Vincent de Paul, Travel Agent

Francisco Javier Fernández ChentoVincent de PaulLeave a Comment

Author: Tom Davitt CM · Year of first publication: 2009 · Source: Colloque, Journal of the Irish Province of the Congregation of the Mission.
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While working through Vincent’s letters, first when I was reading them in sequence and later when involved in their translation, I was often struck by the detailed information he gives about travel arrangements, either for his own travel or that of others.

To Louise De Marillac

In 1629 he tells Louise de Marillac that he has been told by M de Gondi to come by stagecoach1 to meet him in Montmirail. He asks Louise if she would like to meet him there, and if so she should take the coach for Châlons-sur-Marne the following Wednesday. The departure point from Paris is The Cardinal, presumably an inn, opposite Saint-Nicolas-des- Champs church, a church well known to Louise (38).

In June 1632 he tells Louise that she won’t be too uncomfortable in the Joigny boat as it is a covered vessel; it departs on Saturday at 07.00. Joigny is on a tributary of the Seine (109).

Four years later he advises Louise that Sister Geneviève, given the state of her health, should travel by the Senlis coach which was depart- ing the following day. From there she could go on to Verneuil and then to Liancourt. This would entail three leagues on foot. Another possibil- ity would be to take the Clermont wagon and she could ask to be let off right in Liancourt. He enclosed one écu for her expenses (252).

In December 1637 he tells Louise that if she feels up to it the follow- ing Spring she could take the coach as far as Orléans and then the boat to Saumur, which is eight leagues from [Richelieu] (286).

Early in 1638 he tells Robert de Sergis, who is in either Aiguillon or Toulouse after a mission, that he has overworked and needs to take a break and have his eyes and throat seen to. Then after Easter de Sergis is to give missions in some small villages, and Vincent explains how he is to get there. He will have to go by boat down the Garonne to Bordeaux, and then on to Bourg. He explains that Bourg is on the estuary of the Garonne, but not as far down as Blaye. He will then have to proceed overland to Barbizieux, which he estimates as a two-day journey. From there he will have another two or three leagues to La Marguerie, where a mission is to be given (438).

On 01 October in the same year he explains to Louise how Sisters Barbe and Louise are to get to Richelieu, and encloses fifty livres for their expenses. They are to take the stagecoach as far as Tours. When they get there they should contact a man who usually takes people onwards to Richelieu. They should rent either a donkey or a cart from him. He says Richelieu is about ten leagues further on (351).

On the same day he writes to Lambert aux Couteaux, superior in Richelieu, sending the letter with the two Sisters mentioned in the previous letter. Bernard Codoing, in Richelieu, had told Vincent that he suspected he had the quartan fever. Vincent tells Lambert to send him to Paris. He can be sent to Tours by cart, and from there on to Paris by stagecoach, unless his attacks are too severe (352).

The following day he writes to Louise that he has booked two seats on the Tours coach for Sisters Barbe and Louise, and has paid the deposit. He will know by the evening where the coach will leave from, and at what time (353).

About a year later he writes to Louise that if she opts to take the Châteaudun coach it will pass through Chartres, and she can attend to her devotion to that place while passing. Orléans is about eleven leagues, or perhaps even less, from Châteaudun. From Orléans she can go by river to Notre Dame de Cléry; as far as he can recall, the river goes through there, or is very close to it. In this way she will avoid travel by road, except for a few leagues in the Orléans area. She can hire a cart in Orléans. She will not have to pay the coach fare, as it is “on the house”. In other words, it is one of the coaches the profits of which were transferred to Saint-Lazare by Cardinal Richelieu(410).2

On 28 January the following year, 1640, in a letter to Louise in Angers, there is a further mention of these coaches. He says he forgot to tell her that he would have sent a coach for her return, were it not for three leagues of poor roads between Chartres and Le Mans, which are impassable in winter. As well as this, he cannot divert coaches from their normal routes without public outcry(421).3

For the confreres and sisters

For his own travels he sometimes borrowed a carriage from a friend. In 1640 he writes to Louise that he will borrow one from Monsieur de Vincy. This was Antoine Hennequin, a priest, a brother of Mlle du Fay. He died in 1645, having just (?) joined the congregation (483).

