Blasphemy: Impious Speech in the West from the Seventeenth to the Nineteenth Century

Blasphemy: Impious Speech in the West from the Seventeenth to the Nineteenth Century – Book Review

Lisa Z. Sigel

By Alain Cabantous. Translated by Eric Rauth. (New York: Columbia University Press, 2002. xi plus 288 pp.).

Blasphemy, or the denunciation of God, has receded in the Western world over the past two centuries as a serious moral and legal offense. In this volume, Alain Cabantous reminds us of its importance in the pre-modern world. Cabantous demonstrates the ways that blasphemy functioned as a method to control the populace’s language, beliefs, and practices. Far from being incidental, blasphemy remained central to the disciplining of daily life.

According to Cabantous, blasphemy remained a serious act because it offended the religious, social and political realms simultaneously. The blasphemer, by attributing the devil’s work to God or by offending or insulting God, made society vulnerable to God’s vengeance, polluted the Christian community, and questioned the structure of authority. Cabantous uses legal codes, doctrines, and court cases to examine the nature of overlapping state and religious authorities as they attempted to address this crime.

Cabantous demonstrates the changing nature of the charge and the ways that blasphemy, rather than functioning as a stable concept, shifted based upon the religious and political context during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation, the Enlightenment, and the French Revolution The diffuse nature of authority during these periods meant that a wide variety of institutions took an interest in promoting pious speech and punishing impieties. The diversity of institutions, meanings, and repressive practices that Cabantous documents would make any summary faulty. However, a few patterns emerge. Despite the changing context of blasphemy and the continual denunciations against it, Cabantous finds little in a corpus of writings theorizing the crime. The derivative nature of the writings against blasphemy seems surprising given the religious and political upheavals during the period but instead of multiplying dogmas, the Christian world showed great continuity. A shift occurred at level of assessment of the crime rather than theorization of it; the response to the problem changed even as the charge itself remained consistent. For example, ignorance as a cause of errancy became the more self-conscious crime of heresy during the Reformation and Counter-Reformation as secular and religious authorities developed a heightened interest in religious impurities.

In general, the slow shift toward monarchical authority corresponded with the gradual dispossession of Church prerogatives. The development of a divine-right theory of kingship, however, made blasphemy just as dangerous to monarchs as to the Church and insisted upon secular authorities’ interest in the crime. By the eighteenth century, the strengthening of the sovereign’s power had diminished the threat of the blasphemer to the community, and blasphemy became a private sin rather than a public menace. Nonetheless, the concept of blasphemous speech continued well after the emergence of a secular age. Enlightenment inquiries into religion destabilized the crime of blasphemy by demonstrating cultural differences in approaches to piety; by showing regional variation, writers such as Voltaire rejected blasphemy as a uniform idea. Not only did philosophers modify their positions, magistrates and justices also began to find new ways to justify repression that emphasized legal considerations over religious interpretations. The circumstances of the utterance began to take precedence over the proof of errant speech. The law began to emphasize social harmoniousness as a goal rather than use repression as a means to satisfy God’s vengeance. Clerics also turned toward mitigating circumstances based upon emotion, custom, and ignorance to explain the blasphemous utterance as involuntary. The slow, uneven, and incomplete decriminalization of blasphemy limited the number and frequency of public censures during the eighteenth century even though on paper the importance of the crime remained. However, even then, blasphemy did not disappear. Once the state began to emphasize the social realm over the religious, it made room for the redefinition of blasphemy as a secular crime. During the French Revolution, for example, blasphemy against the state and nation began to replace blasphemy against God as French society reinvented the meaning of impious speech for the cause of liberty. This transition provides an often overlooked perspective on the conflicts of civil liberties in the secular age. As Cabantous notes, this re-invention of blasphemy also demonstrates the emotive force the charge continued to generate.

Cabantous’s control over the French primary sources and European-wide secondary sources is masterly and his analysis meticulous. His focus on showing regional and temporal variation is admirable. However, he appears less concerned with clarity than with showing the remarkable endurance and variation of the crime of blasphemy. In his introduction Cabantous sets his goals for the volume as creating “an analytical framework, a template for reading, an initial assemblage of documents” (page 8). In effect, Cabantous creates a massive outline of general directions, exceptions, variations, and counter-directions that impede the usefulness of this template. To make use of it, one would need to immerse onself as fully as he did in the primary sources and then quibble with patterns that Cabantous himself only sketches out with numerous exceptions. While this template then might be useful to those working with blasphemy codes themselves, it will have less appeal for general reader, even those immersed in the social history of early modern Europe. Although Cabantous’s history of discursive formation demonstrates the importance of blasphemy as a crime, blasphemy as a practice receives less attention. Those who railed at God, those who invested religion with such flawed authority that they were willing to go to the scaffold with curses on their lips, those who insisted on their own cosmology despite the repercussions of fighting against an emerging orthodoxy offer a fascinating glimpse of what was at stake for the blasphemer. The cry against God–whether it emerged from anti-clericalism or atheism–presents an avenue for historical intervention that Cabantous invites. Social historians might well enjoy following up his suggestion.

Lisa Z. Sigel

DePaul University

COPYRIGHT 2003 Journal of Social History

COPYRIGHT 2003 Gale Group