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Battles over church benches

Factlet first posted on September 15, 2007

Mlle de Guise's war over a church bench was scarcely a unique example of such a dispute. I have two similar tales in my files. Each involves an old seigneurial family that is entitled to a special bench in a church, and whose prerogatives are challenged by someone eager to gain control of this sign of prestige.

The first battle was waged not very far from Panat, at a small town called Sénergues. For fifty years (1687-1728) the Guirard de Monternal family, lords of Sénergues, fought with the Madrières family and once even came to blows over a church bench. As feudal lords of Sénergues and holding the right to wield "la haute justice," the Guirards were entitled to a bench (banc) in the choir of the parish church. (Diderot's Encyclopédie confirms that a "banc" is a "terme de jurisprudence: dans le choeur [d'une église] est une des droits honorifiques qui appartiennent ... au seigneur haut justicier dans la haute justice duquel elle est située.") Protestants for close to a century, the Guirard's became Catholics in 1687 after the Revocation of the Edict of Nantes, only to discover that in the mid-1650s the wealthy Madrières had obtained permission to place a bench in their chapel just to the left of the high altar. One bench led to another, so to speak, and by 1687 the Madrières were sitting in the prestigious old seigneurial bench that the Guirards had once occupied. In fact, since they were far wealthier than the Guirards, the Madrières were laying claim to being "co-seigneurs" of the town.

From 1687 until the mid-1690s, the younger males of the two families periodically fought over the bench both legally and physically. Indeed, a young Guirard was exiled for having profaned the church by wounding his rival during a dispute over the bench. The war continued and by 1711 the Madrières were trying to purchase the seigneurie of Sénergues from the indebted Guirards ― who were rescued by a friend at the last moment.

In 1727 the final skirmish took place, and it very much resembled the battle waged at Guise a half century earlier. The Guirards built a new seigneurial bench, a very tall seigneurial bench, a very wide seigneurial bench. And they placed it in the choir, just where it would entirely block the Madrières' view of the mass as they sat on their bench inside their chapel. Monsieur Madrières protested that the church did not belong to the Guirard family and that they should be ordered to "ôter le nouveau banc et de reprendre l'ancien banc..." Guirard replied with a notarized statement by the parish priest to the effect that "le banc n'empêche en aucune manière le service divin ni même n'incommode nullement pour donner la Sainte Communion aux fidèles ... qu'au contraire le banc affermit le balustre qui aurait été plusieurs fois renversé s'il n'était soutenu par le nouveau banc." Guirard also presented documents proving that the family had been entitled to this bench since 1419, when it first was granted the rights to exercise justice. Like a deus ex machina, the abbot of Conques finally stepped in and declared that the Guirards' bench could remain where it was, but that the back would have to be lowered, "pour ne pas porter incommodité à ceux qui prendront place sur le banc de la chapelle Saint-Antoine," which belonged to the Mazières.

        Source: Monique and Henri Gras, "L'affaire du banc à Sénergues (1687-1728), Revue du Rouergue, no. 53, spring 1998, pp. 71-84.

The other struggle involved the House of Laval and the House of Rohan. Two of their clients warred over a church bench in late-fifteenth-century Brittany. Here is Malcolm Walsby's summary of the dispute between Colin de Brueil, a noble of modest means who was part of the household of the Count of Laval, and Eustache Hingant, a wealthy noble close to the Rohans:

"The two clashed over the presence of the arms of Hingant in a parish church. Du Brueil was seen dragging the bench that bore Hingant's arms out of the church. He then took the bench to the market square where he proceeded to smash it to smithereens. This was an open challenge to Hingant that sought to cause him 'grand deshonneur, injure et scandalle.' By choosing to destroy the bench on the market square, du Brueil was purposefully making the affair as public as possible. Such defiance flew in the face of the considerable social gulf that separated the two protagonists, but was made possible by the protection that the count afforded du Brueil. At a moment of heightened tension between the Lavals and Rohans, the affinities of both families sought to emulate the rivalry of their patrons. Indeed, du Brueil might even have been encouraged in his actions by the count who thus showed his power and the protection he could give his followers."
        Source: Malcolm Walsby, The Counts of Laval, Culture, Patronage and Religion in Fifteenth- and Sixteenth-Century France (Aldershot: Ashgate, 2007), p. 161