History of the Daughters of Charity

Matthieu Brejon de Lavergnée : Histoire des Filles de la Charité. La rue pour cloître (XVIIe-XVIIIe siècle), Paris, Fayard, 2011, 690 pages, with a preface of Pr. Dominique Julia, 30 €.



The Company of the Daughters of Charity is the most important female and catholic congregation in the world. There were 40.000 sisters at its height in the 1960’, 20.000 today set up in almost 100 countries. Therefore, the history of this congregation has never been written.

This book is based on the French DC’ private archives in Paris which had never been opened before, and the public ones seized during the French Revolution (Archives nationales).

It includes eleven chapters. The first four chapters present the founders and the founding events: 1. Vincent de Paul and Châtillon (1617). 2. Louise de Marillac and Saint-Nicolas-des-Champs (1623). 3. Marguerite Nezot between Suresnes and Paris (1633). 4. A new community (1634-1642). The following four chapters present one of the most important secular congregations of the Ancien Régime: 5. Official agreements. 6. Authorities. 7.Vocations. 8. Spirituality. Three chapters lead the reader to the charitable world of the Daughters of Charity, varying on large or small-scale as micro-history likes to do : 9. Royaume de France’s scale. 10. The Head Office in Paris. 11. Poor Relief : hospitals, schools and parishes.

The book includes an important iconography, several maps and many graphs.



Writing the history of the Daughters of Charity


This study was necessary because the few summary books existent are out-of-date because of their apologetic tone[1]. So, the Lazarist Alfred Milon who wrote the first essay in 1927, thought that “during the period going from the death of the founder, Saint Vincent de Paul, to the French Revolution, nothing important happened: it is just a period of ordinary growth.”[2] From this point of view, the history of the “sœurs grises” (grey sisters) really begins with the fabulous rise of the « cornettes » in the 19th Century.

The first period, from the beginning of the Company in 1633 to the death of its founders in 1660, seems to be the best known. Pierre Coste and his successors’ positivist and erudite work, the wish of Vatican II Council to come back to the  “original spirit” of the founders (Perfectae caritatis, 1965 ; Ecclesiae Sanctae, 1966), enabled to find many documents. Internal studies (Élisabeth Charpy, DC[3]) or scholar ones (Susan E. Dinan[4]) are based on this archival material. However, Louise de Marillac is far less known than Vincent de Paul. The gap between their two memories took place since the 18th Century because of the beatification and the canonization of M. Vincent.

More generally, the Ancien Régime period, from the 1660’ to the French Revolution, is still poorly known. It is fundamental not only for itself but also to understand the rise of the 19th Century. The Daughters of Charity are already popular on the point of the French Revolution because their action matched with the care service model produced by the Lumières. It explains why they were the first to be re-established by Napoléon. It enabled them to highly contribute to change the religious way of life: the cloistered nuns, prevailing under the Ancien Régime, give way to the sisters living in open communities (Claude Langlois ; Marie-Claude Dinet-Lecomte[5]).


A propitious historiographic context


For a long time, French historiography opposed Women history and Religious history for ideological reasons. Today, they meet more and more with one another thanks to the impulse given by the English and American historians. Many works focused on nuns history (Bernard Hours ; Bernard Dompnier et Dominique Julia ; Gwénaël Murphy ; Elizabeth Rapley[6]) and, in this case, on the institutes of apostolic life in a gender perspective (Laurence Lux-Sterritt ; Querciolo Mazzonis ; Silvia Evangelisti ; Carmen M. Mangion ; Sioban Nelson[7]).

French scientific journals echoed these researches, particularly about the question of the monastic enclosure[8]. The Daughters of Charity have contributed to impose a new religious way of life for women: neither wife, neither nun, but secular, which is a sort of ambiguous “third status” (Gabriella Zarri)[9]. Gender studies seem to be an interesting way to examine religious congregations and laywomen such as the “dames de charité”[10]. But it is not the only one. Other exist such as social history (recruitment, sisters’ geographical and social origins, vocations), spiritual history (the « École française » so important for the founders, jansenist influences during the 18th Century, devotion to Virgin Mary…), professional practices (hospital sisters and teaching sisters[11]), economical history (what is charity’s cost ?), political history…

This book is an essay of “histoire totale” as Fernand Braudel wished. A second volume will take over during the next years concerning 19th and 20th Century. An international approach will be fundamental. I am interested in all archives you can keep.


