Sacrilege: From public crime to personal offence

Ian Hunter

Table of Contents

Sacrilege and sacramental violence
The spiritualising of religion and the desacralising of law and politics
Concluding remarks

In this chapter I will be looking at sacrilege in the context of Western European religion and politics in the early modern period. I will be adopting an historical-anthropological approach, with a view to making this discussion of sacrilege comparable with those of people working in other religious and cultural settings. Moreover, there is an important sense in which the societies of early modern Western Europe were themselves multicultural, not just because most contained diverse ethnic ‘nations’, but more importantly because they contained mutually hostile religious communities. In fact, ‘religious cleansing’ in early modern Europe provided the prototype for later acts of ethnic cleansing, and the methods by which states attempted to deal with religious conflict led to forms of government still in place today.[1] This is the context in which I will address my particular theme: how sacrilege was transformed from public crime into personal offence.

Whether sacrilege is possible, and the form in which it takes place, depends upon the disposition of the sacred, of which sacrilege is the violation. And the disposition of the sacred itself varies with the beliefs, doctrines and practices that characterise particular religious cultures. In Western European Christianity, the sacred is understood in terms of the earthly presence of a transcendent divinity.[2] It is the mediation of this divinity in the world by special persons, places, and things that makes them sacred, and that makes other persons, places and things profane. In this setting, sacrilege occurs when sacred persons, places or things are misused, abused or violated - in short, profaned. Sacrilege thus occurs at the boundary of the sacred and the profane—in transcendent salvational religions like Christianity a particular sharp and fraught boundary—and represents an improper crossing of the boundary itself. Where the boundary also marks the borders of a community—as in the circle of Eucharistic communicants—then sacrilege threatens the community itself (threatens its communication with the divinity) and can result in violent expulsion.[3] The extent to which the transcendent divinity is manifest in earthly things, and the forms in which this occurs, differ radically between different Christian confessions. Those stressing God’s transcendent and supra-human character minimise the forms in which the divinity can be represented or manifested, and may indeed treat such forms—icons, rituals, shrines, priests—as themselves sacrilegious. Those versions of Christianity teaching the mediated presence of God in the world typically treat such icons, rituals, shrines and priests as sacred, and view their more puritan or iconoclastic rivals as sacrilegious. But to keep this all in perspective, we need to observe that not all disciplines of life operate the distinction between sacred and profane that gives rise to sacrilege. In non-transcendental arts of living—such as ancient Stoicism and Epicureanism—we find no equivalent category of the sacred, and avoiding sacrilege is treated as a matter of politeness towards those who worship the gods.[4]

Throughout the medieval and early modern period, however, European Christianity was more than just a spiritual locus. It was a formidable earthly force. It exercised direct political and juridical power through an archipelago of armed prince-bishops, the diocesan structure being in fact the footprints left by Christian warriors as they made their way across Europe, stamping out ‘paganism’ in the early middle ages.[5] And it exercised indirect power through secular princes, who enforced the law of the most powerful prince-bishop—the bishop of Rome—as part of their exercise of lordship.[6] Under these circumstances, where there was no clear distinction between the religious and political community or between the Christian and the citizen, sacrilege was both a spiritual transgression and a juridical felony, attracting severe criminal punishment.

We can suggest then that sacrilege emerged as sin and crime in Western Europe as the result of a particular set of cultural and political circumstances: broadly, those of a transcendent sacralising religion exercising overwhelming political and juridical powers, both through its own authority and that of the secular prince or emperor. When these circumstances changed—when in the sixteenth century Western Christendom split into a diversity of churches and then gradually lost its capacity to exercise direct juridical and political power—then sacrilege too was radically transformed. This transformation of sacrilege, which can be characterised as a shift from public crime to personal offence, is what I want to sketch today, in the briefest of terms.

Sacrilege and sacramental violence

We can begin by quickly indicating how sacrilege—together with the closely associated religious crimes of heresy, blasphemy and witchcraft—took shape in the ecclesial and juridical institutions of late-medieval European Christendom. There are two broad factors to take into account. In the first place, as the obverse of the sacred, sacrilege was a powerful and authentic expression of core Christian sacramental practices, finding expression in both popular devotion and elite theological speculation. A common focus was provided by those earthly things held to be bearers of the transcendent divinity—the church and within the church the Eucharistic host—which, as the most sacred and beneficial of things, were also the most vulnerable to profanation and degradation. Thus, in many parts of late-medieval Europe, as the magical source of God’s blessing on the community, the host was paraded through the village and fields in early spring to ensure a good harvest.[7] Concomitantly, the allegation of sacrilegious profanation of the host was the routine way of triggering murderous Christian pogroms against local Jewish communities, non-believers from outside the circle of communicants whose polluting presence threatened communication with God.[8]

