Scholar Q&A: Bronwen McShea

ByIACS Staff

Bronwen McShea, Ph.D., is a historian and author with research interests in the early modern Church, especially in France and in colonial and missionary contexts.

Bronwen McShea, Ph.D.

An IACS Affiliated Scholar, Dr. McShea was a member of the inaugural cohort of the Institute’s Fr. James L. Heft, SM Generations in Dialogue Program and is currently a visiting assistant professor of history at the Augustine Institute Graduate School. Her work explores early modern European history and the history of Catholicism from late medieval to modern times.

Her most recent book, La Duchesse: The Life of Marie de Vignerot, Cardinal Richelieu’s Forgotten Heiress Who Shaped the Fate of France, was published in March 2023 by Pegasus Books.

IACS spoke to Dr. McShea about the book and her work.

IACS: Why do history?

Dr. McShea: I’ve had a strong interest in history since childhood. That interest was nurtured by my parents — working-class Irish-Americans from Queens, New York — who surrounded me and my siblings with books on all sorts of topics. I became unusually fascinated with the fact that dead people across many centuries had all once been as alive and multi-dimensional as people in the world around me were, and I also became curious to know how different their cultures and experiences were from my own — even while being similar to mine in some respects. Over time, I became convinced that the dead have a great deal to teach us, stemming from their failures, successes, missteps, and best aspirations alike. They have things to tell us about why some of the events and cultural developments of our own time play out as they do, and even about who we are as members of multi-generational families, communities and entire nations. I also became aware that some of us are called, in a kind of special vocation, to engage in historical study, research, and teaching partly in order to amplify what the dead have to show us on as much their own terms as possible — to ensure that they have a seat at the table, so to speak, to help guide societies like our own that can be very shortsighted in our focus on present-day conditions and near-term gains and trends.

Over time, I became convinced that the dead have a great deal to teach us.

Although I also considered careers in the visual arts and in the law, I knew by my early twenties that I was among those who had a strong personal as well as professional calling to be an historian — to serve as a bridge between my contemporaries and some of the dead whose stories fascinated me the most and whom I got to know through my work. Pursuing this calling has not been without challenges. I have faced my share of professional disappointments and setbacks. Furthermore, my understanding of what history is, and what historians do, has widened and deepened considerably through my years of training and my experiences as both a researcher and teacher of undergraduates and graduate students. Yet, while now working on my fourth book project, my younger self’s awe of past times and generations has never left me and still drives me day-to-day in my professional work.

IACS: You were an IACS Generations in Dialogue fellow. How did that experience contribute to your work as a historian?

Dr. McShea: Yes, I was a member of the inaugural Generation in Dialogue cohort! The experience was wonderful, as I and several young peers in early modern history doctoral programs got to know some seasoned academics in our field, who at the same time were historical experts, advisors in professional matters, and fellow men and women of Catholic faith. We discussed themes of common intellectual and professional concern, broke bread together, and prayed together. Wonderfully for me, as I was finishing up a dissertation on the Jesuits of New France, Fr. John O’Malley, S.J. — a prolific scholar of early modern Catholicism and of his own Jesuit order — was our cohort’s leader. He graciously hosted us at Georgetown University for the program’s three long weekends. The experience resulted in several invaluable things for me, including a sense that I was part of supportive community of scholars in my field. Generations in Dialogue also connected us to IACS, which  was devoted simultaneously to intellectual rigor, high academic achievement, and fidelity to our respective callings, within and beyond academia, as Catholics. Perhaps the greatest blessing for me, though, was that Fr. O’Malley became a true mentor to me beyond the period of the program’s three weekends. He supported my dissertation and helped me a lot while I was revising it for publication as my book Apostles of Empire: The Jesuits and New France (Nebraska 2019). He also supported my applications for research funding and teaching positions. He was a friend to me until his final days, for which I am grateful.

Generations in Dialogue also connected us to IACS, which  was devoted simultaneously to intellectual rigor, high academic achievement.

IACS: What attracted you to the subject of your book La Duchesse and why did you write this book in particular?

Dr. McShea: I first came across Marie de Vignerot, the Duchesse of Aiguillon (1604-1675) and the wealthy niece of the French prime minister, the Cardinal-Duc de Richelieu, while writing my Yale dissertation and then first book, Apostles of Empire. While formulating that first project, I became interested in some of the lesser-known lay Catholics, male and female, who collaborated with Jesuit missionaries in their famous work among Native Americans in colonial North America. I discovered that the Jesuits themselves saw Marie de Vignerot as one of their leading patrons in New France, even though she never crossed the Atlantic and lived in Paris most of her life. I then kept stumbling across interesting information about this woman — much of it buried in footnotes in specialized literature on a variety of topics — while writing Apostles of Empire and developing some of my first courses as a young professor. I learned, for example, that she had played a leading role in the successful establishment of the first French Catholic overseas missions not just in the Americas but also in parts of Africa and Asia. She was remarkably successful, too, at founding charitable hospitals, schools, religious institutions and missions to the poor all over France, and she was furthermore an important literary and artistic patroness and a political actor as well, playing a key role during the Fronde civil war and influencing some of the policies of the Queen Regent Anne of Austria and of the young King Louis XIV.

