In general, the 17th century was religiously intense in Europe. The Catholic church was particularly on the defensive, in part because of the threat from Luther’s followers, but also because of anti-Catholic England.

(Drawing by Jean-Jacques Olier, image from the Confrérie du Saint-Sacrement, 1643)

The struggle for power (and souls!) helps explain the existence of extremist religious factions — and actions — everywhere.

In France, one of the things the Catholic church waged war against was the theatre, which they saw as a threat. 

Actors, by their very employment, were excommunicated, and at least one archbishop prohibited his clergy from marrying them. They were forbidden Communion and were not permitted to be buried on holy ground.

In order to be buried by the Church, actors had to renounce the stage forever and ever. A number of players resorted to this on their deathbed, but others were caught out by an unexpected demise. The 18th century actress  Adriana Le Couvreur, for example, had to be buried in a field for cattle on the banks of the Seine, as one would bury a dog. 

Molière was particularly despised by the Church. As he lay dying, the priests of his parish refused even to come to hear his renunciation. By the time one priest relented and finally did arrive, it was too late.

(“The Death of Molière,” artist unknown — at least to me.)

It was only with extreme difficulty (and likely money) that King Louis XIV was able to persuade the Church to bury Molière — and even so, the Church required that France’s most popular playwright and actor be buried at night without fanfare, in unconsecrated ground where criminals were buried. The people, clearly not in agreement with the Church’s condemnation, thronged the streets with candles and torches to watch his coffin pass. 

The “war” against theatre had been taken up by several extremist groups, including the secret society, Compagnie du Saint-Sacrament (Company of the Blessed Sacrament). Although Louis XIV is generally perceived to be an all-powerful king, he was powerless against the Church, and especially against the Company, which had insisted, earlier, that Molière’s Tartuff be banned. Both the King and his brother were Molière supporters, yet they could do little when faced with this conservative faction. The ban lasted for five years (and nearly broke Molière’s spirit) — in spite of Royal opinion.

(Vincent de Paul)

The novel I’m writing now is largely about the world of the theatre in 17th century France, and the “Company” figures as an evil force in it — as they certainly could be at times, historically. However,  they also did important good work. Vincent de Paul was of their number, and the Company no doubt contributed to his wonderful, compassionate work. 

Click here to read more about the powerful secret society, the Company, described by some as “a state within a state, a church within a church.”