Dissertation award for Corinne Gressang

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The French Revolution (1789-1799) provoked a crisis in identity which has dramatically shaped the religious history of France for the ensuing two centuries. Nuns lie at the heart of this issue because of their intersecting identities. These women took on new identities, resisted identities being thrust upon them, and shaped the idea of what it meant to be a woman, a Catholic, and a citizen throughout these years of persecution. These nuns provide a window through which we can answer questions about whether identity resides in the individual or is it something that originates external to the individual? Can identities be created and erased through the force of will? I will argue that there were three ways that identities were reformulated during this period. First, there were those women who embraced their new status as “ex-nuns” and enjoyed the freedoms and liberties it offered, some going as far as marrying and having children. Second, there were those who refused to sacrifice a single aspect of their identity to the Revolution’s pressures, such as the Ursulines and the Carmelites who were guillotined for refusing to disband and submit to the French laws. The last group were the most interesting, but have received the least attention. They were the women who negotiated between their old identities, and the new ones being placed upon them to preserve the most central and non-negotiable aspects of their identity while compromising the auxiliary and expendable elements. These were women who retained their vows of chastity even after they returned home, or continued to serve the sick in hospitals in secular sisterhoods. One of the greatest tensions in the revolution was between the enlightenment ideal promising the free practice of religion, enshrined in the Declaration of the Rights of Man and Citizen, and the revolutionary commitment to bring liberty to those shackled by oppression. This tension caused the Revolutionaries to deprive men and women of their free practice of religion in convents and monasteries in the name of liberty. The Revolution viewed the convent as a bastion of oppression and unnatural sexuality and therefore forced women from their religious communities, their homes, and prevented them from practicing their vows. This raises the questions surrounding rights and whether there is a legitimate case to sacrifice the exercise of some right over others. While radical dechristianization (1793-4) eventually crystallized dissent around the policies which interrupted traditional practice of religion, question about the relationship of church in state in France continue to be renegotiated even today. The dissolution of the convents in France provides a window into which we can discern the tensions that sometimes exist between the free practice of religion and a free society.
Effective start/end date5/5/178/31/18


  • Charles Koch Foundation: $5,000.00


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