SECTION TWO: Help Given to the Provinces of Picardy and Champagne
In 1650, by a secret judgment of God, the scourge of war which for many years had afflicted the greater part of Europe began to be felt in France. It continued to do so until the concluding of a general peace in 1660.1 Among all the provinces of the country, Picardy and Champagne were most exposed to the storm. They endured its violence longer, particularly after the enemies of the state besieged the city of Guise, and the king’s army advanced to its relief. The two armies confronting each other at the frontiers caused extreme desolation. When they withdrew they left in their wake many soldiers weakened by hunger, and suffering from many illnesses. Many wandered in search of food, but others fell by the roads from sheer weakness, dying miserably, deprived of the sacraments and all human consolation.
Some witnesses to this sorry spectacle brought the news to Paris. Everyone rejoiced there at the retreat of the enemy, but few troubled themselves about the poor abandoned soldiers who died so miserably, deprived of all help.
Monsieur Vincent, so sensitive to the sufferings of the neighbor, was touched to learn the pitiable state to which these poor people were reduced. He spoke to Madame de Herse, much given to works of charity, and immediately sent two of his priests with a horse loaded down with provisions. They carried around five hundred livres in cash in the hope of saving those dying from hunger or readying those beyond hope for a happy death. Once the missionaries arrived on the scene they found such a great number of these poor people dying along the hedgerows and the roads that they quickly exhausted the provisions they had brought. They had to go to the nearest villages to purchase more, but were astonished to find the same conditions prevailing in the villages as in the countryside. They quickly wrote to Monsieur Vincent to alert him to the desolation of the entire province, and that the help they had brought was completely inadequate in the face of such pressing needs. The armies had gathered in all the crops, and had left the people with scarcely the shirt on their backs. Most of the country people had left their homes to seek some means of livelihood in the towns, but no one gave them any help, for even the merchant class lacked bread. They gradually weakened, and many died terrible deaths. Once Monsieur Vincent received these letters, he alerted the Ladies of Charity of Paris, and arranged with them to send other missionaries, with greater alms than before.
To understand better the magnitude of these works of mercy we must realize the extreme misery of the people in these two provinces during the ten years or so when the armies from one side or the other pillaged and ravaged, spreading desolation everywhere. We can see this better by citing the letters these same missionaries wrote to Monsieur Vincent from various places, telling him of what they had seen with their own eyes, to provide an outlet for his great charity. This is what they wrote, from Guise, Laon, and La Fere:
It is a great pity to see such a vast multitude of sick everywhere we turn. Many suffered from dysentery and fever. Others are covered with sores or a purple rash, or with tumors and boils. Many are swollen, either in the head, the belly, or the entire body. These troubles come from eating only the roots of plants during most of the year, or spoiled fruit, or some bread made from barley husks, scarcely fit for dogs. We hear nothing but pitiable cries for something to eat. Sick as they are they travel in the rain and by wretched roads two or three leagues distant to have a bit of soup. Many live in the villages deprived of confession and the sacraments. They do not even have anyone to see to their burial. This is so true that not three days ago, in the village of Lesquielle, near Landrecies, where we had gone to visit the sick, we found a dead man. His body was half eaten by wild animals who had entered the house. Is it not a strange desolation to see Christians so neglected in life, and even after their death?2
They wrote in another letter:
We have just finished visiting thirty-five villages near Guise. We found there nearly six hundred people whose misery is so great they throw themselves upon dead dogs and horses, after the wolves have satisfied their hunger. In the city of Guise alone are more than five hundred sick living in cellars or caves, more suited to house animals than men.3
Many poor people in Thierache for many weeks have not had bread to eat, not even the bread made from the husks of barley which is reserved for the better-off. They eat only lizards, frogs, and wild grasses.4
In several ruined towns, the leading inhabitants are in a shameful necessity, their pallid faces showing how great their need is. They must be helped privately, like the nobility in the countryside. Seeing themselves without bread and lying upon straw, these people suffer the shame of not being able to beg for what is needed to live. And besides, from whom can they ask help, since the war has spread its misery everywhere?
What is even more lamentable is that these people on the frontiers not only lack food, wood, clothes, and blankets, but lack a shepherd and any spiritual comfort. Most of their pastors are either dead or sick, and the churches are ruined and sacked. In the diocese of Laon alone are a hundred or so churches where mass cannot be celebrated, since they are so ruined. We do what we can, but the task is endless. We must come and go without stopping, always at risk from the hunters, to help the more than thirteen hundred sick we have under our care in this single district.
