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Analyzing the history of religious crime. Models of "passive" and "active" blasphemy since the medieval period.

This article provides a critical survey of the history and historiography of blasphemy placing this neglected subject within the wider history of sin, crime and criminality. In doing so it suggests a model of analysis which shows historical transitions between 'passive' and 'active' blasphemy. These two categories demonstrate the location of blasphemy and its offensiveness within the medieval community and the modern individual respectively. But these categories are ultimately not chronologically specific, and a significant conclusion suggests that the medieval 'passive' blasphemy model of harm to the community is undergoing something of a contemporary revival. The comparative neglect of blasphemy as an important element in the history of crime and interpersonal relations is also highlighted through its uneasy relationship with the main socio-historical models of change within deviant behaviour, namely those offered by Foucault and Elias. This discussion appears after the chronological and historiographical outline. Taken together both sections suggest the importance of blasphemy as an enduring example of the history of social conflict. As such it sheds light on the history of manners, the history of providential belief, the history of public behaviour and violence. Such studies also usefully illuminate the history of state involvement in theorising and regulating all these phenomena.

The article thus contains five sections. The first produces a working definition of blasphemy, whilst the second elaborates a chronology of its history in the West and its wider impact upon social history. The third investigates blasphemy's relationship to important theoretical paradigms of the history of crime. The fourth and fifth illuminate blasphemy's relationship with the aforementioned theories of Norbert Elias and Michel Foucault.

Wider studies of popular culture have simply categorised blasphemy with other objectionable behaviours. (1) More nuanced and detailed studies of blasphemy are a recent phenomenon and are still appearing. (2) For early modern historians, blasphemy offers important answers about Western society's quest for obedient conformity amongst its populations. Historians of later epochs, however, consider how blasphemy informs the evolution of legal history, of rights, and the identity of the modern self.


Attempts to define blasphemy regularly encounter major theoretical problems. Modern empirical definitions seek authoritative pronouncements on how the law protected and punished. Sometimes this resembles a Whig modernist project in which the continuing 'persistence' of blasphemy into the modern period must somehow be 'explained'. (3) These histories eventually appeared anachronistic amongst many who questioned the supremacy of western modernism and empiricism. David Lawton's analysis, produced in the wake of the Rushdie affair, denied this historiography to see blasphemy as a postmodern exploration of transgression. Empirical definitions of the blasphemous limited this wider purpose, and thus either downplayed them or avoided them altogether. (4) This highlighted the dangers of over-prescriptive definitions, but problems remained around the failure to define terms. Historians reminded literary scholars that blasphemy functioned as a conflict model, with jurisdictions obliged to censure, prosecute and punish in a world without the confidence in either modernist progress or the fear of post-modern uncertainty.

Blasphemy has always constituted the use or abuse of language, or behavioural acts, that scorn the existence, nature or power of sacred beings, items or texts. Blasphemy has also impinged upon the public peace and confidence in authority which required restorative justice, isolating the offender from the community. (5) In more modern epochs hurt and damage have compromised the beliefs and feelings of individuals quite independently of the state's own confessional or authoritative status. This, however, constitutes only a framework for further analysis, and we should draw a fuller definition from how blasphemy functions in different contexts. In many respects much recent historiography has advocated this procedure. (6)

Blasphemy--a chronology

I -- Medieval 'Passive' Blasphemy

Blasphemy's own history is one of adaptability and surprising longevity as a means of delineating the sacred's relationship with conformity. In ancient Greece it comprised speaking ill of the gods, disturbing the peace, and dishonouring principles of government. Monotheism enhanced this process since the biblical state of Israel adopted blasphemy as a cornerstone of Jewish identity. (7) Early Christian pluralism was eventually proscribed by the Council of Nicea, which defined both the nature and virtues of orthodoxy. This process arguably invented heresy in the Christian West, becoming central to what R.I. Moore has defined as a 'persecuting society'. (8) Heresy effectively overshadowed blasphemy in the high medieval period but the distinction between the two was already evident. Gerd Schwerhoff's analysis of blasphemy's medieval origins suggests that this occurred as the thirteenth-century church ministered more directly to the pastoral needs of the laity. This significantly closer contact uncovered indiscipline, inspiring an increasing interest in heresy shown by the mendicant orders. Schwerhoff argued greater contact uncovered both incomplete religious practice and impiety as well as outright heresy. (9) This partly explains a model of offence and crime that we might term 'passive blasphemy'. This involves the search for, and detection of, states of mind, opinion, and sometimes the visible products of blasphemy. Such imperatives assumed these were a clear danger to the community. They also concur with the chronological development of preoccupations with sin sketched by both Jean Delumeau and John Bossy. (10) Such blasphemies did not have to be viewed or internalised, but their mere existence constituted 'a blasphemy.' Thus, much medieval and early modern literature searched for the source of such blasphemies, and answers to this question changed over time. Thus in its earliest incarnations blasphemy became an attack upon communities. Latterly the sheer weight of didactic literature, from the sixteenth century onwards, located the centre of blasphemous activity upon the individual's own behavioural choices. The search for such abominations within communities fuelled local religious confraternities, embryo local government and the various inquisitions of the age. This assumption that blasphemy existed, unperceived and largely unpunished, was reflected in prayer confraternities (especially in France) well into the nineteenth century. (11)

The medieval conception of blasphemy as dishonouring God reflected contemporary attitudes to the Jews, in particular their violation of the Second Commandment. Sufficient evidence exists to suggest that the Jews constituted perhaps the earliest blasphemous 'archetype'. (12) The origin of western blasphemy lies in the thirteenth century, where it evolved as a crime separate from heresy. Almost immediately challenges to the supremacy of God were theorised as damaging all secular authority. More sophisticated power structures and mechanisms appeared in late fifteenth century Germany and these focused upon preserving the viability of religious oaths which had become vital to commercial activity. Schwerhoff suggests this trend tackled the problem of itinerant and unruly urban populations. Maintaining the credibility of such oaths was more important in early instances of blasphemy than the punishment of the blasphemer, and this latter motive only arrived in a coherent form from the fifteenth century onwards. (13) This chronology supports Jean Delumeau's persuasive argument about a pre-reformation European wide guilt culture which gave rise to enhanced interest in religious discipline. (14) Elsewhere the fourteenth century construction of inquisitorial procedures throughout southern Europe desired to control religiously heterodox opinion. (15) This investigative bureaucracy proved an important milestone in the control of personal opinion and belief. (16)

II -- Blasphemy and the Reformed World

The Reformation, both north and south of the Alps, represents a point of ambivalence for interpretations of blasphemy and its history. Some historians emphasise a decisive break in the relationship between religious populations and perceptions of the Christian God. Iconoclasm's removal of the image from both individual and communal gaze left a void which was only gradually replaced by the textual, written or spoken image of God. Negotiating what was acceptable and unacceptable within these was not always a smooth process during this crisis of the image. As individuals learned to vocalise their conceptions of the divine, blasphemy accusations represent a place where historians can view this process of trial and error. (17) Certainly both sixteenth and seventeenth-century European culture had an enhanced appreciation, of both orthodox and deviant religious doctrine. Some studies of blasphemy suggest the Reformation laity's reverence for prayer, scripture and the language of religion meant those accused of blasphemy possessed a greater capacity to offend. (18) This was contemporary with hostility to the carnivalesque elements of medieval religion. The removal of revels such as the Feast of Fools in France, or the crowning of the Boy Bishop in England meant levity and laughter could no longer be associated with the sacred. (19) This also occurred in Catholicism, since evidence from the Inquisition's activities in Toledo illuminates blasphemy as the most frequent religious offence detected in the first half of the sixteenth century. (20)

Others have preferred to see continuity, with some disciplinary practices partly in place by the end of the late medieval period. Schwerhoff denies the Reformation was a decisive break but concedes blasphemy was innovatively adopted by Lutherans to label religious opponents. In retaliation the work of the Iconoclasts during this period could often be described as blasphemous by those opposed to such religious changes. Precisely how these claims confronted one another is demonstrated by a Dutch case. In 1526 a roof tiler from Warmond argued with his employer during a meal. His employer was angered by reports of German religious reformers abusing the sacrament by treading it underfoot. The roof tiler fought back declaring "what is it more than bread. The very bread we eat at this table is the same." Not content with this, the tiler quoted Matthew 24: 23,24 and Acts 17: 24,25, both quite inflammatory texts in this context. (21) Similarly two men in 1533 entered an Alencon church and undressed images of the Virgin and St. Claude, suspending them from the Church gutter in protest against the papist nature of image veneration. (22)

