Vincent de Paul, priest and philanthropist 06

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoVincent de PaulLeave a Comment

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Author: E. K. Sanders · Year of first publication: 1915.
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Chapter V: Renaudot, the friend of the poor

TRADITION has been formed by a very simple method in relation to the philanthropy and social reform of the seventeenth century. Vincent de Paul, having been once recognized as philanthropist and social reformer, becomes responsible for all the good works undertaken; anything that was accomplished outside the range of his influence has either been attributed to him or else ignored as un­worthy of serious attention. His contemporaries were probably quite sincere in their presentation of him, and his achievement was so astounding as to give sufficient excuse for ignoring the attempts of others; nevertheless, his life bears such close relation to his time that it can only suffer by the suppression of fact. During the years of his greatest activity we must recognize that the instinct of reform in social conditions was alive even where it received no stimulus from the Church’s law of charity.

It was prompting vigorous activities in those who were not outwardly pledged to the service of Christ, and undoubtedly labour in the service of others was separable from religious practice in the days of Vincent de Paul, even as it is to-day.

It is well, then, to find the real place held by M. Vin­cent among the philanthropic movements of his time and incidentally to pay tribute to the independent effort of a layman in the cause of far-reaching social reform. In any picture of those days it should be impossible to overlook the personality of Théophraste Renaudot1, that  learned doctor and gentleman of Louvain whose originality and enterprise gave birth to schemes of such practical value that one can hardly set a Iimit to their develop­ment. The sympathies of M. Vincent were drawn in just the same direction, but he and Renaudot never seem to have come in touch. This fact has its own significance, for it points to the very clear division between the work of the social reformer and that of the priest. Whatever M. Vincent did had as its ultimate purpose the conver­sion or confirming of souls; all his pity for the bodily sufferings of the people was overshadowed by a supreme desire to share with them the spiritual joy which was his own. He could not ignore their bodily necessities, and he was so true a servant of Christ that he suffered in the sufferings he witnessed, and was constant in his attempts to solve the problem of poverty which in its most ghastly form was presented to the thinkers of the seventeenth century. But the desire for that solution was never all-important; always there was present with him the convic­tion that the knowledge of Christ is a benefit far greater than deliverance from pain or satisfaction of earthly desire. It would be better to depose him from his place as the leader and patron of practical philanthropists than to forget for a moment that he was in the truest sense a mystic, holding things unseen incomparably more precious than any good that might be accomplished by the most devoted of charitable workers under the most perfect of committees.

Théophraste Renaudot

Théophraste Renaudot

This was not the point of view of Théophraste Renau­dot. But though it was applied to securing tangible benefits, and those only, for his fellows, the self-devotion of the doctor was hardly less than that of the priest. The priest, coming to Paris while Marie de Médici held the reins of government, was appalled by the indifference of the people to such things as concern eternity; the doctor was seized with consternation at their ignorance of practical matters affecting their immediate welfare. Both held that the evils they deplored were remediable, and faced the vast array of difficulties bravely, the priest relying on direction and support from God, the doctor appealing to his generation in the name of humanity and common sense. Their paths, therefore, remain parallel, till that of Renaudot was blocked, and his enemies suc­ceeded in deposing him from the pedestal of public bene­factor on which he had fairly earned his place. To realize the true value of his attempt, it is necessary to picture an industrial population without employment agencies, without advertisements, without auction-rooms where a private owner could dispose of his goods, and without pawnshops. None of these things had any real existence when Renaudot came from Louvain to Paris. One attempt had been made, it is true, to establish an office where workmen from the country could hear of work, but as those for whom it was intended did not know of its existence, it was not of notable utility.

