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1 November 2006 “Mountain Priests”? Clergy Recruitment, Families, and Mountain Communities in 17th- and 18th-century Europe
Serge Brunet
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Does the history of religion in mountains yield insights specific to this environment? The present article offers an introduction to the issues at stake in relation to this question, on the basis of an exploration in different European contexts, conducted over several years by an interdisciplinary team. Concrete answers to this question focus mainly on the case of the recruitment of Roman Catholic clergy in the Central Pyrenees, with additional examples from the rest of southern Europe. Some historians have argued that priests came particularly often from mountain regions between the Middle Ages and modern times. Observations of migration flows should not, however, lead us to adopt a simplistic form of geographical determinism. For a better understanding of the question, it is necessary to investigate local forms of church organization and the social and economic status of priests. It is also important to examine the relations between priests, their families, and the different layers of the surrounding society. Examples given here indicate that what seems particular to mountains is historical delay. Upland communities often resisted centralistic Church reforms and tried to maintain as much control over their ecclesiastical resources as possible. This form of resistance to change in certain European mountain regions during the early modern period might be the most adequate explanation for the particularity of mountain priests' activities and migratory behavior.


Recent research on the possible specificities of religious phenomena in European mountains has shown that Catholic clergy in European mountain societies from the Middle Ages to the early modern period did not remain stationary (Brunet 2001; Jimenez-Sanchez et al 2003; Brunet et al 2005; Brunet and Lemaitre 2005). Various patterns of change and migration can be observed: they depended on transformations and the desire for reform in both the Church and mountain communities. Most important were the rhythms of change and the interconnections between various domains.

This paper first presents the state of historical knowledge on this issue. It then analyzes recent investigations of 17th and 18th century Roman Catholic clergy, with a focus on priests as members both of the clergy and of families with various circles of acquaintances, various forms of relationships, and various socioeconomic arrangements. Mountain communities, which generally face harsh lives in a secluded environment, are a privileged area for such investigations; but this commonplace has also led both contemporary observers and modern scholars to discuss their historical evolution from a point of view heavily loaded with stereotypes. Thus it is important to look critically at prevailing accounts and to deconstruct those which do not withstand a serious comparative and historical test.

Religious activities: specific to mountains?

In Europe, the idea that mountain societies exhibit religious behavior specific to their environment is not new. This was already a convention in the writings of intra-continental missionaries in the 17th century. Mountains were seen as an inspiring, spiritual space. During the 18th century, the “horrid mounts” (Briffaud 1994) became romantic peaks and valleys, and the same tendentious descriptions characterized both mountain peoples and their environment (Figure 1). Early mountaineering, instead of desacralizing conquered peaks, invented a new discourse about man facing the quasi-spiritual challenges of the sublime mountain. It was a highly religious issue (Joutard 1986; Briffaud 1994; Roux 1999). The task of the historian is to analyze these commonplaces and to unravel the clichés. Is it possible to isolate behavior or belief systems specific to mountain areas (Lemaitre 1998)?


“Glaciers of the Valley of Astau” (Valley of Larboust, Central Pyrenees, France). A mid-19th century representation of a church in the mountains that combines romantic elements (a sense of the sublime) and realism (women, children, and 2 beggars on the church doorstep). This would have made the picture meaningful to both wealthy summer tourists and local inhabitants. (Lithograph by Victor Petit)


To answer this question we need specialists in complementary disciplines: general historians; archeologists; historians who specialize in law, art, and the family; anthropologists and ethnologists; and theologians. Such specialists rarely meet and talk to each other. Moreover, the entire issue should be studied over a long period of time in order to enable us to assess continuities and breaks from antiquity to our own times. We should also take care to distinguish between, define, and compare the concepts of the lowlands and the mountains in Europe with respect to their different religions and cultures, while avoiding mere geographical determinism (Brunet and Lemaitre 2005). For practical and methodological reasons, the present comparative examination is limited to Roman Catholic mountain regions, which, in Europe, represent the great majority of the continent's overall mountainous area.

Rather than trying to understand the sacredness of some places, it is particularly important to examine the relations between priests, as well as between priests, simple believers, their families, and the different layers of the surrounding society (Brunet 2004). Alain Cabantous has shown to what extent people living on the seashore, and influenced by the constraints of their environment, developed specific practices and beliefs that depended on fears linked to the sea. The task of evangelizing communities had to take into account those beliefs as well as the rhythm of fishing trips (Cabantous and Hildesheimer 1989; Cabantous 1990).

Similarly, priests who officiated in mountain communities had to consider highland rhythms. Every spring, in the Pyrenees as well as in the Alps, when the snow melted away, cattle and men ascended to the mountain pastures. Rituals of benediction accompanied this ascent (Figure 2). Later, in autumn, they had to leave these places before they were once again snow-bound. The uplands remained lifeless, a world inhabited by malevolent ghosts. Pilgrimage prayers attended the movements of cattle and men from the mountain parishes, whose limits expanded and contracted according to the seasons (Brunet 2001).