Pre-modern societies in the West promoted shame cultures associated with moral and religious lapses, imposing penalties for these transgressions of the community's behavioural expectations. (23) Richard Van Dulmen found blasphemy to be an episodic concern in the sixteenth-century German cities of Nuremberg and Frankfurt during the Reformation years, where public penance was an essential feature of punishment. (24) Meanwhile Schwerhoff noted blasphemy was volatile amongst those fearful of God's retribution against injury to his own honour. (25) Such injuries required civil authorities to administer shame punishments involving the pillory and the compulsory wearing of shameful apparel in public. Although Schwerhoff's evidence came from Germany, these elements come together in a Dutch case of 1440. Here a section of the Leiden penal code was used against an individual who spoke a blasphemous oath to "set a new God above God and to honour the Devil." The municipality fearful that such blasphemy would provoke plague in the City, confronted the man with his guilt. He was fined 60 guilders and instructed to go on pilgrimage augmented by shame punishments including a public profession of guilt and banishment from the church until the penance and fine had been discharged. Similarly in 1513 a judgement against Gerijt Jacopsz. (alias 'the hedonist') produced a similar outcome. Whilst drunk he spoke blasphemous words against God and the Virgin and was sentenced to be whipped in the town prison and to attend church with a barrel around himself. An almost contemporary case saw an individual sentenced to wear a chalice emblem on his clothing whilst on the scaffold. He was further sentenced to wear a woman's skirt and parade with a candle to the Pieterskerk in Leiden. (26) One American jurisdiction imposed a version of shame crucifixion, while Spain stipulated the penance of muzzling and riding backwards on a donkey. (27)

Further South, in Reformation Switzerland, Francisca Loetz's study of Zurich emphasised that both individuals and authorities kept public space free from blasphemous utterances. Blasphemy emerges from this study as establishing religious norms, as much as further secularizing public space. (28) In interpersonal conflict, blasphemous words in sixteenth-century Zurich were used as a device to 'trump' the insults of an opponent. Such insults wounded the honour of an individual rather than God or the sacred. (29) Maureen Flynn's analysis of the Spanish evidence adds another dimension, suggesting inner feelings created verbal insults to God, constituting a power hard for the modern post-freudian mind to recapture. (30) In England and America blasphemy described the limits of religious tolerance where Jews and Independents flourished, whilst Quakers were imprisoned and suffered disfiguring, European style, corporal punishments. (31) Early Modern catholic Spain reveals remarkably similar graduated corporal and shame punishments.

III -- The Age of Statute Blasphemy

Towards the end of the seventeenth century, definitions of the crime of blasphemy begin to fundamentally alter. Some European models stress blasphemy's existence as more transgressive behaviour confronted by local jurisdictions as exercises in social control. Alain Cabantous' work on sixteenth and seventeenth century France saw blasphemy as a badge, primarily of masculinity, worn proudly by marginal groups and transient occupations. Thus, soldiers and sailors drew upon blasphemy as an aid to the tribulations they endured, whilst other situations provided a regular occasion for its 'performance'. Gamblers, for example, invoking luck or cursing ill fortune also exhibited this behaviour. (32) Flynn has suggested that gambling represented the arrival of conceptions of providence, with blasphemous utterances allowing individuals to step outside boundaries. For Flynn religious doubt and questioning of God stood in for more reasoned challenges in a society lacking that capacity. (33) Blasphemy's association with gambling marked both out as heavily gendered behaviours whilst their proximity provided a further attraction. (34) Blasphemy also integrated socially disparate game players; the aristocrat demonstrating superiority whilst the vagrant demonstrating contempt for authority. Within gambling circles blasphemy also craved providential favour from the Almighty or demonstrated the failure of such providence, arousing a cocktail of concerns amongst moralists. (35) The attitude of authority recoiled from the suggestion that God would act without purpose, yet the omnipotence of the almighty could still encourage the idea of divine favour. Thus invoking providence whilst gambling became sinful, inevitably leading to the cursing and blaming of God for misfortune. (36) Some participants even saw this blatantly as an exchange transaction in which God had failed to honour the debt owed for human worship. (37) Ultimately this was also dangerous, since it constituted a rebellion against providence with an individual rejecting their own destiny. (38)

Loetz noted how unruly verbal exchanges of blasphemy could be highly stylised to ridicule a socially inferior opponent. (39) Schwerhoff's study of blasphemy in sixteenth-century Germany and Switzerland concurs with Flynn and Villa-Flores to suggest it was becoming a rite of passage associated with 'self portrayal' in adolescent male masculinity. (40) Providential blasphemous utterances also appeared where the safety and salvation of those present was threatened by the wilful blasphemer who negated their devotion and prayers.

By the end of the seventeenth century there was a rejuvenated will from both local and central government to stamp out such behaviour. This was part of a European wide imposition of discipline upon unruly populations through the centralising confessional state. Venice had possessed since late medieval times a unique jurisdiction to prosecute and punish blasphemy alone whilst Calvinist Geneva revived the offence. (41) The appearance of French statutes against blasphemy can be analysed as the consequence of power struggles with the possession of jurisdiction an important prize. These explain the statutes of 1594, 1617, 1631, 1651 and 1681. The very last of these emphasised the connection with monarchical power by confirming mutilation and capital punishment as sentences dispensed by royal decree. (42) This was legislative change intended to maintain a continuity of moral policing as the secular arm became the senior partner in maintaining authority.

Such innovations were reflected across the channel by the English Lord Chief Justice Sir Matthew Hale. In passing sentence upon John Taylor in 1675 Hale argued that attacks upon religion were attacks upon the law. The law thus should defend itself and the moral underpinning religion offered as English monarchy's contribution to re-establishing discipline. (43) The relevant statute (9 & 10 William III c.32) resembles some of the French statutes pronouncing against anti-trinitarian views, denial of Christianity or the scriptures. (44) Many similarities exist between colonial American legislation and contemporary European statutes. They both sought to discipline populations and ensure civil peace through the maintenance of respect for authority. Blasphemy was the most serious of crimes mentioned alongside misdemeanours such as profanity, swearing of false oaths, and misusing God's name. (45) Much of this legislation also caught the religiously unorthodox (especially anti-trinitarian groups) who regularly excited both popular and official hostility.

IV -- The Rise of 'Active' Blasphemy

These disciplinary statutes embodied both divine right monarchy and the bureaucratic state responsible for the peace. (46) Statutes were also increasingly necessary to decipher and police print culture's dangerous possibilities. Blasphemy thus became a public order issue over the Jongue duree with jurisdictions investigating the blasphemer's explicit intention. The crime thus changed from one that damaged society to one that primarily damaged the feelings of individuals--what one criminologist has described as the transition from honour to individualism. (47) This, however, only impinged upon the history of expression when the State conceded the rights of citizens alongside the need to balance freedom and responsibility. (48) This crucial change began to unravel the 'passive' blasphemy model. In its place came a model of 'active' blasphemy in which individual sensibilities became the unit of offence. Hereafter individuals asserted their rights to protection from the transgressive words or actions of others. The power given to the individual through both English Common law and discourses of individual rights enabled the State to step away from action in this area. Ironically this may have preserved elements of providential thought since victims of blasphemy came to invoke the idea of divine judgement to substitute for states that would no longer punish sin.

Ancien regime societies began to see the blasphemer as an individual with dangerous ideas rather than resembling their simply indisciplined ancestors. This occurred just as the control of popular profane blasphemy waned in England, France, and Spain. (49) Nonetheless the disciplinary imperative did not come solely from centralised authority. This has led some historians to overemphasise the blasphemous 'characteristics' amongst certain 'archetypal' sections of the population. Elizabeth Belmas saw the typical blasphemer as an artisan of doubtful morality who paid merely lip-service to orthodox Christianity. (50) Alain Cabantous' study of blasphemy saw soldiers, mariners, libertines and gamblers as constituting the mass of "blasphemous social types." (51)

Cabantous' blasphemous mariners also appear elsewhere in France, but also in England, Sweden, Spain and the colonial New World. Oliver Christin found a boatman in early sixteenth century Paris who was burned in 1528 for denying the power of the Virgin. (52) Drunken boatmen and sailors emerge from seventeenth-century Sweden where, in 1662, an individual had his tongue mutilated for cursing the Holy Communion whilst in a drunken stupor. Similarly in 1699 two young members of the Swedish Royal Navy were executed for having substituted the words "I have the devil in my heart" for "I have Jesus in my heart" whilst singing hymns. (53) The Swedish royal council settled upon beheading and burning of the remains of these two offenders. (54) Superficially this suggests a correlation between blasphemy and dissolute lifestyles engaged in a counter-culture of manners operating beyond authority. However this would also suggest the attitudes and behaviour of marginal groups predisposed them to blasphemous acts.

