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Lucien Febvre and the Problem of Unbelief in the Early Modern Period

Author(s): David Wootton

Source: The Journal of Modern History, Vol. 60, No. 4 (Dec., 1988), pp. 695-730
Published by: The University of Chicago Press
Stable URL: http://www.jstor.org/stable/1881014
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Journal of Modern History.

LucienFebvreand theProblemof Unbeliefin theEarly

David Wootton
of Western


In 1942 Lucien Febvre publishedwhat has long been regardedas one of the
masterpiecesofAnnaleshistoryin general,and thefinestexampleof thehistoire
des mentalitesin particular,Le problemede l'incroyanceau XVIe siecle: La
religionde Rabelais. Fortyyearslateritfinallyappearedin a long-overdueEnglish
i AnyonereadingFebvre'sfinebook-one of themoststimulating
translation. and
excitinghistorybooks to be writtenthiscentury-is bound to wonderhow far
his argumentshave stoodthetestof time. Since theEnglishtranslation provides
no assistancein answeringthisquestion,and since thelast decade has seen more
progressin thisfieldthandid thethreepostwardecades puttogether, mypurpose
hereis to reexaminethebroadoutlinesof theproblemof unbelief,leavingto one
side Febvre'sdetailedanalysisof thereligionof Rabelais.2
Febvre's workplayed a majorrole in establishingwhatbecame formanyan
unquestionableintellectualdogma: thattherewas no atheismto be foundin the
sixteenthor even seventeenth centuries.3FebvrearguedthatRabelais, farfrom
being the atheistportrayedby Abel Lefranc,was a pious Christian.Numerous
otherauthorshave undergonesimilartransformations in the last few decades:
Montaigne,Hobbes, and Bayle, for example. Bayle himselfsaid thatwriting
historywas like cooking:to tryto findtruthand falsehoodin interpretations of
historywould be as pointlessas tryingto reducecookeryto a science. Instead

* I wouldliketo thankJohnCrowley,Paul Grendler, MichaelHunter, and AbrahamIgelfeld

fortheircomments on an earlierdraftof thispaper.
I L. Febvre, The Problem of Unbelief in the SixteenthCentury: The Religion of Rabelais,
trans.B. Gottlieb(Cambridge,Mass., 1982). Page numberreferences in textare to thiswork.
2 A moreextensive bibliographyof recentworkin thisfieldwill appearin M. Hunterand
D. Wootton,eds., Atheismfrom the Reformationto the Enlightenment(Oxford, in press).
3 Two otherworksthatcontributed to thisoutlookshouldbe mentioned: P. 0. Kristeller's
"The Mythof RenaissanceAtheismand theFrenchTradition of FreeThought,"Journalofthe
HistoryofPhilosophy6 (1968): 233-43, whichfirstappearedin Spanish(1952) and has since
appeared in French; and R. H. Popkin's The History of Scepticismfrom Erasmus to Descartes
(Assen, 1960), rev. and expanded ed., The History of Scepticismfrom Erasmus to Spinoza
(Berkeleyand Los Angeles,1979).

[JournalofModernHistory60 (December1988): 695-730]

C) 1988by The University
of Chicago.0022-2801/88/6004-0003$01.00
All rightsreserved.
696 Wootton

all one can do is marvelat the diverseways in whichthe same ingredients are
servedup in different The divergentaccountsof Bayle's own
views now current mightprovidean object-lessonfora contemporary Pyrrhonist.
Attemptshave even been made to serve up Mandeville,Gibbon, and Huine as
pious authors,althoughthenew cuisine, whichhas been widelyapprovedwhen
applied to the raw ingredientsof sixteenth-and seventeenth-century history,has
metwithless favoramongeighteenth-century scholars.
There can be no doubt thatthe emergenceof a secular, irreligiousliterary
cultureis one of themajorhistoricaldevelopmentsof thelast fewcenturies.Our
understanding of thatdevelopmenthas been transformed by the historicalrevo-
thoughtin termsof a long, progressiveevolutionof, to use Lecky's term,"the
spiritof rationalism,"modemscholarshiptendsto questiontheexistenceof any
unbeliefbeforetheavowed atheismof Enlightenment materialism.PeterLaslett,
for example, has claimed that "all our [early modem] ancestorswere literal
Christianbelievers,all of the time.'4 The resulthas been-thatno generalstudy
of Renaissance unbeliefhas appeared in English since D. C. Allen's Doubt's
BoundlessSea (1964), a workthatalreadyplaced as much stresson faithas it
did on unbelief.5Some elderlyscholars,such as Adam, Busson, and Pintard,
have defendedtheirpre-Febvreviews of thesixteenthand earlyseventeenth cen-
turies,but theyhave been an embattledminority.6 So successfulhas the new
fashionof interpretationbeen thatits conclusions,untilveryrecently,no longer
In the last few years therehave been numerousindicationsthat,following
Bayle's metaphor,new cookbooks are in the making.It is a decade since Jean
Wirthreopenedthe questionwitha finecritiqueof Febvre's book in whichhe
drewattention to theimportanceof libertinismin Strasbourgin the 1530s.7There
have been severalimportantessays on unbeliefin earlymodem England and a
provocativebook on HenryStubbe (d. 1676), authorof An Accountof theRise

4 P. Laslett,The WorldWe Have Lost (London, 1965), p. 71. Laslettdroppedthe word

"Christian"in orderto discuss witchcraft not unbelief-in the

and pagan superstition-but
revisededition(London,1983), p. 71.
and Faithin theRenaissance(Baltimore,
5 D. C. Allen,Doubt's BoundlessSea: Skepticism
6 H. Busson's best-known work,Les sourceset le developpement du rationalisme dans la
fran!qaisede la Renaissance(Paris, 1922), was reissuedwitha new introduction
litterature in
1957. R. Pintard'sclassic study,Le libertinageeruditdans la premieremoitie6 du XVIIe siecle,
2 vols. (Paris, 1943), was reissuedwitha new introduction in 1983 (Geneva). A. Adam ed.,
Les libertinsau XVIle siecle (Paris, 1964). AmongAdam's manyotherworks,one maynote
Grandeurand Illusion:FrenchLiterature and Society,1600-1715 (London, 1972), pp. 114-
23. Two otherclassic studiesof earlymodemunbeliefare J. S. Spink,FrenchFree Thought
fromGassendito Voltaire(London, 1960); and G. Spini,Ricercadei libertini (Rome, 1950),
1 J.Wirth," 'Libertins'et 'Epicuriens':Aspectsde l'irreligionau XVIe si6cle,"Bibliotheque
d'Humanisme etRenaissance39 (1977): 601- 27. See now,on Strasbourg, Croyants etsceptiques
au XVIe siecle: Le dossierdes Epicuriens,introduction by J. Delumeau(Strasbourg, 1981).
LucienFebvreand EarlyModernUnbelief 697

and ProgressofMahometanism. 8 Carlo Ginzburghas written The Cheese and the

Worms,a widelyadmired(and widelycriticized)book on the intellectualworld
of Menocchio,an anti-Christian Friulianmillerof the 1500s, whileI have argued
thatone of themostimportant Italianintellectualsof thelate Renaissance,Paolo
Sarpi, was no Christian.9In France some scholarshave triedto meet Lucien
Febvreon hisown ground,inparticular F. Berriot,whose 1976thesisonAthe6ismes
et atheistesau XVIe siecle en France has recentlybeen published.10TerencePeach
has defendedan irreligiousreadingof the mid-sixteenth-century Dialogues of
Jacques Tahureau(a work Febvre never mentions),while Tullio Gregoryhas
brokennew groundwithhis exemplarystudyof a clandestineFrenchmanuscript
of the seventeenthcentury,the Theophrastusredivivus."IAlready,new books
surveyingaspectsof the fieldare beginningto appear.'2
Questionsthatonce seemedsettledare beginningto be reopened;further prog-
ress will requirethe identification of key problemson whichresearchneeds to
concentrate.Some of theseproblems,I believe, are ones to whichFebvrepaid
insufficientattention;others,however,havebeen scarcelyconsideredsinceFebvre
There are threeroutesto the reexaminationof the historyof early modem
unbelief.The firstis simplyto findthe textsof unbelievers:worksthatspeak
plainlyagainstbeliefin Christianity. Not all such textshave survived:one, for
example,probablywritten byJacquesGruet,was burnedbythepublicexecutioner
in Geneva in 1550.13But moresurvivethanis perhapsgenerallyrealized:Gem-

C. Hill, "Irreligionin thePuritanRevolution"(1974), reprinted in RadicalReligionin the
EnglishRevolution, ed. J. F. McGregorand B. Reay (1984; reprint, Oxford,1986), pp. 191-
211; G. E. Aylmer,"Unbeliefin Seventeenth-Century England,"in Puritansand Revolution-
aries,ed. D. Pennington andK. Thomas(Oxford,1978),pp. 22-46; M. Hunter, "The Problem
of 'Atheism'in EarlyModemEngland,"Transactions oftheRoyalHistoricalSociety,5thser.,
35 (1985): 135-57; J. R. Jacob,HenryStubbe,Radical Protestantism and theEarlyEnlight-
9 C. Ginzburg, Ilformaggioe i vermi:II cosmodi unmugnaiodel '500 (Turin,1976),English
translation by J. Tedeschiand A. Tedeschi(Baltimore,1980). For criticism of thiswork,see,
in particular, G. Spini, "Noterellelibertine,"Rivistastorica italiana 88 (1976): 792-802;
P. Zambelli," 'Uno, due, tremilleMenocchio'?"Archivostoricoitaliano137 (1979): 51-90,
and"FromMenocchiotoPierodellaFrancesca:TheWorkofCarloGinzburg," HistoricalJournal
28 (1985): 983-99. See also by CarloGinzburg,withM. Ferari,"La colombaraha apertogli
occhi," Quadernistorici38 (1978): 631-39 (a revisedversionnowtranslated in TheInquisition
in EarlyModernEurope,ed. G. Hennigsenand J. Tedeschi[De Kalb, Ill., 1986], pp. 190-
98); criticized byP. Zambelliin "Topi o topoi?" inCulturapopolaree culturadottanelSeicento,
ed. P. Rossi et al. (Milan, 1983), pp. 137-43. D. Wootton, Paolo Sarpi: BetweenRenaissance
and Enlightenment (Cambridge,1983).
F. Berriot,Athe6ismes et atho6istes
au XVIe siecle en France,2 vols. (Lille, 1985).
t1 T. Peach,Natureet raison:Etudecritiquedes "Dialogues" de JacquesTahureau
1986);T. Gregory, "Theophrastus redivivus":Erudizionee ateismonelseicento(Naples,1979).
12 S. Bertelli, ed., II libertinismo
inEuropa (Milan, 1980); D. Bosco, Metamorfosi del "lib-
ertinage"(Milan, 1981); T. Gregory, Etica e religionenella criticalibertina(Naples, 1986);
M. J. Buckley,At theOriginsofModernAtheism(New Haven,Conn., 1987); D. Berman,A
HistoryofAtheismin Britain(London,1988).
Berriot,pp. 449-51, 849-67.
698 Wootton