“La Duchesse: The Life of Marie de Vignerot, Cardinal Richelieu’s Forgotten Heiress Who Shaped the Fate of France” was published in March 2023 by Pegasus Books.

While this duchess would eventually make appearances in my first book, the file I was building on her was already expansive by the time I was finishing Apostles of Empire, and I knew that she deserved to be the primary subject of another book. Indeed, it had become clear to me that she was one of the most influential and accomplished women of the 17th century and yet her name had been all but forgotten by modern times! After I learned that the only full-length biography of her ever written was a semi-fictional work in French published in 1879, I determined that I had to be the one to tell the Duchess’s story as fully and accurately as the archival records in Europe would allow. Those archival records were full of surprises for me. Indeed, the Duchess’s story, as I ended up writing it for Pegasus Books, was even richer and more exciting to piece together than I imagined at the start of the project.

(La Duchesse) was one of the most influential women of the 17th century — yet her name had been all but forgotten by modern times.

IACS: What challenges did you face when researching and writing La Duchesse?

Dr. McShea: I faced a number of challenges while working on Marie de Vignerot’s biography, and I discuss some of these in the book itself. Chief among them was the shocking degree of neglect in modern times of such a powerful, remarkable woman’s legacy — something that required me to have to defend my choice to write about the Duchess to many people, because her name was almost completely unknown even among historical specialists. Connected to this basic problem — indeed, one of the roots of the problem — was a rather scattered and partial base of archival and other seventeenth-century sources on Marie’s life. I had to travel over a number of years to a variety of places — Paris, Rome, some smaller French cities such as Valence and Niort — to find, examine, study, and photograph all of the available archival sources related to her life, and I discovered in the process how many important sources had not survived from the Duchess’s time. I did not always have a clear sense of what Marie herself was thinking about events she witnessed or endured. For some parts of her story, I had to rely on observers who knew her but who were not in every case friendly to her or to her uncle’s political administration. I had to be extra careful, in short, both about what I wrote and about what I chose to keep silent about while building my narrative.

Another challenge was the state of present-day physical spaces important to the Duchess’s story. For example, the castle where she was born in a hamlet called Glénay was nearly in a ruined state, hardly known to any French people, when I first embarked on the project and went to visit it. Today, wonderfully, the owners of that castle, now friends of mine, are in the middle of restoring it and its surrounding farmlands to its early-modern grandeur, employing traditional materials and labor skills to recreate what it was like in the Duchess’s day. The French government is supporting that project, and my book has benefited from the growing interest in France of that castle’s history and connection to the Richelieu family. Other places important to the Duchess — for example, a Carmelite convent in Paris where she was buried, and her magnificent Château de Rueil outside of Paris — no longer exist today. So, one cannot visit Marie’s tomb nor the palatial home envied by Louis XIV and other grand figures that demonstrated how powerful she was in her day. Still other important places, such as the Petit Luxembourg in Paris which was her primary home, are generally closed to the public and do not have plaques drawing attention to the Duchess as one of the famous historical figures connected to them. I had to get special permission, through a French senator’s office, to visit the Petit Luxembourg and thereby get a feel for the place where many key turning points in my book’s narrative occurred. I’m grateful for the French contacts who took my interest in the Duchess’s story seriously despite general unfamiliarity with her even in France, and who helped to work out such special visits for me. And I’m hopeful that — especially if La Duchesse is translated into French, as I hope it will be! — more French people will come to know the story of this woman whom I believe deserves to be remembered, alongside her famous uncle, as one of the most important figures in their country’s long and complicated history.

IACS: What is your next project?

Dr. McShea: I actually have two books in the pipeline!  First, my third book, a history for general readers, is in the final proofing stages at Ignatius Press and will be out soon, in the spring 2024. It’s entitled Women of the Church: What Every Catholic Should Know, and it covers many well-known and also little-known female saints and blesseds — but also historically important non-canonized Catholic women — from the first to the twenty-first century. Its purpose is both to introduce readers to all the women covered in the book and to clarify how integral and central a role innumerable women have always had in the historical life of the Church, something that unfortunately has been overlooked in many general narratives over time.

Second, I have begun the research for my fourth book, which will be on the fascinating, often troubled, but little-known history of Switzerland’s Catholics — including exiles to the U.S. and missionaries around the world — from the eve of the Protestant Reformation through the era of the Second Vatican Council and the sexual revolution. This project emerged after two visits to Switzerland, one before and one after the COVID-19 pandemic, that moved me in surprising ways to dig into the country’s history. My initial forays into the historiography, mostly in German and French, raised questions about the country’s substantial Catholic minority and its complex relationship with liberal institutions and values over time. Some of the questions involve comparisons to American Catholics over time and Catholics in more widely-known European contexts such as France and the Holy Roman Empire. I have realized that in order to answer my questions to my own satisfaction I will have to research them in depth and write another book of my own!  I will look forward to sharing more about this project with my friends at IACS as it develops.

Learn more about Dr. McShea and her work at: