- The Book That Changed Europe: Picart and Bernard’s Religious Ceremonies of the World
There are, of course, faith-based interpretations of the past, but the discipline of history evolved in step with secularization, explaining events through demonstrable cause and effect, grounded in human agency. This definition of modernity harks back to the Enlightenment, when progress was equated with a scientific outlook and divine intervention was written out of historical explanation. One might invoke the forces of Nature or the “March of History” instead, but belief in a deity was relegated to a separate domain and privatized. Heirs of the French Enlightenment viewed organized religion as retrograde, self-serving, and cruel and reduced it to an epiphenomenon, a transference of material, worldly interests into a murky spiritual realm, and paid less and less attention to it.1 When religion appears in European history it is generally as a source of conflict: the Crusades, the post-Reformation [End Page 691] wars of religion, the Church’s opposition to scientific discoveries, the bearer of a retrograde, conservative agenda. Persecution of religious minorities, however, has found a niche among the various forms of oppression (of workers, women, colonized peoples, etc.) that historians have been tracking for the past several decades. On the whole, historians have found religion hard to handle and have left the task of analyzing its tenets and comparing its manifestations to other disciplines. This has rendered understanding of its role in past centuries particularly difficult and prey to reductive generalizations: the temptation being all the greater since a lot of those debates now seem abstruse.
The great merit of the present study, therefore, is to restore the religious complexity of the Enlightenment, situating Religious Ceremonies of the World within a quest for knowledge that encompassed both religious and secular phenomena. Bernard Picart, a successful Parisian engraver and recent convert to Protestantism, and publisher Jean-Frederic Bernard, from a long line of Huguenots, fled France in 1685 in the wake of Louis XIV’s revocation of the Edict of Nantes in 1685 that rendered Protestantism illegal. Like thousands of others, they found refuge in the Dutch Republic, famous for its religious toleration—although its extent should not be exaggerated. In The Hague and Amsterdam, the two men discovered a cosmopolitan society with people of different faiths, and gravitated toward those who, like themselves, were questioning the rigidity of contemporary religions in comparison to their founders’ intentions. There was, they believed, a natural human propensity to believe that underlay the varieties of religious practice. This spontaneous impulse had initially been expressed in a purer, simpler religion but had become corrupted over time. Once people realized that they shared similar beliefs and practices, they would grow more tolerant and strive to restore religion to its original form. For this to happen, the rites of all religions had to be properly understood and compared as faithfully as possible from the perspective of practitioners. This led to a grand publication scheme in the form of seven illustrated volumes published between 1723 and 1737, covering Judaism, Catholicism, and Protestantism; the religions of India, Asia, and Africa, as well as Native America; with a final volume on Islam. To craft his text, Bernard consulted travel literature and recent publications on religious customs from which he cited liberally (with proper footnoting). Picart then provided the appropriate illustrations, mixing existing images with his own observations (of Jewish ceremonies, for example). Word and image built on each other to present as positive a version of other beliefs as possible, reducing their exoticism through comparisons with European practices (we do this too . . .) and from Picart’s tendency to [End Page 692] Westernize clothing and to place his subjects in classical poses blending European and foreign settings. Despite their search for “authenticity” such conflation was tempting because it served the larger purpose of stressing commonalities.
Authors Lynn Hunt, Margaret Jacob, and Wijnand Mijnhardt spend less time on the content itself than on Bernard and...