isthusPlethon'sBook ofLaws (discoveredafterPlethondied in 1452); JeanBodin's

Heptaplomeres(publishedposthumously;Bodin died in 1596); the Quatrainsdu
deiste, which were refutedby Mersennein 1624; Uriel Acosta's attackon the
immortality ofthesoul, whichwas printed, buteverycopyofwhichwas destroyed:
it survivesas extensivelyquoted by a critic;Acosta's autobiography, published
posthumously (he died in 1647); the gallows speech of the youngThomas Aik-
enhead(executed 1696); theautobiography of Meslier(publishedposthumously;
he died in 1729).14 By thisdate, of course, worksthatwere moreor less direct
attackson Christianity were being publishedin England (Blount's Oracles of
Reason [1693] is describedby a contemporary as "the firstbook I eversaw which
did openlyavow infidelity"),and therewas a growingclandestineanti-Christian
literaturein France, manyof the mostimportant examples of whichhave been
republishedin recentyears (oftenafterfirstbeing printedin the late eighteenth
Recentscholarshiphas begunto lengthenthislistof theworksof unbelievers.
Ginzburghas added the recordof the proceedingsagainstMenocchio. I have
argued thatthe Pensieri of Paolo Sarpi, datingfromthe end of the sixteenth
century,should be included.The textof the Theophrastusredivivus,writtenin
1659 and rediscoveredby Spink in 1937, has now finallybeen publishedforthe
firsttime.16 Some would claim thatthe list could be extendedyet further, by
includingGuicciardini'sposthumousRicordi,forexample,or Winstanley'sLaw
of Freedom.17

Traitd des lois (Amsterdam,

14 G. Plethon, 1966). The mostrecentstudyof Plethonis C. M.
Woodhouse,GeorgeGemistosPlethon(Oxford,1987). Thereare recenteditionsof theHep-
taplomeres in French (J. Bodin, Colloque entre sept scavans, ed. F. Berriot [Geneva, 1984])
and in English (J. Bodin, Colloquium of the Seven about Secrets of the Sublime, ed. M. L. D.
Kuntz [Princeton,N.J., 1975]). The Quatrainsdu deiste are in Adam, ed., pp. 88-109.
C. Gebhardt,
ed., Die Schriften
des Urielda Costa (Amsterdam,1922),pp. 33- 101; U. Acosta,
A Specimen of Human Life (New York, 1967). T. B. Howell, ed., A Complete Collection of
StateTrials,33 vols. (London,1809-26), vol. 13,cols. 917-40. J. Meslier,Oeuvrescompktes,
ed. J. Deprun,R. Desne, and A. Soboul, 3 vols. (Paris,1970-72).
'5 W. Nicholls,
A Conferencewitha Theist,pt. 1 (London,1696),sig.A5v;see also D. Berman,
"The Genesisof AvowedAtheismin Britain,"Question11 (1978): 44-55. The classic study
of the French literatureis I. 0. Wade, The Clandestine Organization and DiffusionofPhilosophic
Ideas in France,1700-1750 (1938; reprint,
New York,1967); see also Spink(n. 6 above); and
C. J. Betts,EarlyDeism in France (The Hague, 1984). Fora criticalsurveyof recentEnglish-
languageliteratureon Blountand his contemporaries,
see R. L. Emerson,"Latitudinarianism
and theEnglish Deists," in Deism, Masonry and theEnlightenment,ed. J. A. L. Lemay (Newark,
N.J., 1987),pp. 19-48.
16 G. Canzianiand G. Paganini,eds., Theophrastus 2 vols. (Florence,1981). On
this work, see Gregory's "Theophrastus redivivus"; G. Canziani, "Le Theophrastus redivivus
lecteurde Cardan,"Dix-Septieme
Siecle 37 (1985): 379-406; G. Paganini,-Themeset prob-
lemes pomponaciens dans le Theophrastus redivivus," Dix-Septieme Siecle 37 (1985): 349-77;
the studies in T. Gregory et al., eds., Ricerche su letteraturalibertina e letteraturaclandestina
nelSeicento(Florence,1981); and L. Bianchi,"Sapientie popolonel Theophrastus
Studi storici 24 (1983): 137-64.
'7 F. Guicciardini,
Maximsand Reflections,
introductionbyN. Rubinstein(New York,1965).
C. Hill, "The Religionof GerrardWinstanley,"
Past and Present,suppl.no. 5 (1978).
LucienFebvreand EarlyModernUnbelief 699

Perhapsone day someonewill rediscoveranothertextthathas been soughtby

generationsof scholars:a versionof the ThreeImpostorsthatcould be securely
datedto the sixteenthor earlyseventeenth centuries.Reportsof theexistenceof
sucha workbegan to circulatelongbeforeeitherof thesurvivingworkswiththat
titlewould seem to have been written.Scholars commonlyconfusethese two
workswitheach otherbutdate eitheror bothto theeighteenth century.Recently
Silvia Bertihas adducedpowerfulevidencein favorof a date around1680-1700
fortheTraite6 18The othertext,De tribusimpostoribus,
des troisimnposteurs. is
muchharderto date. It seems clear thatthe firsthalf of it was in existenceby
circa 1680, and some would arguethatit is in facta sixteenth-centurytext.This
remainsto be proved,and it is possible thatreportsof the existenceof a work
on The ThreeImpostors-Moses, Christ,and Mohammed-were merelyrumors
thathad no basis in factuntilsuch reportsthemselvesinspiredthe composition
of theworkswe now have.'9 The onlydefinitive solutionto thisproblemwould
be thediscoveryof an authenticearlytext.
textsprovide,whentheycan be dated,a secure
Such explicitlyanti-Christian
foundationfora historyof unbelief,but forthe sixteenthand earlyseventeenth
centuriestheyare few and farbetween.Even when, in the late seventeenth and
earlyeighteenth centuries,theybecomemorecommon,itis oftenhardto establish
how widelytheycirculatedand how fartheyinfluencedpublicdebate. Take, for
example,theargument of Hume's "Of Miracles." It is easy to followthepublic
debate this essay provoked,much harderto identifythe sources that shaped
Hume's thinking on miracles.Nevertheless,I believe it can be shownthatHume
was influencedby publishedworksthatwere implicitlyanti-Christian (such as
thoseof NicholasFreret)and thathe also readat leastone explicitlyanti-Christian
manuscript circulation
(Le militaire laterpub-
lishedby d'Holbach).20Withcare it oughtto be possible to multiplysuch links
betweenthe clandestineand the public worlds,even forthe firstdecades of the
eighteenth century.
Unfortunately, whatwas forcontemporaries themostimportant of all sources
for argumentsagainstbelief is lost almost beyond recall: the oral traditionof
attackson Christianity.We get some hintof thistraditionin survivingpoems and
songs,as well as in therecordsoftrialsandjudicial inquiriesprovokedby reports
of oral statementsof unbelief.Amongthe latterthebest knownare the trialsof
thethree"atheistical" paintersat Nurembergin 1525, and thoseof Menocchio,

R. Retat, ed., Traite des Trois Imposteurs (Saint-Etienne, 1973). S. Berti," 'La vie et
l'espritde Spinosa' (1719) e la primatraduzione francesedell'Ethica,"Rivistastoricaitaliana
48 (1986): 5-46.
'9 Two scholarsbelievethattheexisting textof De tribusimpostoribus datesto thesixteenth
century(J. J. Denonain,"Le livredes troisimposteurs,"in M. Bataillonet al., Aspectsdu
libertinisme au XVIesiecle [Paris,1974],pp. 215-26; andW. Gericke,"Die Wahrheit uberdas
Buch vondenDrei Betriugern," TheologischeVersuche 4 (1972): 89-114, and "Wannentstand
das BuchvondenDreiBetriigem?" Theologische Versuche8 (1977): 129-55. A mid-seventeenth-
century datingis defendedby Berriot,pp. 305-590.
20 D. Wootton, "Probability andIrreligion:David Hume's 'Of Miracles'in Context,"Oxford
Studies in the History of Philosophy 1 (in press).
700 Wootton

Marlowe, Raleigh, Vanini,Thdophilede Viau, and Aikenhead.But we do not

know whatwas taughtin the "schools of unbelief" to whichwe findrepeated
reference.2'And, when we finda Tillotsonor a Locke carefullyrefuting a par-
ticularargument againstChristianity,we do notknowwhetherthisis an argument
theyhave come across in some printedor manuscript sourceas yetunidentified,
or whether theyareresponding ofthethingsthatunbelievers
to reports aresaying.22
Traditionalscholarshipsupplemented thetextsof unbelieversand thetrialsof
unbelieversby two main sources: first,the attackson unbelieverslaunchedby
Christiantheologianssuch as Du Plessis Momay,Garasse, and Mersenne;23and
second, the worksof authorswhomcontemporaries or near contemporaries ac-
cused of unbeliefand who, it was claimed, intendedto conveyunbeliefthrough
theirarguments and theirstyleof writingdespitetheirformaldeclarationsof faith:
authorssuchas Montaigne,Hobbes,andBayle. The newscholarshipoftheforties,
fifties,and sixtiesunderminedboththese strategies.Lucien Febvrearguedthat
theword "atheist," whenused in the sixteenthcentury,had no real meaningat
all andthatopponentsofall persuasionswerealmostrandomly accusedofunbelief.
It could no longerbe assumed thattheologianswho attackedatheismwere at-
tackingsomethingthatactuallyexisted.24And he had no patience with "the
perpetualargument(whichis so convenient)"(p. 262) thatauthorswere driven
out of prudenceto half-concealtheirunbeliefbeneatha varnishof faith,despite
thefactthatwhathe himselfwrotewas subjectto censorship.If thequestionof
Renaissanceunbeliefis to be reopened,the "traditional"way of readingboth
theologiansand skepticsneeds to be defended.
This is noteasy. No sensibleperson,afterall, wantsto relyon Mersenne,who
claimed therewere fifty thousandatheistsin the Paris of his day, and everyone
mustfearthatto claim therightto putaside clear statements of faithsuch as are
to be foundin theworksof Bayle, forexample, is to open the door to arbitrary
and fancifulinterpretations. and dangershere,but
Certainlythereare difficulties
if we are not to believe thatatheistsexistedin the early modernperiodexcept
when we can findself-confessedunbelievers,thenwe are obliged to conclude
thatPetrarchwhenhe attackedthe Averroistsof his day was attackinga fantasy
of his own creation;25thatthe synod of Strasbourgwhen it legislatedagainst
atheismin 1535 was defininga crimethatno one had thoughtto commit;that
when Montaignediscussed how atheistsrespondedto the argumentsof Sebond

