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Fanny Defrance-Jublot, École Pratique des Hautes Études

Thu May 3rd 2018, 4:30pm
Pigott Bldg 260 room 003

The Pickaxe and the Church book The experience of being Prehistorian and Catholic in France (from 1859 to 1962)

Abstract: In 1924, historian of the Catholic Church, Henri Bremond, compared prehistoric research at the end of the nineteenth century to a kind of allegory of a female Republican. He saw Prehistory as “A young women, dressed by an anticlerical shrew with a red Phrygian cap [Marianne, symbol of secular France], dancing an Indian war dance around the Church.” This description shows that, in France, prehistory represented a recurrent source of concern for the Church and the Catholic community. Despite the reticence that prehistory stirred up in Catholic circles, the discipline counted among its ranks a number of prehistorians who claimed religious membership and who chose to make this a part of their identity. They came to study this new field because they were living near various archaeological sites, because they were members of local scientific groups, or for apologetic reasons in order to support the Catholic faith.

This talk will focus on issues of membership connections and boundaries for several generations of prehistorians who were also Catholics. These issues include the objective and subjective aspects of the relationship between faith and research, for instance in which ways prehistory analysis could influence a Christian life. Another question concerns the underlying aspect of such a relationship. Some prehistorians claimed objectivity; however, I ask whether one could find evidence of their Catholic faith in some of their scientific interpretations. Finally, I discuss how these Catholic prehistorians had to overcome two kinds of obstacles. When religious neutrality became an academic requirement linked with the process of secularization in France, a barrier emerged which separated public discourses according to the audience present. This made it more difficult to display the amalgamation these Catholic prehistorians were willing to create between science and religion. Also, in the Catholic world, until the beginning of the fifties, the context of the Modernist crisis, wherein the Church refused to acknowledge scientific modernity or accept critiques about the historicity of Genesis creation story, posed a number of problems. I interrogate what could be said and what could not be said in the French Catholic community about prehistoric origins in this context.