The Jesuits, a monstrous hydra

The Jesuits, a monstrous hydra

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Title: Allegorical piece: [print]: Custom of the Jesuits. We read at the bottom of the board: All armed with courage and treacherous faith .....

Date shown: August 6, 1762

Dimensions: Height 34.3 - Width 51.5

Technique and other indications: Prints Department, BnF

Storage location: National Library of France (Paris) website

Contact copyright: © Photo National Library of France

Allegorical piece: [print]: Custom of the Jesuits. We read at the bottom of the board: All armed with courage and treacherous faith .....

© Photo National Library of France

Publication date: September 2016

Professor of modern history at the University of Nice-Sophia Antipolis.

Historical context

Jesuits on trial

As Father Charles de Neuville wrote, 1762 was for the Jesuits the year of the "shipwreck". On August 6, 1762, the Parliament of Paris declared the Society of Jesus "inadmissible by nature in any civilized state" and ordered the Jesuits "to renounce forever the name, habit, vows, and regime of their society; to evacuate seminaries, novitiates, colleges, professed houses within a week ". The Jesuits are expelled from the vast jurisdiction of the Parliament of Paris, soon followed by most of the provincial parliaments.

It is the outcome of a conflict between the “Gallican” magistrates, supporters of a Church of France which jealously defends its autonomy from the Pope, from the ultramontanes - literally those who look beyond the Alps, towards Rome - , in the forefront of which the Jesuits who take a vow of obedience to the Pope. Many magistrates are also of the Jansenist tradition; yet the Jesuits were in the first half of the century the determined enemies of Jansenism - a Catholic dissent condemned by Rome.

Before, during and after the trials against the Society of Jesus, virulent public opinion campaigns opposed the two camps. These campaigns not only use pamphlets, but also satirical prints, like this Custom of the Jesuits published in 1762.

Since the religious wars of the XVIe century, the satirical image is omnipresent as a mode of political expression in the crises that tear France apart. Inexpensive, widely distributed by hawkers and supporters of one or another camp - here, the anti-Jesuits -, it makes it possible to reach those who have little knowledge of reading and to offer scholars the possibility of decoding allusions to current events, game then very popular with readers.

Image Analysis

Jesuit hypocrisy condemned

The snakes wrapped around the arms of the Jesuits designate them as evil beings. The engraving here follows the Parliament of Paris, for whom the theology of the Company is considered "destructive of all principles of religion and even of probity". Counting their gold coins in front of crates of goods, the Jesuits are greedy for gain.

The engraving clearly alludes to the case which gave rise to their trial in France. A Jesuit named Valletta had indeed created a sugar cane plantation in Martinique and a trading house to finance his missionary enterprises. During the Seven Years' War (1756-1763), he went bankrupt and his creditors sued him before the commercial court. It was then that the parliament took up the matter, which became a real matter of state.

According to the engraving, the Jesuits have other vices. The arrow and the dagger on the ground echo the conspiracy charges against them. The legend denounces "Jesuitism" as a troublemaker and favoring regicides: "They have just proved their homicidal ardor", in reference to the attempted assassination of the King of Portugal, Joseph Ier, in 1758, of which they are accused and which is at the origin of the first expulsion of the Jesuits from a Catholic country.


Jesuit monstrosity

The Jesuits used the image a lot in the 18th centurye century, especially to relay their missionary work. Here, on the contrary, the image turns against them. If its title evokes the illustrations of oriental or Amerindian "customs" that they publish in their works, it is here diverted to show the hypocrisy of the Jesuits and its sanction: the fathers are punished by the Almighty himself, explains legend, and devoured by a monster, in comparison to which they appear ridiculously small. But fundamentally, it is their Company that is monstrous. Its destruction must therefore be done without the slightest pity.

This is the meaning of the legend which recalls that the Jesuits are accused of arming the arm of the assassins - Ravaillac for the murder of Henri IV, in 1610 - and of justifying regicide, a monstrous crime if there is one. Monarchical Europe: “Eternal enemies of the supreme powers. In France, the attack of Damiens in 1757 against Louis XV came to rekindle suspicion. These actions are all the more odious as the Jesuits have the ears of the kings they have confessed since Henry III. They betray their confidence all the more because they have taken a vow of allegiance to the Pope, and therefore to the sovereign of a foreign power, the Papal States, who at the same time happens to be the head of the Catholic Church.

The engraving clearly shows, in the lower left part, the Jesuits bent on destroying the Catholic kingdoms, symbolized by the arms of the Kingdom of Portugal, and those of France with fleur de lys. Right now, when the condemnation of the Company has just been served, this engraving therefore salutes the saving work of parliaments and calls on the king to deliver France from a monstrous hydra. This was done two years later: a royal edict of November 1764 abolished the Company, before an edict of May 1767 banished the Jesuits from the kingdom.

  • Jesuits
  • Lights
  • conspiracy
  • conspiracy
  • Religious life
  • religion
  • allegory
  • regicide
  • satire
  • religious conflict
  • treason
  • Jansenism
  • missionaries
  • Seven Years' War (1756-1763)


BEAUREPAIRE Pierre-Yves, France of the Enlightenment (1715-1789), Paris, Belin, coll. “Histoire de France” (no 8), 2011 (compact edition 2014).

FABRE Pierre-Antoine, MAYOR Catherine (dir.), The anti-Jesuits: discourses, figures and places of anti-Jesuitism in the modern era, meeting reports (Paris, Rome, 2003), Rennes, Presses Universitaires de Rennes, coll. “History”, 2010.

To cite this article

Pierre-Yves BEAUREPAIRE, "The Jesuits, a monstrous hydra"

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