21 Wootton,Paolo Sarpi (n. 9 above), p. 40; Adam,ed. (n. 6 above), pp. 118- 19; J. M.
Robertson,A HistoryofFreethought,2 vols. (London, 1936), 2:544-45; Ginzburg,Ilformaggio
e i vermi(n. 9 above), pp. 121-23; Zambelli,"Topi o topoi?" (n. 9 above), p. 137.
22 J. Tillotson,"The Possibilityof theResurrection Assertedand Prov'd," in his Sermons,
14 vols. (London,1695-1704), 10:165-95; J. Locke, "A DiscourseofMiracles,"inhisWorks,
10 vols. (London,1823), 9:256-65, esp. pp. 257-58.
23 See Berriot(n. 10 above), pp. 728-73.
24 ThusR. H. Popkinhas recently insistedthat"thosecryingoutagainstdeism[in sixteenth-
century France]do notrevealan existent opponent"(reviewofEarlyDeisminFrance,byC. J.
Betts, American Historical Review 92 [1987]: 141-42).
25 p. 0. Kristeller, " Bibliotheque d'humanisme et renaissance 14
(1952): 59-65, showsthattheAristotelians attackedin De sui ipsiuset multorum
LucienFebvreand EarlyModernUnbelief 701

and claimed to be replyingto theirviews, he was arguingagainstan imaginary

enemy;and thatwhen Pascal in the Pense'essoughtto develop a Christianphi-
losophythatwould meettheobjectionsof atheistshe was defendinga faiththat
no one yetdoubted.
Thus we are faced witha dilemma.Eithertherewas muchmoreatheismthan
we can now findevidenceforor muchof theintellectuallifeof theearlymodem
periodwas based on a falsepremise.In supportof thelatterview one mustnote
thatmanyof those who attackedatheismproceededto deny thatatheismwas
reallyanywhereto be found.As Hume commentedwryly:"There is nota greater
prove the existenceof a Deity,and refutethe fallaciesof Atheists;and yet the
mostreligiousphilosophersstilldisputewhetherany man can be so blindedas
to be a speculativeatheist.How shall we reconcilethese contradictions? The
knights-errant,who wanderedabout to clear the world of dragonsand giants,
neverentertained theleastdoubtwithregardto theexistenceofthesemonsters."26
The historianof ideas is thusfacednotwithan easy choice butwitha muddle
of contradictions.He dare not lightlyabandonhis normalstandardsof evidence
and methodsof reading,butat thesame timehe cannotcasuallydismissknights-
errantsuch as Petrarch,Montaigne,and Pascal withtheassertionthattheywere
merelytiltingat windmills.At some pointeitherdeceptionor self-deception has
to enterintothehistoricalaccount.Eitheratheistsexistedbutpracticeddeception
in orderto conceal theirexistence,a deceptionfromwhichtheiropponentsoften
soughtto obtaina polemicaladvantageby claimingthateveryonewould admit
atheismto be indefensible;or atheistsdid notexist,in whichcase all thosewho
wroteabout themas if theydid were practicingself-deception. We can onlycut
throughthesedifficulties wherewe can findthe bones of the dragonsand giants
themselves,but forthe sixteenthcenturysuch indisputableevidenceis rarelyto
be found.For the mostpartwe have only the testimonyof the knights-errant,
testimonythatcannotbe ignoredbut thatit would, alas, be quixoticto accept
Febvre'sown solutionto thisconundrumwas morecomplexthanis generally
recognizedby thosewho read onlyThe Problemof Unbelief.AlthoughBeatrice
Gottlieb'sintroduction to the Englisheditionprovidesa helpfulaccountof the
man and his work,it is to be regrettedthatshe did notdiscuss therehow Febvre
approachestheproblemof unbeliefin his otherworks.No one would guess from
readingGottlieb,any more than theywould understandfromThe Problem of
Unbeliefitself(unless theyread it witha detective'seye), the extentto which

ignorantiahad nothingto do, as Renanassumed,withPadua. He does not show theywere

Christians.For some further see E. Cassirer,P. O. Kristeller,
attackson Averroists, and J. H.
Randall, eds., The Renaissance Philosophy of Man (Chicago, 1948), pp. 140-44.
26 D. Hume, An Enquiry concerningHuman Understanding,ed. L. A.
Selby-Bigge, 3d rev.
ed. (Oxford,1975), sec. 12, p. 149. See D. Berman,"The RepressiveDenialsof Atheismin
Britain in the Seventeenthand EighteenthCenturies," Proceedings of the Royal Irish Academy,
of 'Atheism,'" Journalof
sec. C, 82 (1982): 211-46, and "David Humeand theSuppression
the History of Philosophy 21 (1983): 375-87.
702 Wootton

Febvreaccepted thattherewere sixteenth-and early seventeenth-century unbe-

lievers:he thought, notthattheydid notexist,butthattheywereof littleinfluence
and had few powerfulargumentsat theirdisposal. Thus he wrotea reviewwel-
comingPintard'sbook on the libertinseruditsof the early seventeenth century
(many of themclaimed by more recentscholars as fideists)and acceptingits
conclusionthatthese men were unbelievers.27 He did not even directlyattack
Busson's accountof sixteenth-century unbeliefin The Problemof Unbelief;in-
deed, he appeals to the authority of Busson when,almostat theverybeginning,
he arguesthat"to say [as Lefranchad said of Rabelais's Pantagruel]thatin Lyon
in 1532 thereappearedan atheistmanifestowrittenin Frenchand aimed not at
the Latinistelite but at the greatmass of readers. . . is to turnthe intellectual
and religioushistoryof thesixteenth centuryas we knowitupsidedown." Why?
Because Busson had arguedthatunbeliefin France began in 1533, the year of
Dolet's firstspeech at Toulouse, not 1532, and because he had portrayedit as
theunbeliefof an elite of latinists(p. 15).
One couldreadquicklyoverthispassagewithitsrecognition ofDolet's unbelief,
pass over the briefreferenceto euhemerismin the last pages of the book, and
conclude,as does Gottliebin herintroduction, thatFebvresets out to show that
atheismwas "as good as impossible" in the sixteenthcentury.What Gottlieb
failsto tell the unsuspectingreader(and it was surelyher dutyto do so) is that
Febvrewas himselftheauthoroftwobrilliant studiesof sixteenth-century unbelief:
an accountof why Dolet ended up being burnedforpropagatingProtestantism
whenhe was (in Febvre's view) an opponentof any formof Christianity, and a
book-lengthanalysis of the hidden meaningof the Cymbalummundi (1537),
commonlyattributed to BonaventureDes Periers,a work that,full as it is of
anagramsandallegories,calls outfordecoding.28 Febvreis infactthebesthistorian
we have yethad of sixteenth-century unbelief.
Whatare we to makeof thisparadox:thattheauthorof a brilliant book denying
thattherewas any significantsixteenth-century atheismshould also have pub-
lished-indeed, in 1942, thesame yearas he publishedTheProblemofUnbelief-
a whole book on sixteenthcenturyunbelief?29 The answeris to be foundin the
essays collectedin Au coeur religieuxdu XVIe siecle: Febvrebelievedthatuntil
Gassendi and Descartes unbeliefwas necessarilyhandicappedbecause the phi-
losophyand science of the day made it impossibleto separatesuccessfullythe
naturalfromthe supernatural,a necessarypreliminary to denyingpersuasively

27 natu-
Pintard(n. 6 above). L. Febvre,"Aux originesde l'espritmoderne:Libertinisme,
ralisme, mecanisme," in his Au coeur religieux du XVIe siecle (Paris, 1957), pp. 337-58.
28 L. Febvre,"Un cas deseperd: de l'Evangile" (1945), in his Au coeur
Dolet propageteur
of theGospel," in L. Febvre,A New
as "Dolet, Propagator
religieuxd& XVIe siecle; translated
Kind of History,ed. P. Burke (London, 1973), pp. 108-59. L. Febvre, Origene et Des Periers
of theCymbalum
(Paris, 1942). Febvre'sinterpretation For
mundihas notgone unquestioned.
two alternative views, see [B. Des Periers?],Cymbalummundi,ed. P. H. Nursewithpreface
by M. A. Screech(Geneva, 1983). Thereis a surveyof thequestion(up to 1976) in Berriot,
pp. 633-79, who also discussesDolet, pp. 386-412.
29 M. Bataillon,Melangesd'histoiresociale 1 (1944): 5-26, reviewedbothFebvre'sLe

probleme de 1'incroyanceand his Origene et Des Periers, in the process providinga betteroverall
of Febvre'sworkthananything
assessmentof theimplications by Febvrehimself.
LucienFebvreand EarlyModernUnbelief 703

theexistenceof thesupernatural.
Trappedin a physicsof qualityratherthan
quantity, likePomponazzi
philosophers sought"natural"explanations
naturallaws.Theyweredrivenin this
notonlyby theweaknessof theirscientific
understandingbutalso by
of theaccuracyof the
Busson's "rationalists" and Pintard's "libertines" were thus incapable of
Cartesianreasoning,incapableevenofhistorical EvenDescartes
criticism. himself
usedreasontodefendfaith, so thatforFebvretherewas a mid-centuryperiodof
somefifty years(from,say,Descartes'sDiscourseon Method[1637]to Fonte-
nelle'sHistoiredes oracles[1687]) thatrepresented a sortof hiatus,a period
whenthe"mentaltools" fortheconstruction ofmodern atheismwereavailable
to handbutwerenotyetbeingputto use.
Febvre'sargument, inshort,wasnotthattherewasno sixteenth-century unbe-
lief,butthattherewas an epistemological break,a conceptualcaesurabetween
theunbelief of thesixteenthcentury andthatof theeighteenth century. Before
Descartes,historianshad to studywhatLdvy-Bruhl had termed"theprimitive
mentality"; thereafter
theywerestudying thementalitiesofpeoplewhowere,in
somesense,members ofourownintellectualcommunity. BeforeDescartesthere
was "unbelief "; afterhimtherewas "rationalism." The fundamentalquestion,
then,if Febvreis right,is not"Was therea sixteenth-century unbelief??"(the
formin whichFebvrehimself sometimes presentstheproblem), but"Whereare
theepistemological breaksto be locatedthatseparateonetypeofunbelief from
another?" SinceFebvrethisquestionhaslainlargelyunexplored.


