Sacrilege and Sacrifice: Early Modern Reflections on Death, Publicity, and the Sacred

Sunday, January 9, 2011: 11:00 AM
Room 207 (Hynes Convention Center)
Jonathan Sheehan , University of California at Berkeley, q, CA
To commit the crime of sacrilege was, in Roman law, to steal things 
made public by an act of consecration. A tomb was a religious space, 
by virtue of the mere fact of burial. But it was a sacred space only  
insofar as a public act of state removed it from human commerce.  
Sacrilege was therefore no private sin, but a public offense against 
the authorities that set the sacred aside from the profane.


In theory, Christianity collapsed these things. God's dominion over 
the world ended the distinction between public and private holiness: 
every place was also God's place, and so every public crime was also a 
private sin. And yet in practice, this collapse was not complete. 
Human beings still had to determine the space of the sacred, if for no 
other reason than to distinguish it from the profane world that 
surrounds it. In the early modern period, this challenge of publicity 
would explode into virulent polemics. At issue was the question: what 
makes a thing sacred?


This paper argues that early modern fights about sacrality were, at 
the same time, investigations into the religiously constitutional 
functions of death. The death of Christ, in other words, became a 
vehicle for theorizing how dead bodies produce different zones of 
sacrality, and so too different forms of sacrilege. Our contemporary 
anthropological intuition that death and religion are the most 
intimate of bedfellows, finds one origin here, in the religious 
polemics of the seventeenth century.
See more of: Religion and the Dead Body
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