When the harvest was bad, or when the army had passed by, destroying crops and commandeering cattle, the country-folk had to face starvation or seek refuge in the towns. In the provinces their lot was less desperate, but Paris had no hospitality to spare for new-comers ; and though their course of action was an inevitable effect of public and universally recognized disasters, no effort seems to have been made to provide for the victims or prevent them from becoming ensnared by the gangs of malefactors of both sexes infesting the poorer parts of the capital. It was not the fashion to give much thought to such people, and in those days of the first Regency there were many absorbing topics for the thoughts of those who held power or ever hoped to hold it. Sweeping regu­lations to expel or shut up all thieves and wastrels might be passed, and from time to time enforced, but, as we have seen, there was no idea of treating a vagabond as an individual, or of offering him the chance to win back his place in the social order, lost very frequently by reason of national calamities.

Théophraste Renaudot belonged to a profession which did not aspire to power in the State. The nobles and the prominent lawyers—the noblesse de la robe—might struggle for control over the affairs of the nation, but the doctors went their own way on a path that was often both lucra­tive and pleasant. In Louvain and the surrounding country Renaudot won for himself great respect and popularity. He had a capacity for independent thought and for encouraging others to use their brains, and his fame became familiar to Père Joseph, and was brought to the notice of Richelieu. His practice had given him knowledge of the needs of the people, and he wrote a ” Traité des Pauvres.” Richelieu’s mission was first of all to exalt and protect the throne, and afterwards to raise the condition of life for the rank and file of the King’s subjects. He found in Renaudot a man whose ambitions caused no misgiving, and whose station gave him opportunities of knowledge denied to the most astute of First Ministers. In 1625 Renaudot obeyed the sum­mons of the Cardinal and came to Paris. He was to be Commissaire Général des Pauvres and an honorary physician to the King. Thus he could begin his experi­ments with the support of royal patronage. The first of these was the establishment of the Bureau d’Adresse. This was the practical exposition of his most vigorous theory on the social question—namely, that it is a grievous infringement of the rights of the individual to force him to an employment without possibility of choice, as was done by the regulations for the treatment of vagrants.

He chose as headquarters a house at the corner of the Rue Calandre, which looked on the Marché Neuf. Here, at the Sign of the Cock, in the very centre of labouring Paris, he entered on his tremendous task2.

At the Sign of the Cock, from eight to twelve in the morning, from two to six in the afternoon, advice was given to all who desired work. Employers were welcomed and the details of their needs entered in a book. Masters of workshopswere invited to send notice of their vacancies; those who were changing their abode might register their new addresses ; those who were desiring a tenant might come in contact with those that sought a habitation. Advice on every subject of practical utility might be obtained, and infinite pains were taken to make the advice the best available. For those who could afford to pay, a charge of three sous was made ; but to the very poor, for whose benefit the Bureau was originally con­ceived, its help was given gratis. There is no room for doubt that Renaudot was inspired throughout his career by an earnest wish to lessen the suffering that is the fruit of ignorance, and to encourage self-respect and self-reliance in the class where those qualities are most un­common. His methods show that he had grasped the disabilities of his poorer neighbours, had weighed them, and formed his judgment with a justice and precision that would have qualified him to take his place as a leader among social reformers in a later age. A glance at the prospectus that heralded the opening of his Bureau d’Adresse reveals his point of view:3

  1. ” To prevent poverty and mendicity in the future,” he wrote, ” the best precaution is the prompt supply, to those in danger of these evils, of employment for their industry and skill, so that none may be forced into the miserable last resource of begging for lack of other means to help themselves.”
  2. ” According to S. Bernard, really good advice is the greatest benefit we can confer on anyone. This does not apply only to the poor, but the poor, being the most in need, may receive most assistance from it.”
  3. ” It is for this reason that we begin with a petition to each and all to suggest everything for the help and assistance of the poor that may be of service either to their general condition or to particular individuals—any-thing that may aid them to obtain shelter, food, clothing, attendance in sickness, or the means to earn their living, which last is the most necessary of all charities.”

