- Blasphemy: Impious Speech in the West from the 17th to the 19th Century by Alain Cabantous, translated by Eric Rauth
Columbia, 288 pp, £21.50, February 2002, ISBN 0 231 11876 7
Blasphemy is still a crime in English law, though I imagine few now think it should be. A quarter-century has passed since anybody was charged with it, but another determined zealot like Mary Whitehouse might still manage a prosecution. The law holds that Christianity, in effect the Church of England with its secular Head, is the only religion that can be blasphemed, and one still hears arguments in favour of extending the privilege to other religions. So far they have failed: a cause for rejoicing rather than ethnic envy, for the judges, already notoriously capricious in such matters, would have in each case to decide how the law applied to religions of which they knew little or nothing, and of which it could not be said, as it is of Christianity, that they are inseparably ‘part of the law itself’. That was the judgment of a Lord Chief Justice in 1676, since when blasphemy has been an offence in common law; the sanction may be asleep but it is not dead. If tempted to believe that it is, one needs to recall the 1976 prosecution of Gay News and the subsequent failure in the House of Lords of an attempt to get rid of it.
I’m not sure whether to believe it, but am told it is even now a criminal offence to own a copy of the poem by James Kirkup that upset Mrs Whitehouse. Would one be guilty of blasphemy? So nobody can say exactly what blasphemy means in our world, only that it is, from case to case, whatever the judges decide. Etymologically the word, of Greek origin, has to do with damaging somebody’s reputation, but it came to be used chiefly of trying to damage God’s. The standard ruling was Leviticus 24.16, ‘he that blasphemeth the name of the Lord shall surely be put to death, and all the congregation shall certainly stone him’: incidentally, a passage of which the Greek (Septuagint) translation does not use the Greek word ‘blaspheme’, perhaps to avoid a range of implication – slander, speaking ill of somebody, not necessarily just of God – that is not present in the Hebrew. Still, in this earliest Judaic form the idea is straightforward: misusing the name of God was blasphemy and the penalty was stoning to death. The prohibition is stated in more general and familiar terms in the third commandment (Exodus 20.7).
The idea got more complicated when applied to the more complicated God of Christianity; for instance, it was blasphemy to speak against any Person of the Trinity, or indeed against the Church itself. Inevitably, different versions of the faith held contested views, on all sides cruelly enforced, on the question of what constituted blasphemy. It might well be deemed blasphemous simply to have a divergent but equally pious view of some aspect of doctrine. It could take the form of withholding consent to a political idea that seemed to have religious backing, like the divine right of kings. Indeed the offence became more political than religious, and so less distinguishable from heresy, apostasy, sacrilege, sedition, treason and no doubt other crimes.
Strictly considered, blasphemy, taking the name of the Lord in vain, usually in the form of some casual profanity, was a crime committed with great frequency by quite ordinary people, especially by men who thought that swearing by God’s blood or God’s death or God’s wounds was a commonplace and excusable bit of the everyday conversational rhetoric of male groups – soldiers, for example. Such oaths have now been for the most part ousted by secular substitutes, but they were still giving serious offence in Shakespeare’s time and later. Iago is an instance, although he is profane only among soldiers, and is distinguished from other, superior soldiers – such as Cassio and Othello himself – who do not have the habit. A 1606 Act of Parliament to ‘restrain the abuses of players’ ensured that in the 1623 revised version of the play Iago’s blasphemies, very conspicuous in the earlier version, were cut. It is interesting that Othello is full of obscenities that would have horrified Mrs Whitehouse, but they were left in; only taking God’s name in vain would, under the act, be punished with heavy fines. And this is why Angelo in Measure for Measure has to say, ‘Heaven in my mouth/As if I could but only chew his name’ when, thinking of the Eucharist, he means God, which is probably what Shakespeare, writing before the Act was passed, originally had in mind. There is another curious moment in Measure for Measure when Isabella is pleading with Angelo for her brother’s life: ‘That in the captain’s but a choleric word,/Which in the soldier is flat blasphemy.’ She is apparently developing a point made earlier, which is that one should not always judge the conduct of others by standards we apply to ourselves, but in doing so she seems to imply that there are different standards for different ranks and classes. Profanity is fine for officers who have a duty to be choleric with the men, but in common soldiers it is simple blasphemy and presumably punishable as such.
