Rancé, Armand Jean le Bouthillier de
RANCÉ, ARMAND JEAN LE BOUTHILLIER DE
Cistercian abbot and reformer of La Trappe, ascetic author and controversialist; b. Paris, Jan. 9, 1626; d. La Trappe, Oct. 27, 1700. He was born of an influential family of government officials and was destined early to an ecclesiastical career. He received the tonsure in 1635 and soon became a canon of Paris and the beneficiary of two priories and three abbeys, among them the Cistercian latrappe in Normandy. He pursued his studies with brilliance, particularly in patristic theology. Rancé was ordained on Jan. 22, 1651, received the licentiate of theology in the next year, ranking first in his class, and was graduated as doctor of theology from the Sorbonne in 1654. At the Assembly of the Clergy from 1655 to 1657, he defended Cardinal de Retz against Mazarin and signed the anti-Jansenist formulary, although he retained a close relationship with the French Oratory and the circle of Port-Royal. Neither better nor worse than many other worldly prelates of his era, he divided his time between occasional preaching and the fashionable diversions of Paris society.
The turning point of his life came in 1657, when the death of the celebrated beauty of the court, the duchess of Montbazon, terminated their close friendship. He left Paris and spent much time at his country home in reading, reflection, and meditation. Resolving to become a monk, he sold his estates, retaining only La Trappe, and in 1663 began his novitiate at the reformed Cistercian monastery of Perseigne. He made his monastic profession on June 6, 1664, with the intention of assuming the government of La Trappe as regular abbot. A few months after his profession, however, he was delegated by the cistercians of the Strict Observance, together with Dominic George, abbot of Val-Richer, to plead before Pope Alexander VII for the autonomy for this reformed branch of the order. He remained in Rome until 1666, but the mission was a failure; the Strict Observance remained subject to the abbot of Cîteaux. Rancé submitted to the papal decision with great reluctance. In 1673 he made a direct appeal to Louis XIV for a reversal of the decree, only to fail again. He retired from public life and devoted his energies to the reform of La Trappe, although he maintained a voluminous correspondence and published a number of books and pamphlets in justification of his peculiar monastic ideas.
His chief work was De la sainteté et des devoirs de la vie monastique (2 v., Paris 1683). Ignoring the indulgent character of the Rule of St. Benedict, he insisted that monasticism was basically penitential. Monks should consider themselves criminals doomed to a life of severity. The abbot must create humiliations for his monks and encourage the practice of austerity even at the cost of ruined health. The monks must feel no satisfaction in their works and exercises, must banish intellectual pursuits, and occupy their time in hard manual labor. Rancé's concept of monasticism became the object of vigorous reaction. His most notable opponent was the Maurist mabillon who defended monastic studies. Under Rancé's administration La Trappe became a populous and much admired community, and he himself was venerated as a saint by many of his contemporaries. His health broken by austerities and exertions, Rancé abdicated as abbot in 1695 and died among his devoted monks after five years of intense suffering. Rancé's heroic asceticism was deeply impressive, though his obvious exaggerations and combative temper leave him always a figure of controversy. His immediate influence was slight, but after the Napoleonic Wars, when the Strict Observance was successfully revived by the monks of La Trappe, he became the guiding genius of the fast-growing trappist congregation and dominated its spirituality during the 19th century.
Bibliography: l. dubois, Histoire de l'abbé de Rancé et de sa réforme, 2 v. (Paris 1866), considered the standard biography, this is a version of the panegyrical 18th-century MS of a. f. gervaise. j. marsollier, La Vie de Dom Arman-Jean Le Bouthillier de Rancé (Paris 1703). f. r. de chateaubriand, Vie de Rancé (Paris 1844). h. bremond, The Thundering Abbot, tr. f. j. sheed (London 1930). a. cherel, Rancé (Paris 1930) and e. jeu, M. de La Trappe (Paris 1931), are short and popular. For list of works and full bibliography see j. carreyre, Dictionnaire de théologie catholique, ed. a. vacant et al., 15 v. (Paris 1903–50; Tables générales 1951–),13.2:1652–56.
[l. j. lekai]