The Christian's ABC: Catechisms and Catechizing in England C.1530-1740

By Ian Green | Go to book overview

10 The Ten Commandments

'No civilization has ever attached as much importance to guilt and shame as did the Western world from the thirteenth to the eighteenth centuries.' So wrote Jean Delumeau in the second of two studies in which he attempted 'a cultural history of sin' and an account of the 'evangelism of fear'. This was practised first by Catholic and then by Protestant clergy as well, and stressed not only the pains of hell awaiting unrepentant sinners but also the punishments in this world sent by a God who was angered by the continued sinfulness of man. These teachings helped to create and then heighten (he said) a 'Western guilt culture' and a siege mentality that was fed by fears of enemies without (Turks, Jews, witches, and heretics) and within (Satan trying to steal men's souls).1 At the heart of the Catholic evangelism of fear was the depiction of the Seven Deadly Sins, both in word and image, the latter reaching a climax in the early and middle sixteenth century, whereas at the forefront of the Protestant equivalent were the Ten Commandments of the Old Testament. Even if we were to accept Delumeau's thesis of an overpowering collective guilt complex in the West, we must remember that the picture is not that simple, since as John Bossy has clearly demonstrated Catholic reluctance to use the Ten Commandments was already declining in the fifteenth century, and from the mid-sixteenth century, with the increase of catechizing associated with the Counter-Reformation as well as the Reformation, Catholic teaching would give more space to the Decalogue than the Seven Deadly Sins.2 Professor Bossy has also pointed out some of the consequences of this shift. Not only did the Decalogue have unimpeachable scriptural origins, it was more precise (albeit requiring some interpretation in places), more penetrating, and as a Law more binding. It also gave much more space to obligations to and offences against God rather than just the more social or communal aspects associated with avoiding envy, lust, usury, and so on. Above all, he argues, 'the rationale of the Decalogue was the prohibition of idolatry'. It was a ritual as well as a moral code, designed to keep the people of Israel in the fear of the Lord as well as in holiness, and may have led to an increased fear of the Devil-worship associated with witchcraft.

____________________
1
J. Delumeau, La Peur en Occident: Une cité assiégée ( Paris, 1978); id., Sin and Fear: The Emergence of a Western Guilt Culture 13th-18th Centuries, tr. E. Nicholson ( New York, 1990), 3 and passim.
2
Before Trent, the priest was expected to have precise knowledge of the Decalogue, but the laity only a general familiarity: Aston, England's Iconoclasts, 344-54.

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