One of the paradoxes of my project is that, although I have been tracing a French connection within a wider millenarian world, relatively few of my primary sources are in fact located in France. This was no surprise to me, for I am after all working on a Protestant oral prophetic culture that emerged in the aftermath of the revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 and which was brutally repressed for most of the eighteenth century. Therefore, most of what survives about the prophets of Languedoc and Dauphiné, outside of hostile official sources, is scattered abroad across northern European archives.
Still, where did this oral prophetic culture come from and why did it emerge in southeastern France and not in other regions with a sizeable Protestant community like Poitou or Normandy, for instance? Historians have often stressed that Languedoc and Dauphiné shared a long history of heresies dating back to the Middle Ages. The world-famous prophet Nostradamus was also active in the region and his predictions circulated widely in the late seventeenth century. And while the Camisards already presented themselves as the descendants of persecuted Cathars and Waldenses in the 1700s, the idea of a traceable heterodox genealogy is simply impossible to demonstrate.
Another hypothesis that few scholars have explored is the possibility of a foreign spiritual transfer. It has been suggested that the Spanish Alumbrados infiltrated France in the seventeenth century and that they gave birth to various mystical circles across the kingdom. Similarly, the Quakers began sending missionaries to France in the same period, several of whom are known to have travelled to Dauphiné in the 1660-70s, precisely where Isabeau Vincent and the petits prophètes appeared a few years later.
In an attempt to answer these questions, I visited the Bibliothèque Interuniversitaire de la Sorbonne (BIS) in the heart of Paris’ Latin Quarter, one of the oldest universities in Europe. The library is home to a collection of French mystical literature that has received very little attention to this day. Not knowing what I was going to find, I took a chance for a day trip, hoping to discover new links to my millenarian network.
Unfortunately my experience started off on the wrong foot. Nobody seemed to know where the rare books and manuscripts reading room was and people sent me in opposite directions. I tried my luck in one of the small bibliothèques de section upstairs, but rather than helping, the staff behind the desk looked at each other and sneered. One of finally said: ‘It’s on the ground floor, you can’t miss it.’ Indeed, it was so obvious that no one I asked on the ground floor knew where it was. Nor was it listed on the floor plan. I finally found it on across the inner courtyard, through the galeries Sorbon and Richelieu. The entrance to the BIS is indeed on the ground floor, but the salle de réserve is actually on the fourth floor!
I waited patiently downstairs in the entrance hall to be issued my reader’s card. Once in the reading room, the staff members behind the desk were pleasant and helpful (sigh!). They retrieved my order at short notice and answered all my questions. Photography is allowed free of charge without flash and within reasonable limits. Otherwise you will be invited to fill out a form to order reproductions.
Sadly, although not surprisingly, I found no conclusive evidence of any connections, let alone spiritual transfers, with the prophetic outbreaks of Languedoc and Dauphiné during my visit at the BIS. But what I saw there opened my eyes to the underground spiritual life of mid seventeenth-century France.
The journey continues…