Wider conclusions emerge from examining instances where mariners entered situations fraught with danger. (55) Misusing God's name or belittling his power brought potential danger to others confined on board ship with the blasphemer. Similarly blasphemy amongst soldiers tempted providence, explaining the endurance of stipulations against blasphemy in the military codes of Europe's armies and navies.

Blasphemous stereotypes are also challenged from a different perspective. The early modern period produced considerable didactic literature that simultaneously scared and thrilled European populations. These stories suggest the habit of blasphemy went beyond marginal and disreputable groups to lead individuals astray comparatively easily. Kings, nobles, shop keepers, and the poor all appear in tales indicating the folly of belicose words and unconsidered oaths. Far from confining blasphemy within a marginal or occupational sub culture these works demonstrate a fear that blasphemy could spread amongst the populace, from any quarter at any time. Within these texts stressful situations or loss of temper led to blasphemy, or individuals questioned God's power, or dissented from God fearing ways. This literature cited a diverse range of circumstances, yet was united about the punishment visited upon the blasphemer. Illness, pain, psychological distress and death all sprang from blasphemous words, displaying divine judgement in highly visible and didactic ways. In its milder forms divine punishment would appear as sickness and infirmity or blackening of the tongue. Where psychological distress was involved the victims would call upon God or refute their previous attachment to the devil. Death would transpire in a notably extraordinary manner leaving no doubt about the nature of divine judgement. Thus it was providence that was central to early modern blasphemy, rather than the criminality of specific occupational archetypes.

Edmond Bicknoll's 1611 tract A Sword Against Swearers and Blasphemers emphasised the variety of blasphemers and their widely differing contexts. This volume contained stories concerning a reckless boy in Tubingen, a Freiburg man blaspheming against his son for his disobedience, the wife of a Spanish Conquistador and a Silesian nobleman who after he had blasphemed, discovered his child snatched by a Devil in the guise of a bear. The extraordinary nature of divine judgement was emphasised through the story of a woman whose cursing resulted in her being lifted up into the air by the devil. In the sight of witnesses she was then hurled to the ground and found to be dead upon investigation. (56) One of the more famous didactic blasphemy works of the seventeenth century identified blasphemy not with a sailor or soldier but a humble carter. Anthony Painter's blasphemy resulted in the earth swallowing him up to his neck, whereupon he became prey for the local wolves who subsequently finished him off. (57)

V -- Blasphemy, the Enlightenment and Beyond

As the eighteenth century wore on enlightenment inquiry turned the blasphemer into an object of study, chiefly from psychiatric practitioners. Sometimes this was also reflected in new legal codes and opinions. The Penal Code of Saxony (1783), sought to decriminalise the treatment of offenders instead labelling them as insane. (58) Similarly in England cases against the mentally disturbed individuals Susannah Fowles and Thomas Pooley mark the twin chronological boundaries of the long eighteenth century's interest in the psychological examination and treatment of blasphemers. (59)

Anti-clericalism led late eighteenth-century governments to curb the power of print culture upon the minds of the populace. From the end of the eighteenth century the fear of blasphemers concentrated upon ideologically motivated libertines, deists, family limitation advocates and radicals. Later nineteenth and early twentieth century secularists, atheists, anarchists and nihilists found their works scrutinised and often proscribed or prosecuted. This period also saw attacks upon literary and dramatic works in Germany against Oskar Panizza and in Sweden against August Strindberg. (60) After this courts and legislators in the West considered imagined harm as much as actual disturbance of the peace, calculating the danger to society of printed material remaining in circulation. (61) Thus this era of blasphemy's history belongs as much to the history of censorship as it does to a history of religious toleration. (62) The spread of advanced literature was frequently confronted by conservative organisations who genuinely believed that ruin would follow heterodox religious and social opinion. (63)

Across the Atlantic the American separation of Church and State augmented by First Amendment rights increasingly enshrined freedom of expression. In Europe these changes were reflected in the removal or dilution of confessional status from many centralising states. In England, which proved immune from the French, the American or the 1848 revolutions, change occurred much more gradually. This demonstrates a tension between European constitutions rewritten as a result of political upheaval, and the organic Common Law development that occurred in the United Kingdom, Australia and partially in the United States. In these jurisdictions court rulings about freedom of speech slowly under-mined Christianity's claims to sovereignty, instead requiring deliberate wounding of religious beliefs and sensibilities. This became explicit in 1884 when Justice Coleridge acknowledged that criticism of even established Christianity was lawful if the intentions behind it were legitimate. (64) The dawn of the twentieth century saw governments and authorities retreating from the use of law except where issues of public order were paramount. This was tested during the first twenty years of the twentieth century when anarchists and communists across Europe, America and Australia explicitly critiqued western Christianity. (65)

Beyond this political scare blasphemers were now more likely to be artists or authors exploring society's taboos or the nature of the sacred in an apparently secular world. Such an analysis explains the anti-clerical images of George Grosz in Germany in the 1920s and 1930s, counter cultural episodes of the 1960s, James Kirkup's Gay News poem of 1977, and Andre Serrano's controversial artwork Piss Christ of the 1990s. In this era individuals were considered responsible for their actions and for preserving the peace and tolerance of society. (66) Blasphemous incidents had moved entirely from a model of 'passive' to 'active' blasphemy, facilitated by the acquisition of citizenship rights. (67) This produced episodes where the precise religious beliefs and feelings of individuals were considered under direct attack from the expression of others. This differed markedly from the earlier 'passive' model which tackled threats to the peace of the whole community. Within the last two centuries blasphemy as an 'active' offence significantly passed responsibility from states to the individual. Indeed states confronted with individual rights, and the need to uphold belief traditions often regarded the legacy of statute or common law blasphemy as an embarrassment. This has eventually become panic amongst societies beset by the problems of multiculturalism which seeks integration, yet also protection for beliefs which were otherwise in conflict. (68) In societies like the Netherlands this has sparked a heated debate about the 'limits' of multiculturalism; whilst other societies have promoted laws against religious incitement to address these problems.

Thus blasphemy originated as a 'passive' offence whereby individuals could expect protection for their beliefs and damage to these from the sanctions offered by both secular and temporal authority. It then became an issue of conformity that sat easily alongside other ancien regime forms of discipline. This mould was broken by the enlightenment's questions about the scope and nature of authority. The subsequent development of individual rights made the state retreat from its policing role, thus giving birth to the 'active' blasphemy model which required the individual to demonstrate damage to religious beliefs.

Criminological approaches -- Blasphemy and disturbance

Traditional historiographies of crime have described its so-called 'modernization,' portraying the state as mediating between the criminal and victim since the medieval period. Some historians note that most areas of medieval law operated independently of the state with legal proceedings initiated at the instigation of the victim. This legal historiography sees modernisation as the state gradually increasing its participation in law and prosecution. Michael Weisser's pioneering study argued that "... one of the first symptoms of legal modernisation in European criminal procedure occurred when statutes ... removed the prosecution of a criminal case from private into public hands." These societies are generally deemed to have witnessed a decline in violent crime that was replaced by species of property crime--the so called "de la violence au vol" thesis. (69)

However blasphemy's transition from a crime which preoccupied the state to one that preoccupied the individual is the very opposite of this criminological history. At its very inception, in the biblical world, the state was the major stakeholder in blasphemy's evolution as an offence punishable by law. Although medieval municipalities developed procedures to combat local blasphemy, national statutes augmented them. Initially these supplemented ecclesiastical and theocratic authority but eventually came to substitute for it, as matters of public order replaced a concern for sin and its consequences. The eighteenth-century state may have assisted in the later agenda of pathologising the mental state of blasphemers, but such a paradigm did not last. The state's subsequent retreat, from the mid nineteenth century onwards, left blasphemy in a perhaps unique category of offences. Whilst the state's shunning of it resembles the approach taken to crimes of witchcraft, the reformulation of blasphemy as a matter for individuals transformed it into a species of libel. Yet here the burden of proof and the jurisprudence remained linked to public order issues.

The state's retreat from blasphemy over the last two hundred years recognised individual rights and, paradoxically, religious tolerance. Such changes were scarcely uniform, with early American states such as Massachusetts adopting a harsh attitude to blasphemy whilst the Colony of Rhode Island was more tolerant. (70) Cultural trends, such as secularization, also made religion diffuse, whilst erosion of religion's institutional basis located the defence of belief within the individual. (71) The creation of religious 'feelings' replacing 'belief' further encouraged the 'active' blasphemy model to develop in the West. Harm increasingly had to be demonstrated by individuals rather than assumed by authority. Perhaps the most significant late twentieth-century demonstration of this has been the augmentation of blasphemy with incitement to religious hatred legislation, confirming the individual as the victim of hurt or damage.

