Cover image for The Wanton Jesuit and the Wayward Saint: A Tale of Sex, Religion, and Politics in Eighteenth-Century France By Mita Choudhury

The Wanton Jesuit and the Wayward Saint

A Tale of Sex, Religion, and Politics in Eighteenth-Century France

Mita Choudhury


$69.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-07081-0

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248 pages
6" × 9"
21 b&w illustrations/2 maps

The Wanton Jesuit and the Wayward Saint

A Tale of Sex, Religion, and Politics in Eighteenth-Century France

Mita Choudhury

“Choudhury is a reliable guide to this often difficult material. She knows the world of eighteenth-century French Catholicism well, and has deftly untangled the case’s legal complexities.”


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This microhistory investigates the famous and scandalous 1731 trial in which Catherine Cadière, a young woman in the south of France, accused her Jesuit confessor, Jean-Baptiste Girard, of seduction, heresy, abortion, and bewitchment. Generally considered to be the last witchcraft trial in early modern France, the Cadière affair was central to the volatile politics of 1730s France, a time when magistrates and lawyers were seeking to contain clerical power.

Mita Choudhury’s examination of the trial sheds light on two important phenomena with broad historical implications: the questioning of traditional authority and the growing disquiet about the role of the sacred and divine in French society. Both contributed to the French people’s ever-increasing disenchantment with the church and the king. Choudhury builds her story through an extensive examination of archival material, including trial records, pamphlets, periodicals, and unpublished correspondence from witnesses.

The Wanton Jesuit and the Wayward Saint offers new insights into how the eighteenth-century public interpreted the accusations and why the case consumed the public for years, developing from a local sex scandal to a referendum on religious authority and its place in French society and politics.

“Choudhury is a reliable guide to this often difficult material. She knows the world of eighteenth-century French Catholicism well, and has deftly untangled the case’s legal complexities.”
“This well-researched work demonstrates how a micro-historical approach provides the possibility of combining historiographical interests too often separated by artficial frameworks such as, for example, the subfields of cultural history hilariously divided into ‘history of ideas’ and ‘history of the mind’. The trial explored by Choudhury becomes in fact the scholarly stage for not only studying broad social and religious conflicts, but, for example, exploring religious practices through the study of violence endured by women, while at the same time presenting a critical examination of the concepts attached to such issues, still in use in today’s histories.”
“Students of eighteenth-century France have long been aware of the importance of the Cadière affair. Fortunately, the case has now found its historian. Mita Choudhury, a leading expert on the politics of theological conflict in Old Regime France, has given us a rich account of the scandalous provincial encounter in the early 1730s that resounded all the way to the halls of Versailles and the Sorbonne.”
“Choudhury’s book revitalizes the genre of microhistory, pioneered a generation ago by Carlo Ginzburg and Natalie Zemon Davis, as a unique window into the cultural world of early modern Europe. . . . This study is meticulously researched and at the same time highly readable, as Choudhury paints vivid portraits of the key players in the story while preserving the suspense of this courtroom drama until the end of her study. Highly recommended.”
“Specialists will welcome this first full modern account of an important and in many ways representative cause célèbre of the sort that damaged the authority of the French church, the Jesuits, and the monarchy during the eighteenth century. But its audience will also be much wider, as it provides a rich window into many aspects of eighteenth-century French society.”
“Upper-level undergraduates could engage this tale and the historical developments it explores with guidance. Outside of pedagogical considerations, Choudhury’s tale merits the attention of a wide range of readers, from specialists in the eighteenth century to those interested in the many issues raised by this case.”
“In the most impressive chapter in this impressive book, Choudhury shows how pamphlets, verses, and images, including an extraordinary series of thirty-two erotic engravings, combined current events with raw materials from high and low culture to indict the Jesuits and the magistrates who support them.”
“Choudhury’s book might be read as a model of a microhistory, a deeply researched case study that serves as a microcosm for viewing broader themes in eighteenth-century France—Jansenists versus Jesuits, a judicial system that provided opportunities for French subjects to defend themselves against powerful opponents, the emergence of public opinion, and the struggle of royal authority to control dissent. But Choudhury shows that the Cadière affair has causal as well as illustrative significance, provoking a national controversy that contributed significantly to the century-long erosion of the authority of Church and King.”
“Choudhury writes vividly and unfolds the scandal at some pace and with persuasion, based, as her study is, on examination of private correspondence, official exchanges, and police records.”

Mita Choudhury is Professor of History at Vassar College.


