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Response to Review no. 916

I am grateful to Eric Nelson for his comprehensive and thoughtful review of my book.  Perhaps because of the scale of the book, he quite naturally spent much of the time summarising what I had to say on a very broad array of themes.  But no summary, however extended, is entirely neutral or matter-of-fact.  I am especially glad, therefore, that he found what I tried to do in my chapters on the clergy, both secular and regular, of particular value – namely that they offer a real opportunity to historians to measure the degree of inter-penetration between the church and the society in which it existed, and that this inter-penetration was not merely social in nature, but had consequences for the kinds of religious change that were likely to succeed or fail at any given time.  His remarks on the different trajectories of urban and rural parishes are equally well taken.  I also fully share his final observations on the unequal coverage by the existing historiography of the religious experiences of France as a whole during the long 17th century.  Since the 1960s, and especially since Louis Pérouas’s pioneering study of the religious sociology of the diocese of La Rochelle between 1648 and 1724, particular areas of France – usually limited to a single diocese – have been studied, often in considerable depth, in substantial monographs.  These great studies, dating mainly from the heyday of the generation of historians who followed the lead offered by Gabriel Le Bras (1891–1970), have had a disproportionate influence on what historians have said – or can say – about French religious practices in their social (and more recently, cultural) context, but they have never been numerous enough to cover, even approximately, the different regions of France.  Nelson is right to highlight the difficulties that anyone trying to write a synthesis of the subject has to face.  As he writes, there remains a great deal more work to be done, assuming that sufficient archival material has survived in order to make that possible.  For that reason, I am in complete agreement with Nelson that my ‘essai’, in the original French sense of the term, is an even more provisional account of its subject than is usually the case with such books.