Matthieu Brejon de Lavergnée, PhD

Member of the « Centre de recherches en histoire du XIXe siècle » (Paris Sorbonne)



[1] Les Filles de la Charité de Saint Vincent de Paul, Paris, Letouzey et Ané, coll. « Les ordres religieux », 1923 ; Léonce Celier, Les Filles de la Charité, Paris, Grasset, coll. « Les grands ordres monastiques », 1929 ; Pierre Coste, Charles Baussan, Georges Goyau, Trois siècles d’histoire religieuse, Les Filles de la Charité, Paris, Desclée de Brouwer, 1933.

[2] Annales de la congrégation de la Mission, 92, 1927, p. 738.

[3] Small books on Louise de Marillac (Élisabeth Charpy, Un chemin de sainteté. Louise de Marillac, Paris, Compagnie des Filles de la Charité, 1988, 243 p. ; id., Petite vie de Louise de Marillac, Paris, Desclée de Brouwer, 1991, 125 p.) and manly the edition of the Marillac’s Écrits spirituels (éd. É. Charpy, Paris, Compagnie des Filles de la Charité, Tours, impr. Mame, 1983, 920 p.) and Documents sur la Compagnie des Filles de la Charité aux origines(éd. É. Charpy, Paris, Compagnie des Filles de la Charité, 1989, 1111 p.).

[4] Women and Poor Relief in Seventeenth-Century France. The Early History of the Daughters of Charity, Aldershot, Ashgate, 2006.

[5] Le Catholicisme au féminin. Les congrégations françaises à supérieure générale, Paris, Cerf, 1984 ; Les Sœurs hospitalières en France aux XVIIe et XVIIIe siècles. La charité en action, Paris, H. Champion, 2005.

[6] Carmes et carmélites en France du XVIIe siècle à nos jours, Paris, Cerf, 2001 ; Visitation et Visitandines aux XVIIeet XVIIIe siècles, Saint-Étienne, Université de Saint-Étienne, 2001 ; Le peuple des couvents. Poitou, XVIIe-XVIIIesiècle, La Crèche, Geste éditions, 2007 ; A Social History of the Cloister. Daily life in the teaching monasteries of the Old Regime, Montreal, McGill-Queen’s University Press, 2001.

[7] Redefining Female Religious Life. French Ursulines and English Ladies in seventeenth-century Catholicism, Aldershot, Ashgate, 2005; Spirituality, Gender, and the Self in Renaissance Italy. Angela Merici and the Company of St Ursula (1474-1540), Washington, The Catholic University of America Press, 2007; Nuns. A History of Convent Life, 1450-1700, Oxford, Oxford University Press, 2007, chap. 7 “Open communities for Women”; Carmen M. Mangion, Contested Identities. Catholic women religious in nineteenth-century England and Wales, Manchester, Manchester University Press, 2008; Say Little, Do Much. Nurses, Nuns and Hospitals in the Nineteenth Century, Philadelphia, Univeristy of Pennsylvania Press, 2001.

[8] For instance : Clio. Histoire, Femmes et Sociétés, special issues : « Femmes et religions », 1995 ; « Chrétiennes », 2002 ; « Clôtures », 2007. See http://clio.revues.org

[9] Gabriella Zarri « The Third Status », in Anne Jacobson Schutte, Thomas Kuehn, Silvana Seidel Menchi (ed.), Time, Space, and Women’s Lives in Early Modern Europe, Kirksville, Truman State Univ. Press, 2001, p. 181-199. See also: Camilla Russel « Convent culture in Early-Modern Italy : Laywomen and Religious Subversiveness in a Neapolitan Convent », in Megan Cassidy-Welch, Peter Sherlock (ed.), Practices of Gender in Late Medieval and Early Modern Europe, Turnhout, Brepols, 2008, p. 57-76.

[10] Barbara B. Diefendorf, From Penitence to Charity. Pious Women and the Catholic Reformation in Paris, New York, Oxford University Press, 2004; Ulrike Strasser, Gender, Religion, and Politics in an Early Modern Catholic State, Ann Arbor, University of Michigan Press, 2004; Kathleen Sprows Cummings, New women of the old faith. Gender and American catholicism in the progressive area, The University of North Carolina Press, 2009.

[11] See for instance Laurence Brockliss and Colin Jones (The medical world of early modern France, Oxford, Clarendon Press, 1997) who put back the Daughters of Charity inside a vast social history of medecine.