon the Rioters, and crushed many of them beneath their weight" (358). This is the way that the continent was seeming more and more to the British as the French spread, attacking religion and destroying one another. The horned devil's final verdict on Ambrosio is "You have given up your claim to mercy, and nothing can restore to you the rights which you have foolishly resigned" (440). In employing the word "rights," he coins a shibboleth from the Enlightenment, while his appearance is from the Catholic past—The Monk's ending (like the rest of it) being a confection of the Revolution baked in medieval hellfire.