Pollution and Purgation in the Reformation

Pollution and Purgation in the Reformation April 11, 2017

In a famous essay on “rites of violence” in sixteenth-century France, Natalie Zemon Davis argued that one motivation behind mob violence was the desire to purge “the community of dreaded pollution. The word ‘pollution’ is often on the lips of the violent, and the concept serves well to sum up the dangers which rioters saw in the dirty and diabolic enemy.”

Thus, for instance: “A priest brings ornaments and objects for singing the Mass into a Bordeaux jail. The Protestant prisoner smashes them all. ‘Do you want to blaspheme the Lord’s name everywhere? Isn’t it enough that the temples are defiled? Must you also profane prisons so nothing is unpolluted?’ ‘The Calvinists have polluted their hands with every kind of sacrilege men can think of,’ writes a Doctor of Theology in 1562. . . . The extent to which Protestants could be viewed as vessels of pollution is suggested by a popular belief about the origin of the nickname ‘Huguenots.’ In the city of Tours, le roi Huguet (“King Huguet”) was the generic name for ghosts who, instead of spending their time in Purgatory, came back to rattle doors and haunt and harm people at night. Protestants went out at nights to their lascivious conventicles, and so the priests and the people began to call them Huguenots in Tours and then elsewhere.”

For their part, Protestants regarded Catholics as unclean: “Protestants’ sense of Catholic pollution also stemmed to some extent from their sexual uncleanness, here specifically of the clergy. Protestant polemic never tired of pointing to the lewdness of the clergy with their ‘concubines.’ . . . One minister even claimed that the clergy were for the most part Sodomites.” Catholic rituals were viewed as defilements, “from the diabolic magic of the Mass to the idolatrous worship of images. The Mass is ‘vile filth’; ‘no people pollute the House of the Lord in every way more than the clergy.’”

At times, the purgation took the form of desecration of things believed to be sacred. Protestants “cut down on uncleanness by placing profane things, like chrism, back in the profane world where they belonged.” In short, the “line between the sacred and the profane was also re-drawn by throwing the sacred host to the dogs, by roasting the crucifix upon a spit, by using holy oil to grease one’s boots, and by leaving human excrement on holy-water basins and other religious objects.”

Protestants dug up bones from Catholic cemeteries and burned the bones, in imitation of Josiah. Catholics abused Bibles as a way of shaming Protestants, and abused the bodies of Protestant dead. Desecration neutralized the sacred things, rendering them impotent.

Mobs of Protestants and Catholics were motivated to purge such pollution from their towns and cities as a protective measure: “Pollution was a dangerous thing to suffer in a community, from either a Protestant or a Catholic point of view, for it would surely provoke the wrath of God.” She cites evidence that violent purgation often took place in a liturgical setting, concluding that “religious violence had a connection in time, place and form with the life of worship, and the violent actions themselves were drawn from a store of punitive or purificatory traditions current in sixteenth-century France.”

(Davis, “The Rites of Violence: Religious Riot in Sixteenth-Century France,” Past & Present 59 [1973]: 51-91.)


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