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Europe in the seventeenth century suffered doubly from terrible epidemics. Plague did not end in England and northern Europe until after the 1660s and in southern France until after 1720. Estimates vary as to how many people were killed in witch-hunts between 1550 and 1700, but the number was certainly in the tens of thousands. Both of these scourges were contagious; that is, in both cases the risk of becoming affected increased when other people in one's neighborhood, family, or social circle became affected. The rise of convent education in seventeenth century France was mostly beneficial. Yet it too, we argue, was contagious. 
The contagious spread of ideas and behaviors has usually been regarded with disfavor. For example, The Economist comments on a tendency for present-day currency crises to spread by contagion from one country to another that "'rational' causes predominate."
Currency crises, says The Economist, are not so contagious as to produce "mass hysteria in the markets." 
In nineteenth-century France the idea of contagion was tightly linked with psychopathology and given a materialistic interpretation. Contagion, it was thought, was propagated by sympathetic vibrations of the nerves, as if they were strings. Susceptible individuals, for whom "each sensation is a tremor and almost a compulsion," were more likely to emit "strong nervous vibrations" and also more likely to resonate to vibrations emanating from others. Women were thought to be much more susceptible than men, and both sexes were more susceptible in crowds. 
The concept of contagion, as used in this article, has no such pathological or materialistic connotations. The spread of ideas or behaviors is a normal phenomenon. The mode of transmission may be an active attempt to emulate others or a simple compliance with social pressures. No psychopathology is implied. Nor is the spread of behaviors or ideas by example to be interpreted as irrational. For example, the legal practice of judging cases according to precedent (stare decisis) is a form of behavioral contagion and not considered irrational, but just the reverse.
Behavioral contagion is a historiographical tool. It neither substitutes for historical narrative nor applies to every historical investigation. Although, by itself it does not explain either why an "epidemic" starts or why it ends, it is helpful in understanding the course and dynamics of a social movement.
Social movements are not adequately understood as responses, even very complex responses. What people do is conditioned on what other people do. The result is a collectivity knit together by innumerable strands of mutual interactions. The theory of behavioral contagion is a formalization of this view. It has the advantage of lending itself to quantitative analysis and, as an added attraction, can borrow from the theory of biological contagion's extensive mathematical development. Most important, contagion is a powerful idea; it generates many testable consequences, a good number of which are distinctive, not commonsensical, and not easily explained in other ways. It can also be definitively ruled out as the evidence warrants. 
"A CENTURY OF NEW ESTABLISHMENTS OF NUNS" When the Catholic Church of France began its reformation during the seventeenth century, the Crown and the hierarchy, though involved, did not immediately take the lead role. The advance guard of the Catholic renewal was made up of an elite group of devout laymen and laywomen, working together with members of the new and militant religious orders. 
Under their auspices, the first phase of Catholic reform in France was markedly elite and "religious." Its heroes and heroines, members of the aristocracy and the haute bourgeoisie, found their means of expression in the religious life. The religious orders--peopled largely by the children of families "of quality"--became the first engines of Catholic renewal. 
The visible signs of this great sea-change were the colleges, convents, and monasteries that sprang up across the country, in what has been called "a fantastic conventual invasion." Religious communities, first in the cities and then in the smaller towns, acquired properties by the dozens and set to work erecting their buildings and recruiting their personnel. With astonishing speed they were successful in both endeavors. Almost as fast as their buildings went up, they were filled with young men and women. Pre-"invasion" religious populations that had numbered in the dozens rose within a few years into the hundreds. In most parts of the country the apogee of this movement was between 1630 and 1650. 
The movement was especially astonishing to contemporaries when it involved women, who traditionally made up only a small fraction of the monastic population. By mid-century, however, according to contemporary estimates, their numbers had swelled exponentially, reaching 80,000. "This is a century of new establishments of nuns," wrote an anonymous observer in 1659. "Their monasteries can be seen everywhere; there is no town, however small, that does not have one or two." The movement that filled these monasteries has been described as a "rush", a "levee en masse". What was even more striking was the fact that most of these women were joining religious congregations that had not existed before 1600. Nothing in tradition could explain the sudden popularity of religious life. 