List of Illustrations



The Girard/Cadière Relationship

1 A Community of Faith

2 The Meeting of Two Souls

3 Unraveling and Betrayal

The Trial

4 Becoming a Cause Célèbre

5 Arguing the Case

6 Before the Courts

Beyond the Grand’Chambre

7 Public Opinion and the Story of the Wanton Jesuit

8 The Aftermath






In June 1749, lawyer Édmond Barbier noted the arrest of Denis Diderot (1713–1784), a “man of wit and belles-lettres,” who would later make key contributions to the French Enlightenment. He believed that the Paris police had incarcerated the philosophe because they thought he had written a lewd novel, Thérèse philosophe, ou Mémoires pour servir à l’histoire du P. Dirrag, et de Mademoiselle Éradice. After five months in the Château de Vincennes, Diderot was released, despite the police’s conviction that he was “dangerous, talking about holy Mysteries with contempt.” Authorities suspected that he had composed a number of sacrilegious texts but, in fact, did not connect him with Thérèse philosophe. The real author remained shadowy, but the book became the century’s best-selling pornographic novel. Mixing sizzling sex with impious philosophy, the heroine, Thérèse, chronicles how various mentors—a libertine noblewoman, a cleric, and a courtesan—gave her a well-rounded sexual and intellectual education.

Barbier was less concerned with the novel’s blasphemous content and more excited by the fact that it included “the history of Father Girard, Jesuit, and the demoiselle Cadière in Aix-en-Provence, which created such a stir.” This “history” appears in Thérèse’s account of the affair between her friend Mademoiselle Éradice, who “loved God like one loves her lover,” and the famous confessor Father Dirrag. While “all of Europe” knew their story, Thérèse is privy to a more intimate episode. At Éradice’s invitation, Thérèse hides in a closet to observe Father Dirrag’s spiritual “instructions.” Éradice promises, “You’ll see . . . the power of my spiritual exercises and the stages of repentance through which the good father is leading me to sainthood. And you’ll no longer be able to doubt the ecstasies and the raptures which these exercises produce.”

Through a crack, Thérèse watches Dirrag teach his enthusiastic young penitent the mystical principle of “oubliez-vous, laissez-faire”—“forget yourself and let yourself go.” Éradice kneels in prayer, buttocks exposed, as he whips her while quoting the Bible and then declares, “You should now be . . . in a state of the most perfect contemplation; your soul should be detached from your senses. If my child does not disappoint my holy expectations, she sees nothing, hears nothing, and feels nothing.” Having urged her to ignore all physical sensations, the confessor penetrates her from behind, telling Éradice that what she feels is a segment of the original cord St. Francis of Assisi wore around his waist. Thérèse observes “His Holiness” during orgasm: “He was like a satyr, his lips frothing, his mouth ajar, grinding his teeth and snorting like a bull.” After Dirrag leaves the room, the ecstatic Éradice exclaims, “Yes, I have seen Paradise unveiled; I’ve experienced angelic bliss. . . . By virtue of the holy cord my soul was almost freed from matter.” Clearly, the distinction between mystic and sexual union was blurred at best.

This seduction scene juxtaposed blind faith and clerical hypocrisy. According to historian Robert Darnton, the 1748 publication of Thérèse philosophe belonged to a transformative moment in French intellectual culture. Diderot, Montesquieu, Voltaire, and Rousseau all published substantial works at midcentury. Just three years after Thérèse philosophe, the first two volumes of the monumental Encyclopédie appeared. Erotic fiction and a massive compendium of knowledge may seem to have little in common. However, Darnton locates Thérèse philosophe in “the bawdy, naughty, cheeky world of the early Enlightenment, where everything was held up to question and nothing was sacred.” The novel belonged to a distinctive Enlightenment genre, the livre philosophique, which fused frenzied sexual activity with philosophical deliberations on the soul, morality, and individual happiness—the same weighty topics scrutinized by the Encyclopédie.

Pairing Thérèse philosophe with an Enlightenment classic suggests that the novel’s secular outlook reflects the beginning of a new, more “modern” mindset. There is much to support this claim. For example, the abbé T . . . , one of Thérèse’s mentors, pontificates on the incompatibility between Christian teachings and nature: “To be the perfect Christian, one must be ignorant, to believe blindly, to renounce all pleasures . . . , to abandon one’s relatives, friends, to maintain one’s virginity, in a word do everything that is contrary to nature.”

