To understand the movement set in motion by Nicolas Barré and the women who collaborated with him we need to look more closely at the conditions that prevailed in the France of his time. It was the middle of the 17th century. The first half of that century had been a tragic period for France. A country that had just come through the Hundred Years’ War saw the outbreak of religious wars between Catholics and Hugenots that were marked by cruel massacres and intense sectarian hatred. On the international front, too, France was involved with ongoing wars that frequently meant the prolonged absence of the men from their families, their farms and businesses.
The economy was mostly agrarian. The land was concentrated largely in the hands of a few who extorted tithes and rents from the majority who were peasants. In the 17th century a number of bad harvests added to the misery, increasing the number of landless and jobless people. Many migrated to the cities where their plight was aggravated. Malnutrition, disease and outbreaks of bubonic plague made this a dark age indeed for people who were poor while massive inequalities existed in the society. There was strong resistance to change. The spiritual misery of the vast majority was just as acute. Priests were badly trained; people’s instruction in their faith was sadly neglected. Many, even those well educated, suffered from the influence of the pessimistic Jansenist heresy that taught that God’s grace was given only to a few, depriving most people of all hope.
Yet all was not dark. The first half of 17th century France also produced an impressive number of scientists, philosophers as well as religious figures such as Margaret Mary Alacoque, Jane Frances de Chantal, Francis de Sales, Louise de Marillac, Vincent de Paul, Pierre de Bérulle and John Eudes.
The Council of Trent had set in motion a period of intense religious and theological renewal. Religious Orders such as the Carmelites were bringing to France the reform begun in other countries. There was a democratisation of spirituality. Lay people were being called to holiness by people such as Francis de Sales who introduced a new form of ‘everyday mysticism’. A great number of young girls and married ladies became involved in charitable action during this time.
Some education was available for those who could afford it. Religious Orders such as the Jesuits were providing good secondary education for boys while Religious women such as Mary Ward, the Canonesses of St Augustine and the Ursuline sisters were contributing to the education of girls.
However these opportunities were limited. Most primary schools had been destroyed by war. Lack of funds meant that efforts made by the State and the parishes to provide primary education for poorer children were hopelessly inadequate. Even where schools were available, teachers were not well trained and had low social status. The parents were so busy trying to look after their families that they had little energy left to worry about education. As well as this, most children had to work to help supplement the family income, while education for girls was not considered important.
Such was the political and religious climate when Nicolas Barré was sent to Rouen in 1659. Here too the Minim monastery was close to where the poorer families lived. They were mostly men and women involved in seasonal, manual and unskilled work whose day-to-day life was harsh and precarious. Nicolas Barré could see that they were caught in a poverty trap that offered no way out. Many of the younger people were illiterate, spent much of their time in untrained work or roaming the streets. Sometimes they went out to beg or even to steal in an effort to survive. They were the ‘street children’, the ‘delinquents’ of their time, who would have been locked up when they got into trouble. Nicolas was keenly aware of people’s ignorance of their faith and sense of distance from God. He spent a number of years pondering and praying about this situation, often doing so with other people who were equally concerned.