Jansenist “Convulsionnaires” Gather at Saint-Médard Summary

  • Last updated on November 10, 2022

The convulsionnaires were a group of Jansenists who gathered at the tomb of one of their members, where miracles seemed to occur. Jansenism had been officially condemned as heretical by the Church in 1713. Thus, for miracles to occur at the tomb of one of the followers of this declared heresy represented a threat to the spiritual authority of the Church.

Summary of Event

Jansenism traces its origins to the writings of the Flemish theologian Cornelius Otto Jansen, who spent the greater part of his life writing a commentary on the works of Saint Augustine. In his work Augustinus (1640), he emphasized that humanity was in a state of total corruption and that only “grace,” which could be lost at anytime, could enable human beings to overcome corruption. In spite of its pessimism, this doctrine gained considerable popularity in France. In 1636, Jansen’s friend and aide Jean Duvergier, the Abbé Saint-Cyran, became the spiritual director of the Jansenist abbey of Port-Royal and introduced Jansenism (so called by enemies of the movement) into the community. [kw]Jansenist “Convulsionnaires” Gather at Saint-Médard (May, 1727-1733) [kw]Saint-Médard, Jansenist “Convulsionnaires” Gather at (May, 1727-1733) [kw]Gather at Saint-Médard, Jansenist “Convulsionnaires” (May, 1727-1733) [kw]"Convulsionnaires" Gather at Saint-Médard, Jansenist[Convulsionnaires Gather] Convulsionnaires [g]France;May, 1727-1733: Jansenist “Convulsionnaires” Gather at Saint-Médard[0700] [c]Religion and theology;May, 1727-1733: Jansenist “Convulsionnaires” Gather at Saint-Médard[0700] Paris, François Jansen, Cornelius Otto Fleury, André-Hercule de Duvergier, Jean Montgeron, Louis-Basile Carré de

The local Jesuits opposed Jansenism. Jesuit-Jansenist conflict[Jesuit Jansenist conflict] Jansenist-Jesuit conflict[Jansenist Jesuit conflict] They questioned, for example, the validity of Jansen’s doctrine regarding Communion, which asserted that it was sinful to take the sacrament without perfect contrition in one’s heart. The Jesuits found this assertion to be in contradiction with Saint Augustine’s recommendation that all believers take Communion weekly. The Jansenist leader Antoine Arnauld Arnauld, Antoine accused the Jesuits of moral laxity in his treatise De la fréquente communion (1643; on frequent Communion). This began a Jansenist-Jesuit conflict that was to last well into the eighteenth century.

The Church rejected Jansenism almost immediately. In 1653, five propositions from Augustinus were condemned as heretical. A papal bull of 1656 repeated the condemnation. In 1657, the French Assembly of the Clergy required all of the clergy in France to sign a formulary endorsing the condemnation. In 1713, the bull Unigenitus, Unigenitus (Clement XI) issued by Pope Clement XI, condemned 101 propositions from Réflexions morales Réflexions morales (Quesnal) (1693-1694; moral reflections) by the Jansenist theologian Pasquier Quesnel. This act should have put an end to Jansenism; however, it did not, and the bull was not legally registered in France until 1730.

The Jansenist-Jesuit quarrel did not remain within the confines of the Church. French king Louis XIV viciously attacked the Jansenists during his reign. He feared them, just as he feared the Protestants, as a threat to his absolute power. He aligned himself with the Jesuits against Port-Royal; as a result, his opponents took up the cause of the Jansenists. Indeed, Jansenism gained most of its adherents outside the Church from among the lawyers and judges of the Palais de Justice. This group had long stood as a deterrent to abuse of royal power and opposed the theory of royal absolutism upon which Louis XIV’s reign was based. Thus the Jesuit-Jansenist quarrel was closely linked to the opposition between the French courts and royal power. This situation continued during the reign of Louis XV.

In May of 1727, François Paris, a Jansenist deacon and the brother of a magistrate, died and was buried in the cemetery of Saint-Médard in Paris. Deacon Paris was very popular with the Parisian populace. He was known for his acts of charity to the poor and was considered to be a very saintly man. Therefore, many mourners visited his grave. Sometime shortly after his death, there were reports that people who went to his tomb were cured of many different types of illness. People suffering from rheumatism, cancerous tumors, blindness, deafness, and other debilitating diseases appeared at the tomb. Many left the cemetery swearing that they had been cured.