As we haveseen,a securehistory ofunbelief needsto be founded on textsthat

of unbelief. Butthereis a priorinquiryto be
Textsare written withwords,andFebvrehimself arguedthat"the
problemofknowing what. . . men'sthought wascapableof" (p. 355) mustbe
of all bylookingat theirlanguage.SinceFebvrewrote,a great
dealofprogresshasbeenmadeinthestudy ofthelanguageofunbelief,especially
whereFrenchis concerned. Westillawait,however, an accountofthehistory of
thatlanguageinItalian,orSpanish,orGerman.In themeantime we havecertain
factsat ourdisposal.3'
30 The
of Pomponazziis of coursea vexedissue. Forgooddefensesin English
of a traditional
see M. Pine, "PomponazziandtheProblemof 'Double Truth,'
JournaloftheHistoryofIdeas 29 (1968): 163-76; andC. Trinkaus, In OurImageandLikeness,
2 vols. (London,1970), 2:530-51.
31 On thissubjectsee Berriot, pp. 5-6; H. Busson, "Les nomsdes incredulesau seizieme
siecle,"Bibliothequed'humanisme etrenaissance16(1954): 273-80; G. Schneider,DerLibertin
(Stuttgart,1970), pp. 35-54; J. C. Margolin,"Reflexionssurl'emploidu terme'libertin'au
seiziemesi&cle,"in Bataillonet al. (n. 19 above), pp. 1-33; Wirth(n. 7 above); C. Bianca,
"Per la storiadel termine'atheus'nel cinquecento,"Studifilosofici
3 (1980): 71-104; and,of
course,thevarioushistorical dictionaries.
704 Wootton

First,a key set of termsfor unbeliefappear in Latin and in the vernacular

languagesduringtheRenaissance,especiallyin themiddleyearsof thesixteenth
century:"atheist,"forexample(1502 in Latin; 1549 inFrench;1561 inEnglish);32
"libertine" (1544 in French; 1563 in English); "deist" (1564 in French; 1621
in English). Otherwordswe take forgranted-"agnostic," "fideism"-do not
appearuntilthenineteenth century,whentheyappearfirstin English.Buta further
groupof words,whichalso appearfirstin English- "priestcraft"(1657),33"ma-
terialist"(1668), "freethinker"(1692), "pantheist" (1705)-belong to the late
seventeenth and earlyeighteenthcenturies.The picture,of course,varies some-
whatfromone languagetoanother.In thesixteenth century,keywordsforunbelief
are pioneeredin Frenchand are only slowly adoptedin English and, it would
seem, in theothermajor Europeanlanguages. In the late seventeenth and early
eighteenth centuries,on theotherhand, it is Englishthatleads the way.
Second, some wordssignificantly changetheirmeaningover time:one would
expectas much,forexample,of a wordlike "rationalist."It can easilybe shown
that"atheist" and "deist" have a clear signification in the sixteenthand early
seventeenthcenturiesand are not the meaninglesstermsof abuse thatFebvre
claimed theywere. Whatconfusesus is partlythefactthatthe two wordswere
regardedas beingeffectively identicalin meaning.Febvrehimselfquotes Viret,
writingin 1564: "It is commonto call by thisname [atheists]notonlythosewho
deny all divinity,if indeed anyone so wretchedcan be foundamong men, but
also those who make funof all religion,like the deists" (p. 132). "Atheists"
and "deists" werenotnecessarilypeople who did notbelieve in theexistenceof
God. They were characteristically people who deniedGod's providence,in par-
ticularthe existenceof a hell to punishvice and heavento rewardvirtueafter
this life. Thus Du Plessis Momay held that "as much an atheistwas he that
denied God's providence,as he thatdenied the Godhead itself."34People who
acted as if theyhad no fearof punishmentin the next world could readilybe
assimilatedto thosewho reallydid notbelievein it: "practical" atheismimplying
"theoretical"atheismand vice versa. And, as Virethad insisted,thetermcould
be extendedto includethe superstitious and the idolatrous,on the groundsthat
theyhad fundamentally misconceivedGod's providence.
AlthoughHume could stillappeal to thistraditional usage, definingpolytheists
as "superstitiousatheists,"bythelateseventeenth century thisviewof "atheism,"
and its identificationwith "deism," had begun to give way to a more modern
terminology.35 The term"atheist" was increasingly to thosewho denied

32 Hunter(n. 8 above), p. 138.

33 M. Goldie, "The Civil Religionof JamesHarrington," in The Languagesof Political
Thoughtin Early ModernEurope, ed. A. Pagden (Cambridge,1987), pp. 197-222, esp.
p. 212.
34 P. Du PlessisMornay,A Woorke ConcerningtheTrewnessoftheChristian
1587), pp. 171-72.
35 D. Hume,TheNaturalHistory ofReligion,chap.4, inHumeon Religion,ed. R. Wollheim
(London,1963), p. 45.
LucienFebvreand EarlyModernUnbelief 705

God's existence, "deist" was usedforthosewhoadmitted God's existence but

rejectedrevealedreligion,and a new term,"theist"(1662), was introduced.
"Theist"necessarily hada shifting meaning becauseit was introduced to filla
gapin a system ofclassification thatwas itselfchanging. Itspurposewas at first
to signifywhatwe wouldnowtenn"deism,"and "theism"was thusheldto
involvetherejection ofrevealedreligion. As themeaning of "deism"changed,
"theism"beganto be usedto conveythecommonopposition of deistsandof
Christianstoatheism, whileitis nowoften usedtosignify thedifferences between
thosewhobelieveinrevealedreligion on theonehandanddeistsandatheists on
A classificationin terms ofbeliefanddisbelief inprovidence andimmortality
thusslowlygiveswayto a classification thatis primarily in termsofbeliefand
disbeliefin God (leadingeventually to theintroduction of "agnostic"),witha
subsidiaryclassification relatingto beliefanddisbelief in revelation.Bothlexi-
cographers andhistorians ofideashaveoftenfailedtopaycloseenoughattention
to theseshifting meanings. Mersenne was hostileto "deism" butapproved of
LordHerbert of Cherbury's De veritate. This at firstsightseemsinconsistent,
butHerbert haddefended providence andwas thusnot,in Mersenne's terms, a
deist.A century later,thewaragainstunbelief was beingfought on a different
front,andthelanguagehadchangedto helpmapthenewbattlelines.36
One conclusion thatone coulddrawfromthistypeof linguistic evidenceis
thatitwouldbe as mistaken tolookfor"unbelief"inEnglandbefore1526(when
thewordis first used;theincroyance of Febvre'stitleis evenmoredangerous,
sincetheworddatesto 1783),or "atheism"before1572,as itwouldbe tolook
for"historical materialism" before1848.One couldarguethat"unbelief"and
"atheism"areterms ofart.Itis hardtoseehowonecanbe a Christian, a Marxist,
ora Freudian unlessoneis prepared toidentify oneself inthoseterms, anddifficult
to see howanyonecouldplaychessor evenbe politewithout havingat leasta
clearpractical understanding of therulestheywereobeying.So too one could
claimthatuntilpeopleknewwhatagnosticism was no onecouldbe an agnostic.
I thinkthisviewwouldbe mistaken. Wearenotdealingherewithcomplexsocial
conventions thatmustofnecessity be leamedfromothers, norwiththeories that
arehighlyelaborated. It seemsto me to makeperfect senseto claim,as many
scholarsdo, thatBaylewasa fideist, eventhough thewordwasunknown tohim,
andI cannotsee anygoodobjection in principleto speaking of "freethinkers"
before1592,or "pantheists" before1705,anymorethantodescribing Lockeas
a "theist,"although he wouldneverhaveusedtheword(giventhemeaning it
hadat thetime)ofhimself.37

36 D.
Wootton,"Unbeliefin EarlyModem Europe,"HistoryWorkshop, no. 20 (1985), pp.
82-100, 86-87, 91.
37 For a crispstatementof the problem,Q. Skinner,"Meaning and Understanding in the
Historyof Ideas," Historyand Theory8 (1969): 3-53, 28-29. The issuesare complex;see,
e.g., P. Winch,TheIdea ofa Social Science(London,1958); and A. Maclntyre,"The Idea of
706 Woouon