Second, if sacrilege was deeply rooted in sacramental religious practice, then during the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries it underwent a major elaboration and codification in canon law, where it was linked to heresy, blasphemy and witchcraft. This was the time at which the university canonists of Northern Italy developed a common legal process for dealing with this array of crimes; a process that could be initiated by denunciation, deployed oaths of veridiction, permitted the regulated use of torture to obtain evidence, denied appeal, and could result in the death sentence.[9] The extension of canon and Roman law across Western Europe during this period resulted in a centralised system of legal authority, permitting the papacy to exert religious and civil jurisdiction via local clerical and secular authorities.[10] Sacrilege thus came to be prosecuted in a much more systematic manner and, because of its linkage to heresy, blasphemy and witchcraft, participated in a cross-referring nexus of religious criminality. Heretics were thus routinely denounced as sacrilegious, their guilt being proved by the fact that they performed mock masses, feasted on Eucharistic wafers, broke crucifixes, declared Jesus to be a fraud, and so on. And those on trial for sacrilege were routinely denounced as heretics, their profane acts being indicative of their secret adherence to erroneous and ungodly beliefs.

The presence of the criminal sin of sacrilege in early modern Europe was thus symptomatic of a tightly woven and far-flung matrix of sacramental practices, juridical procedures, and authority structures, anchored ecclesiastically in the papacy and politically in the Holy Roman Empire. Despite the relative civil autonomy of the Northern Italian city states, elsewhere in Europe this matrix resulted in a virtual super-imposition of the sacramental community on the civil community. Threats to the sacramental community resulting from sacrilege, heresy and blasphemy, once proved by the ecclesiastical courts, were subject to the harshest of punishments by the civil authorities. Conversely, threats to civil authority were themselves treated as analogous to sacrilege against the sacred person of the prince, who was God’s viceroy on earth.[11] It is this very superimposition of the sacramental and civil communities, however, that explains the intensity and uncontrollability of the religious-political conflicts that followed from the splitting of the church at the beginning of the sixteenth century. For once the heresy that would become the Protestant church had escaped the juridical and political machinery designed to contain such outbreaks, Protestant princes immediately used this machinery to defend their religion against the Roman church.

Given that faith communities were demarcated by the border between the sacred and the profane—between true believers and the heretical monsters—the civil conflicts that erupted across Europe assumed a specifically religious intensity, as those one sought to exterminate were not just political enemies but polluting threats to the sacramental community and its capacity to communicate with God.[12] Further, this sacramental violence was made all the more difficult to control by the fact that the new religion differed from the old, both in its construction of the sacred and therefore in its sense of sacrilege. The Calvinists in particular stressed the transcendence and inscrutability of God, rejecting the notion of real presence in the Eucharist, and regarding other forms of Catholic immanentism—rituals, processions, pilgrimages, relics—as sacrilegious idolatry, making sacrilege itself into a flashpoint for sacramental violence. In June 1528, for example, the first act of Calvinist iconoclasm in Paris—the vandalising of an image of the Virgin—was answered by an act of Catholic ritual cleansing, as all parishes and the university organised processions to atone for this sacrilege.[13] Ritual burnings, disembowelments, and massacres were soon to follow as France descended in a series of religious civil wars in which both sides viewed the extermination of the other as necessary for cleansing a spiritual pollution and restoring the purity of the sacramental community.

At the same time, however, the very ferocity of this violence, which threatened the survival of the state itself, led Bodin and the politiques to make the first attempts to separate religious and political community, by developing a secular conception of sovereignty. We can see this in the terms with which the Chancellor Michel de L’Hôpital addressed a peace colloquium during the first war of religion in 1562:

It is not a question of establishing the faith, but of regulating the state. It is possible to be a citizen without being a Christian. You do not cease to be a subject of the King when you separate from the Church. We can live in peace with those who do not observe the same ceremonies.[14]

In fact Chancellor L’Hôpital’s words proved to be in vain in the French context, as France would eventually solve the problem of religious conflict by suppressing then eliminating the French Calvinists or Huguenots. Nonetheless, they pointed forward to a profound change—the uncoupling of political governance from Christian spirituality—which would radically transform the character of the sacred and of sacrilege.