With the actual dispensation of charity the Bureau would have nothing to do, but the charitably disposed might leave an address to be given to a necessitous person of whatever type they chose. The kindling of the spirit of charity and the extension of the knowledge of the poor was, indeed, one of Renaudot’s objects, but his office towards the poor was to be kept carefully from connec­tion with almsgiving. He meant that, in a modern phrase, ” they should be helped to help themselves.”

The Bureau won immediate celebrity. It is curious to turn from the tentative methods of Vincent de Paul, to whom success came always as a surprise, to Renaudot, with his flourish of trumpets, his sensational ventures, and swift plunges into notoriety. The Bureau d’Adresse was amply sufficient to satisfy the instinct of enterprise even in a man of energy. Its utility grew. All new­comers were sent, by the King’s authority, to register their names there if they were not provided with work. The difficulty of arranging bargains when owners and purchasers lived at a great distance from each other sug­gested a sort of auction-room; the desire to borrow small sums on security of goods that might be kept in pledge inaugurated a sort of pawnshop. These institutions were afterwards separately adopted and perfected. Renaudot, who had been in Italy, had seen the beginning of the monte di pietà there, and he applied the principle to the needs of the people with whom he was in constant inter­course. It was natural that the offices in the Rue Calandre should become just such a centre of usefulness as Renaudot had pictured, and that a stream of men of greatly differing types and fortunes continually passed through them. Watching them as they came and went, talking to them as he transacted business, listening to snatches of their talk one with another, Renaudot became inspired by a new idea.

At all times scandal flies as swiftly as ill news, and in those days the knowledge of a pungent and satisfactory scandal was assisted in its course by the circulation of evil little leaflets known as ” Nouvelles d la Main.” These, albeit their authorship was always hidden and their contents were flagrantly libellous, were bought and eagerly discussed, but beyond these there was no method of purveying information that concerned the public. To Renaudot the interests of his fellow-citizens was synony­mous with the interests of his Bureau. He saw the need for an accredited journal of events, and at the same time the host of applicants at his sale-rooms suggested that a price list of their contents would be of service to intend­ing buyers. He had easy access to the secret counsels of Père Joseph and the Cardinal, and he laid his new idea before them. Richelieu listened, comprehended, and approved, and undertook to incline the King to do the same. Another royal patent was issued to Théophraste Renaudot, and on May 3o, 1631, the first Gazette, con­taining current news and a catalogue of goods for sale, was issued from the Sign of the Cock in the Rue Calandre. This was the birthday of journalism in France, as well as of the system of advertisement. In England and in Italy the need for news was at the same moment producing the first attempts at a newspaper, but Théophraste Renaudot was the first to combine advertisement with the supply of news. Probably there was not one of the citizens of Paris who could understand what an important move­ment was being heralded from the Sign of the Cock. Renaudot himself was as anxious about the notices furthering bargains between his clients as about the news

that preceded them, and Richelieu, absorbed in his en­deavour to disentangle the royal prerogative from the criticism and contempt that had been earned for it by Marie de’ Medici, never showed a full realization of the power of the new weapon put into his hands. Possibly the true spirit of journalism is in its essence combative, and can­not develop without opposition. Renaudot had been granted a monopoly. No news was to be circulated in printed form except by the Gazette, and the news in the Gazette came fresh from the Louvre and the Palais Car­dinal. Loyal subjects thus had the privilege of buying for the modest sum of one sou the literary efforts not only of the First Minister, but of the King himself, and might rest assured that all the information imparted to them was made public with the full approval of their rulers. So long as the Gazette had no rival, it answered its purpose of pleasing the people and strengthening the influence of Richelieu, but to maintain the monopoly of so brilliant an enterprise required the support of the law. Other news sheets were issued and found a ready market, and Renaudot could not hope for justice in the courts, because, as the partisan of the Cardinal, he was the enemy of the noblesse de la robe.