On 31 January 1642 he writes to Bernard Codoing, superior in Annecy, about arrangements for his travel to Rome. Codoing is to collect forty livres which Vincent has sent to André Lumague, a banker in Lyon. This will suffice to get him to Marseille. There he is to contact Monsieur de Forbin, lieutenant general of the galleys, who will tell him where the group going to Rome will be staying. The others going to Rome should be in Marseille by around 16 February. The secretary of the ambassador to Rome should be there about the same time. Vincent hopes that Codoing will get there in time to travel with him, “which will be no small advantage” (560).

Vincent drafted a letter to Codoing in Rome, on 17 March 1642. He gives him some financial advice “to avoid confusion”. He also gives health advice: Coding is to find lodgings in a healthy location, and to follow to some extent “Roman superstition” and imitate what the locals do about getting out of the city at certain times. Louis Lebreton had died five months earlier because he did not follow that local custom. He re-wrote this long letter on the following day, but made no substantial change to that piece of advice, even retaining the word “superstition” (575).

On 04 August 1646 he wrote to Louise, telling her that no one has heard anything about her since she left Paris. He hopes that the fierce heat and the discomfort of travelling by coach have not affected her too much; he’s “waiting impatiently for news” (830). In a long footnote Coste reconstructs the details of her journey from her own letters. He does not include the interesting detail that the part of the journey by river boat was longer than usual because of the exceptionally low level of the water, as she herself says in a letter of 11 August.

In the last days of September 1646 he wrote to René Alméras, senior; this is eleven years before this man entered the community. Vincent has to apologise about sending his son off on a journey to Rome: “I com- mitted this fault without thinking; and it’s true that I gave absolutely no thought whatsoever about it before his leaving”. Alméras junior was not in the best of health, and Vincent and his consultors were worried about what places they could send him to. The original idea was to send him to visit some houses, but not make visitations, to see if this would improve his health. He was to go to Sedan, and from there to Toul, Troyes and Annecy, and then on to Marseille and ultimately Rome. The doctors were in agreement about sending him down the country, but against his going to Rome unless he had recovered fully by the time he got to Marseille. They were worried about how he should go to Sedan, because a covered coach would not be possible until after Troyes, and the weather was extremely hot. They changed their minds from day to day until an opportunity came up of getting him to Angers. From there he could travel in a covered coach to Orléans, and go on by river boat. With this decision having been taken one evening, young Alméras left the following day “without my adverting in the slightest to his filial duty to visit you to learn your wishes”. Vincent then says that Alméras junior did not give this matter any thought either! He ends the paragraph “You see from this, Sir, that my fault was not voluntary, but a lack of attention to my duty”. Antoine Portail reported from La Rose on 08 September that Alméras junior and himself “never felt better, and these are his exact words”. They were to leave there for Marseille a week later, one for Genoa and Rome, and one for Annecy. “At the moment I don’t know which will go to Rome, or even if both may go there”. “I assure you, Sir, that your son will not go to Rome if Monsieur Merlet and our own doctor Monsieur Vacherot judge this to be in the slightest contra- indicated” (864).

About two years later, November 1648, he wrote to Louise to tell her that someone should go to visit Sister Barbe Angiboust, who was reported to have had a fever for quite some time. His first draft gave some travel details. But in his final draft he expands them. The Sister who will be going should take the coach, if there is one, otherwise take the river boat as far as Melun. He says there is some sort of transport available to there from Port Saint-Paul (St Paul’s Quay) in Paris on Mondays and Tuesdays. The coach leaves from rue de la Cassonerie (1073).

In November 1651 he tells Jean-Baptiste Gilles, superior in Crécy, not to purchase a horse, but to hire one as required (1427).

