Secularization and the fate of church bells during the Revolution

One major campaign throughout the Revolution was an effort to secularize France.   The Constitution civile du clergé, published in 1790, effectively reorganized the government of the Gallican church, reducing the number of parishes, ecclesiastic offices, and subjecting the Catholic Church of France to laws imposed by the king and Assemblée nationale constituante.  Clergy were required to swear an oath to the new constitution and those who did not were increasingly persecuted, many were exiled and their property seized to benefit the national treasury.  Prior to the publication of the Constitution civile du clerg, the decret of 2 novembre 1789 put all ecclesiastical goods at the disposition of the state and opened the door to subsequent legislation aimed at the confiscation of church property.  Monasteries and convents were suppressed, and their lands and goods seized as national property, and sold to reduce the public debt and fund national expenditures.  Efforts taken towards secularization reached their peak in the decrhistianization movement under the Terror with legislation including the suspension of the Gregorian calendar in favor of the Republican calendar, suspension of ecclesiastical pensions, and rise of the cults of Reason and the Supreme Being.

One of the items targeted in the confiscation of church property were the church bells.  Legislation from 1790 and 1791 discuss the fate of the confiscated bells – they were to be taken to the Hôtel des monnoies to be melted down to manufacture coins.  Under the Convention nationale it was decreed that only one bell was to remain in each city, all others would be confiscated and melted down. 

…il ne doit rester qu’une seule cloche dans chaque commune ou paroisse…toutes les autres cloches doivent être descendues, et sont à la disposition du conseil executif pour être fondues en bouches à feu” (Case folio FRC 9928 no. 8 )

Case folio FRC 10341 contains several laws issued by Louis XVI and the Assemblée nationale  regarding the confiscated church bells :

- Case folio FRC 10341 no. 21: Loi relative à la fonte des cloches des églises supprimées dans le département de Paris, donnée à Paris, le 28 juin 1791.

- Case folio FRC 10341 no. 53: Loi relative à la distribution de la monnoie de cuivre & de celle qui proviendra de la fonte des cloches, donnée à Paris, le 6 août 1791.

- Case folio FRC 10341 no. 59: Loi relative à la fabrication de la menue monnoie avec le métal des cloches, donnée à Paris, le 6 août 1791.

All three of these pamphlets focus on the manufacture of coins derived from melted down church bells.  No. 21 prescribes the exact weights of the sous and demi-sous to be fabricated along with conditions to ensure uniformity.  Case folio FRC 10341 no. 53 prescribes the amount, in vingtiemes, of newly minted money to be distributed to each department, while Case folio FRC 10341 no. 59 gives details as to the fabrication of the coins.

Le métal des cloches sera allié a une portion égale de cuivre pur, & les flaons qui en proviendront seront frappés…Cette monnoie sera divisée en pièces de duex sous à la taille de dix au marc, en pièces s’un sou a celle de vingt au marc, & en pieces de demi-sou a celle de quarante au marc…Le poinçons & matrices pour la fabrication des pieces d’un sou, pourront etre fournis par le sieur Duvier, suivant ses offres…” (Case folio FRC 10341 no. 59)

After the start of the War of the First Coalition, legislation began to appear that supported the manufacture of cannons from the confiscated  church bells.   Case folio FRC 9928 no.8, a pamphlet carrying an extract from the proceedings of the general council of Loire, discusses the need to augment the supply of brass and copper derived from the melted down church bells, as it was not a sufficient supply of raw material to manufacture cannons.

“…le matiere des cloches n’est pas seule suffisante pour fabriquer des canons, qu’il y faut amalgamer une quantite de cuivre assez considerable, pour la solidite des bouches feu” (Case folio FRC 9928 no. 8 )

Many of the pamphlets found in the FRC collection that discuss the confiscation and melting down of church bells focus on their use in the fabrication of coins like the examples above.  It is possible that we may uncover more pamphlets related to the manufacture of cannons from bells as we continue to catalog this collection.

Other resources :

Blavignac, Jean Daniel. La cloche : études sur son histoire et sur ses rapports avec la société aux différents ages. (1877)


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