Several convents live in great poverty, and the nuns suffer from hunger and the cold. Their choice is to die in their cloister, or to break it to seek enough to sustain life.5
Writing from the diocese of Soissons, the priest there said:
We have visited the poor of the town, and the other villages of the valley, where the affliction we have seen surpasses anything you have been told. To begin with the churches: they have been profaned, the blessed sacrament trampled under foot, the chalices and ciboria carried off, the baptismal fonts broken, the furnishings stolen. In this small region are more than thirty-five churches where it is impossible to say mass.
Most of the local people died in the woods while the enemy took over their houses. Others returned to die under their own roofs. We see only the sick wherever we go. More than twelve hundred, besides the six hundred enfeebled ones, live in the thirty ruined villages in the area. They sleep on the ground, or in houses half destroyed and open to the sky, without any help. We find them living with the dead, and small children at the side of their dead mothers.6
Those from Saint Quentin wrote as follows:
How can we help the seven or eight thousand starving poor, the twelve hundred refugees, the three hundred and fifty sick who should be fed with soup and meat, the three hundred families of the city or country too ashamed to beg, the young women on the verge of selling themselves, or to prevent what happened the other day to a young man about to kill himself, and who would have done so if someone had not prevented him, the fifty priests whom we should help feed before all the others? Just the other day one was found dead in his bed. He preferred to die rather than ask for himself what he needed to stay alive.7
The suffering of the poor cannot be expressed. If the cruelty of the soldiers drove them into the woods, hunger brought them back, and they have now taken refuge here. There are nearly four hundred sick, and the town cannot help, forcing many to leave, only to die along the roads. Those who stayed are in such rags they rise from their rotting straw only to seek us out.8
The famine is so great we have seen men eating the soil, grazing on grass, chewing on the bark of trees, tearing the rags covering their bodies to swallow them. What we could not dare say, if we had not seen it with our very eyes, horrible as it is, they eat their own hands and arms, and die in their despair. We have three thousand poor refugees, five hundred sick, not to mention the poor nobility and the poor of the city too ashamed to beg, whose number increases every day.9
The missionaries sent to the region around Reims and Rethel wrote as follows:
No words could tell nor ears believe what we have seen since we first came here. Churches are profaned, with what is most sacred and most adorable not spared. The fixtures have been stolen, the priests either killed, tortured, or put to flight. All the houses are destroyed, the harvest carried away, the fields lying idle, with neither tillers or sowers. Famine and death are everywhere. The dead are not buried, left for the wolves to devour. The remaining poor are reduced to searching the fields for bits of wheat or oats which serve to make a kind of bread that is almost like dirt, so unhealthy nearly everyone is sick. They take shelter in caves or in huts where they sleep on the bare ground, without coverings unless they happen to have a sheepskin. Their faces are black and disfigured, and yet their patience is admirable. Entire districts are deserted, since those who have escaped death have themselves left to seek food. Only the sick remain, or orphans, or poor widows in charge of little children. They are all exposed to the rigors of hunger, cold, and all sorts of difficulties and misery.10
This, then, was the state to which the people of these two great provinces had been reduced, especially the four or five dioceses closest to the frontiers. This happened for nearly ten years, from 1650 until the publication of the general peace treaty in 1660. This great desolation was not the same everywhere, nor at the same time, except at the beginning. During the remainder of the time, however, these conditions prevailed in one or another part of Picardy and Champagne.
From the beginning Monsieur Vincent sent ten or twelve missionaries to travel everywhere and attempt to save the lives of thousands of persons reduced to the last extremity. They divided the territory among themselves, some in the diocese of Noyon, others in Laon, or Reims, or Soissons. Each one took responsibility to serve the needs of their particular district. They set up centers for the daily distribution of soup and bread, food, jams, medicines, clothes, linens, shoes, tools, seed, church furnishings, money, and so on.
The Daughters of Charity were also sent to several places, especially to look after the sick poor. Since their alms and distributions were needed so widely, the expenses during the first years mounted to ten, twelve, or even sixteen thousand livres a month. The price of commodities was so high and the misery so extreme and widespread that, without this help, nearly all these poor people would surely have perished.
Since spiritual help is no less important for souls, the missionaries devoted themselves with great care and almost indefatigable zeal to the poor. Since they could not be everywhere at once, they had the aid of some other priests who helped out in those parishes with no pastor.
Besides the missionaries employed in the various dioceses, Monsieur Vincent sent a qualified priest to oversee the entire enterprise.11 He traveled everywhere to see the actual needs of the poor, and those places which needed help most desperately. He selected persons of piety and charity in the various towns and villages where the missionaries could not remain, to take charge of the distribution of food and other alms to the poor. This supervisor regulated the flow of aid, increasing or decreasing it according to circumstances as the number of poor and sick increased or diminished in each place. He reported all this faithfully to Monsieur Vincent by letter.12 He in turn kept the Ladies of Charity of Paris informed. These ladies met each week with him, to advise and agree on what could be done to further this holy enterprise.