The whole position is difficult to realize after a lapse of nearly three centuries. The flagrant corruptness of the magistrates is hardly less astonishing than the short­sightedness of the autocrat who thought that all editor­ship could be vested in one individual. Renaudot him­self seems to have had some gifts as a leader-writer, but when keen wits were pitted against him, and the tremen­dous claim of his other avocations made it hard to com­pete in a war of words, he did not attempt to employ mercenaries for his defence. Not until his sons reigned in his stead did journalism become a bread-winning trade for starving genius, and by that time the city had settled down to the calmer times of the Great Monarch’s maturity. Renaudot’s fortunes were bound up with the Gazette. He retained it when he lost all else, and so far as he is remembered at all, it is in connection with it that his memory survives. But though it was effective in lessen­ing the gulf between differing classes by increasing the interests that could be held in common, it had not that direct bearing on the daily life of the poor which charac­terized every other enterprise of his. Of his real achieve­ments the last, still to come, was at once the most useful to the poor he loved and the most fatal to himself.

As agent, as man of business, and as journalist, Renau­dot acquitted himself well, but he never ceased to be a doctor or to regard the sufferings of humanity from the point of view of one who seeks to cure. He was not a religious man, and close scrutiny into the detail of his life reveals that some crusades against abuses undertaken on the purest motives were maintained in the spirit of fiercest rivalry and partisanship. He was born and bred a Huguenot, and the fact that State patronage was neces­sary to carry out his projects is likely to have accelerated his conversion to Catholic belief. Nevertheless, when confronted with distress that had no necessary connection with his own interests, and no natural claim upon his sympathy, he was moved to efforts for its relief so strenu­ous and so self-denying that no follower of Vincent de Paul could have outdone him. With his ardour, too, went practical knowledge such as was rarely possessed by the religious enthusiast. If a Catholic Confraternity could have so enlarged its limits as to benefit by his ex­perience and power of initiative, the rugged outline that is left to us of Renaudot the Combatant might have been softened by the gentler traditions of fellow-workers, while his work itself, supported by the tremendous influence of the Church, might have weathered the fiercest violence of opposition.

For his last undertaking, far more than for his Bureau and Pawnshop, or even his Gazette, survival under the best auspices was desirable. To Renaudot the doctor, the needless suffering caused by neglected illness made a special appeal. But in his day the Hôtel Dieu was so overcrowded that patients admitted were not likely to profit by their sojourn there, and numbers were turned away for lack of space. The medical profession occupied itself with those who could offer a fee rather than with the rejected applicants at the hospital, and there was actually no means by which a poor man could obtain medical assistance. The parish doctor, the dispensary, and the hospital out-patients’ department, were unknown, and the amateur suggestions of the herbalist of a religious house was the only resource for those who could not afford a doctor’s fee.

Renaudot required another of those royal patents which it was so easy for him to obtain; he required also the practical support of learned doctors who sympathized with his experiment. It was a result of his work during the foregoing years that he could command all he needed, and in 1640 there was opened the first ” Consultation Charitable ” in the largest room of his premises at the Sign of the Cock. Here every Tuesday morning (at a later time it was every day) certain doctors assembled, sometimes to the number of fifteen, and the afflicted persons desiring to consult them were admitted. If the case were serious, the doctor to whom the patient had applied could claim to consult with others, but the pro­ceedings were very carefully ordered. Every applicant had a numbered ticket given to him, and by that number was summoned to take his turn, and medicines were sup­plied from a dispensary in the house. In due course arrangements were made for seeking out the sick in their own homes, but this was chiefly out of regard for the needs of the women (no women were admitted to the consulting-room at the Sign of the Cock), and the real utility of the ” Consultation Charitable ” was as an established centre of medical advice. When we consider prevailing conditions, it is not without reason that we term it the crown­ing achievement of Renaudot’s career. It was also an instrument of his downfall. Already his success in other directions had won him a host of enemies, and this tre­mendous innovation on the practices of the medical profession left him open to the attack of a powerful clique. While the ” Consultation Charitable” was still a novelty, Cardinal Richelieu died, and Renaudot found himself without protection. The Cardinal contrived to maintain a hold on the small affairs that concerned the citizens of Paris, while he directed the destinies of nations, and it was in the petty interests and intrigues of professional men and scribblers that the removal of his iron hand was felt the soonest. All those who had resented the ascen­dancy of Renaudot found themselves free to turn on him, and those of his own profession were eager in their on­slaught. He was overwhelmed in a storm of opposition, and the great work for the lightening of the poor man’s burden, which he had carried on at the Sign of the Cock, came to an end.

