Traditional families: the commonplace book

This is the fifteenth in a series of twenty articles drawn from Mgr Delassuss two-volume work, The Problem of the Present Time: Antagonism of two civilisations (1905). The section of his work translated for this series considers the role of the family as the origin and model of society, the disastrous effects of human tampering and the necessity of the restoration of Christian society. This series began in April 2022 with How states are formed“.

Charles de Ribbe spent the better part of his life putting commonplace books back in pride of place. After publishing the manuscripts of several old families, he published diverse works to bring the teachings which were found in them to light, and finally, using the models which he had in front of him, he wrote the Livre de famille to serve as an exemplar and so to help fathers who wanted to put what was practised by our ancestors into practice at home. We cannot recommend the acquisition, reading and mediation on this book highly enough; there is little which can contribute so much to imprinting on our degenerate society a new impulsion towards the good. We will only give a few indications here.

The commonplace book (livre de raison) is so called because therein one gives one’s children — and one’s children’s children in the generations to come — the reason for the family’s position, for its antecedents, for its works, ideas and customs which assure the transmission of the same sentiments and virtues. It is the moral bond between generations, thanks to which the rings are closely linked in a community of ideas and sentiments.

It should be divided into three parts, responding to the three phases of the family’s existence. The past is the genealogy and history of its domestic stock. The present is the current household. The future is the teaching left by the parents and ancestors to their children and grandchildren. The well-kept commonplace book thus contains in summary everything which constitutes the family morally and materially.

First of all, the genealogy. André Lefèvre d’Ormessan, whom we have already cited, said, “Let our children know from whom they are descended by their mother and father…” Why this knowledge in particular? So that they are “incited to pray to God for their souls and to bless the memory of them who, by God’s grace, have done honour to their house and acquired the goods which they enjoy, and which will pass to other generations, if it be pleasing to the bounty of my Creator to give them His blessing, as I ask Him to do with all my heart.” In other words, genealogy is necessary in order to create and maintain the spirit of the family.

As much as possible, a short note must be added to each name. Every family must tend to have a history. The commonplace book is the guardian of this history. The commonplace books published in recent times show us, in these little notes, how a number of modest families have, by the power of their morals, been able to perpetuate themselves over several centuries in the same country with the same virtues.

After the genealogy comes the journal. There is recorded successively the important facts of the family — births, marriages, deaths — with the information that comes with each of these facts — the land register where the property deeds are kept, the accounts book, the disclosure of working methods which provide the means to improve the family’s lot by ever more sure domestic testing. All of this brings out, in the eyes of the children, the fidelity that their parents brought to the accomplishment of their duties of state, and incites them later, in the education of their own sons and daughters, to maintain the good domestic habits to which they have been witness and of which the commonplace books have been the souvenir.

Only exceptionally do teachings form a distinct part. Most often, ideas and moral reflections take place alongside the mention of facts: observations and recommendations follow the reporting of events. From the facts, one has the opportunity to say to the children: “Here is the true, here is the good. Avoid such an error. Beware of such a fault.” These pieces of advice, most often formulated in words taken from holy Scripture, are short. One supposes from this that they are better engraved into the mind, enter further into hearts. Antoine the Couston said:

“I would like to call this book, The wisdom of the family. It is necessary to continue it from age to age, that it be the depositary of our success as of our errors, so that — by turning those things, whence come good and ill, to the profit of those who are living — it binds all generations to one another and makes a just family, always alive, always animated by the same spirit. Otherwise the generations succeed one another always rolling in the same circle of ignorance and error.”

Joseph Joubert (1754–1824) expressed well the moral situation which results from a lack of traditional teachings, which has become our own:

“Few fixed ideas and many errant ideas, lively ideas and no constant ideas, incredulity towards duties and confidence in novelties, minds made up and floating opinions, assertion in the midst of doubt, confidence in oneself and defiance of others, the science of insane doctrine and the ignorance of wise opinions: such are the evils of the age. Custom being destroyed, each makes for himself habits and manners according to his wont. Deplorable eras are those in which each man weighs everything by himself and marches, as the Bible says, by the light of his lamp.”1

That is really where we are. There was previously, in each house, a proper character which distinguished it, and in virtue of which one could say, “By this we recognise a member of this family.” This character was formed by ancestors and maintained by tradition. This no longer exists and here is the consequence: as long as certain representatives of the old generations lived, there was always a glow which illuminated life; but, as the elders — whose education was made of traditions — disappeared, the young people found themselves in the presence of a blank slate. Nothing of these great truths which constitute the family, nor of those which constitute society, remains to them. These young people become fathers of families amidst an invasion of unheard-of luxury — and this under the blows of menacing revolutions, which end up by destroying the last forces of life at the heart of the country.

