Prehistory of “Priestcraft”

Prehistory of “Priestcraft” December 14, 2016

“Priestcraft” was one of the charges regularly lodged by skeptics against clergy and theologians in early modern Europe. It connoted obscurantism, deception, manipulation of popular opinion. It connoted everything wrong with established Christianity, especially in its more catholic manifestations.

Not all the charges of “priestcraft” were directed at clergy. Lawyers and doctors were also attacked for their monopolies of expertise, undergirded by specialized language unintelligible to non-experts. “Lay” came to be used in contrast not only to “clergy” but to “professional.”

For the charge of priestcraft to stick, though, it had to come from another realm of intellectual life, and prior to 1600 there were precious few institutions of learning in Europe other than those dominated by priests and their priestcraft. Before the charge of priestcraft could take hold, intellectual life had to be diversified and differentiated. In his Social History of Knowledge, Peter Burke provides a deft summary of this differentiation, which began, he claims, around 1600. While much, perhaps most, intellectual work continued to be done by clergy, non-clerical intellectuals laboring in non-ecclesial settings were on the rise.

After 1600, “writers” were becoming a “semi-independent group, their increasing self-consciousness marked, as in seventeenth-century France, by the increasing use of terms such as auteur and ecrivain” (25). University professors formed “a distinct group, especially in the German-speaking world—in which there were more than forty universities by the later eighteenth century, not counting other institutions of higher education.” In contrast to the university schoolmen of the Middle Ages, these academics were mostly laymen, and “their sense of a separate identity is revealed by an increasing concern with academic dress and titles as well as by the rise of galleries displaying portraits of professors at the University of Uppsala and elsewhere” (25).

The rise of learned societies provided another outlet: “From 1700 or thereabouts it became possible to pursue an intellectual career not only as a teacher or writer but also as a salaried member of certain organizations dedicated to the accumulation of knowledge, notably the Academies of Science founded and funded in Paris, Berlin, Stockholm, and St Petersburg.” Leibniz headed one, as did Newton, and the former added a a post as librarian to his portfolio (27).

Calvinist ministers and academics expelled from France after the revocation of the Edict of Nantes settled in the Netherlands and “were among the first ‘journalists,’ a term which was just coming into use in French, English and Italian around 1700 to refer to writers in the learned or literary journals, as opposed to the lower-status gazetiers who reported the news on a daily or weekly basis” (29).

Along with these institutional innovations came a new sense of cultural mission among non-clerical intellectuals. In the late 17th century, Isaac Barrow, Master of Trinity Cambridge, “discussed scholarship as a vocation or ‘calling’ in his treatise Of Industry, arguing that the ‘business’ of academics was ‘to find truth’ and ‘to attain knowledge.’” Knowledge here referred to insight into “sublime, abstruse, intricate and knotty subjects, remote from common observation and sense” (26; when was the last time you heard “abstruse” used positively?). Intellectuals increasingly saw themselves as members of a “Republic of Letters” that transcended national boundaries. Pierre Bayle, one of those Calvinist transplants, edited the Nouvelles de la Republique les Lettres, and similar international journals appeared during the latter half of the 17th century (29).

Burke highlights the striking “emergence in most parts of Europe by the middle of the eighteenth century of a group of more or less independent men of letters with political views of their own, concentrated in a few major cities, notably Paris, London, Amsterdam and Berlin, and in regular contact with one another.” Further east, intellectual life remained predominantly clerical.

By the Enlightenment, then, priests no longer monopolized intellectual life. Other priests emerged, no doubt creating their own forms of “priestcraft” even while they were attacking the priestcraft of the older clerisy.

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