Managing Time

Literature and Devotion in Early Modern France

by Richard Maber (Volume editor) Joanna Barker (Volume editor)
Edited Collection VIII, 270 Pages


This volume offers a multidimensional exploration of the theme of time in early modern France: of time past, time present and time future, in literature and in life.
In poetry, the importance of past and future perspectives was studied by Maynard and La Fontaine. The dynamics of tragic drama were haunted by the past, driven by the urgency of the present and pervasively aware of the alternative futures that could be created, while in imaginative fiction there was a perennial fascination with possible future societies, Utopian or otherwise.
The awareness of transience and mortality gave urgency to the right ordering of life. The Church offered guidance to the pious for their days to be passed in disciplined devotion, while the moralists urged their worldly readers to redeem their misspent time and look to things eternal. At the end, the right ordering of death was both a social and a religious preoccupation.
The essays gathered here aim to stimulate an imaginative engagement with this important theme and open up avenues for future research.

Table Of Contents

  • Cover
  • Title
  • Copyright
  • About the author(s)/editor(s)
  • About the book
  • This eBook can be cited
  • Contents
  • Preface
  • Introduction (Michael Moriarty)
  • Bibliography
  • Chapter 1: Time Sanctified: French Influence on Vernacular Prayer (Joanna M. Barker)
  • French Vernacular Books of Hours
  • Bibliography
  • Primary Sources
  • Secondary Sources
  • Chapter 2: Time Well Spent: Scheduling Private Devotion in Early Modern France (Mette Birkedal Bruun)
  • Prologue
  • Introduction
  • Manuals
  • Pastimes
  • Imitation of Christ
  • Epilogue
  • Bibliography
  • Primary Sources
  • Secondary Sources
  • Chapter 3: Time Materialized: Mme de Maintenon’s Petits Livres Secrets as Instruments of Devotion (Lars Cyril Nørgaard)
  • General Description
  • Content
  • Author: Agency
  • Spiritual Dialogue
  • Autograph and Epigraph
  • Bibliography
  • Chapter 4: Jesuit Time in Early Seventeenth-Century France (Thomas Worcester, S. J.)
  • Bibliography
  • Chapter 5: The Good Times and the Bad: François Maynard’s Reflections on his Past and Future (Adam Horsley)
  • Bibliography
  • Manuscripts
  • Printed Sources
  • Chapter 6: Entre prophétie et prospective : Michel de Pure, de La Pretieuse (1656–1658) à Épigone, histoire du siècle futur (1659) (Lise Leibacher-Ouvrard)
  • Bibliography
  • Chapter 7: Tragedy and the Weight of Time (John D. Lyons)
  • Bibliography
  • Chapter 8: Out of Time? Untimeliness in Corneille’s Pulchérie (1672) (Joseph Harris)
  • Introduction
  • Untimely Characters
  • Historical Disruptions
  • Old Age: Martian
  • Untimely Life: Tragic and Comic ‘Overliving’
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Chapter 9: Anticipation, the Future and La Fontaine’s Fables (Allen Wood)
  • Bibliography
  • Chapter 10: Time: For Amendment of Life, or Gathering Rosebuds? A Jesuit Moralist and the Paradoxes of Mortality (Richard Maber)
  • Bibliography
  • Manuscripts
  • Primary Sources
  • Secondary Sources
  • Chapter 11: Time, Death and Burial in the ancien diocèse of Le Mans (Philippa Woodcock)
  • Sources and Structure
  • Time and the Historiography of Death
  • Burial Times in the ancien diocèse
  • Social Groups
  • The Unknown
  • The Unlawful
  • Inconsistencies
  • Suspicious Corpses
  • War Time
  • Time, Burial and Plague
  • Time of Day
  • Time and Commemoration
  • De-commemoration
  • Conclusion
  • Bibliography
  • Parish Registers
  • Cadastre 1842
  • Archives départementales de la Sarthe
  • Secondary Sources
  • Notes on Contributors
  • Index
  • Series index

| vii →


The chapters in this volume have developed from a selection of papers presented at the thirty-ninth annual conference of the Society for Early Modern French Studies (formerly the Society for Seventeenth-Century French Studies) held at Wadham College, Oxford, from 5 to 7 September 2016. All the essays have been considerably expanded and peer-reviewed for publication.

