“Priests versus Actors in Early Modern France: A Contest in Forms of Publicity”
Early modern discourses against the theater in France, as well as subsequent scholarship on polemics about the stage, often pit priests against actors. Not only could actors not enter holy orders because their craft rendered them “public sinners,” but laypeople and churchmen also on occasion derided rival priests as actors – for example if they preached in a charismatic style – as a way to accuse them of hypocrisy. Rather than focusing on the issue of authenticity suggested by antitheatrical rhetoric, this talk reframes the competition between churchmen and stage players as a contest over forms of publicity. By analyzing ecclesiastical texts such as a liturgical handbook called the diocesan Ritual and seminary manuals used in priestly training, the talk shows how during the second half of the seventeenth century, when French churchmen began to classify actors as public sinners, they simultaneous promoted a vision of the parish priest as “public person.” The categories of public sinner and public person thus represented divergent ways of being public and of conceiving of the public. Focused on bodies in performance, the talk argues that seminaries established priests as public persons by leveraging ceremonies and archival writing so that when priests appeared in public their particularity remained subordinated to the signs of their priestly office. People classified as public sinners, by contrast, appeared in public but lacked access to the ceremonial and archival resources necessary for presenting themselves as more than or other than a private person inappropriately exposed. Rather than lacking morality, actors therefore lacked the appropriate publicity.
Joy Palacios is assistant professor in the Department of Classics and Religion at the University of Calgary, where she teaches courses on ritual and religious experience. She specializes in the early modern Church’s response to France’s 17th- and early-18th century theater and drama and the ways in which the Catholic Church sought to renew its authority by differentiating priests from actors, masses from plays, and the Church from the state. Her work combines archival research methods with the literary sensibilities of French studies and conceptual tools drawn from performance theory to offer an anthropological history of priestcraft in early modern France. More generally, her research interests concern the religious practice, culture, and literature of the French Counter-Reformation, as well as French theater history and drama under the Ancien Régime. Dr. Palacios holds B.A. in the Comparative History of Ideas from the University of Washington (2001) and a Ph.D. in Performance Studies from the University of California, Berkeley (2012).