Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Sinners on Trial: Jews and Sacrilege after the Reformation

Academic journal article The Catholic Historical Review

Sinners on Trial: Jews and Sacrilege after the Reformation

Article excerpt

Sinners on Trial: Jews and Sacrilege after the Reformation. By Magda Teter. (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press. 2011. Pp. x, 331. $39.95. ISBN 978-0-674-05297-0.)

Politically powerful noblemen in Reformation Poland, attempting to protect Protestants (and enhance their own power), advanced measures limiting the authority of the Catholic Church. This culminated in the 1 560s when the Polish parliament (Sejm) decided that secular authorities would no longer enforce verdicts declared by ecclesiastical courts. Ironically, with the ecclesiastical courts' loss of power, secular courts gradually began to adjudicate religious and moral matters. Acts that once were classified as sins and might have been punished with symbolic acts of penance or excommunication were now criminalized. As Magda Teter notes, "Crimes against religion, such as adultery, blasphemy and sacrilege, almost surely sent the convicts quickly to the stake, while social and sexual crimes, such as adultery, bigamy, abortion and infanticide, became punishable by diverse forms of death. . " (p. 7). In effect, local magistrate courts became the adjudicators of religious and moral behavior and the arbiters of the sacred. As the forces of the Counter-Reformation gained momentum in Poland and the Protestant and Catholic Churches vied for the status of "ecclesia Dei" (the Church of God), local authorities tended to side with the Catholics.

With erudition and much precise detail (although with a murky rhetorical strategy), Teter traces the highlights of the Protestant-Catholic competition, focusing especially on the issue of transubstantiation and the divine nature of the Eucharist. She shows how both legends and trials of cases of desecration of the host were part of a larger project to silence dissent, affirm Catholic dogma, and re-establish the Catholic Church's religious monopoly. Teter forces a rethinking of the thesis of Janusz Tazbir, who famously termed Counter-Reformation Poland "a state without stakes" (p. 225). He claimed that the decline of the Reformation in Poland was "gradual and painless" (p. 225). Poland, due to its constitutional system and vaunted toleration of dissenters, was spared "bloody religious strife" (p. 225). Teter insists that, although there may not have been religious wars, or mass trials and autos de fe, numerous individual acts of religious violence imposed by secular courts played a key role in Polish re-Catholicization: "The stakes were lit . …

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