With official persecution of Protestants and some dissident Catholics, 18th-century France might seem an unlikely breeding ground for religious tolerance. Yet the setting inspired two French Calvinists — who fled the country to escape persecution — to produce the first sympathetic account of the world's religions.
A new book by a pair of UCLA historians and a Dutch scholar tells the amazing story of Bernard Picart and Jean Frederic Bernard's "Religious Ceremonies and Customs of All the Peoples of the World," a seven-volume, 3,000-page tour de force published between 1723 and 1737 in the Dutch Republic, where the men lived in exile.
"This was the moment in which people started wanting to know about other religions, not just because they considered them hopelessly weird or because they wanted to convert the followers in order to make them believe in a 'true religion,'" said Lynn Hunt, the Eugen Weber Professor of Modern European History at UCLA and one of the authors of "The Book That Changed Europe: Picart & Bernard's Religious Ceremonies of the World" (Belknap Press). "They started to be interested in what others actually believe, and that's a crucial intellectual step. Without that kind of respect, you can't have tolerance."
In addition to aiming for an objective account of the world's religions, Picart and Bernard strove to illustrate commonalities between various religions, Hunt writes with co-authors Margaret C. Jacob, a fellow UCLA professor of history, and Wijnand Mijnhardt, chair of comparative history of the sciences and humanities at Utrecht University in the Netherlands.
"They wanted to show that the religious search for the sacred was a universal impulse and as such suffered from universal forms of corruption," Jacob said. "To make this point, however, they first had to provide credible information about every religion ever encountered by Europeans."
As such, the book presented Europe's first sympathetic portrait of Muslims, Jews and followers of such Eastern religions as Buddhism, Confucianism and Hinduism. At a time when European accounts of the New World tended to dwell on ghastly and salacious practices like human sacrifice and cannibalism, "Religious Ceremonies" delivered a sensitive portrayal of religious customs and ceremonies among Native Americans, beating Jean-Jacques Rousseau to the concept of the "noble savage" by three decades.
Bernard, the unsung compiler, editor and author of the work, and Picart, the artist behind most of the book's 250 ennobling and vivid engravings, even produced a balanced account of Catholicism, the researchers write.
Bernard, the son of a Huguenot minister, would have had every reason to hold a grudge against the Catholic Church. After Louis XIV revoked an edict ensuring religious freedom for Protestants, Bernard's family fled France, where they had lived for generations, for the Dutch Republic. Bernard was only 5 at the time.
Picart, the son of a successful engraver and a renowned engraver in his own right, sought religious asylum in Holland at 36, following the death of his first wife and his subsequent conversion to Protestantism.
Poorly traveled by today's standards, the pair relied mostly on descriptions of religious practices in Age of Discovery travel accounts. Usually written by missionaries and merchants, the accounts were often less than sympathetic. But Hunt, Jacob and Mijnhardt show how Bernard and Picart eliminated — or at least balanced — the negative and accentuated the positive.
Whereas a popular travel account of the era tended to focus on bloody battles among Native Americans, for instance, "Religious Ceremonies" instead illustrated the rituals before and after fights, including a tradition among Floridan Indian women of using their own hair to decorate the graves of their fallen spouses. In the beautiful engraving, the women resemble classical Greek figures.
Whirling dervishes, the subject of persecution even in Islamic countries, also get dignified treatment. Instead of portraying practitioners in frenzied trances, Picart shows them dancing in an almost serene manner.
And where Westerners previously were obsessed with widow burning and other East Indian religious practices, Bernard and Picart focus on more mundane practices and draw parallels to ancient Roman and Greek traditions.
"They find civility, modesty, and politeness in all cultures," the researchers write.
Even though "The Book That Changed Europe" is a book about a book, it actually reads like a love letter to the Dutch Republic at a time when the War of the Spanish Succession pitted the Holy Roman Empire and Catholic France against Protestant England and the Dutch Republic. Portrayed as a mecca for religious followers caught in the war's crossfire, Holland emerges as a model of religious tolerance.
And the tolerance extended to the country's Amsterdam-based publishing industry. The researchers show how Amsterdam served as the launching pad for all kinds of major figures in the French Enlightenment. Rousseau, Montesquieu and Voltaire were just some of the many prominent figures whose seminal works first saw the light of day in Amsterdam, the authors point out.
"There would have been no French Enlightenment without the Dutch Republic," Hunt said. "All the great works of the French Enlightenment were published there first because they weren't allowed in France."
Even though the Catholic Church began listing "Religious Ceremonies" on its Index of Forbidden Books in 1738, the book found a wide following in four languages and various editions in print through the early 1800s.
"They transformed 'Religious Ceremonies of the World' from a book title to a brand name," the researchers write.
Yet "Religious Ceremonies" had been all but forgotten by 1981, when Jacob, an authority on fraternal organizations, noticed references to the book while conducting research on the Knights of Jubilation, a Masonic-style organization linked to Picart. Independently of Jacob and Hunt, Mijnhardt had begun research on Bernard, inspired by examples of religious persecution against Muslims following the attacks of Sept. 11, 2001.
By 2003, the three had made a fortuitous discovery: Between the Getty Research Institute, the Huntington Library and the UCLA Library Department of Special Collections, Southern California repositories own copies of the original four translations (French, German, English and Dutch) of "Religious Ceremonies," making the Los Angeles area the world's premier spot to study the long-forgotten work.
The trio successfully applied for a yearlong fellowship at the Getty Research Institute, becoming the first collaborative project so honored. Not only did the 2006–07 fellowship allow the three researchers to devote close attention to "Religious Ceremonies" and its creators, but it provided resources for commissioning research by 15 leading experts on related topics. (The results were published as a collection of essays in February by the Getty and inform "The Book That Changed Europe.")
In addition to being a poster child for the power of interdisciplinary research, "The Book That Changed Europe" illustrates the possibilities of scholarship in the digital age, the authors say. Armed with a list of 2,000 books in Picart's library and 1,500 in Bernard's, the researchers were able to track down the actual sources for "Religious Ceremonies." Though rare, much of the source material has been scanned and put online, allowing the researchers to read more than half of the titles in Picart's and Bernard's libraries.
The approach also allowed the researchers to contrast portraits of specific religious groups in other accounts of the era, an exercise that demonstrated just how innovative "Religious Ceremonies" was. When compared with displays of anti-Semitism from the era, for instance, Picart's sensitive illustrations of Amsterdam families celebrating the Sabbath or preparing for Passover appear even more touching.
Scanning an original copy of "Religious Ceremonies" with optical character-recognition software allowed the researchers to search for themes and patterns in the work. They used wiki software to keep track of and build on these discoveries and connections.
"This would've taken several lifetimes to do otherwise," Hunt said.
Now that "Religious Ceremonies" has been put back on the map, UCLA's Digital Library Program has invested in making sure scholars continue studying the book. In cooperation with the Getty and Huntington, all four versions of the book have been scanned and posted at http://picart.library.ucla.edu. They are now searchable online, facilitating comparisons between the French, English, Dutch and German versions.
"Until now, you couldn't compare the different editions side by side because they were in different libraries," said Stephen Davison, head of the UCLA Digital Library Program. "Now everybody can have access."
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