Beyond the Persecuting Society: Religious Toleration before the Enlightenment

Beyond the Persecuting Society: Religious Toleration before the Enlightenment

Beyond the Persecuting Society: Religious Toleration before the Enlightenment

Beyond the Persecuting Society: Religious Toleration before the Enlightenment


There is a myth--easily shattered--that Western societies since the Enlightenment have been dedicated to the ideal of protecting the differences between individuals and groups, and another--too readily accepted--that before the rise of secularism in the modern period, intolerance and persecution held sway throughout Europe. In Beyond the Persecuting Society John Christian Laursen, Cary J. Nederman, and nine other scholars dismantle this second generalization.

If intolerance and religious persecution have been at the root of some of the greatest suffering in human history, it is nevertheless the case that toleration was practiced and theorized in medieval and early modern Europe on a scale few have realized: Christians and Jews, the English, French, Germans, Dutch, Swiss, Italians, and Spanish had their proponents of and experiments with tolerance well before John Locke penned his famous Letter Concerning Toleration. Moving from Abelard to Aphra Behn, from the apology for the gentiles of the fourteenth-century Talmudic scholar, Menahem ben Solomon Ha-MeIiri, to the rejection of intolerance in the "New Israel" of the Massachusetts Bay Colony, Beyond the Persecuting Society offers a detailed and decisive correction to a vision of the past as any less complex in its embrace and abhorrence of diversity than the present.


John Christian Laursen and Cary J. Nedernman

ISSUES OF TOLERANCE AND TOLERATION are surely high on anyone’s agenda for thinking about politics and history today. What causes people to tolerate and what causes them to persecute each other? What are the benefits and drawbacks of each of these? How have they changed over time? What makes them change? It is our belief that scholarly studies of the sort collected in this volume can contribute to our collective understanding of these issues.

Before we begin substantive discussion, readers may already be wondering about the meaning of the words “tolerance” and “toleration.” We do not wish to advance tendentious definitions of these terms, but prefer to allow different nuances of meaning to emerge from the different contexts and the different approaches of our authors. The variety of meanings in ordinary language suggest something like Wittgensteinian “family resemblances” rather than some essentialist core meaning for the words. A key point here, to be fleshed out below, is that toleration was not one thing, not a juggernaut through history that had to emerge in order to bring about modernity. Rather, different theories and practices of toleration were contingent, often local, and, as we shall see, surprisingly widespread from early times.

Although a substantial literature on toleration already exists, it is also our belief that much of it perpetuates distortions. Some of these are based on large-scale interpretive theories of obviously political prove-

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