However, returning to Édmond Barbier, we see that his first impulse was not to connect the novel with Enlightenment philosophy but to recall the story of Jean-Baptiste Girard (Dirrag) and Catherine Cadière (Éradice), central figures in a trial that had rocked France seventeen years earlier. This scandal began in late 1730 when Catherine Cadière, the twenty-year-old daughter of an olive oil merchant in Toulon, accused the fifty-year-old Jesuit Jean-Baptiste Girard of shocking crimes in the confessional. Their relationship—one of confessor and penitent—began quietly enough in 1728. Within a year, however, the young woman’s body had become a battleground between demonic possession and divine ecstasy. Friends and neighbors believed that Catherine was on the brink of sainthood, destined to be another Teresa of Avila or Catherine of Siena. But the story of Catherine the saint and Father Girard the saint-maker turned sour. In November 1730, Catherine denounced Father Girard for sexual misconduct. A few months later, the torrid scandal became a fraught judicial conflict.

Although the trial took place in Aix-en-Provence, four hundred miles from Paris, all France followed the sensational case. Private correspondence, official exchanges, and police records from 1731 indicate that everyone in the realm had an opinion on it. Elites updated each other on the voluminous legal briefs, or mémoires judiciaires, in which lawyers made inflammatory claims about evil Jesuits and false mystics, sexual misdeeds and conspiracies. English and German translations quickly appeared, suggesting that much of Europe was equally fascinated. Periodicals, pamphlets, songs, and other polemics circulated in cafés and taverns, taking aim at everyone from Father Girard to the judges.

The story’s salacious details may explain this fervid interest. Catherine claimed that Father Girard had urged her “to accept a state of [demonic] possession,” to embrace indecent visions, and, finally, to embrace him. Catherine soon found herself yet more compromised in a pregnancy that Father Girard then terminated with an abortifacient. Soon after her revelations to her new confessor (and possible lover), Father Nicolas Girieux, Catherine went to authorities in Toulon to seek justice.

Clumsy official handling of the case aggravated the scandal. By January 1731, matters in Toulon were stalemated, so Louis XV commanded the region’s royal judicial courts, the parlement of Provence, to try the case. Meanwhile, Cardinal André-Hercule de Fleury, then prime minister, and Chancellor Henri d’Aguesseau corresponded with powerful individuals in Toulon and Aix, hoping to quash the affair quickly and quietly. It was too late. The presiding judges were at each other’s throats, and the trial dragged on into the fall. Moreover, the affair divided the public, whose interpretations of the trial read like a “he said/she said” melodrama. Indeed, the marquis d’Argens said the affair created rifts everywhere—within families, between lovers.

We, too, are drawn to the details of Catherine and Girard’s relationship. What really happened behind closed doors? The truth is lost to us, buried under layers of accusations and the passage of time. Instead, I would draw readers’ attention to how men and women of the eighteenth century reacted to the scandal. Intervention by the realm’s most powerful individuals and the public’s passionate responses show that this trial was not simply about a sexual liaison between an aging cleric and his young penitent. Jean-Baptiste Girard conjured up images of Urbain Grandier and Louis Gaufridy, seventeenth-century priests burned at the stake for witchcraft. The Girard/Cadière affair may have started as the last witchcraft trial in French history, but, at bottom, it was a political affair. For readers today, the trial sheds light on two intersecting phenomena: growing uncertainties about the role of the sacred in buttressing the power of traditional figures of authority in French society, and the compelling presence of the public in eighteenth-century politics and religion. While Thérèse philosophe used the Girard/Cadière scandal as a vehicle to denounce Christian teachings, this book examines how the affair was firmly rooted in the world of faith as well as political and religious dissent.

Over the past three decades, historians have shown that religious disillusionment emerged not out of the Enlightenment but out of the divisions erupting around Jansenism, a contentious French Catholic sect with origins in the early seventeenth century. Even as the Catholic Church vigorously supported free will, Jansenists (as their detractors called them) steadfastly believed in predestination, the notion that only God—not human choices or actions—determined salvation. Jansenists seemed to undermine the hierarchy that elevated clergy over laity. In defense of individual conscience, Jansenists sometimes defied ordained priests, challenging the notion that a priest must mediate between God and the lay individual.

To modern readers, such theological issues are arcane, but for early modern men and women, questions about eternal salvation and religious conformity were intensely relevant to their souls and their community. Thus, the clergy occupied a central place in the lives of the laity. For many devout persons, relationships between confessors and penitents rested on trust and reverence. The Cadière trial exposed the fragile negotiation between the private world of confession and the public authority of the clergy.