Punishments for blasphemy could be dreadfully severe. Stoning went out of fashion, but all manner of tortures, mutilations, floggings, burnings, flourished. It is hardly news in the 21st century that no age or clime has ever suffered a shortage of torturers when they were needed, men who don’t even have the excuse of Elizabeth I or Calvin that to diminish the horror of the punishment was somehow to condone or even share in the offence. Sometimes ecclesiastical authorities, in milder mood, asked only for public penance, but up to about 1700 there was a preference for judicial severity, and studies of blasphemy tend to turn into catalogues of torture. Secularisation increasingly made such remedies look excessively theological, at which point blasphemy was to some extent replaced by more expressly political offences that also made it rational and necessary to inflict pain or death.
The present study is French, and itself suffers from a frightfully tortured translation as well as from a good deal of redundant methodology, though it can hardly be condemned for emphasising French history and experience. It is a supplement to, not a replacement of, Leonard Levy’s authoritative Blasphemy, from which the author courteously distances himself. Levy is mostly concerned with the history of the offence in England and America, a history in which that judgment of Lord Chief Justice Hale in 1676, later disputed by Jefferson, figures rather largely. Incidentally, the American record is a good deal less repressive and cruel than the English or the French. Levy remarks that the Supreme Court has never had to pronounce on a blasphemy case, partly because of the provisions of the First Amendment and partly because when there is no state religion the possibility of mingling blasphemy with a political charge is much reduced. Although in early colonial America the Leviticus rule was enforced, punishment was humanised, and there were symbolic executions, when the offender simply stood for a while under the gallows with a rope round his neck. By the end of the 18th century, when the British were ruthlessly persecuting political dissidents on blasphemy charges, there were hardly any prosecutions in America.
M. Cabantous is interested in mentalités and is the author of works on mutiny and the pillaging of wrecks. Coming now to blasphemy, he seeks to show how that practice, like those of piracy and mutiny, illuminates ‘the cultural meanings of communal organisations’. Blasphemy was an intrusion of this-worldliness into the space of the sacred, and the authorities saw it as the breach of a taboo, ‘forbidding, enticing and sacred’. The notion turns out to be very complex, and among the most interesting arguments is the claim that blasphemy, in spite of its bad record later on, can be thought to have founded Christianity, since Jesus’ assertion of his divine nature led to a charge of blasphemy and so to his crucifixion and resurrection. Blasphemy therefore has some claim to be thought holy, and that helps to explain its power, however malign and however hated by authority.
It seems that real subtleties of definition had to wait for the great theologians of the 12th century, when it emerged that blasphemy was the most fearful of sins, worse than murder, because it repudiated God or questioned his goodness or compromised his honour – for instance, by conjoining his name with death or blood. The dogmatic differences between the main parties at the time of the Reformation were such that one’s rivals were bound to be blasphemers, either because they celebrated mass and venerated the Virgin, the saints and the Pope – or because they didn’t, and worshipped the Bible instead. Both sides thought of the Jews as blasphemy incarnate. In 1553 the Inquisition had the Talmud publicly burned, and Cabantous records no Protestant protest against such acts, though he does mention the more lenient view that since Jews, being born to ignorance of the truth, might blaspheme without intending to do so, they should be spared by human authority, though still guilty before God. (It is worth remembering that the judge at the Gay News trial, who happened to be a Jew, held that one could commit blasphemy without intending to – thereby establishing an alarming precedent and strengthening the argument for getting rid of the law altogether.)
Blasphemers were obviously likely to be wicked in other ways, so a strong link existed between blasphemous speech and libertinism generally. Cabantous touches on the excesses of English Restoration libertines like Sir Charles Sedley and on the slightly earlier and more philosophical French examples, notably Théophile de Viau. Atheists were of course blasphemers by definition, and we know from the charges against Christopher Marlowe that, like Théophile, they sometimes larded their tavern conversation with rather juvenile insults to religion – the Virgin was a whore, Christ was a bastard and St John was his bedfellow, and so on. It seems that one somehow needed to publicise the outrageousness of one’s heretical opinions by talking in this manner.
And indeed the most curious aspect of blasphemy and profanity in general is this apparent need. What use is blasphemy? It must have some, since one hears every day the modern equivalents of those blasphemous oaths, now severed from any theological context and lacking any literal sense, but still serving as expletives. Unlike those feared by Macbeth, curses may now be loud but not deep, and nobody much minds them. No doubt in the old days informers reported quarrels in the street or the pub that resulted in what is here strangely called ‘diarrhoea of the mouth’. And gamblers, though exceptionally stressed, were not alone in needing to curse their luck. There were many apparent inducements to blaspheme; here we are given percentages concerning 17th-century Parisians denounced for blasphemy: 28.9 per cent were violent, 25 per cent constantly drunk, 12.5 per cent libertine or debauched, and so on. Cabantous assiduously supplies evidence of the relevant denunciations, and carefully describes the efforts of the law at deterrence and punishment. All were to suffer royal justice, since the King, as the representative of God, was dishonoured by blasphemy and had the sole right to punish it.
