Encyclopedia Britannica – Maurists

Article

A congregation of French Benedictines called after Saint Maurus (died 565), a disciple of Saint Benedict and the legendary introducer of the Benedictine rule and life into Gaul. At the end of the 16th century the Benedictine monasteries of France had fallen into a state of disorganization and relaxation. In the abbey of Saint Vaune near Verdun a reform was initiated by Dom Didier de la Cour, which spread to other houses in Lorraine, and in 1604 the reformed congregation of Saint Vaune was established, the most distinguished members of which were Ceillier and Calmet. A number of French houses joined the new congregation; but as Lorraine was still independent of the French crown, it was considered desirable to form on the same lines a separate congregation for France. Thus in 1621 was established the famous French congregation of Saint Maur. Most of the Benedictine monasteries of France, except those belonging to Cluny, gradually joined the new congregation, which eventually embraced nearly two hundred houses. The chief house was Saint-Germain-des-Prés, Paris, the residence of the superior-general and centre of the literary activity of the congregation. The primary idea of the movement was not the undertaking of literary and historical work, but the return to a strict monastic régime and the faithful carrying out of Benedictine life; and throughout the most glorious period of Maurist history the literary work was not allowed to interfere with the due performance of the choral office and the other duties of the monastic life. Towards the end of the 18th century a tendency crept in, in some quarters, to relax the monastic observances in favour of study; but the constitutions of 1770 show that a strict monastic régime was maintained until the end. The course of Maurist history and work was checkered by the ecclesiastical controversies that distracted the French Church during the 17th and 18th centuries. Some of the members identified themselves with the Jansenist cause; but the bulk, including nearly all the greatest names, pursued a middle path, opposing the lax moral theology condemned in 1679 by Pope Innocent XI., and adhering to those strong views on grace and predestination associated with the Augustinian and Thomist schools of Catholic theology; and like all the theological faculties and schools on French soil, they were bound to teach the four Gallican articles. It seems that towards the end of the 18th century a rationalistic and free-thinking spirit invaded some of the houses. The congregation was suppressed and the monks scattered at the revolution, the last superior-general with forty of his monks dying on the scaffold in Paris. The present French congregation of Benedictines initiated by Dom Guéranger in 1833 is a new creation and has no continuity with the congregation of Saint Maur.

The great claim of the Maurists to the gratitude and admiration of posterity is their historical and critical school, which stands quite alone in history, and produced an extraordinary number of colossal works of erudition which still are of permanent value. The foundations of this school were laid by Dom Tarisse, the first superior-general, who in 1632 issued instructions to the superiors of the monasteries to train the young monks in the habits of research and of organized work. The pioneers in production were Ménard and d’Achery. The 58 works comprise 199 great folio volumes and 39 in quarto or octavo. The full Maurist bibliography contains the names of some 220 writers and more than 700 works. The lesser works in large measure cover the same fields as those in the list, but the number of works of purely religious character, of piety, devotion and edification, is very striking. Perhaps the most wonderful phenomenon of Maurist work is that what was produced was only a portion of what was contemplated and prepared for. The French Revolution cut short many gigantic undertakings, the collected materials for which fill hundreds of manuscript volumes in the Bibliothèque nationale of Paris and other libraries of France. There are at Paris 31 volumes of Berthereau’s materials for the Historians of the Crusades, not only in Latin and Greek, but in the oriental tongues; from them have been taken in great measure the Recueil des historiens des croisades, whereof 15 folio volumes have been published by the Académie des Inscriptions. There exist also the preparations for an edition of Rufinus and one of Eusebius, and for the continuation of the Papal Letters and of the Concilia Galliae. Dom Caffiaux and Dom Villevielle left 236 volumes of materials for a Trésor généalogique. There are Benedictine Antiquities (37 volumes), a Monasticon Gallicanum and a Monasticon Benedictinum (54 volumes). Of the Histories of the Provinces of France barely half a dozen were printed, but all were in hand, and the collections for the others fill 800 volumes of manuscripts The materials for a geography of Gaul and France in 50 volumes perished in a fire during the Revolution.

When these figures were considered, and when one contemplates the vastness of the works in progress during any decade of the century 1680-1780; and still more, when not only the quantity but the quality of the work, and the abiding value of most of it is realized, it will be recognized that the output was prodigious and unique in the history of letters, as coming from a single society. The qualities that have made Maurist work proverbial for sound learning are its fine critical tact and its thoroughness.

The chief source of information on the Maurists and their work is Dom Tassin’s Histoire littéraire de la congregation de Saint-Maur (1770); it has been reduced to a bare bibliography and completed by de Lama, Bibliothèque des écrivains de la congr. de S.-M. (1882). The two works of de Broglie, Mabillon (2 vols., 1888) and Montfaucon (2 vols., 1891), give a charming picture of the inner life of the great Maurists of the earlier generation in the midst of their work and their friends. Sketches of the lives of a few of the chief Maurists will be found in McCarthy’s Principal Writers of the Congr. of S. M. (1868). Useful information about their literary undertakings will be found in De Lisle’s Cabinet des MSS. de la Bibl. Nat. Fonds Saint Germain-des-Prés. General information will be found in the standard authorities: Helyot, Hist. des ordres religieux (1718), vi. c. 37; Heimbucher, Orden und Kongregationen (1907) i. § 36; Wetzer und Welte, Kirchenlexicon and Herzog-Hauck’s Realencyklopädie, the latter an interesting appreciation by the Protestant historian Otto Zöckler of the spirit and the merits of the work of the Maurists.

MLA Citation

  • “Maurists”. Encyclopedia Britannica, 1911. CatholicSaints.Info. 15 March 2015. Web. 24 May 2017. <>