Nevertheless,thesetermshave to be used withgreatcare whentheyare to be

appliedto people who would nothave used themto describethemselves,and the
anachronismimplicitin themmustbe guardedagainst.We have to ask in what
languagethisfideism,pantheism,or agnosticismcould have expresseditself;and
whenwe ask ourselveshow widelysuch ideas were diffusedwe have to bear in
mindthatconceptsexpressedin complexand discursivefashionnecessarilyhave
a privateand subjectivecharacter.Only whenideas have been neatlylabeled can
theybe spreadwidely abroad and rapidlyassimilated,so thatideas thatare in
regularuse are always to be foundexpressedin a tailor-madevocabulary.Locke
made thispointwitha strikingmetaphor:"He thathas complexIdeas, without
particularnames forthem,would be in no bettera Case thana Bookseller,who
had in his WarehouseVolumes,thatlay thereunbound,and withoutTitles;which
he could therefore makeknownto others,onlyby shewingtheloose Sheets,and
communicatethemonly by Tale."38 There can be no active marketin ideas
communicatedin thisway.
New words,on theotherhand,open theway to a muchmorerapidcirculation
of ideas. Thus whenwe read, forexample,Montaigne's"Apologie de Raimond
Sebond," withits ostensibleattackon atheismand defenseof faith,we need to
have a feelingforthenoveltyof thelanguagethatis beingemployed,a language
no older thanMontaignehimself.The problemof atheismis forMontaigneand
his generationa subjectof publicdebate:consequently, thechoice betweenbelief
and unbeliefis a muchmoreimmediateone forthemthanit could have been for
Identifying thelinguisticproblemsinvolvedin talkingaboutunbeliefis merely
the firststep, of course, to askingfurther questions.Was the major shiftin the
languageof beliefthatbegan in the 1530s occasionedby theReformation? If so,
was thisbecause unbeliefwas itselfnew,or merelybecause theReformerswere
impatientof theconventionalcompromisesthathad enabled pagan learningand
Christianworshiptocoexist?It is at leastclearthatifthe"vocabularyof unbelief"
is to be our test,it is thesixteenth,
nottheseventeenth, centurythatis thecrucial
turningpointas faras Franceis concerned.If Febvrewas rightto feel thatthere
was a real dangerof anachronism in talkingof "atheism" in Francein the 1530s,
he nonethelessfailedtonotetheimplications oftherapidevolutionofthelanguage.
Febvre's referenceto Dolet at the beginningof The Problem of Unbeliefis
intendedto suggestthatunbeliefin the 1530s musthavebeenconfinedto a narrow
circle of latinists.In 1536-38 Dolet publishedhis Commentariorum linguae
latinae in whichhe advocateda rigidCiceronianism.Anyonewritinggood Latin
mustrestrict the wordsfor"soul," "heaven," "god," and so forthto meanings
thatleftno scope forany discussionof Christianity. CiceronianLatin was to be

oftheAge (London,1971), pp. 211-29. For

a Social Science," in hisAgainsttheSelf-Images
a discussionof such problemsin anothercontext,see C. Hill, "The Word'Revolution'in
Seventeenth-Century England,"in For VeronicaWedgwood, ed. R. Ollardand P. Tudor-Craig
(London,1986), pp. 134-51. "Revolution"seemsto me muchcloserto beinga termof art.
38 J. Locke, An Essay concerningHuman Understanding,ed. P. H. Nidditch (Oxford, 1975),
p. 505.
LucienFebvreand EarlyModernUnbelief 707

the only languageof civilized discourse,and Christianfaithwas to become, in

theprocess,a linguisticimpossibility.
39 In 1546 Dolet was executedforpublishing
inFrenchworksthatfavoredtheReformation. Dolet's adoptionof thevernacular
puzzled Febvreas muchas did his supportforProtestantism.40
One mighttakethefactthatDolet's apparentlyirreligiousworkswere written
in thelanguageof scholarshipwhilehis ostensiblyreligiouspublicationswere in
Frenchas a confirmation of Febvre's insistenceon the limitations of the French
language. Perhapsseriousunbeliefwas confinedto Latin, and restricted to the
languageand arguments of Cicero's De naturadeorum? If so, Dolet's switchto
thevernacularseemsremarkably well-timed, forifone acceptsFebvre'shypothesis
thathe gavehissupporttoProtestantism becausehe acceptedtheorthodoxCatholic
view thatProtestantism mustlead inevitablyto unbelief,itfollowsthathis central
purposewas to disseminatenotProtestantism butunbelief.By 1546, ifFebvreis
right,he musthave been able to envisage a vernacularunbelief,and indeed it
was in the 1540sthatCalvin,Farel,and theirassociateswere,through theirattacks
on theirenemies,givingFrenchas richa vocabularyforthediscussionof unbelief
as Latin could boast, and a vocabularythatwas, unlikeDolet's Ciceronianism,
new and flexible.The languageof Montaignewas in themaking.
Febvre's referencepoint,however,was not Montaignebut Descartes. When
was thelanguageof Descartesinvented?"It is no accidentthatitwas onlyaround
1600 thatphilosophyincludedtwomenofconsequencewhoexpressedthemselves
in French,Guillaume du Vair and PierreCharron.Afterthemcame the real
philosopher:Rend Descartes" (p. 369). A strangeversionof historythis,which
completely forgets
thedebtofall threetothearguments andlanguageofMontaigne.


Chapter7 of Calvin's 1545 attackon the libertineswas entitled"De la grande

maliceet impudencequ'ont les Libertins,en se glorifiant
d'estredoublesde cueur
et de langue." He protestedthattheytook as theirmottoMatthew10:16: "You
mustbe as prudentas serpents.'"4'As the sieurde Rochemontsaid, "Unbelief
has its laws of prudence."42Le Clerc, writingan attackon unbelievers,felthe
had to pointout thathis shaftsweredirectednotat Jewsor Muslimsbutat those
who claimed publiclyto be Christiansbutin privateamongtheirfriendsavowed
disbelief.43Hume, in a privateletterto a friend,advocated at lengthsuch an

39 Berriot(n. 10 above), pp. 404-11. ChristianCiceronians,of course,had to findways

around this problem (cf. J. F D'Amico, Renaissance Humanism in Papal Rome [Baltimore,
1983], pp. 155-59).
40 Febvre,Au coeur religieux du XVIe siele (n. 27 above), pp. 222-23, andA New Kind of
History(n. 28 above), pp. 143-44.
41 Wirth(n. 7 above), p. 608.
42 H. Kamen,European Society, 1500-1700
(London,1984), p. 208.
43 J. Le Clerc,De l'incredulite'
(Amsterdam,1696), p. 6.
' DavidHumetoJamesEdmonstoune, April1764,NewLettersofDavidHume,ed. R. Klibansky
and E. C. Mossner(Oxford,1954), pp. 82-83.
708 Wootton

How are we to penetrate intothisprivateworldof unbelief? Indeedthisis a

worldso private thatevenwhenthehistorian canbe surethatheis inthecompany
ofan atheist he is oftenunabletofindoutjustwhotheatheist is. D'Holbach,for
example,has hada largenumber worksattributed
of irreligious to himsimply
becausehe,alongwithNaigeon,wasthefirst tohavepublished them:oneexample
is theLettrede Thrasibule a' Leucippe,whichhas nowbeensecurely attributed
to Freret anddatedto 1720-30.45In othercases thedatingandattribution of a
textstillseemtobe opentodebate.A wholemonograph hasbeendevotedtothe
Examencritique desapologistes chretienne
de la religion published byd'Holbach
in 1766,byanauthor whohasbeenunabletodecidewhether itdatestothe1720s
or the1760s.46Whereso muchis in doubtit is notclearwhether muchthatis
usefulcan be leamed.
Anonymous texts,however, so longas theycanbedated,canhaveaninteresting
story to tell.Thebestexampleis theTheophrastus redivivus, whichhasrecently
beenmuchstudiedinthewakeofTullioGregory's analysisofitsauthor's schol-
arship.Herewe aredealingwithan atheist, properlyspeaking.Weknowwhen
hewas writing, andwe havegoodreasontothink thathe livedinFrance.Above
all we knowwhathe readand whathe madeof it. Indeed,theauthorof the
Theophrastus redivivus was concerned to provethatall seriousphilosophers had
alwaysbeenatheists. He thusprovides anextreme exampleofhowatheists could
readtheirown viewsintoworksthatwerearguinga verydifferent case. As
Montaigne says,"On couchevolontiers le sensdesescrisd'autrui a la faveurdes
opinions qu'on a prejugdes en soi; etunatheiste se flatea ramener tousautheurs
a l'atheisme, infectant de sonpropre veninla matiereinnocente."47 Ginzburg has
confirmed Montaigne's assessment showinghowMenocchioread
by brilliantly
textsforwhathe couldgetoutof them,rather thanforwhattheirauthorhad
intended to say.48Butiftheauthorof theTheophrastus seemsto us to havea
peculiar ideaofhowtoread,we needtoremember that'he inhispubliclifemust
havemaintained a facadeoforthodox He presumed
Christianity. thatother authors
weredoingthesameand thatprinted booksconveyed, as it were,bothpublic
facadeandprivate conviction.
Thebookshe feltmostat homewith,naturally enough,werethosebyauthors
whohis contemporaries generally agreedweresuspect:Cardano,Pomponazzi,
Machiavelli, Montaigne, Charron, La Mothele Vayer,forexample.Thesewere

45 False attributionsto d'Holbach, which still bedevil librarycatalogs, are identifiedin

J. Vercruysse,Bibliographie des 4critsdu barond'Holbach(Paris,1971). Ford'Hol-
bach's programof publication, see A. Prandi,Cristianesimo offesoe difeso(Bologna, 1975),
pp. 7-11. N. Freret,Lettrede Thrasibulea Leucippe,ed. S. Landucci(Florence,1986).
46 Prandi.See nowA. Niderst,"L'examencritiquedes apologistes de la religionChretienne:
Les freresLevesque et leur groupe,"in Le mate6rialisme du XVIlle siecle et la litterature
clandestine,ed. 0. Bloch (Paris,1982), pp. 45-66.
47 "People liketo distort ofothersinorderto makethemconform
to theirownprejudices.Atheistsare proudto showthatall authorsare atheists,poisoningwith
theirown viewstheblamelessopinionsof others"(M. de Montaigne,Oeuvrescompletes, ed.
A. Thibaudetand M. Rat [Paris,1962],p. 425).
48 Ginzburg, Ilformaggioe i vermi(n. 9 above), pp. 28-51.
LucienFebvreand EarlyModernUnbelief 709

thewritersthatChristian apologists likeMersenne attacked as leadingtoatheism:

it is important to haveconfirmation thatat leastone atheistagreedwiththe
Christianson thissubject.
of "theatheist'slibrary"naturally leadsone to ask whichpub-
lisherssoughtto meettheneedsof unbelievers. If d'Holbachwas thegreat
publisherofworksthatwereexplicitly anti-Christian
ineighteenth-century France,
Naud6was thegreatpublisher of worksthatwereopen to an anti-Christian
interpretation century. WhatNaudehadpublished, theauthor
of theTheophrastus wouldlaterread,andreadwithdelight.Naude's
eruditionandhiswereone andthesame,eveniftheexacteditions he usedhad
has arguedthatNaude'sreputation forunbelief cannotbe substan-
tiated.TheNaudeana,hissupposedtable-talk, waspublished in 1701,longafter
hisdeath,anddoesnotappearinanyearlymanuscript. As fortheworkspublished
by Naude,thesewere,Kristeller thinks, simplythebesttextsaround.It is we
whofalselyattribute unbeliefto Pomponazziand thencompound ourerrorby
falselyattributingitto Naudebecausehe published him.49 Now,Kristeller is of
courseright to stressthatno argument shouldbe allowedtoreston theevidence
oftheNaudeana,whichis perhapsthemostquotedofall textsin thehistory of
seventeenth-century unbelief,untilthetexthas beensecurely dated;meanwhile
wemustemploy other evidence(ofwhichthere isnoshortage) toestablishNaude's
beliefs.But it is hardto resisttheviewthatNaudehad an ulterior reasonfor
choosingto publishtheworkshe did. It is notjustwe whoareinclinedto see
theseworksas atheistical butNaude'scontemporaries as well.
Arewe justified in adopting themethod ofreadingsuchworksthatwas used
bytheauthor of theTheophrastus redivivus:readingbetween thelines,reading
somesentences andnotothers, reading as ifthereis a privateas wellas a public
text?Certainly we areifwe wantto saythatthisis howunbelievers read.I have
shownthatSarpireadCharron in thesameselectiveway,andHenriWeberhas
madea similarstudyofMeslier'sreading ofMontaigne.50 Butwe needevidence
beforewe can say thatthisis how an authorintended his worksto be read.
Sometimes authors providethisevidencethemselves. SorelbeginshisHistoire
comiquede Francion(1623) byexplaining thathe has decidedto writea fable
in orderto tryto conveyto thereadertruths thathe does nothavethecourage
tostateopenly.5' Tolandwrotea wholetreatise, "Clidophorus; oroftheExoteric
andEsotericPhilosophy," on themethods tobe adoptedbythosewhowantedto

49 P. 0. Kristeller,
"BetweentheItalianRenaissanceand theFrenchEnlightenment: Gabriel
Naudeas an Editor,"RenaissanceQuarterly 32 (1979): 41-72.
50 Wootton, Paolo Sarpi (n. 9 above), pp. 24-28; H. Weber,"Meslieret le XVIe siecle," in
Etudessur le cure6 Meslier:Colloqued'Aixen Provence(Paris, 1966), pp. 53-70. Even those
historians whodo notthinkof Charronas irreligious recognizeDe la sagesseas havinga place
in thehistory of secularization, e.g., H. Baron, "Secularizationof Wisdomand PoliticalHu-
manismin theRenaissance,"Journalof theHistoryofIdeas 21 (1960): 131-50. Fora recent
accountof De la sagesseas an attackon religion,see Gregory, Etica e religionenella critica
libertina(n. 12 above), pp. 71-109.
5' Gregory,Etica e religionenella criticalibertina,p. 65.
710 Wootton

insinuatetheirmeaningwithoutstatingitopenly.52He wouldhave had littledoubt

as to whatto make of Boulainvilliers,who, claimingto be a Christian,wrotea
historyof views abouttheimmortality of thesoul in whichhe remarksthatpeople
who say (as he is in thecourseof saying)thatthe idea of theimmortality of the
soul is an inventionthatcan be historically dated are themselvespeople who do
notbelieve in the soul's immortality.53The self-referencehereis like thatof the
Cretanwho said thatall Cretansare liars. If Boulainvilliersis a Christianthen
he is evidentlyincapable of sequentialthought;if he is capable of sequential
thoughtthenhe is clearlyno Christian.Eitherway he is clearlyirremediably at
odds withhimself.
This particularcase is so blatantthatI thinkone is bound to conclude that
Boulainvilliersknewwhathe was doing.54But ofcourseitis dangerousto assume
thatauthorsmustalwaysbe awareoftheirown inconsistencies. Cantellihas argued
thatit is outrageouslyinconsistentof Bayle in thePensees diversessur la comete
to adoptthestrictAugustinian positionthatno one (withoutGod's help) is capable
of virtuousbehaviorand thattherefore thereis no reasonto assume thatatheists,
whose motivesare admittedly corrupt,are worse thananyoneelse, only thento
turnaround and presentVanini as a disinterestedand virtuousatheist.Bayle
himselfseems laterto have feltthathis originalargument was inconsistent.55But
did he recognizeits inconsistencyat the time, and was he tryingin a purely
manipulativeway to fashionarguments thatwould serveto defendatheismrather
thanto presentargumentshe believed to be true?Obviouslythereis room for
uncertainty on a questionlike this,as thereis withregardto the claim I have
made elsewhere,thatCharron'sLes troisverite'scannothave been intendedto
functionin its ostensiblerole as a defenseof Christianity since Charronnever
triesto provethe threetruthsthathe claims need to be proved.56Similarlyone
mightclaim thatHobbes cannothave meantthe religiousbeliefs presentedin
Leviathanto be takenseriously,fortheyhad not, afterall, been authorizedby
the sovereign,whomHobbes insistsis theonly authority to be takenaccountof
in mattersofreligion,even downto thequestionof whichbooks are to be counted
as books of the Bible.57

52 D. Berman,"Deism, Immortality, and theArtof TheologicalLying,"in Lemay,ed. (n.

15 above), pp. 61-78.
"Histoiredes opinionsdes ancienssurla naturede l'ame," in his
53 H. de Boulainvillier[s],
Oeuvresphilosophiques, ed. R. Simon(The Hague, 1973), p. 282.
54 Thereareotherblatantcases of indirectlyavowedunbelief:a case inthewritings ofGildon
is discussedin Berman,"David Humeand theSuppression of 'Atheism'" (n. 26 above), pp.
378-81. Perhapsthemoststriking exampleis [N. Freret?],L'examencritiquedes apologistes
de la religionchretienne (n.p., 1766) (on theauthorshipof whichsee Niderst[n. 46 above]),
whichpretendsto refuteall existingdefensesof Christianity onlyin orderto encouragethe
faithful toseekan adequatedefenseoftheirreligion:thehypocrisy herecannothavebeenintended
to deceiveanyone.
55 G. Cantelli,Teologiae ateismo:Saggio sul pensierofilosoficoe religiosodi PierreBayle
(Florence,1969), pp. 79-97. P. Bayle, Continuations des pense'esdiverses,chap. 153, in his
Oeuvresdiverses,4 vols. (The Hague, 1727-31), 3:410-13, esp. 412b.
56 Wootton, "Unbeliefin EarlyModemEurope" (n. 36 above), pp. 87-88.
57 T. Hobbes,Leviathan,ed. M. Oakeshott (Oxford,1946), chap. 33, pp. 246-55.
LucienFebvreand EarlyModernUnbelief 711

Charron,Hobbes, and Bayle seem systematically ambiguous. One can read

themas eitherdefendingor criticizingreligion.But why would theywriteam-
biguouslyif theirreal intentwas to defendreligion?Theirambiguitycan bestbe
explained by the thesis thattheyintendedto convey both an exotericand an
esotericmessage.58The only alternative would seem to be to providea complex
accountin each case of how a pious authorcould be misreadas impiousby both
contemporaries and latergenerations,an accountthatwould have to includean
explanationof why such an authorwould be unable or unwillingto correctthe
misapprehensions of his contemporaries whentheybecame knownto him.59
There are, to be sure, cases wherean accountof thissortcould be supplied.
RichardOverton'sMan's Mortality(1643) is, I believe, one such.60But equally
thereare cases wheretheexotericmessage is so threadbarethatanyonecan see
through it. Is thereanyonewhowouldclaimthatConyersMiddleton'sFree Inquiry
(1749) was notintendedto be an attackon miraclesin general,whichis exactly
whatit claims not to be? Or thatHenryDodwell's Christianity notFounded on
Argument(1741) is not an elaborateessay in irony?Probablythereis; but then
therewere also people who read The Fair Haven when it was firstpublishedin
March 1873 and took it at face value as a defenseof Christianity, not (as others
claimed) a bitterlysatiricalattackon it. However,whenSamuel Butlerreissued
the book in Octoberunderhis own name therewas no longerany conceivable
doubtas to its meaning.6'Thus, whereverpossible, thecoherencetestneeds to
be supplementedby further evidence. In Dodwell's case, forexample, we have
the good fortuneto possess a sermonpreachedby his own brotheragainsthis
arguments: it seemsunlikelythathe would have takenthisstepifhe thoughtthey
could honestlybe takenat face value.62
Still, the coherenceteston its own can be groundsforstrongsuspicionap-
proachingmoral certainty.Those who understoodThe Fair Haven arightwere
entitledto claim thattheambiguityof thetextwas in itselfsufficient evidenceas
to its author'sintention.There are sixteenth-and seventeenth-century texts,as
well as eighteenth- and nineteenth-century ones, thatare similarlyincoherentor
ambiguous,to the extentthatit is reasonableto suppose thattheirauthorshad
concealedmotives.A good exampleis theDialogues of JacquesTahureau(1555).63
Tahureau,indeed,helpfullywarnsthereaderthathe is going to expresshis true
views on religiononly by indirection,althoughhe makes only a cursoryeffort
at self-concealment.
As is well known,Sainte-BeuvethoughtMontaigne's"Apologie de Raimond
Sebond" was a case of the same type: "Once this chapterhas been properly

A valuablestudyof ambiguity alongtheselinesis A. Patterson,
Censorshipand Interpre-
tation:TheConditions ofWriting andReadinginEarlyModernEngland(Madison,Wis., 1984).
59Skinner(n. 37 above), pp. 33-35.
60 R. Overton, Mans Mortalitie,ed. H. Fisch (Liverpool,1968).
61 On thereception of The Fair Haven, see Butler'sprefaceto the2d ed. in S. Butler,The
Fair Haven, withintroduction by R. A. Streatfield
(London,1929), pp. xv-xx.
62 W. Dodwell, The Nature,Procedure, Extent,Valueand Effects of a RationalFaithCon-
sideredin TwoSermons(Oxford,1744).
63 J.
Tahureau,Dialogues,ed. M. Gauna (Geneva, 1981).
712 Wootton

understood,we realize thatMontaigneis frombeginningto end playinga part.