Seventeenth-century America had flexible local legislation which produced individualised customary, community justice. The state's short circuiting of such jurisdiction resulted in battles between federal law wanting a generic solution, and local demands for accountable justice. This was only finally resolved in 1951 with the combination of Federal law and First Amendment Rights rendering prosecutions for blasphemy unconstitutional. All of this suggests the history of the offence of blasphemy resembles the precise reverse of much criminological history. The state and religious authority, having invented blasphemy, gradually withdrew from responsibility for its prosecution, if not wholly its punishment. With the dawn of the twentieth century, blasphemy became the property of the wronged individuals. Although their success was not uniform throughout the West, what is startling is how their cries for redress against damaged beliefs, even in the twentieth century, resembled the hue and cry of the medieval victim of inter-personal crime.

This brings us to the vexed issue of how societies, through their conceptions of criminology, have assessed the actual harm caused by blasphemy. Some 'criminal centred' models that investigate motive, culpability and the supposed 'evil' done to society by the criminal perpetrators are problematic when used to approach blasphemy. The fundamental concept of Mens rea (whereby an individual intends the consequences of their action) has been absent from the English Common Law of blasphemous libel for significant portions of its history, as it has from French Statutes and elsewhere. (72) The criminal harm caused by blasphemy has always been extraordinarily difficult to demonstrate satisfactorily. Contemporary societies with supposedly complex mechanisms for determining harm have devolved this assessment to aggrieved individuals. Whereas Loetz's Zurich, Schwerhoff's and Van Dulmen's Germany, Flynn's Spain and Villa Flores' Mexico all exercised working definitions of blasphemy as harm, our contemporary experience is different. Nineteenth- and twentieth-century tolerance which privatised religious belief also, by law, guaranteed the inviolability of this privacy. Significantly since the nineteenth century, few other areas of law in the West credibly permitted the victim the pivotal role in judging the magnitude of evil. Blasphemy thus survived as an exception because societies guaranteed freedom of expression for both offender and offended.

Blasphemy and the "civilising process"

The ideas of Norbert Elias have had pertinence for historians of crime, law and extreme behaviour. Elias's 'civilising process' established a theoretical benchmark which still persuasively explains long-term trends in behaviour. (73) Elias argued that specific social developments fundamentally altered behaviour patterns to make them recognisably modern. In particular the individual's self control, preventing acts of violence, increased in proportion to the state's control of everyday space. An early modern urban aristocracy consolidated power through regimes of manners replacing the violent impetuousness of the medieval warrior class. For our purposes Elias argued that the whole concept of 'civilisation' taught individuals to think of themselves and their lives as a social process. (74) This makes the 'civilising process' more subtle than later formulations of hegemonic social control. (75) This also finds echoes in the work of historians of politeness who portray a motor rather than a reflection of social change. (76) Certainly this chimes with the shift of blasphemy from a 'passive' to an 'active' offence where the discovery of sensibility allowed the development of individual hurt. Such developments were central to the jurisdiction of the West after 1750.

Through manners urban elites maximised power, whilst marginality gave birth to species of embarrassment and an individualisation of restraint. (77) For Elias, violence was removed by modern society's interdependence, with social actors restrained by this relationship. But Elias argued a less violent society was also less interesting, provoking his subsequent examination of the modern sociocultural functions of sport. These became sought after substitutes for the raw and real violence of an earlier epoch, so that dreams and fantasies allowed modern society to kick against the 'civilising process'.

Thus these explanations of violent encounters speak to the issue of blasphemy's long-term history. (78) Early modern continental European instances of blasphemy and their apparent eclipse by 1750 would appear to partially validate Elias' theories. Certainly his suggestion that a rising urban elite altered patterns of behaviour and deference finds echoes in European blasphemy's early history, as municipalities controlled unruly behaviour and defended the sacred nature of oaths. (79) Some legislators were also prepared to see the control of blasphemy and related errant behaviour as one of the few areas the gentry could agree upon in the troubled seventeenth century. The English Parliament between the end of the 1590s and the start of the 1630s discussed and enacted an impressive number of bills to control the apparel, the drinking habits, illegitimacy, Sabbath breaking and blasphemous swearing of the populace. This would suggest a civilising offensive from the English gentry and bourgeoisie. (80) Some histories of gambling and attitudes to providential risk also follow a pattern which chimes with the chronology of the 'civilising process'. A medieval world which assumed the power of an omnipotent God believed every event was divinely predestined. Gamblers who called for God's favour disrupted the medieval doctrine of his apparent constancy. Such individuals, supposedly shorn of free will, pursued reckless strategies which resulted in their loss of temper or composure. These appear to be the hot-headed individuals Elias described in other areas of his thought. This behaviour was transformed by the action of an urban elite and was "... a transition in which the economic power of a declining feudal aristocracy, represented by gold, was overtaken by a mercantile bourgeoisie, whose wealth was rooted in money." (81) Such histories suggest that gambling became associated with social evil since it distracted from other pastimes. The process of civilising gambling away from its propensity to produce blasphemy apparently began in the seventeenth century when theories of probability overtook assertions of the divinely ordered universe. This arrival of probability around bourgeois values suggests the 'civilising process's' calculation of conduct, but this time around risk assessment. A world ruled by probability made men into machines for calculating risk. These were men who were manifestly better off than their hot headed ancestors whose recklessness drove them to blaspheme and despoil religious images and persons. (82)

Yet there are problems associated with both these attempts to align the history of blasphemy with the 'civilising process'. Considering blasphemy alongside Elias's pronouncements upon violence is problematic. Neither central Europe, nor the early modern period, should be viewed as typical. The early English empirical Whig historiography of blasphemy preferred to emphasise a history of ideological progress and tolerance, rather than one of unruly behaviour. This was a version of the 'civilising process' portrayed by civil rights campaigners as substantially incomplete. These nineteenth- and twentieth-century histories argued that softening of the law had been a consequence of the decay of religious versions of the state and localised victories against censorship. (83)

Elsewhere histories, such as that offered by Alain Cabantous, argue that French society regulated manners in the area of religious transgression. However we should note that Elias's ideas contained a presumption that 'civilising' action was ultimately effective. Although Cabantous portrayed blasphemy as a typically lower class offence against restraint, there remains little evidence to suggest that a non-blasphemous 'norm' ever replaced impulsive behaviour. There might well be stronger evidence in Schwerhoff's Germany or Loetz's Switzerland, but even here draconian legislation could still appear with later state formation. (84) Blasphemy's recurrent and timeless connection with both drink and tavern cultures poses further problems for the norms constructed by the 'civilising process'. The unguarded moment and the impulsive use of blasphemy as an exemplar of bravado, irrational feeling or of providential fear scarcely evaporates from popular culture, and its shadow remains. (85)

Whilst Cabantous concluded French society successfully stamped this out, it is arguable that a more sophisticated and cost effective print culture drove it underground and gave it more literary aspirations. (86) Blasphemy in nineteenth century England, and America clearly sprang from deist and philosophe ideas. (87) Undermining religion and its powerful control of morality and behaviour places such social ideals as emphatically opposed to the 'civilising process'. (88) Moreover Elias concentrated upon the removal of reckless and antisocial action. (89) 'Civilisation' came to triumph where 'thresholds of repugnance' advanced to marginalize unacceptable behaviour around hygiene and bodily secretions. Elias suggested that modern society's contact with repugnant behaviour was generally confined to uncovering manifestations of it in psychoanalysis which he characterized as 'an infantile residue'. Certainly such an explanation might characterize some of the early modern speech errors and behavioural mistakes of those who found themselves before the inquisition. This might also explain the potency of cartoons which relied for their humour upon childhood misunderstanding of biblical texts and stories. In this case blasphemy should take its place alongside other modern outlets for the 'infantile' and the 'repugnant'. Certainly analysis of the work of Andre Serrano, who compounded the shock value of both, is informative here. Associating the divine with the scatological was not simply a piece of conscious blasphemy but was also a reminder of the 'repugnant' and its power. (90) Elias also spoke about the apparent 'rationalisation' of conduct amongst specific social groups which often acted as the catalyst for the social changes encompassed by the 'civilising process'. Although his examples include the 'courtization of warriors' in the medieval period they may just as well include the eighteenth century libertines whose lifestyle was the ultimate expression of 'rationalization'. Yet this "moulding of people in specific social figurations" led materialist libertines to acquire the status of outcasts rather than progenitors of social change. (91)