The 17th-century jurist Blackstone is here commended for his sensible distinction between blasphemy and profanity; cursing and swearing are profane but holding the Bible up to ridicule is blasphemy and so more serious. The distinction is between mere vulgarity and philosophical or theological dissent. The latter is obviously more dangerous to the state, and the repressive British Governments of the late 18th century used the law against political opponents. The example given here concerns the bookseller Thomas Williams, who was charged with blasphemy for publishing Tom Paine’s Age of Reason. Although Paine said that the Bible described a devil under the name of God, his real offence was of course his support of the revolutions in America and France. Blake remarked that Paine was a better Christian than the bishop hired by the Government to reply to his book, but he understood well enough that the issues were political, and did not publish his offensive remarks on the bishop: ‘I have been commanded from Hell not to print this, as it is what our enemies wish.’ Doubtless true and also uncharacteristically prudent; the Government was in a tough mood.
Yet it isn’t difficult to understand why people commit what Blackstone defines as blasphemy, since they are taking the risk of saying what they believe to be very important. The difficulty is to understand why profanity is so common, and was common even when it might be mistaken for blasphemy. Somehow it must have seemed necessary to say ‘Sblood’ and ‘Zounds’, and our etiolated modern profanities might still be justified as necessary. Perhaps, as this author suggests, profanity is part of a ritual of male violence; it is probably true that it has always been rarer among women. But the practice seems to have a more obscure social role: it establishes some kind of rapport with one’s peers, a clublike atmosphere in which what you do or say can’t be wrong because all the other members do and say it, and the community spirit is a pleasant agreement to do as one wills. The social situation might on enquiry turn out to be more complicated than that, and could even include the interdiction of some kinds of behaviour. But that is another subject for the historian of mentalités.
AAs time went by, even in the France of the Ancien Régime there was at least a fitful tendency to be more indulgent to blasphemers, though Cabantous quotes at length an extremely non-indulgent sentence of 1684: the guilty man had to stand in front of Notre Dame wearing only a shirt, having a rope round his neck and carrying a torch. Having begged forgiveness of God, he had his tongue cut out and was despatched to a life sentence of hard labour in the galleys. His possessions were confiscated and he was fined 300 livres. But others got off much more lightly, and blasphemy came to be treated for the most part as less serious and brought up, usually, as an accompaniment of some other misdemeanour.
Considered on its own it came to be thought of primarily as unsocial behaviour and was thus far from being worse than murder. It was even suggested rather boldly that there was no need to punish it – if God felt himself insulted he had remedies in his own hands. But the bloodthirsty still existed. Opposition to the Revolution was blasphemous, but to the opposers the blasphemy was the Revolution itself. Yet as the state progressively distanced itself from religion the pressure was reduced. With the Catholic monarchy extinct it was of course possible to offend other, more enlightened, more modern types of religious authority, but the trend understandably continued towards the point of not worrying too much about it.
Cabantous’s final chapter is called ‘Blasphemy’s Comeback’. After what he or his translator oddly calls ‘the slow and dramatic abatement of religious antagonisms’ the blasphemer lost his status as ‘the Other’, except in the thought of the Roman Catholic Church, where it seems it is still held that blasphemers may bring divine punishment on society, just as some American fundamentalists saw the events of 11 September as a punishment for the prevalence of homosexuality and abortion. And even though there’s less old-fashioned profanity about, now that we supply the place of wicked oaths with euphemisms, and so less action against it, we are advised not to forget the condemnation of Rushdie and certain contemporary Egyptian writers. And some films, by Scorsese and others, have been banned by Christians. So even if we decide, in accordance with the law of the land, that in this respect Islamic prohibitions and prosecutions are not our primary business and confine our attention to Christianity, we cannot say that blasphemy is absolutely a thing of the past. Cabantous may well be right about this, and in any case we’d be unwise to believe that anything that has so strong an appeal both to the guilty and to their judges, and might also attract the notice of another Whitehouse, another keen custodian of public morals, will ever quite go away.