10/02/2012 07:44 am ET Updated Dec 02, 2012

Blasphemy Laws: A History

As the United Nations contemplates international blasphemy laws, responding to the "anti-Mohammed" video and the violence it has supposedly provoked, it is worth noting that the conviction of the punk group Pussy Riot in Russia a few weeks earlier was accompanied by angry denunciations of blasphemy on account of the group's performance in the Moscow Cathedral of Christ the Savior. Of course the conviction of Pussy Riot was not just about religious outrage, and the violent anti-Americanism manifested in Muslim countries, including the murder of Ambassador Christopher Stevens in Libya, was not suddenly created and called forth by a single video. Blasphemy and blasphemy laws have a long history, which is worth considering right now. One of the reasons to be wary of blasphemy laws, besides the limits that they place on freedom of speech, is that they tend to concede the legitimacy of religious outrage in all its fanatical fury, even though the charge of blasphemy has too often been manipulated for political motives.

When Savonarola denounced blasphemers in Florence in the 1490s, it was certainly not intended as a sensitively inclusive gesture to urge people to show respect for one another's religious beliefs. He was thinking about the wrath of God. Blasphemy was supposed to be directly offensive to God, and one intemperate blasphemer might bring divine wrath upon the whole city-- even as Savonarola became increasingly politically influential in Florence. In Venice in the 1530s a special judicial tribunal was created for the sole and dedicated purpose of hearing cases of blasphemy, officialy for the purpose of warding off divine wrath, but also with the political intention of limiting the religious intervention of the Vatican. It was a unique venture, the creation of a secular court by the government of the Republic of San Marco in order to punish Venetians for insulting God, Jesus, Mary, and the saints. Such insults suddenly seemed to be epidemic. It was the same climate of religious anxiety that led Venetians to create the first Jewish Ghetto in Europe in the early sixteenth century.

The blasphemy tribunal of three or four rotating members met in the Doge's Palace, and though they sometimes presumed to declare that they had actually succeeded in wiping out blasphemy, cursing God turned out to be one of those human impulses that, in spite of Job's biblical forbearance, never actually disappears in a harsh world. The records of the blasphemy tribunal are rich with a range of spectacularly vulgar, weird, sometimes ingeniously expressive ways of insulting God and his company, many of which, if dramatized in a youtube video about one prophet or another, might well inspire religious outrage. Some blaspheming, then as now, was obviously intended to be funny. (Go see the Book of Mormon, if you can get a ticket.) Punishments in Venice included fines, banishment, condemnation to the rowing galleys, and mutilation of the tongue, but the problem never went away. The interesting and instructive historical development was that the tribunal, which existed right up to the abolition of the Venetian Republic by Napoleon in 1797, began to aggrandize its sphere of jurisdiction. Soon it not only defended the honor of God, but also prosecuted a range of offenders who caused "scandal" offensive to God and also, of course, disruptive of social order: from beggars who pretended to be pilgrims, to Christians who had sexual relations with Jews. The charge of policing blasphemy was very difficult to delimit, and the tribunal's official concern with protecting God from offense ended up being interpreted rather loosely.

I've spent the last several years writing a book about how the blasphemy tribunal almost by default became the forum for trying a very disturbing case of child sexual abuse in the late eighteenth century. This was because the whole idea of child abuse and the concept of pedophilia were almost entirely unformulated in the eighteenth century, and though a sixty year old man had been denounced (through the Lion's Mouth) for having spent a night in bed with an eight-year-old girl, there was no law on the books that clearly seemed to apply to his case. Though the community (as reflected in the testimony of everyone from the guy running the coffeehouse to the madam of the neighborhood brothel) clearly thought something terrible had happened, they could not coherently articulate what was so terrible about it. The blasphemy tribunal ended up prosecuting this very ugly business under the charge of causing scandal. Today, of course, the sexual solicitation of children and the circulation of child pornography is one of the criminal areas so clearly acknowledged as evil that it would be relatively uncontroversial to police its international presence on the internet, take down offending posts, and attempt to prosecute if possible. In earlier centuries the criminal character of blasphemy was considered self-evident, and was ruthlessly policed, while today its legal standing is both highly variable and internationally controversial.

The eighteenth century was, in fact, the century in which blasphemy laws first came under assault by some of the thinkers of the Enlightenment. Voltaire, who generally regarded religion with mockery and contempt, was often blasphemous in his writings, especially if they were published anonymously like his famous Philosophical Dictionary which actually contained a mocking article on "blasphemy" under B. He also wrote a famous play about Mohammed, which would be considered blasphemous today, though Voltaire's blasphemy was differently intended: he deviously wrote about Islam as a proxy for Christianity. In the 1760s, when a young man was condemned to death in France for assorted blasphemies, his body was burned together with Voltaire's Philosophical Dictionary, a gesture which certainly failed to halt the intellectual progress of the Enlightenment.

Yet, Voltaire, were he brought back to life today, would probably feel that the Enlightenment had failed at least in part, as he certainly envisioned a future in which religious fanaticism would be crushed by the progress of reason-- and would no longer be causing bloodshed, as it did in Libya last week. He would surely be shocked to find that religion, like blasphemy, never goes away, that religion (which he called "superstition") was as potent and pervasive as ever. His Philosophical Dictionary observed that "what has been blasphemy in one country has often been piety in another," and he pointed out that the first Christians were accused of blasphemy by their pagan contemporaries, but then returned the accusation as soon as Christianity was powerful enough to permit it. Certainly he would be skeptical about the efficacy of blasphemy laws today, and certainly he would recognize very clearly the way that charges of blasphemy are all too often unscrupulously manipulated to encourage and justify violence that has other political ends.

Larry Wolff is professor of history at NYU and the author of 'Paolina's Innocence: Child Abuse in Casanova's Venice.'