Print culture's premeditated violence, occurring at a distance in both time and space, is a factor absent from the 'civilising process" and its explanations. The nineteenth-century attempts by regimes of prayer and policing to control and minimise the harm caused by blasphemy also undermines the confidence that Elias staked in the capacity for self-control. (92) Similarly a gendered dynamic of violence against the sacred changed as women became more obviously caught up in blasphemy prosecutions. (93)

Elias's argument that restraint arose amongst individuals as violence became a monopoly of the post-medieval state is also problematic. The state discipline of religion significantly predates the start of Elias's 'civilising process,' as respect for religious belief was an externally imposed form of behaviour long before manners civilised interactions. Blasphemous crimes were not forced out of society; they remained as models for encounters where violence might be done to the beliefs or identities of others. This has survived into the contemporary world where quite antique legislation often serves as the model for laws against race hatred and hate crime. (94) Jeroen Duindam has also argued in his discussion of Elias that "Civilization means the growth of the conscience, or the transition from conduct motivated by fear of punishment to that based on a sense of shame or guilt." Duindam's critique of Elias noted that propriety of language could coexist alongside debauchery and spectacular relaxation of sexual morality. Similarly he suggested that close observation and restraint of behaviour belonged as much to village life as it did to the great courts of Europe. It was also significant that breaches of behaviour at Versailles often turned around gambling excesses, calling into question the long term significance of 'courtisation' as a process of behaviour reformation. (95)

Moreover, the modernising machinery of mass literacy that supposedly civilised us also replicated and magnified single acts of violence against individual beliefs. (96) Likewise the alleged interdependence within societies exposed to the 'civilising process' has not regulated the violent religious wounding of others. Blasphemy, throughout the twentieth century, demonstrated the cracks in this interdependence, since the legal and cultural marginality of some individuals and their beliefs (Freethinkers and Gay Christians for example) suggested some societies were polarised. Similarly the nineteenth and early twentieth centuries saw anarchists and secularists challenge the hegemony of state churches and confessional religious pretensions. (97) Perhaps more damaging still for the 'civilising process' was the preponderance of artists and representatives of the counterculture in the late nineteenth and twentieth century, whose flippant exploratory investigation of religion so offended evangelical Christian communities. (98) Moreover the evidence of this area suggests the modern state is in retreat which Elias and the 'civilising process' never predicted.

Likewise the attempts of historians to describe the civilising of gambling do not wholly explain the history of blasphemy within gambling circles. This view suggests blasphemy within gambling was a medieval pre-civilised behaviour that individuals were locked into through their own recklessness. Yet free will was central to both pre and post reformation Catholicism, and even Protestantism still acknowledged its importance. At the end of the seventeenth century the Huguenot Pierre de Joncourt saw games of chance as blasphemous precisely because they involved the renunciation of free will. (99) Similarly the suggestion that Catholic Europe tolerated blasphemy whilst civilising post-reformation Protestantism sought to tame it simply does not accord with the evidence cited here. However Anselm's doctrine of the constancy of God was also crucially important since it maintained the equilibrium of chance in the universe. Religious and secular authorities were thus outraged at the call for God to be inconsistent and answer the gambling supplicant who demanded favour over an opponent. Similarly gambling histories are apt to describe the providential world as neatly superseded by the world of probability. Certainly the evidence offered here around blasphemy's persistence suggests a significant providential legacy into the twentieth century and arguably beyond. Duindam thus speaks for a number of critics of Elias when he suggests "... As a result, these works retain the air and status of a nineteenth-century magisterial thesis, but fail to live up to twentieth century standards of specialization and detailed analysis." (100)

However, we should equally speculate how far the persistence of blasphemy vindicates Elias' subsequent work on the quest for regulated aggression, since blasphemy does represent a dangerous contact with the unknown. Moreover "a gradual demarcation of the gambling world into private and public leisure spheres" would certainly echo Elias's later works on the function of sport and leisure as diversionary excitement. Blasphemy's enduring mocking of the sacred perhaps echoes Elias' covert regard for the modern individual's unconscious desire to be in touch with their reckless, yet strangely fulfilled forbears.

Blasphemy and surveillance

The issue of discipline, control and punishment, so central to our understanding of law and its evolution, is still significantly overshadowed by the work of Michel Foucault. Whilst his grip is loosening in other areas of historical investigation it remains steadfast in the area of law, crime and discipline. Foucault argued scholars should study the constitution of power throughout history. Violence, as Elias had suggested, was institutionalised as part of the historical process. But Foucault doubted that a 'civilising process' marginalised violence from the action and intent of authority in the modern world. It seemed merely subsumed in structures and institutions. Foucault's 'birth of the clinic' and 'birth of the prison' portrayed logic and rationalism as instruments of tyrannical professional interest groups. In this they turned dissidents into objects for study and treatment. (101)

Alain Cabantous is the historian most influenced by these ideas since he portrays the success of an enlightenment project which snuffed out the subjectivity displayed by dissidents. Yet using Foucault to pursue this history into the modern era offers intriguing possibilities for blasphemy's history. Violence still exists for the individual, scarcely masked by the apparatus of the state. Similarly enlightenment ideals of religious tolerance are qualified by fundamentalist religion's ability to harness successful blasphemy and the legal systems of the West. (102)

Although modern rights bequeathed individual religious freedom, this simultaneously creates the responsibility to police the action of others. Foucault argued this was the 'trap' of modernist liberal social democratic systems. Here, blasphemy law's operation looks more closely like the medieval individual seeking redress from the law than modern conceptions of the preservation of the peace. A pre-modern conception of crime was here retained rather than swept away, as so many other disciplinary mechanisms were.

Newer conceptions of power and governance, which Elias identified, became a system which Foucault termed 'surveillance'. In many European countries this coincided with the late seventeenth century age of statute blasphemy and related forms of discipline. Foucault saw beyond mere modernisation to argue that the culture of surveillance replicated the wider patriarchal structure of policing. (103) This process would seem, if these arguments are to be believed, to coincide with the state in Europe and North America becoming more concerned with the preservation of public order. (104)

Yet the passing of Foucault's era of surveillance does not bring a qualitative change to perceptions of the crime of blasphemy. The new 'age of confinement' did not end the link between blasphemy, libertineage, immorality and public order-indeed it remains quite marked. Nineteenth- and early twentieth-century English and American evidence suggests that the ribald depiction of God proved to be the most offensive. Policing authorities also linked disbelief with the spread of potentially immoral knowledge about controlling fertility. In the twentieth century, portrayals of figures from the Christian tradition linked with sexual behaviour have similarly proved the most provocative. (105)

Foucault also saw belief conforming to his 'epistemes' of time, yet historians have largely abandoned the conception of religious changes occurring in nearly so linear, or predictable, ways. Forms of evangelical personal religion, from the eighteenth century onwards, strongly emphasise that individuals often took subjective power for themselves. Blasphemy is where such power is demonstrated to promote the subjectivity of offended individual belief. In this Foucault's search for subjectivity bears fruit whilst his desire to show linear social development lacks credibility. (106)

The later early modern period's interest in discipline indicated the usefulness of the sacred as a means of justifying and legitimating the social and moral order. Blasphemy thus became a clear example of the folly of challenging either sacred or secular authority. Thus individuals linked the issue of belief with behaviour, morality and the law, suggesting a more ready compliance with the demands of all forms of authority. Significantly, when blasphemy became especially articulate in the hands of deists and philosophes from the seventeenth century onwards, it dispensed with secular and religious authority both root and branch.


Blasphemy offers an important opportunity around which morality, discipline and community/individual identity should be studied. It is driven by the dynamics that characterise it as 'passive' or 'active' depending on the attitude of the state to the pursuit of the blasphemer. Although this was initially a chronological change this is clearly not the whole story. So far the twenty-first century has seen religion forming a more central part of modern identities. Individuals have also used direct action to defend the sanctity of such beliefs, just as western governments are offering legal protection to religions. This process may yet reinvigorate our older model of 'passive' blasphemy. Blasphemy is also a form of errant behaviour that qualifies the explanatory frame works of deviance offered by Elias and Foucault. In the case of the former its periodisation explains the early history of blasphemy, yet its 'faith' in both interdependency and the enduring confidence of the assertive state looks misplaced. For the latter Foucault's periodisation is considerably more at odds with blasphemy's history, yet his desire to remain equivocal about enlightenment 'freedoms' and to suggest the importance of subjective responses retains importance.

If religious world views increasingly regain the co-operation of the state, then religious belief will again constitute a norm. Shared assumptions about the blasphemous will eventually place greater burdens upon the defenders and consumers of free expression. From this a new lease of life may be given to the 'passive' model of blasphemy. Thus, history would then turn full circle to see blasphemy as a threat to communities rather than individuals.