Onlya readerdetermined to be deceivedcould be takenin by it."64 Is it plausible
thatMontaigneintendedto deceive or to mislead?He himselfsays in theavant-
propos thathe has refrainedfromportraying his nakedselfout of respectforthe
customsof his country.And wheneverMontaignetoucheson religionhe empha-
sizes his respectfortradition,forthe law of the land, forthe fabricof public
order:he drawsto the reader's attentionconsiderationsthatmightlead to self-
In approachingthequestionof deceptionone needs to rememberthatbetween
Montaigneand Bayle therestretches a centuryin whichtherewas a triplemotive
forhypocrisy:firsttherewas thefearof punishment, of thescaffoldand thestake;
second therewas thefearof censorship,of beingreducedto silence;66and third
therewas theconvictionthatreligiousfaithwas thenecessaryfoundation of social
order,thatwithoutthe fearof hell the social orderwould crumbleand collapse
and thatone must thereforeinculcatethatfear even if one believed it to be
mistaken.67This last motive was clearly acknowledgedby the authorof the
Quatrainsdu deisteand attributed to atheistsby Charron.Unbelievershad, it was
agreed,reasonsof theirown forpracticingself-censorship. We, who have leamed
to read in societieswherethereis extensivefreedomof expression,may be ill-
equipped to read textswrittenunderquite different circumstances.Christopher
Hill, forexample, has recentlyarguedthatrevisionisthistoriansof politicallife
in early StuartEngland have been misled because theyhave takenpurelycon-
ventionalpublic statementsof faithin themonarch,whichare oftenat odds with
people's private lettersand diaries, as if they were statementsof personal
conviction. 68
need to
We, who live in societiesthatvalorize sincerityand self-expression,
rememberthatit is possible to advocatedeceptionand hypocrisynotonlyin the
but also as thebest way of servingthe welfareof others.
pursuitof self-interest
Averroes,Marsilius,Pomponazzi,Tahureau,Vemia,Sarpi,Naude, and theauthor
of the Theophrastusredivivusare among thosewho discuss religionas a useful

64C. A. Sainte-Beuve, SelectedEssays,ed. F. Steegmanand N. Guterman (London,1965),

p. 21, and Port-Royal,10thed., 6 vols. (Paris,n.d.), 2:434.
ofcourse,ofchap. 14ofP. Pomponazzi'sDe immortalitate
65 Thisis also true, animae,trans.
in Cassirer,Kristeller,and Randall,eds. (n. 25 above), pp. 350-77.
66 Seventeenth-century textssignificantly modifiedbetweentheirfirstand secondeditions
include Charron's Sagesse, Sorel's Francion, and Foigny's La terre australe. Cyrano de Ber-
gerac'sEtatsetempires de la lune,whenfirst
published posthumously,appearedina bowdlerized
form.Hume,as is wellknown,dropped"Of Miracles"fromtheTreatise(1739), butpublished
it laterin the firstEnquiry(1747); "On the Immortality of the Soul," however,whichwas
actuallyset in typein 1756, Hume neverdaredpublishin his lifetime:censorshipand self-
censorship are thusstillof centralimportance in theeighteenth century.
67 I havediscussedthisbelief,itsoriginsand decline,in D. Wootton, "The Fearof God in
EarlyModem PoliticalTheory,"HistoricalPapers(1983), pp. 56-80, and in "From Dutyto
Self-Interest," in DivineRightand Democracy,ed. D. Wootton(Harmondsworth, 1986), pp.
68 C. Hill, "PoliticalDiscourseinEarlySeventeenth-Century England,"inPoliticsandPeople
in Revolutionary England,ed. C. Jones,M. Newitt,and S. Roberts(Oxford,1986), pp. 41-
LucienFebvreand EarlyModernUnbelief 713

deception, invented bystatesmen fortheultimate

welfare oftheir
subjects.69 Those
whoheldthisviewbelievedthatdeception waslegitimate. A commonplace motto
thatexpressed thisoutlookwas intusutlibet,forisutmorisest("thinkwhatyou
likein private, butpretend to agreewitheveryone else in public'').70
Sarpi,however, was exceptional amongsuchauthorsin thathe wenton to
developanelaborate theoryofeducative deceptionaccording towhichoneshould
nevertellpeoplethetruth, butonlyerrors calculatedtoleadtheminthedirection
ofthetruth. ThatSarpicouldadvocatea systematic policyofthiskindis surely
something thatneedstobe borneinmindwhenreading TheHistory oftheCouncil
ofTrent, justas we needtobearinmindToland'sinvitation tosearchwriters for
theirsecretmeanings whenreadingLettersto Serena,or Hume'sadvocacyof
"innocent dissimulation" whenreadingtheDialoguesconcerning NaturalReli-
gion.71 The dialogueformitselfwas of courseoftenused, fromTahureau to
Hume,byauthors whowishedto avoidbeingheldpersonally responsible forthe
arguments theyintended to express.Montaigne oftenusestheapparently mean-
deringstructure ofhisessaysto similareffect.
It wouldbe wrongto lookfora publicconfession of unbeliefin thewritings
of Tahureau, Sarpi,or evenHume.Muchof Hume'sworkcan be seenas an
attempt to developa moralphilosophy compatiblewiththenotion-soproblem-
atic,as we haveseen,evenforBayle-of a virtuous unbeliever;72 buthe was far
frombeingfreeofthepractical necessityofoutward conformity,norindeedwas
heanymorewillingthanBayle(whoinsisted ontherights oftheerring religious,
butnotirreligious, conscience)to claimforatheists therightto mounta direct
andpublicattackontheestablished religion.
suchattacks, butnotevenhisclosestassociates, whowereperfectly familiar
hisviews,expected himtoadmit, eveninprivate,todoingso.73Suchcompromises
lastedlongerin Englandthanelsewhere in Western Europe.Darwin,educated
forthechurchbutscrupling to be ordained,was advisedby his father notto
discusshis loss of faithwiththewomenfolk. He maywellhavecometo regret
thathe didnotfollowthisadvice,as hisacknowledged unbeliefcausedhiswife
69 Averroes,On Plato's Republic,ed. R. Lerner(Ithaca,N.Y., 1974), pp. 21-24, 76; Mar-
silius,Defensorpacis, pt. 1, chap. 5, pars. 10-13; Pomponazzi,De immortalitate animae,pp.
363-65; Peach(n. 11 above),pp. 240, 246-27; B. Nardi,"La miscredenza e il carattere
di NicolettoVernia" (1951), in his Saggi sul Aristotelismo Padovanodal secolo XIV al XVI
(Florence,1958), pp. 95-114; Wootton,Paolo Sarpi (n. 9 above), pp. 20-23; G. Naud6,
Considerations politiquessur les coups d'estat(1639), extractsin Adam,ed. (n. 6 above), p.
142-48; Gregory, "Theophrastus redivivus"(n. 11 above), pp. 38-49.
70 Wootton, Paolo Sarpi,pp. 16, 37, 150; Gregory, "Theophrastus redivivus,"pp. 30, 185,
Eticae religionenellacriticalibertina(n. 12above),pp. 60-69; Freret (n. 45 above),pp. 76-77.
71 Wootton, Paolo Sarpi, pp. 35-38. The decisiveimportance of evidenceof thissortis
emphasizedbytherecentdebateon Maimonides,culminating in A. Hertzberg, "The Returnof
Maimonides,"NewYorkReviewofBooks 33, no. 14 (September 25, 1986): 58-61.
72 On thissubjectthereis now a veryfinepaperby D. F. Norton, "Hume, Atheismand the
Autonomy of Morals,"in Hume'sPhilosophyofReligion:TheSixthJamesMontgomery Hester
Seminar(Winston-Salem, N.C., 1986), pp. 97-144.
73 A. C. Kors,D'Holbach's Coterie(Princeton, N.J., 1976), pp. 83-84.
74 C. Darwin,Autobiography, ed. N. Barlow(London,1958), pp. 95, 235-39.
714 Wootton

These are, of course, merelygeneralconsiderationsand imperfect analogies.

They help to remindus thatwe shouldnot look foropen avowals of unbeliefin
theearlymodernperiodbutthatwe shouldbe alertto themethodsthatcould be
employedto convey unbeliefwithoutdeclaringit. Unfortunately, we have no
death-bedconfessionof incredulity fromMontaigneof thesortthatHume made
to Boswell, no privatemanuscripts comparableto Sarpi's Pensieri,Freret'sLettre
de Thrasibule a Leucippe,or Darwin'sAutobiography thatmightprovideus with
a keyto theEssais. Only wheresuch sourcesexistcan we conclusivelyestablish
the relationshipbetweenan author'sprivateintellectuallife and the public pre-
sentationof thatlife. It is a paradoxthatvirtuallyeverything we have by Mon-
taigne-an authorwho, morethanany other,seems to inviteus to be his intimate
companions-was composed forpublic display,not privatediscussion. Conse-
quentlythereare alwaysgoingto be two legitimatepointsof view on thequestion
of Montaigne'sreligion.Much of thepast is, of necessity,lost fromsight.