The editors would like to thank everyone involved for their help in preparing this collection, especially the past Chair of the Society, Michael Moriarty, who contributed the Introduction; the President, Noël Peacock, for his encouragement and advice; and all the contributors. Finally, it is a pleasure to acknowledge the support that we have received from the Society, which has generously enabled the volume’s publication.

Joanna Barker
Richard Maber

| 1 →



The hands of the clock go round in a circle and return to their starting-point yet each revolution takes us further in an irreversible movement in one definite direction. The following chapters explore the depiction of time in early modern French writing through a variety of approaches, and with reference to a variety of fields of activity. Some chapters concentrate on the cyclical aspect of time, others on its linearity. The collection covers an impressive range of genres: tragedy, comedy, prose fiction, poetry, and devotional manuals. It is particularly welcome to see poetry coming again into focus, since in recent decades it has been relatively neglected by scholarship in the early modern period. Alongside literature in the broad sense, the volume also features – another welcome development – historical research in the archives.

The chapters here certainly bear traces of the oft-cited ‘religious turn’ in early modern studies. Religion is a particularly rich field for the exploration of questions of time, since it requires the faithful to engage with both its cyclical and its linear aspects. To each of us God has allotted a certain sum of days, an unknowable quantity of time our use of which will determine our fate in eternity. Moreover, the world itself is moving towards an end predetermined by God, the Last Judgement.1

But we ‘know neither the day nor the hour’ (Matthew 25.13), either of our own end or of the world’s. In the meantime, therefore, we must make use of the time we have, and in some cases this implies breaking it down day by day, and breaking the day down further into a series of activities. This kind of time-management is fostered by two aspects of Catholicism: first, ← 1 | 2 → the liturgical year, the succession of feasts and fasts which gives direction to the spiritual activities of both lay people and clerics; secondly, within the monastic life, the succession, within each day, of the divine offices and other scheduled occupations. Pious lay people might attempt to imitate this by a carefully planned schedule of activities.

Mette Birkedal Bruun’s study of devotional manuals discusses the organization of the day, both as a discrete unit of time and as a stopping-place on the pilgrimage through the liturgical year. She equally draws attention to discussion of the appropriate place within the Christian life of non-spiritual recreational activities. Lars Nørgaard likewise discusses the integration of individual linear time, a collective cyclical timeframe and a future eschatological space in Madame de Maintenon’s copies of letters of spiritual direction. From the Middle Ages on, Books of Hours had helped lay people bring aspects of monastic spirituality into their daily lives. Joanna M. Barker examines how printing made such books widely available, and focuses in particular on the role played by French printers in making them available to Catholic recusants in England.

Did the encouragement to lay people to sanctify their time paradoxically distance them from collective public prayer? This is one of the questions explored by Thomas Worcester, in his study of Jesuit time in early seventeenth-century France. In the Spiritual Exercises of St Ignatius, meditation on the various episodes in the life of Christ was disconnected from the progress of the liturgical year. Worcester argues that this fostered an individualist conception of time, diffused by the writings not only of members of the Society of Jesus such as Étienne Binet and Nicolas Caussin, but also by spiritual writers influenced by the Jesuits such as St François de Sales. In conclusion, he raises the question whether this Jesuit spirituality may have unwittingly contributed to the secularization of time.2

All these chapters explore, in different ways, the temporal rhythms of the life of piety. Richard Maber, while remaining on the terrain of religion, takes a different approach, focusing on the finite time allotted to an ← 2 | 3 → individual life and the moral implications that result from this, as explored in the writings of another Jesuit writer, Pierre Le Moyne. The sense of the brevity and fragility of life might contribute to the short-term hedonism of carpe diem; by contrast, Le Moyne insists on transience and mortality to encourage his worldly readers to amend their lives, and embrace a relatively painless dévotion aisée. But, however effective his rhetoric on paper, Le Moyne’s preaching to individuals was not always, as Maber shows, crowned with success.