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1. For an example of blasphemy discussed alongside other vices (in this case gambling) see Trevor Dean, Crime in Medieval Europe (London, 2001), 52-54. For blasphemy discussed as a fleeting part of popular culture and sociability (in this case drink) see Thomas Brennan, Public Drinking and Popular Culture in Eighteenth-Century Paris (Princeton, 1988), 270-271.

2. Specific studies of blasphemy in the English speaking world include D. A. Lawton, Blasphemy (Philadelphia, 1993); L. W. Levy, Blasphemy: Verbal Offense Against the Sacred from Moses to Salman Rushdie (New York, 1993); D. S. Nash, Blasphemy in modern Britain: 1789 to the present (Brookfield, VT, 1999); Joss Marsh, Word crimes (London, 1998); and Richard Webster, A Brief History of Blasphemy (Southwold, 1990). Gerd Schwerhoff, Zungen wie Schwerter: Blasphemie in alteuropaischen gesellschaften 1200-1650; (Konstanz, 2005) has produced a survey of the earlier period with some focus upon Germany. Alain Cabantous' Blasphemy: Impious speech in the West from the seventeenth to the nineteenth century, translated by Eric Rauth (New York, 2002) uses predominantly French material whilst Francisca Loetz, Mit Gott handeln: von den Zurcher Gotteslasterern der Fruhen Neuzeit zu einer Kulturgeschichte des Religiosen (Gottingen, 2002) examines Switzerland for the early modern period.

3. Blasphemy's earliest English historiography emanated from campaigns against censorship or attempts to rationalise the law. See H. Bradlaugh Bonner and F. W Read, Penalties upon opinion; or, Some records of the laws of heresy and blasphemy (London, 1934); G. D. Nokes, A History of the Crime of Blasphemy (London, 1928). For elements of this in a later history of the wider English speaking world see Levy, Blasphemy.

4. See especially the emphasis in Lawton, Blasphemy. Lawton's first chapter actively avoids a definition of blasphemy whilst specific episodes become potential as sites of textual investigation. He concludes by illuminating how blasphemy operates in modern episodes of transgression--in this case the First Gulf War.

5. Francisca Loetz encapsulated the problem of definition by arguing historians should work simultaneously with four distinct interpretations of blasphemy: Firstly, modern understanding of the term, secondly, medieval and early modern theological understanding, thirdly, relevant judicial practice (in her case sixteenth century Zurich) and fourthly, our own attempts to categorise a malleable offence based on historical evidence. See Loetz, Mit Gott handeln and "How to do things with God: Blasphemy in early modern Switzerland" in Mary Lindemann, ed. Ways of Knowing; Ten interdisciplinary essays (Leiden, 2004), 137-151, 140.

6. To varying degrees this emerges from the studies of Loetz, Schwerhoff and Cabantous.

7. For the different accounts of this see Levy, Blasphemy, 3-14.

8. R. I. Moore, The Formation of a Persecuting Society (Oxford, 1987) and R.I. Moore "Popular Violence and Popular Heresy" in W. J. Shiels, ed, Persecution and Tolerance. Studies in Church History Volume 21 (Oxford, 1984), 43-50.

9. Schwerhoff, Zungen wie Schwerter, 300.

10. See Jean Delumeau, Sin and Fear. The Emergence of a Western Guilt Culture 13th-18th Centuries, translated by Eric Nicholson (New York, 1990) and John Bossy, Christianity in the West (Oxford, 1985).

11. See, for example, An Association of Prayers against Blasphemy, Swearing and the Profanation of Sundays and Festivals, under the Patronage of St. Louis, King of France, translated from the French by Edward G. Kriwan Browne (London, 1847). This devotional work saw blasphemy as endemic in nineteenth century France and hoped prayers would nullify the enormous numbers of blasphemies. At one point the book noted "Oh my God! What multitude of iniquities! And is the homage of angels sufficient to compensate for so many outrages.... ignorance or inadvertence may diminish or excuse its maliciousness; but considered in itself, Blasphemy is the most enormous of crimes," 9.

12. Schwerhoff, 301.

13. Ibid., 303.

14. Delumeau, Sin and Fear, passim.

15. Henry Kamen, The Spanish Inquisition, An historical Revision (London, 1997). In England a statute of 1400 de heretico comburendo put the offence on a statutory footing. See Bradlaugh Bonner, Penalties, 7.

16. See Bettina Lindorfer, "Peccatum Linguae and the punishment of speech violations in the middle ages and early modern times" in Jean E. Godsall-Myers Speaking in the Medieval World (Leiden, 2003), 30-31. This emphasises an influential thirteenth century inquisitorial assertion that speech was an important weapon against heresy.

17. Drawing upon the work of Keith Thomas on magic and Walter Ong on literary and oral communication Indira Ghose makes this point. See Indira Ghose, "Laughter and Blasphemy in the Shakesperean Theatre," ed. John Pitcher Medieval and Renaissance Drama in England (Madison, NJ, 2005), 16, 229. See also Diarmud McCulloch, Europe's House Divided (Oxford, 2003).

18. Loetz, Mit Gott handeln, 525.

19. Ghose, "Laughter and Blasphemy," 230.

20. See Flynn Maureen, "Blasphemy and the Play of Anger in sixteenth century Spain," Past and Present 149 (1995): 29-56 & 32-33.

21. Baelde, M.R, Studien over Godslastering (Den Haag, 1935), 110. The text from the King James Bible has Matthew 24: 23,24 as "Then if any man shall say unto you, Lo, here is Christ, or there; believe it not. For there shall arise false Christs, and false prophets, and shall shew great signs and wonders; insomuch that, if it were possible, they shall deceive the very elect." Acts 17: 24,25 is rendered as "God that made the world and all things therein, seeing that he is Lord of heaven and earth, dwelleth not in temples made with hands. Neither is worshipped with men's hands, as though he needed anything, seeing he giveth to all life, and breath, and all things."

22. Olivier Christin, "L'iconoclaste et le blasphemateur au debut du xvi siecle," in Jean Delumeau ed., Injures et blasphemes; Mentalites, II (Paris, 1989), 35-49, 37.

23. For the most recent discussion of this as a European phenomenon see McCulloch, Europe's House Divided, 591-607. For evidence from Reformation Switzerland which bears out this interpretation see Jeffrey R Watt, "The Reception of the Reformation in Valangin, Switzerland, 1547-1588," Sixteenth Century Journal 20, (Spring 1989): 89-104.

24. Richard Van Dulmen, Theatre of Horror: Crime and Punishment in Early Modern Germany, translated by Elisabeth Neu (Oxford, 1990). Van Dulmen records a small number of cases between 1503-1743 in Nuremberg (page 52), and 1562-1792 in Frankfurt (pages 142-143 and 156). Nuremberg passed sentences of "going barefoot before church" and corporal punishments including the pillory with the attendant punishments of birching and boring through the tongue. Frankfurt employed a similarly varied use of corporal punishment attaching it to the sentence of compulsory exile. Public penance was supposed to provide reconciliation with god and held up "to the delinquent a mirror of dishonesty reflecting the norms of the society from which he or she was on the verge of being expelled," 56

25. Schwerhoff, Zungen wie Schwerter, 305.

26. Baelde, Studien over Godslastering, 109-110. Schwerhoff in Zungen wie Schwerter, 144, includes a woodcut of an individual encased in a barrel, undergoing punishment, from circa 1618.

27. See Flynn, "Blasphemy and the Play of Anger," 30. Fines, exile and confinement in the galleys were also mentioned as was riding a donkey backwards whilst displaying penitence for the blasphemous offence concerned.

28. Loetz, Mit Gott handeln, 527. Also see 524 & 523.

29. Ibid. 525, Loetz, "How to do things with God," 143.

30. Flynn, "Blasphemy and the Play of Anger," 35. Flynn suggests "For inquisitors, speech guaranteed the reality of thought, illuminating the dark and mysterious caverns of consciousness with form," 39.

31. See Levy, Blasphemy, 238-259, for American evidence which demonstrates both corporal and capital sentences carried out in the early colonies.

32. Cabantous, Blasphemy, passim., and for an early period see also Flynn, "Blasphemy and the Play of Anger" and Javier Villa-Flores, "On Divine Persecution: Blasphemy and Gambling in New Spain," in Susan Schroeder and Stafford Poole eds. Religion and Society in Colonial Mexico (New Mexico, forthcoming).

33. Flynn, "Blasphemy and the play of anger," 49-52. Loetz however argues that this is too easily confused with simpler irreverence, "How to do things with God," 148.