But why? Why were girls' convent schools suddenly important, to people who had until recently raised their daughters without them? Why were so many young women ready to go into religion, when only a few years earlier almost nobody at all had done so? And why were so many people ready to lavish their wealth upon these ventures? During these early years, the Church as a whole was still an institution with serious deficiencies, its bishops and priests still largely unreformed. In fact, paradoxically, by the time the secular clergy had more or less mended its ways, the great rush into religious orders had begun to moderate. There was no close link between the filling of the convents and the reform of the Church at large.
The answer may be found in the force of ideas--the powerful Tridentine currents of thought now flowing into France and the spiritual literature now being published in the vernacular--or in the more pragmatic needs of a new upwardly mobile class of people--parents seeking to defray the high cost of marriage dowries by placing some of their daughters in convents. Although these explanations are valid, strongly held beliefs and pragmatic marriages are not sufficient to explain the swiftness and scope of the movement. Something else must have been at work to make so many women act in so concerted a fashion. 
The congregation that showed the most growth was the Compagnie de Saint-Ursule. It offered a "mixed" vocation that met two needs in society. It was cloistered and therefore contemplative; and because of the schools it ran, it was active in the apostolate. This innovative approach to monasticism proved to be highly appealing. In 1611 the congregation received its authorization from Louis XIII, but the force that brought it into towns across the country was demand: requests from citizens for its teachers, and from parents of would-be novices for the establishment of communities. By the time they reached their peak, the Ursulines numbered about 10,000 women, in close to 300 monasteries (see Figures 1 and 2). 
This article studies the Compagnie de Sainte-Ursule as a religious order, its ultimate though not its original form. In Italy, a century earlier, the first Ursulines had been laywomen, living in their own homes, working charitably in the community, and bound only by a vow of chastity. Gradually their free-moving activity, daring as it was for its time, was circumscribed: They were moved into communities, subjected to the control of their bishops, and limited more and more to the teaching of girls. In France, these restrictions were not enough. Within a few years the little communities of lay workers were turned into monasteries of professed nuns, bound by solemn vows of religion and the obligation of clausura. Of their former apostolic activity, only the vocation of teaching was left to them, provided it took place within the cloister walls.
Oddly, this narrowing of vocation may have been responsible for the congregation's growth. At a time when reform had touched only the very tip of society, the people who were susceptible to the Ursulines' message were the elites, who were bound by the very strict conventions of their class. A generation later, when religious reform had reached the masses, women of lesser station would come forward, and new, uncloistered societies like the Sisters of Charity would be able to send them out into the community. But in the meantime, the monastery--socially acceptable because rigidly segregated--offered a lifestyle suitable to women of quality. Under these conditions the Ursuline population exploded. "It was then that persons of condition engaged themselves, who would not have entered a simple congregation." 
THE IDEA OF BEHAVIORAL CONTAGION The most direct way to establish that a phenomenon is contagious is to track it from person to person, which, unfortunately, is almost impossible. The best that can be done is to track it from place to place. It was in this fashion that Lefebvre tracked the Great Fear of 1789, the belief that "brigands" were hiding just outside the village, ready to attack: "First, the tocsin would sound and then for hours and hours the sound of bells would hang over the surrounding cantons. Mass hysteria would break out among the peasant women; in their imagination, it was already too late--they were raped, then murdered, their children slaughtered, their homes burnt to the ground; weeping and wailing they fled into the woods and fields, a few bits of clothing clutched to their bosoms. Sometimes, the men followed close behind once they had buried anything of value and set the animals loose in the open country." More often the men made preparations for defense. "In the towns," wrote Lefebvre, "there was a sort of general mobilization: it was like being in a city under siege. Provisions were requisitioned, gunpowder and munitions collected, the ramparts repaired, and the artillery placed in." 
Coincident with the Great Fear was belief in a plot hatched by aristocrats to use brigands to bring the peasants back under submission. This plot was thought to emanate from Paris, to be highly organized, and to cover the country. Before Lefebvre's work, it was traditional to attribute the Great Fear to this supposed "aristocrats' plot." Revolutionaries …