One of the intriguing connections between popular culture and literature that I’ve unearthed this summer is the figure of the criminal priest. He is only “criminal” because of the prohibition against Catholicism declared in the early years of the Revolution, and his only “crime” is to celebrate traditional masses after they have been outlawed. This is a field rich with irony and pathos: perfect ingredients for story-telling.
Readers may recall Balzac’s thrilling story of outlaw clergy in “An Episode under the Terror,” which begins in a bakery where a nun is spending her last louis d’or on a batch of illegal hosts. But I bet you have not heard of the holy bakers of Simon Bruté and the Western Adventure!* It opens with a scene under the Terror as well, when young Simon was living in his hometown of Rennes, in western France.**
Thanks to the boy’s piety as well as his home’s location—in the Palais de Justice right next door to the town prison–Simon has a special job. He works with two priests disguised as bakers who come to sell bread to prisoners. After all the prisoners have received their ration of bread (and secretly, Holy Communion via the hosts hid in the bakers’ baskets), the republican guard yells out harsh words that break the tranquil moment captured in the illustration.
Fill in the blanks with the mean Jacobin’s words (or the most likely thing a mean Jacobin was imagined to say):
“Enough,” said the guard firmly. You’ve fed them enough for today. They’ll all be dead anyhow, so why fatten them up? _________________________ will see to their needs. Enemies of the Republic! They’ll eat no more bread.”
- Le croquemitaine (aka the bogey man, who will scare them straight)
- L’homme au sable (aka the sandman, who will give them sweet dreams)
- Madame Guillotine (aka the blade, that will cut off their heads)
- Père Duchêne (aka the group of lawyers who, volunteering their time in The “Père Duchêne Project,” saved many a prisoner from the Tribunal’s wrath)
*Elizabeth Bartelme, Simon Bruté and the Western Adventure (New York: P.J. Kenedy & Sons, 1959), 15.
** Simon Bruté is best known as the Bishop of the diocese of Vincennes, Indiana (1834-39)