Words of wisdom from a seasoned traveller

In May 1652 he tells Lambert aux Couteaux in Warsaw about the problems faced by Donat Crowley, from Cork, in his travels: he had to ford rivers, go barefoot, because of the risk of meeting soldiers. One day he heard that soldiers had stolen cattle from some poor people. He traced the robbers to a wood and recovered the beasts, which he then drove back to their owners (1497).

In November 1653 he wrote to Lambert aux Couteaux in Dover, delayed on the first leg of his journey to Warsaw. As well as being delayed he apparently also had a problem with his luggage; access to it was not allowed until it had been inspected.4 In a PS Vincent gives a weather warning and tells Lambert that if travel in the current weather would be dangerous, “in God’s name wait until Spring” (1680).

In April 1655 he wrote to Charles Ozenne in Warsaw about eating in a foreign country. He is not to accept invitations to meals; he is not to “eat out” in town. Then “Finally, Father, I beg you to adjust all local customs to what is done in the community, including the sort of food, and its quantity, as used here [in Paris], not changing the quality nor increasing the quantity”. Earlier he had said they could, because of the weather, use warmer clothing, even with fur, as the Jesuits do (1857).

In October 1655 he tells Charles Ozenne in Krakow that he has con- sulted his map and worked out that Krakow is only about 150 leagues from Vienna, and if there are problems with the postal services from Krakow he could send his letters via Vienna (1939).

In March 1657 he writes to Jean Martin, superior in Turin, referring to a problem which travellers may encounter when abroad. He says he has heard that there is bad feeling between Turin and Genoa, and therefore postulants from Turin should not be sent to Genoa. Richelieu or Paris would be better places for them. They could travel first to Lyon, and then by river boat from Roanne to Orléans, and from there by either coach or the scheduled Paris wagon. Or they could go to Tours, followed by one day on horseback to Richelieu (2221).

Speaking with the locals

The following month he writes to him again, touching on another problem which travellers abroad encounter: foreign languages. Before that he approves of the fact that Martin had given himself a break, but suggests that he should have taken an even longer one. He is greatly annoyed that the French confreres in Turin “have little interest” in the Italian language. He will send a confrere to make a visitation “who will turn them around”! (2255).

In June the same year, 1657, in a letter to Martin, he writes: “I am very pleased that our student Demortier5 has made such progress in the language that he is able to say «Signor, si!»” (2290).

This is not the only time that Vincent deals with the language problem for confreres who travel. Perhaps the most unexpected refer- ence to this is when he stresses the need to learn foreign languages, because the Iroquois cannot understand the Hurons, nor the Hurons the Iroquois. This occurs in a conference he gave in Saint-Lazare in June the following year, 1658, on the need to learn foreign languages. He asks how can confreres go to the whole world to preach the gospel, if they do not know the local languages? In Poland Guillaume Desdames and Victor Duperroy speak Polish well, and Charles Ozenne speaks a little (Conf. 183).

In the previous year he had written to Cardinal Nicola Bagni, who had been nuncio in Paris, about the language problem involved in sending French missioners to Ireland, Scotland and the Hebrides. He says he knows of only one French priest who speaks English; the overall context would seem to suggest he is speaking of a confrere. It would be interesting to know to whom he was referring (2387).

In a letter in August 1657 to Edmonde Jolly, superior in Rome, he again refers to the reluctance of French confreres in Italy to learn the language (2357). In the following month he writes to Jean Martin, superior in Turin, and in a postscript he says that Fathers Portail, Dehorgny and Alméras speak Italian, but the first two are now too old to preach in that language, and the third is worn out (2386). Portail was sixty-seven, Dehorgny, was sixty6, and Alméras was forty-four.

