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The myths of modernity

This book offers a critical survey of religious change and its causes in eighteenth-century Europe, and constitutes a challenge to the accepted views in traditional Enlightenment studies. Focusing on Enlightenment Italy, France and England, it illustrates how the canonical view of eighteenth-century religious change has in reality been constructed upon scant evidence and assumption, in particular the idea that the thought of the enlightened led to modernity. For, despite a lack of evidence, one of the fundamental assumptions of Enlightenment studies has been the assertion that there was a vibrant Deist movement which formed the “intellectual solvent” of the eighteenth century. The central claim of this book is that the immense ideological appeal of the traditional birth-of-modernity myth has meant that the actual lack of Deists has been glossed over, and a quite misleading historical view has become entrenched.

possible in its own historical context. Unfortunately, in terms of intellectual history, this simple injunction is at times a very tall order indeed. As regards historical texts, on the most general level, the output of past thinkers reflects certain elements of the nature and current phase of their own society. The rank or milieu to which authors belong or gravitate towards, and the broader struggles, challenges and changes occurring around them, are often less detectable in the historical record than we might wish. Of course, texts also reflect moments and phases of

in The Enlightenment and religion
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The Enlightenment and modernity

their present to the past, forging intellectual time-lines and traditions where none really existed. The following series of discussions represents an attempt to review some of the causes and contexts of religious change in Enlightenment Italy, France and England. Although to a degree different from each other in content and objective, the aim of the case studies is to illustrate how the notion that the Enlightenment founded ‘modernity’ has led to significant distortions in our understanding of religious and intellectual change. I wish to assert the fundamental role

in The Enlightenment and religion
The parliamentary arena

FROM THE START of the twentieth century, the political party became a pivotal institution in politics. The decline of the elite party model and the ascendance of the mass party model changed the structure of political procedure in many European countries; it afforded representation to groups previously deprived of political power and promoted the democratisation processes of many systems of contemporary governance. 1 However, along with the expansion of the mass party model, another type of political party took root. The effect on

in The Israeli response to Jewish extremism and violence
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The revolt of democratic Christianity and the rise of public opinion

supported his appeal. In 1718 three-quarters of the Parisian clergy rallied publicly against Unigenitus.18 The movement brought into being by the royal imposition of Unigenitus peaked in 1719–20, but struggle against the Bull continued, providing core elements of Jansenist politico-religious ideology for ensuing decades. The next important phase of development of Jansenism from spiritual rebellion to political ideology came in 1727–28. Again, the spur to change was traditional in form – intra-confessional conflict – which has led to it being ignored by many historians

in The Enlightenment and religion

, and even revolutionize the anthropologist’s understanding of witchcraft, 5 although not without criticism. 6 It was at roughly this stage in the headily percolating ethnographic debate, that the observations of anthropologists were specifically turned to the historical European situation, 7 and with these important developments, the study of European witchcraft changed profoundly. 8 The suitability

in Witchcraft Continued
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Roman ‘tyranny’ and radical Catholic opposition

Italian states such as the Duchies of Mantua, Milan and Parma were, in European terms, statelets, yet still large in relation to the tiny Republics of Lucca and San Marino. In an often hostile European climate, when territory and influence in the peninsula were still sought by competing great powers, the survival of such small sovereign territories depended to some degree upon strategic alliances. As the balance of power between the peninsula’s larger neighbours and in Europe as a whole underwent changes, so alliances shifted and changed inside the peninsula. Such

in The Enlightenment and religion
A case study in the construction of a myth

religion as deistic or quasideistic serves to exclude perhaps most of those who wrote about natural religion: Christians who were interested in broadening what 87 The Enlightenment and religion had hitherto been the accepted range of theological debate. This was precisely the ground of the complaints from many more conservative Christians: that Anglicanism was undergoing change, becoming more latitudinarian (in the lower case sense of the term), that is to say less exclusively focused on traditional theological matters and frames of reference. As Mossner long ago wrote

in The Enlightenment and religion
The idioms and risks of defiance in the trial of Margaretha Horn, 1652

behaving in ways which risked being interpreted by the authorities as witch-like. Late seventeenth-century changes None of the individuals involved in the 1652 witch-trials were found guilty of or punished for the crime of witchcraft. However, various features of these trials suggest that the councillors in Rothenburg and their advisers were beginning to adopt a more severe attitude towards alleged witches. In both cases the councillors chose consistently to regard the testimony of the accusers rather than the accused as more credible, in both cases the main suspects

in Witchcraft narratives in Germany
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witchcraft continued

historical change. Indeed, asking whether witchcraft is slowly but inevitably disappearing in Europe implies focusing on possible changes. So far these have been found in the content of the accusations, the kind of people accused, those who acted as accusers, as well as in the contexts in which the accusations occurred. Far from constituting a monolithic, stable entity, witchcraft was subject to adaptation and alteration. But as our view

in Witchcraft Continued