34. Javier Villa-Flores, "On Divine Persecution," 124.

35. See Francoise Hildesheim, "La repression du blaspheme au XVIII siecle" in Jean Delumeau, ed., Injures et blasphemes; Mentalites, II, (Paris, 1989), 63-82.

36. Alex Walsham notes a prodigous literature in England and the wider protestant world retelling "the story of the unlucky gamester who throws his dagger wildly into the clouds in a futile attempt to assassinate his maker." It is also noted that many of the cautionary tales told to generations of the pious involved the misuse of divine providence around the gaming table. Other cautionary tales portray the divine penalties dispensed for gluttony, drunkenness and bearing false witness, all indicating a powerful conception of providence. See Alex Walsham, Providence in Early Modem England (Oxford, 1999), 65, 78, 79-80.

37. Ibid, 120, 140-143, 148.

38. Flynn, "Blasphemy and the play of anger," 32.

39. Loetz, Mit Gott Handeln, 528.

40. See Gerd Schwerhoff, "Starke Worte: Blasphemie als theatralische Inszenierung von Mannlichkeit an der Wende vom Mittelalter zur Fruhen Neuzeit" in Martin Dinges, ed., Hausvater, Priest, Kastraten: Zur Konstruktion von Mannlichkeit in Spatmittelalter und Fruher Neuzeit (Gottingen, 1998), 238-263 and his later Zungen wie Schwerter, 305; Maureen Flynn, "Blasphemy and the Play of Anger." Flynn found evidence of blasphemous utterances involving sexual innuendo stemmed from male adolescent exuberance and misbehaviour.

41. See Elizabeth Horodwich, "Civic Identity and the Control of Blasphemy in Sixteenth-Century Venice," Past and Present 181, (2003): 3-33. See also Cabantous, Blasphemy, 51-54. But note that Loetz saw the Town Council of Zurich as dragging its feet in the face of the reformed Church's desire to innovate, Mit Gott handeln, 534-535.

42. Cabantous, Blasphemy, 67, 78-79. See also Lindorfer, Peccatum Linguae, 32, who argues this was the first time that speech violations were seriously scrutinised in France. Spain witnessed a flurry of similar legislation in the first couple of decades of the sixteenth century, and analogous provisions were also made in the territories of the Holy Roman Empire.

43. G. D. Nokes, A History of the Crime of Blasphemy, 48.

44. Ibid.

45. Levy, Blasphemy, 268.

46. See Elisabeth Belmas, "La montee des blasphemes a lage moderne du Moyen Age au XVIIe siecle," in Delumeau, ed., Injures et blasphemes, 13-33, 13.

47. Manuel Eisner, "Modernization, self-control and lethal violence: The long-term dynamics of European homicide rates in theoretical perspective," British Journal of Criminology 41 (2001): 618-638, 632.

48. For the outline of this latter history in Britain see Nash, Blasphemy in Britain, Chapters 4-9 and for America see Levy, Blasphemy, Chapters 18, 21, 24 and 25.

49. For England see Nash, Blasphemy in Britain, for Spain see Flynn, "Blasphemy and the Play of Anger," 36. For France see Belmas, "La montee des blasphemes."

50. Belmas, "La montee des blasphemes," 22.

51. Cabantous, Alain Blasphemy, 91. See 5-6 for quotation.

52. Christin, Olivier, "L'iconoclaste," 39-40. Christin links this particular incident with more classical Protestant iconoclasm.

53. In Swedish "har jag Jesum i mitt hjarta" and "Jesum mot fanen."

54. Andersson, Hans, "Brottsliga batsman. En undersokning om batsmannens brotts-lighet i Stockholm under senare delen av stormakstiden," Forum Navale, 1993.

55. In 1728 a boatman, Robert Adriaansz Van Hoorn, was sentenced to death for continuing uttering blasphemy. Van Hoorn was unrepentant declaring "I am as much God as you are" and that God was thus entitled to destroy him. Van Hoorn had clearly alarmed and scared his fellow passengers aboard ship. When a violent storm blew up Van Hoorn goaded the almighty and was heard to scream "go away devil" refusing to strike his sails either for God or his fellow passengers. Van Hoorn had damaged God's majesty and was sentenced to boring through the tongue and death by hanging with post-mortem exhibition upon the wheel. Baelde, Godslastering, 137.

56. Bicknoll, Edmond, A Sword Against Swearers and Blasphemers (London, 1611), 30, 34, 39-41, 42, 35.

57. Anthony Painter, The Blaspheming Caryar. Who sunke into the ground up to the neck, and there stood two days, 3 November 1613, (London, 1614).

58. E.J de Roo, Godslastering, (Deventer, 1970), 20.

59. For Fowles (1698) see Lawton, Blasphemy, 17-23. For Thomas Pooley (1857) see Timothy J. Toohey, "Blasphemy in Nineteenth-Century England: The Pooley Case and its Background," Victorian Studies XXX (3) (1987): 315-33.

60. See Gary Stark, "Trials and tribulations: Authors' responses to Censorship in Imperial Germany, 1885-1914," German Studies Review 12 .3. (1989): 447-468. for Panizza. See Michael Meyer, Strindberg (Oxford, 1987), 130-142 for Strindberg.

61. The 1883 English blasphemy case against G.W. Foote involved discussion of the unsuspecting suddenly confronting blasphemous material in public and private space. Such issues surfaced again in cases against J.W. Gott in the Edwardian period. These are both discussed in official HO (Home Office) papers HO 45 9536/49902 and HO 45 10665/216120 respectively.

62. For Britain's writers in this vein see Bradlaugh-Bonner, Penalties; A. Calder-Marshall, Lewd, Blasphemous and Obscene (London, 1972) and N. Walter, Blasphemy Ancient and Modern (London, 1990).

63. For the work of societies to suppress Vice in England from the close of the seventeenth to the middle of the nineteenth centuries see David Hayton, "Moral Reform and Country Politics in the Late Seventeenth Century House of Commons," Past and Present 128 (1990): 48-91; T.C Barnard, "Reforming Irish manners: The religious societies in Dublin during the 1690s," Historical Journal 35, 4 (1992): 805-838; M. J. D. Roberts, "Making Victorian Morals? The Society for the Suppression of Vice and its Critics 1802-1886," Historical Studies XXI (1984): 157-173; and Philip Harling, "The Law of libel and the limits of repression, 1790-1832," Historical Journal 44 (1) (2001): 107-134.

64. In English law there was a significant interlude between the Foote blasphemy case of 1883/4 and the Gay News case of 1977/8 when the precise intention of the individual prosecuted for blasphemous libel defined how the law regarded their actions. Up to the latter case intention to wound was a necessary test of guilt essential to secure a conviction.

65. For further details of some of these incidents in the Netherlands see de Roo, Godslastering, 70. For Australia see Peter Coleman, Obscenity, Blasphemy Sedition. (Brisbane, 1960), 98-99. For England see Nash, Blasphemy in Modern Britain, Chapter five.

66. Talal Asad suggests this was an essential component of secular enlightenment thinking which did not assume the existence of a creator. Moreover, the individual's "natural rights were a necessary part of one's sovereignty." He also intriguingly suggests that this sovereign, property owning, self saw the law as the medium through which the suspicion of others could be voiced. This, at least for Asad, was the midwife of 'freedom of expression', thus explaining its enduring importance in the West. Talal Asad, Formations of the Secular: Christianity, Islam and Modernity (Stanford, 2003), 134-135.

67. Ibid., 136.

68. The discomfort caused by modern retention of the law was evident in the recent (2002) consideration of the future of the law of blasphemous libel undertaken by the House of Lords in Britain. See Select Committee on Religious Offences in England and Wales, HL Paper 95-III.

69. Michael Weisser, Crime and Punishment in Early Modern Europe (Brighton, 1979), 175. See also James A., Sharpe, Crime in Early Modern Society 1550-1750 (London, 1999 edition), 250-270.

70. See Theodore Schroeder, Constitutional Free Speech Defined and Defended in an Unfinished argument in a case of Blasphemy (New York, 1919), 367.

71. See Nash, Blasphemy in Modern Britain, 32-37. For recent discussions of secularization see Hugh McLeod, Secularization in Western Century Europe 1848-1914 (London, 2000); H. McLeod and W. Ustorf, eds., The decline of Christendom in western Europe, 1750-2000 (Cambridge, 2003); Steve Bruce, God is Dead: Secularization in the West (Oxford, 2002); Callum Brown, The Death of Christian Britain (London, 2000).