Public opinion would not permit the suppression of the Gazette, but only this was left to him. The ” Consulta­tion Charitable ” took form under another name and in other hands, and some of his best endeavours seemed to be lost in utter failure. Yet there can be no doubt that Paris was the better for the years he spent in the Rue Calandre, and the clamour that raged round Renaudot and his inventions may have carried to some deaf ears a new suggestion of the duty a man owes to his neighbour. Perhaps, also, when his enemies trumpeted round the city the news that he was dead, and that he—the cele­brated favourite of the Cardinal—had died ” gueux comme un peintre,” the scornful phrase may have borne with it the thought that this was the most honourable ending to the life of the poor man’s friend. Thus, neglected and almost beggared, robbed of all credit from work that was destined to benefit ceaselessly those whose need was greatest, Théophraste Renaudot came to the end of his task. He is worthy of remembrance, not only for the new ideas which by his courage and cleverness were made into pivots of national life, but because he himself was the originator of a new type. He stands in complete independence of all established works of charity. Indis­criminate almsgiving, which was always the practice of religious houses, had no place in his schemes to help the poor. He desired that the rich should learn respect for the individual, and that the poor, carefully guided to the means of self-support, should merit such respect. The monks distributing food and money broadcast at their convent gates, or the pious ladies forcing all and sundry to accept their largesse in just the form they chose for its bestowal, had not as yet the faintest inkling of the high ideal of social amity towards which Renaudot was striving. But in those days an innovator could not hope to stand by his own strength. The waves of party feeling ebbed and flowed too strongly for a solitary figure to keep foothold. The benefactors of the poor were introduced to the people by the Church, and Renaudot, though he was protected by Richelieu, deferred to him as First Minister rather than as Cardinal. His philanthropy, we must repeat, was not connected with religion.

The full force of that fact is obscured by the vast numbers of his successors in the more recent centuries, but it had tremendous significance at the time. Prac­tical piety was the fashion, even in high places, and the ” Consultation Charitable,” as well as other efforts dear to their founder’s heart, might have had support strong enough to baffle all attack from jealous doctors or petti­fogging lawyers. But Renaudot would not be pious. It is probable that his close knowledge of the poor revealed to him the prevalence of hypocrisy where charities were administered in the customary way, and he kept sternly aloof from the Church or the Church’s methods. Later generations have discovered that the religious and the utilitarian spirit are not necessarily inimical, but it is idle to speculate on the possible result of combination between Renaudot and M. Vincent. Without éclat or eventual profit to himself, the layman struggled through his task, and because of the limitations that he set for himself, was freed from many complications. The priest, aiming higher, was oftener deceived, and had, perhaps, more reason for deep discouragement; yet, allowing for the power he derived from the Church, and the special patronage lavished on him because he was a priest, it must still be admitted that the sum of his accomplishment was infinitely the greater of the two.

  1. See Eugene Hatin, “Théophraste Renaudot.” Gaston Bon-nefont, ” Un Oublié—T. Renaudot, 1586-1653.” Gilles de la Tourette, ” Renaudot d’après des Documents Inédits.”
  2. A statue of Renaudot commemorates the site of his house on the Ile de la Cité.
  3. See Eugène Hatin, ” Théophraste-Renaudot.”

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