Renaissance and Reformation Jansenism
Thomas O'Connor
  • LAST REVIEWED: 22 April 2020
  • LAST MODIFIED: 22 April 2020
  • DOI: 10.1093/obo/9780195399301-0446


One of a number of theological tendencies within early modern Catholicism, Jansenism derives its name from Cornelius Jansen (b. 1585–d. 1638), bishop of Ypres. The term, coined by Jansen’s Jesuit critics, came into general use only in the 1640s, when his Augustinus (1640) was posthumously published in Leuven. Its appearance marked a fresh outbreak of an ancient dispute within Western Christianity concerning the nature of divine grace and its operation in both the individual believer and the Christian community. Jansen’s supporters intended the book as a rebuttal of a doctrine of grace, which was traced to the 5th-century heretic Pelagius, and which they ascribed to the Jesuits and their sympathizers. The Augustinus, and the reaction to it, crystalized a range of theological positions that, over the following decades, garnered support among clerical and lay Catholic groups in Flanders, France, Rome, and further afield. It is impossible to reduce those either accused of or professing Jansenism to a common set of doctrines, but they did share certain attitudes. The doctrinal authority of the Church Fathers, particularly Augustine, was supreme; their religious anthropology was pessimistic; their moral views were rigorist; and they were sensitive to issues of authority and conscience. Over the following two centuries, the efforts by theologians, pastors, and spiritual directors to define the role of individual conscience under the influence of divine grace involved Jansenists in successive contestations of papal, episcopal, regal, and civil authority. Although Jansenism’s cradle was Flanders, it is more usually associated with France, where it influenced religious and political life until the Revolution. Rome was another Jansenist theater, where pressure groups alternately supported and anathematized it, leading to a number of ill-conceived, politically motivated, and highly publicized papal condemnations of Jansenist texts. The movement found sympathizers all over Catholic Europe, especially in zones of religious tension like England, Holland, and Ireland. Later, versions of Jansenism became popular with reforming Catholic administrations in the Holy Roman Empire, Spain, and Portugal. In the late 18th century, French clerics and laity with Jansenist sympathies contributed to the suppression of the Jesuits. They also supported religious reforms intended to undermine both royal and papal authority. The failure of these schemes, together with the success of Napoleon’s 1801 Concordat, ended Jansenist-inspired political activities. Jansenist sympathies, however, survived; the 19th century saw the literary retrieval of the movement, especially in its Port-Royal version. From the mid-20th century, the study of Jansenism shed some of its denominational and romantic baggage to become a useful if not always well-used category for the study of early modern Catholicism.

General Overviews

Jansenism is both historically and historiographically complex, defying simple description. However, a number of excellent introductions and overviews, mostly in French and English, manage to combine empathy, insight, and balance. Abercrombie 1936 has aged well, still providing the best overview in English of Jansen’s theology; Sedgwick 1977 concentrates on 17th-century France; McManners 1998 is an engaging and thoughtful account on 18th-century French Jansenism. Doyle 2000 gives a comprehensive view and places Jansenism in a longer historical perspective. Recent, accessible treatments in English include O’Connor 2012 and Radner 2016. In French, Cognet 1961 still reigns supreme; Cognet’s work is an intellectual tour de force that repays careful reading. Adam 1968 concentrates on French Jansenism to 1715. Chantin 1996 is also useful, especially for the 19th-century “afterlife” of Jansenism. Ceyssens 1993 gives an account of what the author calls the “invention” of Jansenism by its adversaries. Marie 1966 takes the Port-Royal Jansenists as its main focus.

  • Abercrombie, Nigel. The Origins of Jansenism. Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1936.

    The summary of the contents of Jansen’s Augustinus on pp. 126–153 is probably the best available in English and an excellent starting point.

  • Adam, Antoine. Du mysticism à la revolte: Les Jansénistes du XVIIe siècle. Paris: Fayard, 1968.

    A look at French Jansenism to 1715 that sometimes overlooks its significance as a phenomenon of international Catholicism.

  • Ceyssens, Lucien. “Que penser finalement de l’histoire du jansénisme et de l’antijansénisme?” Revue d’Histoire Ecclésiastique 88 (1993): 108–130.

    Taking up Arnauld’s assertion that Jansenism was a figment of its opponents’ (largely Jesuit) imagination, Ceyssens concludes that “anti-Jansenism,” in fact, preceded “Jansenism.” He explains why the debates over divine grace and free will gradually extended into moral theology, pastoral practices, and ecclesiology, and how they became politicized.

  • Chantin, Jean-Pierre. Le Jansénisme. Paris: Cerf, 1996.

    Considering Jansenism as something of a historical enigma, Chantin begins with short chapters on theological and political Jansenism. There follows a treatment of Jansenism’s influence on more mundane aspects of Christian living and worship, with a particular focus on the role and activities of the curé.

  • Cognet, Louis. Le Jansénisme. Paris: Presses Universitaires de France, 1961.

    This elegant and penetrating classic is both a rigorous presentation and a reasoned assessment of Jansenism. It concentrates on what the author calls the “first” Jansenism, with a masterful overview of the theological focus of the movement. Sensitive to the great variety of positions espoused by Jansenists, he isolates two of the most distinctive: a demanding Christianity and a conviction of the inalienable role of individual conscience in the interiorization of religious authority.

  • Doyle, William. Jansenism: Catholic Resistance to Authority from the Reformation to the French Revolution. London: Macmillan, 2000.

    This is the best English language overview available. Unlike Cognet, Doyle gives equal attention to the 17th- and 18th-century versions of Jansenism. He provides a fascinating set of remarks on the significance of Jansenism for modern Catholicism, arguing that, Molinism apart, the post–Vatican II Catholic Church embraced many Jansenist desiderata, including the vernacular liturgy.

  • Marie, Catherine. “Port-Royal: The Jansenist Schism.” In Realms of Memory: The Construction of the French Past. Vol. 1, Conflicts and Divisions. Edited by Pierre Nora, 301–351. New York: Columbia University Press, 1966.

    Original and authoritative, this work was a prelude to many invaluable contributions to the field by this scholar.

  • McManners, John. Church and Society in Eighteenth-Century France. Vol. 2. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1998.

    Chapter 5 of this book provides the best description of both the varieties and machinations of 18th-century French Jansenism.

  • O’Connor, Thomas. “Jansenism.” In The Oxford Handbook of the Ancien Régime. Edited by William Doyle, 318–336. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2012.

    An overview that attempts to give equal weight to the Flemish origins and French flowering of Jansenism.

  • Radner, Ephraim. “Early Modern Jansenism.” In The Oxford Handbook of Early Modern Theology, 1600–1800. Edited by Ulrich L. Lehner, Richard A. Muller, and A. G. Roeber, 436–450. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2016.

    A fresh piece on the continuities and differences between Jansenism’s many avatars.

  • Sedgwick, A. Jansenism in Seventeenth-Century France: Voices in the Wilderness. Charlottesville: University Press of Virginia, 1977.

    A solid account and perhaps the best in English for the earlier controversies. On p. 68 one finds an English translation of the Five Articles derived from Jansen’s Augustinus.

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