It is perhaps worth remarking that none of the chapters on religious writing focus on Jansenist authors (whereas two deal with Jesuits). Fascinating as the subject of Jansenism is (and Pierre Nicole has a beautiful essay on the management of time), it is entirely right that our investigation of seventeenth-century Catholicism should range well beyond Port-Royal.3

Pascal’s famous reflection on the inevitable end (‘Le dernier acte est sanglant quelque belle que soit la comédie en tout le reste. On jette enfin de la terre sur la tête et en voilà pour jamais’ (L 165/S 197)) reminds us that the individual destiny is inevitably subsumed into a collective ritual. Philippa Woodcock gives an account rich in telling detail of the relationship between time, death, and burial, as it emerges from close study of the records of the former diocese of Le Mans. She shows how emergencies like war and plague impacted upon the normal patterns of burial, themselves inflected by class-divisions and by one-off factors like the circumstances of an individual death. Behind the material practices, she discloses a symbolic dimension, the formation of images of religious community and identity.

The preoccupations of the other chapters in this volume are far more secular. The history of European literature was for centuries imbued with the sense that poetry transcends time and mortality. Horace’s ‘non omnis moriar’, Ronsard’s ‘Quand vous serez bien vieille’, and any number of Shakespeare’s sonnets contrast the ephemerality of human life with the power of poetry to immortalize the writer or his or her subject.4 Adam ← 3 | 4 → Horsley explores the concern of François Maynard with the past and future reception of his work and his fluctuating assessments of its worth, tying these convincingly to episodes in the poet’s life.

Other chapters address the collective dimension of human beings’ relationship to the past or future. One obvious, if somewhat facile, way of characterizing the early modern centuries is to credit each of them with a distinctive attitude to time. Turning to Ancient Greece and Rome, the Renaissance seeks to illuminate the present with the light of the past; the so-called âge classique propounds a vision of a timeless human nature, while at the same time celebrating its own superiority to other epochs; the Enlightenment looks to the future brought about by what Condorcet called ‘les progrès de l’esprit humain’. To take sides in the Querelle des Anciens et des Modernes was to choose between regarding the past as an index of the present’s superiority or as a reproach to its inadequacies. But while some writers certainly did make such a choice, others’ attitude was more ambivalent. Lise Leibacher-Ouvrard shows this in the case of Michel de Pure, best known as the author of La Précieuse but responsible also for Épigone, histoire du siècle futur (1659), which has earned him the title of ‘le premier historien de l’avenir’. Often identified as a moderne in sensibility, his attitude, she shows, was far more ambiguous, imbued both with nostalgia for a heroic past and fear of future decline.

Allen Wood, too, explores attitudes to the future, but, like all the remaining chapters, his deals with time as a dimension of the existence of fictional characters. The fables of La Fontaine may seem to take place in a time frame compressed to an instant, captured in the illustration; but Wood’s close analysis exposes the role of future-tense verbs as expressions of promises, plans, and predictions. Indeed, he shows, conflict between characters often results from the clash between competing intentions and visions of the future. This is one of the ways in which the fables demonstrate the importance of foresight.

By contrast, John D. Lyons focuses on the presence of the past in the life of dramatic characters, the pressure on them of the preceding generations. ← 4 | 5 → Here too, however, temporal categories lose their obviousness, as, instead of succeeding one another in an orderly fashion, the generations become entangled. Comedy, by contrast, depicts characters free of the influence of past generations. In the eighteenth-century drame the portrayal of relationships between the generations and between the past and the present exhibits traces of both these generic models.

In Joseph Harris’s analysis of Pulchérie the characters display an acute sense of their own untimeliness, whether this takes the form of being too old or too young to fulfil their desires, or of an attachment to a heroic ideal from the past that has been discarded by their contemporaries, absorbed as they are in the pursuit of self-interest. Harris connects this with Corneille’s own sense of having been overtaken by time, as new fashions in tragedy have diminished his audience appeal. But despite his refusal to compromise with the new taste, Corneille’s concerns did evolve; as Harris shows, whereas the famous early works deal with moments of upheaval and transition, later plays like Pulchérie and Tite et Bérénice are concerned with rulers aware of their own mortality and attempting to plan dynastic succession. In Pulchérie, moreover, where discrepancies of age are essential to the plot, references to the age of the characters recur with quasi-obsessive frequency. The denouement seems to vindicate the possibility of transcending one’s self-interest in an heroic act of renunciation, but the resolution is still precarious, as is brought out by Corneille’s references in ‘Au lecteur’ to future conflict between the characters.

