A Saint in the Sun

Praising Saint Bernard in the France of Louis XIV

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David N. Bell
  • Collegeville, MN: 
    Liturgical Press
    , April
     2017.
     602 pages.
     $49.95.
     Paperback.
    ISBN
    9780879072711.
     For other formats: Link to Publisher's Website.

Review

It has been difficult to include the spirituality of early modern France in the undergraduate classroom, in part because of the inaccessibility of sources. Recently, however, scholars have begun to produce translations of a variety of sources—from autobiographical accounts to letters to sermons—to make the theology and spirituality of the early modern era more accessible. David N. Bell’s A Saint in the Sun: Praising Saint Bernard in the France of Louis XIV is a welcome addition to this collection. As Bell explains in the preface, this collection began with a single translation—of the conference by Armand-Jean de Rancé, the founder of the Trappist order—to which he added the translation of other panegyrics of Saint Bernard as points of comparison (xi). In order to provide a complete picture of the way Bernard of Clairvaux was portrayed in seventeenth-century France, he has translated and/or summarized the majority of published panegyrics on Bernard from this period.

Bell has done an excellent job of making these sermons accessible to the non-specialist. First, he provides three introductory chapters that give introductions to the historical and religious context of seventeenth-century French preaching. The first chapter discusses King Louis XIV, the intellectual and religious environment of seventeenth-century France, the popularity of the image of Saint Bernard in this period, and the publications of Bernard’s life and writings. The second chapter goes deeper into the religious environment, focusing on concerns over mystical experience and the Quietist controversy, and discussing the ideas of Miguel de Molinos, Madame Guyon, and François Fénelon. Bell’s overall point in this chapter is to explain why the preachers tended not to discuss Bernard’s mysticism. As he explains, “Bernard of Clairvaux may indeed have been a great mystic, but to discuss his mysticism was far too dangerous and could lead one all too easily into theological and spiritual quicksands” (50). The third chapter gives an excellent introduction to the genres of sermons and panegyrics in early modern France, especially in placing sermons into the context of the literary culture of the period, describing the standard structure and content of sermons, and the goals of both the preacher and the listening audience.

Additionally, each of the chapters on the sermons themselves includes extensive footnotes to history and theological concepts that might not be familiar to the non-specialist. Two helpful appendices follow the text as well. The first one covers key technical terms in French spirituality, from anéantissement/annihilation to penitence/penitence (also translated as repentance or penance) to spiritualité/spirituality. In this last example in particular, Bell explains how spirituality in seventeenth-century France does not mean what we mean by spirituality today, but was rather associated with mysticism (547). The second appendix covers personalities in the life of Bernard of Clairvaux referenced in the sermons. Some of these entries are more useful than others. For example, the entry on “Abelard, Peter” (549–50) only summarizes how Abelard was viewed in seventeenth-century France, giving no historical context for the “real” Abelard, which would have been helpful.

The preachers whose sermons are translated in this text include Jacques Biroat, Armand-Jean de Rancé, Jacques-Bénigne Bossuet, François Fénelon, Charles de La Rue, Henri-Marie Boudon, and Jean-Baptiste Massillon. These chapters provide a translation of a panegyric on Bernard, preceded by an introduction that gives some information about the preacher, the way this preacher had been evaluated in previous scholarship, and a summary/analysis of the sermon. The summary/analysis in these chapters could have perhaps been shortened, since readers are about to read the sermon for themselves. The repetitiveness of this structure felt a bit tedious by the end of the text.

The one critique this reader has of the text is the reasoning behind the choice to include several summaries of sermons in three of the chapters, instead of the translations, and to include, in two separate chapters, the original and revised versions of Charles de La Rue’s panegyric. It is unclear what purpose these chapters serve—since, for example, this reader would rather have students read the original texts in translation than summaries of the text; and the repetitiveness of the chapters of Charles de La Rue’s sermons feels tiresome. Overall, however, Bell has done an excellent job at providing a portrait of the way in which religious figures of seventeenth-century France received and interpreted Saint Bernard. It is an excellent addition to a growing collection of translations of spiritual writings from the Grand Siècle.

About the Reviewer(s): 

Elissa Cutter is a postdoctoral faculty fellow in theological studies at Loyola Marymount University.

Date of Review: 
November 8, 2017
About the Author(s)/Editor(s)/Translator(s): 

David N. Bell is professor emeritus of religious studies at Memorial University and a Fellow of the Royal Society of Canada. He retired as head of the department of religious studies at the end of 2011. He has published some two dozen books, more than a hundred articles, and a great number of book reviews. His most recent book, published May 2014, is The Library of the Abbey of La Trappe: A Study of its History from the Twelfth Century to the French Revolution (Brepols).

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