Port-Royal, a celebrated Benedictine abbey which profoundly influenced the religious and literary life of France during the seventeenth century. It was founded in 1204 by Mathilde de Garlande, wife of Mathieu de Montmorency, in the valley of Chevreuse, six leagues (between sixteen and seventeen miles) from Paris, where the village of Magny-les-Hameaux, in Seine-et-Oise, now stands. Subject first to the Rule of St. Benedict and then to that of Cïteaux, it suffered greatly during the English invasions and the wars of religion. At the beginning of the seventeenth century its discipline was completely relaxed, but in 1608 it was reformed by Mere Angelique Arnauld, aided by the advice and encouragement of St. Francis de Sales. Nuns trained at Port-Royal then spread all over France, working for the reform of the other monasteries. In 1626 Port-Royal, besides being very unhealthful, no longer afforded adequate accommodation, and the community migrated to Paris, settling in the Faubourg St-Jacques. Renouncing the ancient privileges granted by the popes, the new abbey placed itself under the jurisdiction of the Archbishop of Paris; the nuns, devoted henceforth to the worship of the Holy Eucharist, took the name of Daughters of the Blessed Sacrament. In 1636 the Abbe de St-Cyran became the spiritual director of the monastery, which he soon made a hotbed of Jansenism. He gathered around him the Abbe Singlin, the two brothers of Mere Angelique, Arnauld d’Andilly and Antoine, the great Arnauld, their three nephews, Antoine Lemaltre, Lemaitre de Lacy, and Lemaltre de Sericourt, Nicole, Lancelot, Hamon, Le Nain de Tillemont, and others, who, urged by a desire for solitude and study, withdrew to the monastery “of the fields”.—There was then a Port-Royal of Paris, and a Port-Royal “of the fields”.—In 1638 they opened what they called the petites ecoles, in which Lancelot, Nicole, Guyot, and M. de Selles taught the nephews of St-Cyran and some other children. They were transferred to Paris in 1647, then brought back to the country to Les Granges, near Port-Royal, to Trous, at the home of M. de Bagnols, to Le Chesnay, at the residence of M. de Bunieres.
The Jansenist dispute was then being vigorously waged. In 1639 St-Cyran had been arrested by Riche-lieu’s order and cast into prison, from which he was not set free till 1643, dying a little later. In 1640 the “Augustinus” of Jansenius had appeared, and in 1643 Arnauld‘s work, “La frequente communion”, which gave rise to violent discussions. Port-Royal was then the heart and soul of the opposition. The women there were as stubborn as the men, and all the partisans of the new teaching in Paris and in France turned towards the monastery for light and support. Solitaries and nuns flocked thither. The convent in Paris, in its turn, became too small to contain their numbers, and a multitude settled once more in the country. Unfortunately, in 1653 and 1656, five propositions extracted from the “Augustinus”, which, though not found in it verbatim, were, according to Bossuet, “the soul of the book”, were condemned by the Sorbonne, the bishops, and two papal Bulls. From that time began the persecution of Port-Royal which the pleading of Arnauld, the famous distinction of fact and law, and the “Provinciales” of Pascal only increased. Port-Royal, having refused to subscribe to the formulary drawn up by the Assembly of the Clergy in 1657, all the petites ecoles were successively closed, the novices were driven out from the abbey, and the confessors expelled. But in vain; the doctors, even the Archbishop of Paris, Hardouin de Perefixe, endeavored by their learning and their patience to bring the recalcitrants to reason. “They are as pure as angels”, said the latter, “but proud as demons.” Only a few consented to sign; the more obstinate were finally sent to the country or dispersed in different communities. In 1666 the director, Lemaïtre de Lacy, was imprisoned in the Bastille.
At length, after interminable negotiations, in 1669, what was called “The Peace of the Church” was signed; Port-Royal became again for some years an intellectual and religious center, shining on all that was most intelligent and noble in the city and at the Court. But the fire was smouldering beneath the ashes. In 1670 Arnauld was obliged to fly to the Low Countries, and Louis XIV, who had begun to suspect and hate the stubborn Port-Royal community, resolved to subdue them. In 1702 the quarrel broke out anew on the condemnation by the Sorbonne of a celebrated” case of conscience”. In 1704 Port-Royal des Champs (Port Royal of the Fields) was suppressed by a Bull of Clement IX. In 1709 the last twenty-five nuns were expelled by the public authorities. Finally, in 1710, to blot out all traces of the center of revolt, the buildings of Port-Royal were razed, the site of the chapel turned into a marsh, and even the ashes of the dead were dispersed. Port-Royal was destroyed, but its spirit lived on, especially in the Parliament and the University, and during almost all the eighteenth century France was distracted by the ever-recurring struggle between its heirs and its adversaries. (See Cornelius Jansen.)
By the rigour of its moral code, which carried the Christian ideal to extremes, by the intense effort which it demanded of the human will, by the example with which it illustrated its teaching, by the writings which it issued or inspired—St-Cyran’s and Mere Angelique’s “Lettres spirituelles”, Arnauld‘s “Frequente communion”, Le Nain de Tillemont’s “Histoire ecclesiastique”, Pascal’s “Provinciales” and “Pensees”; the “Logique”—Port-Royal produced a great impression on the seventeenth century. Almost all the great writers felt its influence. Two were its direct product; Racine, its pupil, and Pascal, its most distinguished champion. The others were more or less indebted to it. Boileau remained till the end united in heart and soul with it (cf. “Epïtre sur l’amour de Dieu”). Mme de Sevigne was passionately fond of Nicole’s “Essais”. La Rochefoucauld’s pessimism is closely related to theirs, as is that of the gentler La Bruyere; St-Simon is devoted to them, and Bossuet himself is not altogether a stranger to their influence.
What contributed most to the power of these “Messieurs” was the petites ecoles and their pedagogy. Their educational principle was: that human knowledge, science itself, is not an end, but a means; it should serve only to open and develop the mind, and raise it above the matter of teaching. In teaching they adopted an openly Cartesian and rationalistic method; they strove to cultivate the intellect and the reasoning faculty much more than the memory, and they appealed constantly to personal reflection. Breaking with the traditions of the Jesuits and the University, who taught in Latin, they taught in French. The child learned the alphabet in French, and was instructed in the mother tongue before studying the dead languages. He wrote in French before writing in Latin. He had to compose short dialogues, stories, letters, the subject of which he chose from among the things he had read. Translation, and especially verbal translation, took precedence over written themes. Finally, Greek, of which they were unrivalled teachers, received more attention and a more important place. Even in matters of discipline they introduced reforms: they endeavored to combine severity with gentleness. Punishment was reduced to a minimum, and the school was likened to the home as far as possible. They suppressed in the pupil the desire to surpass a fellow-pupil, and developed in him only that natural attraction of the interest presented by the subjects. These admirable teachers and educationists have left us several school books of the highest merit, some of which have remained classics for nearly two centuries—the “Grammaire”, edited by Lancelot, but in reality the work of Arnauld; the “Logique” of Arnauld and Nicole, the “Jardin des racines grecques” of Lancelot; the “Methodes” for learning Greek, Latin, Italian, Spanish, etc. Not everything in their books or in their system of education is worthy of admiration, but it is incontestable that they contributed to the progress of pedagogy against the older Scholastic methods.