After the disorders of the sixteenth century, a multitude of model fathers tried hard to defend their children and their servants from the contagion of evil, in their own homes. It is from this period that the best commonplace books date. They were the guilds and the support of the noble families which made the period of Henri IV and Louis XIII illustrious.

Would that it could be so in our day! It is not foolhardy to hope for it! In different classes of society, they are beginning to understand the utility, the necessity of tradition.

The day after the death of his father, the former editor of the Petit Journal, Ernest Judet, published, at the top of the Eclair, these powerful words:

“I have never understood so well the power of tradition, the lesson of heredity, the office that one being bequeaths to the being that issues from him, and our responsibility to the spirit of those who have already formed us in creating us!”

We know the profound impression that L’Étape by Paul Bourget has produced on the public. Lemaître, Drumont, Soury, Barrès, Charles Maurras, etc. are campaigning in the same direction.

Charles de Ribbe, who dedicated most of his life to researching, studying and publishing the family traditions of old France, draws the following conclusions:

“Strengthened with the most probing and decisive testimonies with which the history of model houses furnishes us, we affirm that, always and everywhere, the greatest sum of real and solid goods has been possessed in a stable manner by the families who walked in the path traced by God Himself (ways recalled to each generation by commonplace books); that these families alone, having raised themselves to prosperity by work and thrift, have succeeded — by the virtue, the power of seriously Christian education — to triumph over vice and the causes of fatal falls that prosperity, once acquired, does not delay in provoking.”

In a book entitled, Quelques réflexions sur les lois sociales, the Duke of Harcourt made an observation which families cannot stop too long to consider. Speaking of the intimate sentiments of the aristocratic classes in the eighteenth century, he said:

“We know that irreligion was a great honour for them. They railed against dogmas, they held traditions in ridicule.2 In our own days, on the contrary, the representatives of the same families are in general religious.”

He asks how this change was brought about:

“Was it seen at the end of the last century, a great number of individuals who, by hatred of the Revolution, changed their sentiments? No. No more children raised by strong minds with spontaneously pious sentiments, totally opposed to their parents; this could be seen, but only very rarely. This transformation is naturally explained by the almost complete suppression of the sceptical descendants of the last [i.e. eighteenth] century. Many of us are extinguished — and as for the others, they have perpetuated themselves either by the minority which, even at court, had escaped the contagion, or by the obscure collateral lost in the depths of the providences which had conserved, along with the old traditions, the religious ideas without which families do not perpetuate themselves.”

May this memorable example persuade families who wish to perpetuate themselves, to re-establish within themselves the traditions which made the old aristocracy. And for this, let them retake everywhere, in Christian families, the custom of commonplace books. They were in favour, not only in France, but in Italy, Switzerland, Holland, Germany, Poland, etc. One finds traces of them just about everywhere, even in the east, in diverse forms. An institution born spontaneously in the capacity of a country so diverse, can only be an institution inspired by nature herself, or rather by the Author of our nature. The abandonment of this good would be extremely fatal to us; to take it up again would be no less favourable.

This series will continue next month with The authority of the father”.


  1. Pensées de Joubert, book XVI.
  2. We read in the memoirs of Cardinal Pacca:

    “In the time of my two nunciatures, in Cologne and in Lisbon, I had the opportunity to know most of the French emigrates, and I must say with sorrow that, apart from a few country gentlemen, all professed philosophical maxims which had brought on the catastrophe of which they had been the first victims. I remember that during by nomination to Cologne, some emigrant gentlemen wanted to have a funeral service for Queen Marie-Antoinette, not out of any sentiment of religion but to conform to the usage followed at all courts. I was invited and attended: the ecclesiastic who sang mass pronounced the funereal prayer for the deceased queen. In announcing the causes of the revolution, he placed the irreligious doctrines proclaimed by philosophy; to this proposition, an explosion of murmurs rang out, and when the orator cried out that Marie-Antoinette had been one of the victims of modern philosophy, a voice from the middle of the auditorium made heard these impertinent words: “It’s not true!”