Crowds began to gather at Saint-Médard. The miraculous cures were not the only reported happenings at the tomb. There were also reports of people going into convulsions and of others speaking in tongues. Lying down on the tomb (and later just touching it) purportedly caused a believer’s body to be contorted with an especially curious twisting of the limbs. These convulsions led to the pilgrims at Paris’s tomb being called “convulsionnaires.” As reports circulated, ever-increasing numbers of Jansenists appeared at the tomb. It had become a place of pilgrimage. Pilgrimage sites The Jansenist leaders went to the tomb to offer legal assistance to anyone who had experienced a miraculous cure and was consequently being pursued by Church authorities.

The whole affair then took a sadomasochistic turn. When under the spell of the Spirit (or, according to the Jesuits, of the Devil), the convulsionnaires became rigid and were able to endure horrendous tortures. They had enormous stones dropped on their chests. One woman was supposedly able to bend backward over a sharp stick while heavy stones were dropped on her chest and yet remain unharmed. The Parlement of Paris engaged Louis-Basile Carré de Montgeron to investigate the happenings at Saint-Médard. In 1737, he published a four-volume work entitled La Vérité des miracles Verité des miracles, La (Montgeron) (the truth of the miracles), detailing the events at the cemetery. In addition to being a sacred place of pilgrimage for believers in Jansenism, the cemetery had become fashionable as a place of entertainment. More and more curious onlookers came to watch the spectacle that occurred day and night at the tomb.

Neither the Church nor the court found it easy to tolerate the convulsionnaires. They were a great embarrassment to the Church and a threat to its moral authority. If Jansenism was heretical, was it possible for miracles to occur on the tomb of one of its followers? How was the Church to account for the strange happenings at Saint-Médard? The Jesuits could combat the idea of divine inspiration by crediting the Devil as responsible for the contortions and convulsions of the visitors to the tomb, but the miraculous cures posed a more difficult problem. Not all of the publicity generated by the convulsionnaires and their miraculous cures was good, however. Indeed, the happenings at Saint-Médard discredited the Jansenists in the opinion of many.

Louis XV’s prime minister, Cardinal André-Hercule de Fleury, had been and was still at this time involved in a campaign to repress Jansenism and its influence. Fleury had taken over the feuille de bénéfices (the making of ecclesiastical appointments). Fleury excluded Jansenists from the list of priests eligible for promotion. In March of 1730, under his direction, the bull Unigenitus, which already governed the actions of the clergy, came to be law in the secular domain as well. When the Parlement of Paris objected, he exiled its members, many of whom were supporters of Jansenism. As part of the repression, the cemetery of Saint-Médard was closed by a royal edict issued on January 27, 1732. This eliminated the public spectacle, but the convulsionnaires continued their rituals in private homes. It was claimed that just touching the smallest amount of earth taken from the vicinity of Paris’s tomb was enough to send a believer into a state of convulsion.


Jansenism in its beginnings was an internal schism and problem for the Church. It dealt with questions of doctrine regarding salvation, grace, and communion. It was addressed to the clergy. The movement questioned, in particular, procedures that were being followed by the clergy in regard to Communion. It objected to the emphasis placed on good works and the lack of importance assigned to grace.

Many of the most significant followers of Jansenism within the Church came from families long associated with the legal profession. For example, Antoine Arnauld and his sister Angélique, abbess of Port-Royal, belonged to a family of lawyers. Jansenism spread rather quickly from the Church and into the secular judicial class. The members of the Parlement of Paris came from this class, and it was the Parlement of Paris that stood as a deterrent to the absolute power of the king. Thus, Jansenism became associated with the defiance of the Church and of royal authority. With the appearance of the convulsionnaires, who sought miraculous cures and divine inspiration at the tomb of a Jansenist, this defiance then manifested itself among the commoners

Further Reading
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Bell, David A. Lawyers and Citizens: The Making of a Political Elite in Old Régime France. New York: Oxford University Press, 1994. Discusses Jansenism and its link to the French bar and courts; details the conflict with the king.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Ford, Franklin L. Robe and Sword: The Regrouping of the French Aristocracy After Louis XIV. New York: Harper and Row, 1955. Information on the differences between the nobility who had inherited their titles and the new nobility of lawyers and judges and their beliefs and life styles.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">Kreiser, Robert. Miracles, Convulsions, and Ecclesiastical Politics in Early Eighteenth Century Paris. Princeton, N.J.: Princeton University Press, 1978. Discusses link between happenings at Saint-Médard and the politics within the Church.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">McManners, John. The Clerical Establishment and Its Ramifications. Vol. 1 in Church and Society in Eighteenth Century France. London: Oxford University Press, 1999. Along with volume 2, presents every aspect of religious life in eighteenth century France.
  • citation-type="booksimple"

    xlink:type="simple">_______. The Religion of the People and the Politics of Religion. Vol. 2 in Church and Society in Eighteenth Century France. London: Oxford University Press, 1999. Discussion of the Jesuit-Jansenist struggle.

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Categories: History