The case also gained political urgency as the conflict over Jansenism intensified after the anti-Jansenist bull Unigenitus appeared in 1713. For the aged Sun King, Jansenism undermined the absolutist principle of un roi, une loi, une foi—“one king, one law, one faith.” On the grounds of conscience, Jansenists resisted the king’s authority as well as the Church’s chain of command. Jansenists also espoused a more “republican” Church in which bishops and church officials were not appointed by the king but elected by the clergy. Jansenism threatened Louis XIV’s vision of a well-ordered body politic that prized authority and tolerated no religious dissent. By persuading Pope Clement XI to publish Unigenitus, Louis XIV sought to stamp out the “heresy” of Jansenism. But immediately after his death in 1715, large numbers of clergy lodged official appeals against Unigenitus, supported by prestigious institutions such as the Sorbonne and the parlement of Paris. Outside Paris, Provence became an important node of resistance to the bull.

This conflict had reached a flash point on the eve of the Girard/Cadière affair. During the late 1720s, Cardinal Fleury relaunched a campaign to cleanse the clergy of Jansenism. Ultramontane, or pro-papal, bishops now tirelessly pursued suspected Jansenists, who were often imprisoned or exiled. On March 24, 1730, Louis XV declared that Unigenitus was “the law of church and state,” which outraged the parlements and further politicized the Jansenist movement. Then, in July 1731, Jansenist devotees, known as the convulsionnaires, writhed and screamed in the Paris cemetery of Saint-Médard. For some, their behavior was miraculous; for others, an embarrassment. With their backs against the wall, Jansenists found a godsend in the Girard/Cadière affair, especially since they held the Jesuits responsible for all their woes.

For Catherine Cadière’s supporters, Jansenist and non-Jansenist alike, the trial was not just about one wanton priest but the pernicious influence of France’s most powerful religious order—the Jesuits, known formally as the Society of Jesus. Jesuit priests acted as royal confessors, spiritual directors, and educators, positions with privileged access to the king and to elite French families. Many contemporaries, including ecclesiastics and men of law, regarded the Society as too influential and too independent, beyond the power of the Crown and leaders of the French Church. The Jesuits were widely seen as foreign interlopers seeking to usurp the king’s authority and control his subjects. Jansenists, proponents of predestination, loathed the Jesuits, who were the Catholic Church’s fiercest gatekeepers of free will and clerical superiority. The Jesuits saw Jansenists as heretics whose beliefs verged on Calvinism. This mutual antipathy only worsened with the arrival of Unigenitus, a document the Jansenists claimed that the Jesuits had orchestrated.

Despite the Society’s power, anti-Jesuit sentiment seemed to gain traction. In the years before the Cadière trial, anonymous pamphlets spread anti-Jesuit messages to “expose” Jesuit immorality and the Society’s threat to political and social order. Now, the Girard affair dealt a serious blow to the Jesuits’ reputation and added another layer to the black legend of the “wily Jesuit.”

In the long run, far more was at stake than individual reputations. The public disputes over Jansenism destabilized the sacred underpinnings of authority in early modern French society. Divine-right kingship was at the core of Bourbon absolutism. The king’s authority was legitimate and incontestable because it was God-given; in turn, the most Catholic king was expected to uphold Catholic doctrine. Furthermore, the power invested in the realm’s institutions and leaders, like the parlements and their magistrates, was also sacred because the king sanctioned it.

But like the acrimonious debates over Unigenitus, the Cadière scandal precipitated intense, often hostile scrutiny of such authority. No evidence exists that Catherine herself had Jansenist sympathies, although there is evidence that both her brother Étienne-Thomas and Father Nicolas did. More importantly, certain men of law, such as attorney general Jacques-Joseph Gaufridy and the lawyer François Gastaud, as well as satirists in Provence and Paris, hated the Jesuits and relentlessly criticized Unigenitus. Their efforts on behalf of Catherine Cadière or, more accurately, against Father Girard transformed the trial from a local sex scandal into a referendum on religious authority. Their strategy? They appealed to the public through inflammatory arguments intrinsically tied to the campaign against Unigenitus and the Jesuits. The Cadière affair highlighted the dangers of clerical overreach for the spiritual and, indeed, physical welfare of French men and women.

During the summer of 1731, these claims hardly seemed exaggerated. The Jesuits’ efforts to protect Father Girard at all costs prompted popular fear that the order violated the rights of the king’s subjects. Moreover, magistrates who supported Father Girard were accused of blind devotion and corruption. Ultimately, this animosity rebounded on the Crown: Cardinal Fleury was believed to be in league with the Jesuits and, at the very least, Louis XV appeared unable to control either faction. Religious quarrels, unrestrained clerical powers, and repressive Crown measures contributed to the “desacralization” of the French monarchy—the gradual erosion of divine-right ideology and royal prestige. A cameo of the larger conflicts around Unigenitus and the Jesuits, the notorious Cadière affair played an important role in this process.

Lawyers’ and polemicists’ efforts to involve the public during the trial dovetailed with an important shift in Jansenism in the early 1730s: its expanding support among men of law, the bourgeoisie, and the menu peuple of Paris. By 1733 and well into the 1750s, men of law actively intervened on behalf of the appellant clergy; they more or less replaced theologians and bishops as opponents of Unigenitus. Barbier repeatedly noted that the “people” of Paris were avid Jansenists whose zeal had been “ignited by a number of priests who have been removed” from their parishes. Similarly, the Girard/Cadière trial shows how the disputes over clerical abuse occurred not only in ecclesiastical councils and judicial chambers but also in homes and in the streets. Contemporary accounts detail how, in the summer of 1731, crowds comprising elites and non-elites gathered at Catherine’s prison in Aix and around the courthouse where the Provençal magistrates were deliberating. In the days following the October 10 verdict, riots and celebrations in Toulon caused property damage and led some to fear for their lives.

Despite these violent episodes, the public did not simply represent a mob, nor was it a passive audience. Lawyers and polemicists consistently presented their arguments before “public opinion” and asked the public to identify with Catherine: her cause was the cause of all believers and all French subjects. Verses vilifying Girard painted Catherine as the victim of a Jesuit seducer who had also violated her spiritual and civic rights. Catherine’s lawyer, Jean-Baptiste Chaudon, described the public as “so enlightened, so rightly the adjudicator of virtue and of merit, Sovereign Arbitrator of men’s reputations, the true Judge of their innocence.” He thus endowed the public with an authoritative, potentially decisive position.

Over the past few decades, historians have emphasized how the process of desacralization and the emergence of public opinion became key features in French politics during the 1750s. According to Keith Baker, “French politics broke out of the absolutist mold. The reign of silence imposed by an absolute monarch could no longer contain debates and contestations that made increasingly explicit appeal to a world of public opinion beyond the traditional circle of institutional actors.” The Crown was besieged from all sides. In the summer of 1750, the marquis d’Argenson remarked in his journal how the people of Paris called their king “Herod,” referring to the notorious Jewish king responsible for the Massacre of the Innocents. Instead of toeing the line, the princes and the parlement of Paris challenged the Crown’s policies. At the same time, the Jansenist conflict was reignited, thanks to ultramontane bishops and priests who refused to administer the sacraments to suspected Jansenists.

These events of the mid-eighteenth century signified a “moment” in French political history, much as the publication of Thérèse philosophe was a “moment” in the same period’s intellectual history. They marked the emergence of a public, an abstract entity signifying a secular community of reasoning individuals. This public possessed a more “modern” sensibility in which the norm was not to obey but to question rationally. This perspective of a “public” and its challenges to authority points toward the French Revolution. Just two years after the Girard/Cadière trial, Voltaire published the Philosophical Letters, which one critic described as “the first bomb dropped on the Old Regime.”

Readers may ask what difference twenty years makes in identifying a public that can express seditious statements. The Girard/Cadière trial represented a watershed event that allows us to think beyond a “prerevolutionary” moment and more about the eighteenth century as a long sequence of turmoil and transition. As Thomas Kaiser states, “it is undoubtedly true that after 1750 rhetorical appeals to the public increased and the authority of public opinion grew. But by then, the monarchy and the public had been tangled in a tumultuous embrace for a long time.” Even in the decades before the 1730s, political reformers and financiers appealed to “enlightened” public opinion. Skepticism and irreverence punctuated popular songs and poems that drifted around the cafés frequented by ordinary people—people whose lives were deeply intertwined with Catholic practice and belief.

The Girard/Cadière trial illuminates how disaffection and dissent grew within the complex world of French Catholicism. It illustrates what Dale Van Kley has argued for decades—that religious conflict was pivotal in bringing about the demise of the Old Regime. The affair coincided with a time when the Catholic community was unstable and contested as a result of the Jansenist controversies. In the weeks after the trial, ultramontane bishops and royal officials believed that the Catholic faith was threatened and that support for Catherine equaled sedition and disorder. Through the Cadière affair, we also see the “politics of contestation” evolving outside legal institutions and the rhetoric of constitutionalism. Public opinion coalesced around a scandal that began as a private affair, originating in a world inhabited by most French subjects. Although the Jesuits were often cast as foreign, an imaginary Other, in reality they were integral to people’s lives as priests and advisors, making the Cadière affair much more traumatic.

We might think of eighteenth-century French society as a fabric woven of strong, sustaining threads of the sacred, of authority, of obedience. The Girard/Cadière affair tore fiercely at this fabric. In time, the strain would cause eighteenth-century French men and women to grow disenchanted with their church, their authorities, and at last with their king.