72. See footnote 34. See also Lindorfer, "Peccatum Linguae," p 31.

73. Eric A. Johnson and Eric H. Monkkonen, "Introduction" in Eric A. Johnson and Eric H. Monkkonen, eds., The Civilisation of Crime: Violence in Town and Country since the Middle Ages (Urbana, 1996), 4.

74. Norbert Elias, The 'civilising process' (revised edition) translated by Edmund Jephcot, edited by Eric Dunning, Johan Gouldsblom and Stephen Mennell (Oxford, 2005), 39.

75. For the influence of Elias see the contributions by James. A. Sharpe, Eva Osterberg and Pieter Spierenberg in Monkkonen, eds., The Civilisation of Crime. The contribution of manners to a changed climate in the eighteenth century (especially in England) is valuably discussed in the opening section of Elizabeth Foyster's "Creating a veil of silence? Politeness and marital violence in the English household," Transactions of the Royal Historical Society XII (2002), 395-415. For an informed introduction to the ideas of Norbert Elias see Stephen Mennell, Norbert Elias: Civilization and the Human Self Image (Oxford, 1989).

76. Elias however readily suggested that self-coercion worked thoroughly in tandem with institutions that monopolised the use of force. The application of forms of coercive care with more obvious yet 'careful violence' has been seen by some as ensuring the success of ancien regime approaches to discipline. See Alf Liidtke, "The role of state violence in the period of transition to industrial capitalism: the example of Prussia from 1815 to 1848," Social History 4, 2 (1979): 175-221, 176-177.

77. Horodwitch in 'Civic identity' confirms this pattern for sixteenth century Venice seeing the Escutori's role in combating blasphemy as the enforcement of manners upon unruly individuals by their social superiors. Francisca Loetz noted in Mit Gott handeln, p. 525 and in "How to do things with God" suggests that blasphemy in Zurich operated as a crude form of conflict resolution whereby an aggressor trumped the insult of another with recourse to speech about the almighty. When combined with Loetz's assertion that the honour of the individual was at stake, this provides evidence of blasphemy's use as a retaliation against the assumption of manners. Loetz also suggests that Zwinglian Zurich increasingly privatised religious matters (or instigated the "civilising process"), removing the sacred from unseemly brushes with the profane.

78. This relationship has been alluded to by Loetz in Mit Gott handeln and Schwerhoff in "Stark Worte."

79. See Carol Lansing, Power and Purity: Cathar Heresy in Medieval Italy (Oxford, 1998), 166-167. See also endnote 12.

80. See Joan Kent, "Attitudes of members of the House of Commons to the regulation of 'personal conduct' in late Elizabethan and Early Stuart England," Bulletin of the Institute for Historical Research Vol. XLVI no. 113 (1973): 41-71.

81. Gerda Reith, The Age of Chance: Gambling in Western Culture (London, 1999) 61.

82. Ibid., p 65.

83. See Bradlaugh-Bonner, Penalties Upon Opinion; Nokes, A History of the Crime of Blasphemy; Walter, Blasphemy Ancient and Modern. For the libertarian history see Calder-Marshall, Lewd, Blasphemous and Obscene (London, 1972). This last volume adopts a light hearted and optimistic treatment of the subject which echoes the confidence of the late 1960s counter culture.

84. With German unification the Penal Code of 1871 had no hesitation in adopting the provision against blasphemy previously contained in the penal code of the Northern German League.

85. Schwerhoff found evidence that blasphemy was thrust away by all sections of society and thus could not be equated with a bourgeois modernising project. Paradoxically this may also have ensured its survival in some forms as species of popular cultural practice with the capacity to shock and enrage. See Schwerhoff, Zungen wie Schwerter.

86. The work of Robert Darnton and Roger Chartier is especially relevant here. See the former's The Literary Underground of the Old Regime (Cambridge, MA, 1982) and The Forbidden Best-Sellers of Prerevolutionary France (New York, 1995). See also the latter's The Cultural Orgins of the French Revolution (Durham, 1990) and The Cultural Uses of Print in Early Modern France (Princeton, 1990).

87. B. Clifford, Blasphemous Reason: The 1797 Trial of Tom Paine's Age of Reason (Hampton, 1993); James Epstein, Radical Expression: Political Language, Ritual, and Symbol in England, 1790-1850 (Oxford, 1994); Joel Wiener, Radicalism and Freethought in Nineteenth-Century Britain: The Life of Richard Carlile (Westport, 1983); D.S. Nash, Blasphemy in Modern Britain; D. S. Nash, Secularism, Art and Freedom (London, 1992).

88. See Cabantous, Blasphemy, passim. See also Horodwitch "Civic identity" which assumes the work of the Escutori in Venice can be fitted into Elias' arguments about state formation being central to the desire of jurisdictions to wield power over manners and behaviour.

89. Eisner, "Modernization," 619.

90. Elias, The civilising process, 120 & 127, Johan Gouldsblom and Stephen Mennell (Oxford, 2005), 120 & 127.

91. Ibid., 412.

92. Ibid., 399.

93. The involvement of women such as Susannah Wright, Mary Anne and Jane Carlile in blasphemy was a consequence of early feminist critiques of Christianity. See Nash, Blasphemy, 86-88.

94. The House of Lords (Britain's Upper Chamber of government) considered the matter in 2002 and investigated the possibility of replacing Britain's Common law of blasphemous libel with legislation modelled on the Indian Criminal code of 1860. The Netherlands recently witnessed a similar phenomenon when the murder of the filmmaker Theo Van Gogh led to calls to apply laws against 'scornful blasphemy' (article 147 of the Dutch Penal Code) dormant since the 1930s.

95. Jeroen Duindam, Myths of Power, (Amsterdam, 1995), 170.

96. Eva Osterberg "Criminality, Social Control, and the Early Modern State: Evidence and Interpretations in Scandanavian Historiography" in Johnson and Monkkonen, eds., The Civilisation of Crime, 52.

97. In England and the United States the early twentieth century saw blasphemers with anarchist connections regularly pursued by the police authorities. See Nash, Blasphemy in Britain, 167-193.

98. The early twentieth century saw accusations against works by George Bernard Shaw (UK), Siegfried Sassoon (New Zealand), Georg Grosz and Wieland Herzfeld (Germany) and Arnulf Overland (Norway). In Britain towards the end of the twentieth century cases against James Kirkup (Gay News), and Nigel Wingrove (Visions of Ecstasy) led some to view proceedings against blasphemy purely as a form of censorship.

99. See John Dunkley, Gambling: a social and moral problem in France, 1685-1792 (Oxford, 1985), 86.

100. Duindam, Myths of Power, 183.

101. Colin Gordon, ed. Michel Foucault: Truth and Power. Power/Knowledge: Selected Interviews and Other Writings 1972-1977 (Brighton, 1980), 122. Barry Smart, Michel Foucault (London, 1985), 57 & 77.

102. Although punishment in the West grows progressively lenient it is significant that judicial proceedings against the offence of blasphemy remain possible and are witnessing something of a revival in some European countries (notably Spain, Germany, Austria, the Netherlands and Greece). The awareness of blasphemy and its punishment has been noted as a growing feature of Islamic fundamentalism.

103. Foucault, Truth and Power, 121. Michel Foucault, "Politics and Reason" in ed. Lawrence D. Kritzman Michel Foucault; Politics, Philosophy, Culture Interviews and Other Writings 1977-1984 (London, 1990), 57-85, 72. Cabantous, Blasphemy, 51-54.

104. This chronology is justified with reference to the work of Nash, Levy, Cabantous, Schwerhoff and Loetz, cited above.

105. The celebrated Freethinker case of 1883 focussed on a ribald, portrayal of God whilst the Edwardian period saw blasphemers, such as J.W. Gott and Thomas William Stewart, offer advice on family limitation alongside coarse critiques of revealed religion. Since the 1970s work of the Dane Jens Jurgen Thorsen has covered similar territory. Thorsen was responsible for a mural painted in Copenhagen which depicted Christ with exaggeratedly over sized genitalia, whilst he also spent several decades seeking to film the Sex Life of Christ (Jesus Vender Tilbage) which finally appeared in 1992. In England in the 1990s Nigel Wingrove found his sexually graphic portrayal of St Theresa of Avila's visions was refused a certificate by the BBFC. The 1977 case against the publication Gay News also indicted a portrayal of a homosexual promiscuous Christ. In 1990s America Andres Serrano's sculpture Piss Christ (depicting a crucifix immersed in human waste) received stridently adverse reactions. Martin Scorsese's film Last Temptation of Christ was considered blasphemous because it contained a human Christ tempted by sexual desire.

106. Foucault, Truth and Power, 113.

By David Nash

Oxford Brookes University
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