In the spirit of Vincent de Paul, life, thoughts and action intermingle and come forth from within him. That is why it is impossible to approach this committed and daring believer outside the political, social, economic and religious circumstances that developed during his lifetime. His life and his thoughts were a constant effort to assimilate the reality of his time and to respond generously to the situations and the problems that history offered to him. It is impossible to discover the meaning of history, to reread the “writings of history,” to interpret the Vincent de Paul event, without knowing the archaeology of history. Anything else would only be projected fantasies inconsistent with history, creating a “view” lacking in meaning and objective. To forget this would be to ignore the fact that Vincent de Paul was the type of man for whom life and thought develop in reciprocal interaction. The realities of his life, the circumstances and opportunities that came his way, the ongoing experiences that shaped him, become a rich source for reflection, which in turn become a source for practical ways of acting. That is why his life constitutes a hermeneutical principle for his thought, and his doctrine is the formulation of his faith and his experience. In this faith and in this experience, he integrates what he is and what he understands, what he discovers and what he suspects, that is, the political, social, economic and religious world in which his life unfolds.
Difficulties in understanding institutional history at the time of Vincent de Paul
To analyze the society in the time of Vincent de Paul (15811660) does not involve the application of certain pre-established schema, taken from certain old or new systems conceived on the edge or outside of society. The role of the historian is not to construct preestablished systems, but rather to observe, discover, try to understand and help promote understanding.
All scholastic, juridical or worldly forms of classification vanish before the essential: this society was above all a rural society, organized in function of the earth. It developed in several demographic, economic, juridical and mental frameworks which help us to understand it. In this sense, it should be noted that the notion of a “society of orders,” even if it is interesting, useful and frequently exact, cannot completely explain this society. The uncompromising formalism of the notion of “society of classes” is also useful, and to some extent exact, but it also falls short of taking into account what this society involves. To understand the society at the time of Vincent de Paul, it is necessary to enter into it slowly, to analyze its demographical, economical, political and religious aspects. Our re-reading of the history of this society has to happen necessarily within “what has been written” and in “what has been said.” If unfortunately we do not have all the secrets of this key that allows us to interpret them, we can, however, take note of the dangers that exist when examining it.
First danger: the sources
For a long time, an understanding of the institutional history of France at the time of Vincent de Paul was developed almost exclusively from official texts: ordinances, administrative rules, instructions addressed to those who were to apply them and put them into practice in the provinces. In this way, there was a tendency to overestimate the efficiency of the “administrative monarchy.” We cannot doubt the value of these documents. At the same time, however, it must be admitted that they do not show us the concrete application of these decisions that were made at the highest governmental level of the nation. Moreover, given the fact that they were done repeatedly, we would tend to doubt their effectiveness. There are other sources, such as notary, judicial and private sources, which today allow us to perceive much more clearly the concrete resistances that arose against the orders coming from central power.
Second danger: atomization of institutional studies
In keeping with an apparent logic, one can successively approach the Councils of the King, the executive officers, the judiciary bodies, the officers responsible for fiscal functions, the recruitment and organization of armies and the units of local life. All of these aspects have been examined in excellent studies, to which we will refer. The purpose is to understand the broad outline of the global functioning of the system as it evolved.
Third danger: the temptation to characterize history in a linear way
One cannot doubt the growing efficiency throughout the 17th century of the system or machinery of centralized power in French society whose decisive progress occurred at the end of the same century during the reign of Louis XIV. But this progress was not attained without reactions and repercussions: periodically the political, economical, or military situation called into question what had already been considered to be established.