Taking the air

The latest letter with travel information, or at least the latest on which I have a note, is dated 20 September 1658, to Firmin Get, superior in Marseille, who had some sort of eye trouble. Vincent advises him, and then upgrades that to urges him, to get a change of air. The obvious place to go would be to the nearest community house, Agde. But Agde is on the coast, as is Marseille, so the air in those places would be even worse. Annecy would be preferable, or Notre-Dame-de-Lorm “where the air is good, the countryside is lovely, and the Garonne, which is a beautiful river, flows by” (2664).

In 1650 he writes to Etienne Blatiron, superior in Genoa, and expresses sadness at the sickness of an un-named confrere, but is sur- prised that the man wants to go to consult doctors in Milan, instead of those in Genoa. Blatiron is to let Vincent know details of the man’s symptoms and he will check them out with Paris doctors. There would seem to be an implied judgement here that Paris doctors are better than Italian ones (1273). A month earlier he had told Blatiron that perhaps Italian women were less competent than Italians (1254). About a decade or so earlier Julien Guerin in Tunis tells Vincent that French slaves are better than those of other nationalities for putting up with their difficul- ties! (909).

In January 1658 he gives Louis Rivet, superior in Saintes, a bit of advice about confreres who arrive at his house for a stop-over during their journey to an onward destination. Such travellers are to be allowed to stay only one or two days, unless there are valid reasons for a longer stay, and Rivet is to make sure then that they move on to where they should be going (2516).


Money is sometimes mentioned in the letters, but during Vincent’s lifetime it did not maintain an un-changed standard value. A good reference point is in Letter 1972, written to Jean Martin in Turin in December 1655. Vincent says that at that time 1,000 livres would maintain two priests and a brother for a year, whether they are out on missions or at home. A livre and a franc are the same, and one écu equals three of either. A rather unusual indication of the value of one écu is that during the siege of Limerick a horse’s head cost one écu (1476). See above for one écu being sent for Sister Geneviève’s travel- ling expenses for a journey described in some detail.

There were twenty sols in a livre. Postage on a book from Rennes to Paris was 32 sols, which Vincent thinks excessive (Letter 2497). Sometimes another unit of money is mentioned, a louis. This coin varied in value between 10 and 12 livres, depending on when it had been minted.

When Vincent is acknowledging receipt of a letter he very often mentions the date which was on the letter he had received. To take a random example: on 26 June 1654 he writes to Firmin Get in Marseille that he has received his letter of the 15th (1756). This gives a good indication of how efficient the postal system in France was. In October

1652 he wrote to Thomas Berthe in Laon that he has not yet received the expected letter from him, and has sent down four times to check if the post had arrived (1653).

International mail is also mentioned in many letters. On 2 March 1657 he tells Jean Martin in Turin that he has received three of his letters, the earliest being dated 5 January (2221). In 1659 a letter from Jacques Pesnellle in Genoa, dated 19 August, arrived in Paris before 5 September (2963). On 9 April he tells Charles Ozenne in Warsaw that he has received his letter of 11 March (1861).

In very many ways the travel needs and problems of 17th century travellers are not, mutatis mutandis, very different from those of today.

  1. The French expression is en diligence; this can have two meanings, either “by stagecoach” or “immediately”; the English edition of the letters opted for the stagecoach. In this article letters will be identified by the numbers which they have in the Coste edition. The English edition retains these numbers.
  2. Cf. Letter 293.
  3. In a footnote to this letter Coste explains that Vincent had the right to divert coaches from their normal routes (II, pp. 9-10, note 3). There is enough matter about these coaches in the letters to provide a full-length article. Because of that I will make no further reference to them in this one.
  4. In Letter 1860 Louis Serre writes from Saint-Méen that Pierre Laisné could not give the morning talks because his luggage was lost on the journey from Paris.
  5. Raymond Demortier was one of the confreres who gave evidence at the process for the beatification of Vincent de Paul.
  6. Dehorgny’s date of birth is not given in the usual obvious sources. In the Notices sur les Prêtres, Clercs et Frères de la Congrégation de la Mission, Tome I, Paris 1881, on page 220 it says he died aged 70, and on page 153 it says he died in 1667.

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