Purity in the Religious Conflicts
of Sixteenth-Century France
LIKE THE preceding chapter on the Old Testament, this chapter concentrates on the role of purity-impurity in a specific society during a specific period of time. We will focus on the specific meaning of the words purity and impurity, and especially the behaviors connected with them. Rather than giving a general historical summary of this crucial phase of French history—the Wars of Religion, for example, are barely mentioned—this chapter makes exploratory soundings into certain aspects of this period, mainly crisis points, chosen on the basis of the familiar anthropological principle that cultural assumptions emerge most clearly in a time of severe conflict. That, of course, is the reason for choosing this period of French history in the first place.
From the standpoint of this inquiry negative findings are just as important as positive ones. We are as interested in the absence of a conception of purity, or a very weak emphasis thereon, as we are on historical periods that display a very strong emphasis (i.e., where it appears as a guiding principle over a wide range of behavior). Likewise we are especially interested in the different meanings given to conceptions of purity and pollution in different societies and even within the same society.
To understand these meanings, and especially to avoid the anachronistic imposition of our own notions about purity and pollution, it is necessary to provide rather full information about the social and historical contexts in which they occur. The same procedure is necessary in those instances where there is no record of any mention of purity or pollution, despite circumstances that lead one to expect their occurrence. Without an awareness of context, misinterpretation is highly likely.