Lamennais, Le Sillon and serendipity

Every time that I google the French movement, Le Sillon, inevitably and sometimes annoyingly, I come across references to another Sillon, namely the wave battered beachfront at St Malo, in Brittany, France.

I’ve never given a second thought to that other Sillon until today when I was reading a biography of the turbulent, excommunicated 19th century priest, Felicite de Lamennais.

And it turns out that Lamennais was born at what is now 3 Rue Vincent, St Malo on 19 June 1782. And yes! It’s right behind the Sillon at St Malo.

Now, it’s long been recognised that Lamennais vision of freedom and democracy was one of the inspirations for Marc Sangnier’s Sillon. Could it be that the Sillon movement even owes its name to Lamennais’ birthplace?

Well, the Sillon movement initially borrowed its title from the magazine Le Sillon, which had been previously founded in 1894 by Paul Renaudin with the assistance of Marc Sangnier. According to Jeanne Caron, the name was chosen by Renaudin, but perhaps following discussion with Sangnier, who had previously used the image of the furrow (sillon in French):

“Le monde les ignore (ceux qui vont faire l’avenir)… C’est que les germes sacrés sont déposés en eux comme en des urnes profondes; il faut bien que le grain repose dans ce sépulcre du sillon. Laissons passer l’hiver, mais ayons foi en l’été qui viendra.” (Jeanne Caron, Le Sillon et la démocratie chrétienne, at p. 78)


“The world ignores them (those who will make the future)… But the sacred seed is deposited inside them as if inside a deep vase; and it is necessary that the seed rests in this tomb of the furrow. Let the winter pass but let us have faith in the summer that is to come.”

That’s not a great translation but it is a pretty good summary of the spirit of what the Sillon movement would become, written by an 18 year old Marc Sangnier for a philosophy dissertation in 1892.

What’s more Jeanne Caron notes that in the same essay, Marc Sangnier’s evocations of the poor strongly resemble those of Lamennais in his 1838 book Le Livre du Peuple.

In fact, according to Jeanne Caron, there is much in that 1892 essay that recalls Lamennais and the democrats of 1848.

So I guess that it is not entirely out of the question that, if Marc Sangnier was reading Lamennais, he may also have meditated on the meaning of his birthplace. In which case, the name of the Sillon movement would be a kind of veiled reference to Lamennais as a source.

It’s an intriguing thought but in the absence of any other evidence, it has got to remain speculation.

All the same, however, it’s a beautiful piece of serendipity: Lamennais, Le Sillon and Marc Sangnier.

Location of Lamennais’ birth place, 3 Rue St Vincent, St Malo, just behind Le Sillon.

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Stefan Gigacz

Le Sillon, St Malo today