The Persecuting Society

TalkReformation Era: History and Literature

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The Persecuting Society

Edited: Jan 13, 5:28pm

The premise of The Formation of a Persecuting Society by R.I. Moore is that before 1100 CE or so, there was no great impetus toward persecuting heretics, Jews or lepers in most western European societies. After that time, the tendency towards persecution of these groups became much more pervasive and virulent. He does not ascribe the change wholly to the church or as wholly a popular movement. In fact, the author, in the first edition of this book, is not making a thesis at all; he is raising the question to historians of this time period: To what factors do we ascribe this change in Europe’s attitudes towards heretics, Jews, and lepers?

Moore states that from the 500’s to the end of the 900’s - “while doctrinal disagreements among the clergy gave rise to occasional accusations of heresy there is no record of departure from Catholic orthodoxy being urged upon the laity of the Latin West, let alone of any of their number being seduced by it.” This absence of heretical persuasion covers a span of about 450 years!, says Moore. (p.13)

That heretics, Jews, and lepers were so commonplace as not to be remarkable (in the record), or the paucity of evidence is responsible, or these things changed at that point in history (the 1100’s), so that they were all in sync and available for persecution all at once: these are the usual choices, but are unlikely, says the author.

Although Moore is more asking a question than giving an answer, one of the possible answers he gives for the rise of persecution was social anxiety. The structure of it goes something like this —

“The fear of pollution protects boundaries, and the fear of sexual pollution, social boundaries in particular”. (p. 94) “The same anxieties are also easily identified in the fears of other groups similarly placed, especially groups which are clearly defined by race or caste as occupying an inferior position while performing essential functions. Such people present the danger that by asserting their real power they may subvert a social structure which is founded on the premise of their impotence.” (p. 95) Think Emmett Till, who for whistling at a white woman had to be dragged through the streets. Aside from the sheer psychosis of the matter, it shows what people can believe and do when their status and society itself is felt to be threatened.

Heretics, Jews and lepers were all deemed to be oversexed in this way and threats to the purity of the church, Christ’s “body”. In fact, all three groups - heretics, Jews and lepers - were sometimes deemed secret conspirators trying to bring down the entire church in cooperation with the devil himself. The Jews themselves were accused of ritual child sacrifice. The same kind of dynamic can be seen in certain conspiracy theories being propagated today.

Another factor in the growth of persecution was the power of secular governments. The church had handed over punishment of crimes such as heresy to governments that were becoming more centralized. Governments were more able to punish crimes, and with more severe punishments, than church structures were able to do. And governments could use such displays of power, especially over Jews, for financial gain or political advantage.

As Moore points out, true justice is almost always passive. That is, true justice waits for a crime to be committed before it steps in with punishments or reconciliations. At this time governments were then writing laws against heresy (for instance) and then proactively seeking out people who may have committed such crimes. As in the inquisitions, they often convicted innocent people based on the notion that somebody must be breaking the law.

This is all of interest to me because of my objective to study the Reformation Era or early modern Europe. It undergirds some of the troubles which came about in the sixteenth century. Hundreds of heretics were burned at the stake in the 1500’s. Many of them did differ in their theology from their respective rulers. But the practice of persecution and punishment was already set hundreds of years before. The Jews also were often vehemently attacked in the Reformation and Counter-Reformation years.

This book has more to say - about conspiracy theories, about social change, and about political discourse. It’s a good book to prod the mind in that respect. But it is not an easy read. I’m a little frustrated right now because I’ve been doing the Reformation Era study for about a year now, and I haven’t gotten down to reading many of the Reformation books yet. I’ve been kind of preparing the ground. This book was helpful, though, I think, because it shot down a lot of the preconceptions I had about the times preceding the Reformation. The idea of an ignorant populace vehemently incensed against Jews and heretics seems out of the question now. It was not a popular movement. It is better to look more carefully at certain changes working together to create these behaviors. Jews, and especially heretics, play an important and perhaps outsized role in the history of early modern Europe, and it’s good to give them a portion of my thoughts - and not to fall into traps of stereotyping them or their accusers, which is very easy to do.

(This post was revised on 01/13/2023).