The State and the Charitable Distribution of Drugs in Old Regime France

Research project
Early Modern History

This project explores the charitable distribution of drugs to rural and missionary populations circa 1670-1789. Drawing on French departmental and missionary archives, the project shows how the French state under Louis XIV insinuated itself into drugs distribution networks that were originally organised by women under the auspices of Catholic Reformation charity. These religious networks were progressively centralised and rationalised by state-sponsored actors with new goals in mind: namely, the preservation of the Sun King’s subjects as taxpayers and potential soldiers, and supporting the mission of global Catholicism by converting Protestants within France and non-Christians abroad. Through the networks of the Suplician Fathers and the Paris Foreign Mission Society, these drugs reached the sick not only in rural France, but also in such distant locales as China, Siam, and Canada.

The study of these remedies raises novel questions about the interrelations between material and immaterial forces in early modern conceptions of healing. On the level of materia medica, the charitable remedies were plant and mineral substances sourced from all over the world that were processed, refined, and compounded in the laboratories of French physicians and clerics. But the efficacy of these drugs also had a spiritual dimension. Advocates of the remedies declared that their success depended not only upon inherent therapeutic properties, but also upon a manifestation of the grace of God. The small miracle of cure would allow priests, missionaries and other distributors to imitate the healing ministry of the biblical apostles. By this measure, both a patient’s faith in the efficacy of a drug, as well as the charitable act of drug dispensation, played a central role in effecting a cure. By healing the body and opening the way to the soul, miraculous cures formed an integral part of facilitating religious conversions in France and throughout the world.

A Project funded by the Leverhulme Trust (ECF 2018-198). Investigator  - Justin Rivest