So wide is the range of these chapters that it may seem churlish to indicate any lacunae in this collection’s treatment of the subject-matter. But it may be useful to point to one or two areas that might repay future exploration. First, the gender dimension: the extent to which men’s and women’s experiences of time may have differed, in view of the gender division of labour in the broadest sense. Princess Elisabeth of Bohemia laments to Descartes her lack of control over her own time, owing to the tedious visitors she is obliged to put up with:

Elisabeth’s function as an aristocratic woman is to ingratiate herself with influential people so as to best to preserve and advance the interests of her family, and this requirement prevents her from calling her time her own.

Second, technological aspects: the development of clocks and the introduction of the pocket watch, which clearly impacted on the subjective experience of time. Its effect on the imagination is sufficiently attested by analogical or metaphorical uses. Thus Descartes uses the analogy of a clock to refute the view that animals have intelligence because they do some things better than us:

Ceux qu’ils font mieux que nous, ne prouve pas qu’ils ont de l’esprit; car, à ce compte ils en auraient plus qu’aucun de nous, et feraient mieux en toute chose; mais plutôt qu’ils n’en ont point, et que c’est la Nature qui agit en eux, selon la disposition de leurs organes: ainsi qu’on voit qu’une horloge, qui n’est composé que de roues et de ressorts, peut compter les heures, et mesurer le temps, plus justement que nous avec toute notre prudence.6

Pascal too uses the analogy of a timepiece, in a fragment that is, moreover, fascinating both for its emphasis on the discrepancy between objective and subjective time, and for the numerical precision of its references:

Ceux qui jugent d’un ouvrage sans règle sont à l’égard des autres comme ceux qui ont une montre à l’égard des autres. L’un dit: il y a deux heures; l’autre dit: il n’y a que trois quarts d’heure. Je regarde ma montre et je dis à l’un: vous vous ennuyez, et à l’autre: le temps ne vous dure guère, car il y a une heure et demie. Et je me moque de ceux qui disent que le temps me dure à moi et que j’en juge par fantaisie. Ils ne savent pas que j’en juge par ma montre. (L 534/S 457)

Thirdly, scientific and philosophical aspects. It is very striking that Descartes’s natural philosophy devotes immense attention to space (necessarily, since extension in space is the distinguishing property of matter) ← 6 | 7 → and comparatively little to time, which is, however, a key concept in the Meditations, since the discontinuity of time is one of the factors in the causal argument for God’s existence (AT VII, 48–9/AT IX, 54–5). In the following century, however, Kant, in the first Critique, was to treat space and time in parallel. It would be worth investigating how philosophy got from one position to the other.

But in saying all this one runs the risk of distracting readers from what is actually here in these chapters and that would be to deprive them of a very profitable and enjoyable use of their own time.


Descartes, René, Œuvres, ed. Charles Adam and Paul Tannery, 11 vols, rev. edn (Paris: Vrin/CNRS, 1996).

Nicole, Pierre, ‘De l’usage du temps’, in Essais de morale, 15 vols (Paris: Desprez, 1755–1782), V, 35–56.

Pascal, Blaise, Œuvres complètes, ed. Louis Lafuma, L’Intégrale (Paris: Seuil, 1963).


VIII, 270
ISBN (Softcover)
Publication date
2017 (August)
Early modern France French Literature Religious thought
Oxford, Bern, Berlin, Bruxelles, Frankfurt am Main, New York, Wien, 2017. VIII, 270 pp., 22 b/w ill., 5 tables

Biographical notes

Richard Maber (Volume editor) Joanna Barker (Volume editor)

Richard Maber is Emeritus Professor of French at Durham University and former director of the university’s interdisciplinary Research Centre for Seventeenth-Century Studies. He is also the founder and General Editor of the journal The Seventeenth Century. His principal research interests are seventeenth-century French poetry and early modern intellectual history, especially the networks of learned correspondence of the European Republic of Letters. He is currently editing the extensive complete correspondence of Gilles Ménage (1613–1692). Joanna Barker is an honorary research fellow of the Institute of Medieval and Early Modern Studies at Durham University. Her interests include writing by early modern women and issues related to translation.


Title: Managing Time
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