So farwe have touchedon threecentralproblemsin the studyof earlymodem

unbelief:thehistoriographicalproblem;theproblemof language;and theproblem
of whetherprivatemeaningscan be read into public texts. Unbelief,Febvre
recognized,existedin the Renaissance. The historicalproblemis one of estab-
lishinghow widespreadthatunbeliefwas and how intellectually and socially
significant.It is a problemthatin large partcannotbe resolved.The historyof
unbelief,like the historyof adultery,homosexuality,and rape, or the historyof
espionageor tax-evasion,is irredeemably distortedby the factthatit is, by and
large,only those who were prosecutedwho have founda place in the historical
But ifthechoices madebyindividualsare, muchof thetime,almostimpossibly
hardto reconstruct, theopportunitiesthoseindividualsfaced are mucheasier to
establish.Both Sir Thomas Browne and Pascal writeas sincereChristians,but
bothof themsaw unbeliefas a genuineintellectualoptionthatpeople like them-
selves could choose, howevermistakenly.Preciselyforthisreason unbelievers
were interestedin theirworks,readingwithcare Browne's accountof the con-
tradictionsin thetextof theOld Testamentor Pascal's accountof his wager.
How and whendid unbeliefbecome a seriousoption?The firstprecondition,
I would suggest,was acquiringthe sense thattherewas a real choice as to what
one shouldbelieve. Naude asked iftherehad been anyWesternEuropeanatheists
beforethefallof Constantinople to theTurks,whichhe identifies withtheredis-
covery of classical culture,with its pagan, anti-Christianpossibilities,in the
West.75For Burckhardt,Pierpaolo Boscoli-who, when preparingforhis own
execution,beggeda friendto "get Brutusout of myhead forme, thatI maygo

75 G. Naude, Considerations politiques sur les coups d'estat, 2d ed. (Rome, 1679), pp. 233-
ed. R. H. Popkin(Indianapolis,Ind.,
34. See also P. Bayle,Historicaland CriticalDictionary,
1965), p. 341.
LucienFebvreand EarlyModernUnbelief 715

my way as a Christian"'-exemplifiedthe new spiritualfreedomof the Renais-

sance.76 Butofcoursetherehad alwaysbeenexterior frontiers
and Islam, and interiorfrontiers betweenChristianity and Judaism.In addition,
fromthe thirteenth century,Arab interpretations of Aristotlehad offeredthe
possibilityof conceivingof a universewithoutbeginningor end, of a natural
orderthatcontinuedinviolatewithoutsupernatural interventionor interruption.77
By and large these opportunities forunbeliefmusthave been confinedto an
intellectualeliteor,outsideintellectualcircles,to an urbanminority. Most Chris-
tiansin Europe,even seventeenth- and eighteenth-centuryEurope,were,we must
presume,in thepositionof Vasco da Gama's crew,who, whentheyfoundthem-
selves in a Hindu temple,could understandwhat theysaw only by presuming
theywere in a strangeChristianchurch:resolutely,againstthe veryevidenceof
theireyes, theyreducedthealien to thefamiliar.78 The reverseprocess,one that
would have enabled one to step back fromChristianity and see it as alien and
incomprehensible, representsan intellectualaccomplishment thatfew can have
been capable of.
The peasantryof WesternEurope mayhave been largelyignorantof Christian
doctrine,mayhave held manybeliefsthatweremoretrulypagan thanChristian,
mayoftenhavebeen deeplyanticlerical,and may(like theirsocial superiors)have
oftenbeen indifferent to thefateof theirsouls, butthisdoes notmean thatthey
were capable of sustaininga mode of thoughtthat involved no referenceto
supernatural powers.79Whentheyrejectedthechurchit was probablymostoften
to adopt an alternativeset of ritesand rituals.
The opportunity forchoice is thusnot a sufficient preconditionforirreligion.
Also requiredis thecapacityto insistthatnothinghappensexceptby nature,that
thereare no supernatural eventsor revelations.This, as I have alreadypointed
out, wasta conclusionthatcould be reachedfromAristotelianphilosophy,and
Febvrewas willingto admitthatCardano, Pomponazzi,and the otherheroesof

J. Burckhardt, The Civilizationof theRenaissancein Italy(London,1929), pp. 510- 11.
Burckhardt's convictionthattheRenaissancewas a relatively secularera has beenmuchques-
tioned,e.g., P. 0. Kristeller,
"Paganismand Christianity" (1955), reprinted in hisRenaissance
Thoughtand Its Sources(New York,1979); and C. Trinkaus,"Humanism,Religion,Society:
ConceptsandMotivations ofSome RecentStudies,"inXIVInternational CongressofHistorical
Sciences,3 vols. (New York,1977), 3:1894-1932. Burckhardt wouldhavefeltmoreat home
withA. Tenenti,"La religione di Machiavelli,"inhisCredenze,ideologie,libertinismi(Bologna,
1978), pp. 175-219.
77 Someofthesethemes aredevelopedinBerriot (n. 10above),pp. 310-45; see also Wootton,
"Unbeliefin EarlyModem Europe" (n. 36 above), pp. 84-85, 89-90, 95; and T. Gregory,
"Aristotelismo e libertinismo,"Giornalecriticodellafilosofiaitaliana,5thser.,vol. 2 (1982):
78 J. R. Hale, RenaissanceEurope,1480-1520 (London,1971),pp. 216-17; P. Burke,The
RenaissanceSense of thePast (London,1969), pp. 1-6.
79 G. Strauss,"Success and Failurein theGermanReformation," Past and Present,no. 64
(1975), pp. 30-63; J. Delumeau,Le catholicisime entreLutheret Voltaire(Paris, 1971), pp.
227-61; P. Collinson,"Popular and UnpopularReligion,"in his The Religionof Protestants
(Oxford,1982), pp. 189-241. Nevertheless, in one area markedby religiousdivision,a sig-
nificant strainofpeasantpantheism emerged(E. Le RoyLadurie,Montaillou[NewYork,1979],
pp. 240, 242, 260-61, 319-23, 338).
716 Wootton

Busson's historyof rationalismmightwell have reached it.80Nevertheless,he

insisted,these men were in factcredulous.They did not deny thatChristhad
done thingsthatwere now accountedmiracles.They simplysoughtin astrology
a "natural" explanationfortheseextranormal events. What they,and the men
of the sixteenthcenturywho read them,lacked was, to use a phrasethatFebvre
borrowedfromLevy-Bruhl,"a sense of the impossible," which would have
enabled themto dismissthetestimony formiraclesas unreliable.81
Febvredoes nottrytoanalyzewhatis requiredtodevelopsucha sense(pp. 380-
454, esp. pp. 438-45). Sixteenth-century thinkershad a clear sense of whatwas
logicallyimpossible.We are dealingherenotwithlogical impossibility butwith
factsthatwe regardas incrediblebut thatpeople in the sixteenthcenturywere
preparedto believe (Febvregives an exampleof a man whose head had been cut
off,butwho was said to havepickedup his head and walked). We are also dealing
withbelief in events (e.g., miracles)thatare acknowledgedto be outside the
orderof naturebut held to be credibleon the basis of experienceor testimony.
"They did notknowhow to have doubtsaboutthepossibilityof a fact," Febvre
maintains,and this was primarilybecause theylacked an adequate conceptof
naturallaw (p. 441).
One could criticizeFebvre's view by pointingout thattheidea of naturallaw
was well establishedin the sixteenthcenturyor by tracingthe elaboratelegal
rules dealing withthe proofand disproofof facts.82I want,instead,to discuss
the threeissues thatpreoccupiedFebvre:credulity,the progressof science, and
beliefin the supernatural.
Febvrefeltthatthemid-seventeenth centurysaw theadoptionof a muchmore
rigorousattitudetowardtestimony,a new distrustfor hearsayand unspecified
authority.83One mighttake as an exampleSir ThomasBrownewho compiledan
extensivePseudodoxia Epidemica: or,EnquiriesintoVerymanyReceivedTenents
and commonlyPresumedTruths(1646) where,in reactionagainstthe worksof
uncritical"scientificcompilation"thatFebvreregardedas characteristic of the
sixteenthcentury,he set out carefullyto examineand refuteone by one beliefs
(such as the claim thatelephantshad no joints in theirlegs) foundedonly on
unsupported authorityand on conjecture.SimilarlyRobertBoyle, in TheSceptical
Chymist,insistedthatchemical processes mustbe carefullyrecordedand that
nothingcould be believedon thebasis of an unspecifiedauthority: one mustknow

80 Febvre,"Aux origines de l'espritmoderne"(n. 27 above). A guideto therecentliterature

on Cardanoand Pomponazzias it relatesto thequestionof unbeliefmaybe foundin Canziani
(n. 16 above); and Paganini(n. 16 above).
81 A gooddiscussion ofviewson the"natural"andthe"supernatural" is J. Cdard,La nature
et lesprodiges:L'insoliteau XVIe siecle en France(Geneva, 1977).
82 Wootton, Paolo Sarpi (n. 9 above),p. 17; J. E. Ruby,"The Originsof Scientific
JournaloftheHistoryofIdeas 47 (1986): 341-59; D. GarberandS. Zabell,"On theEmergence
of Probability,"Archive forHistoryofExact Science21 (1979/80):33-53, esp. 40-44.
83 A similarview is maintained in D. Woolf,"The 'CommonVoice': History, Folkloreand
Oral Traditionin EarlyModernEngland,"Past and Present,no. 120 (1988), pp. 26-52.
LucienFebvreand EarlyModernUnbelief 717

whohadobserved what,when,andunderwhichconditions, andtheobservation

mustbe repeatable.84
Browne,Boyle,andothermid-seventeenth century authors suchas Pascalhave
whatseemsto be a newskepticism of authority, a newdesireto haveaccurate,
well-attested evidenceno matter whatsubjecttheyaredealingwith.85 Neverthe-
less, beliefin whatwe now regardas impossible eventscouldsurvive,even
amongthemostcareful andcritical observers, merely intheabsenceofadequate
observations withwhichto refute authority. ThusLinnaeusacceptedAristotle's
viewthatswallowsspentthewinter at thebottom ofponds,andin 1767Gilbert
White,whoknewofnumerous migrant birds,thought theopinionstrange butnot
impossible: he was stillprepared to reserve judgment, waiting to see a swallow
divebeneath thesurface ofa pond.86
Whitecouldnotdismissreports of swallowswintering underwater as impos-
sible,anymore thanBoyleor Newtoncouldrejecttheclaimsofthealchemists,
becausehe hadno reliablenatural law he couldappealto whichsuchan event
wouldhavecontravened. Buta beliefthatwe knowwhatthelawsof nature are
doesnotalwayshelpus todetermine whatis possible.A recent editorialinNature
asks "Whento BelievetheUnbelievable."87 Carefully conducted experiments
aresaidtohaveshownthata solution containing antibody canremain biologically
activeafterit has beendilutedto thepointthatnota singleantibody molecule
remainsin it. Thisis, in termsof existing scientific knowledge, impossible: it
involves something thatis notthere behaving as ifitis there. In suchcircumstances
eitherscienceis forcedto changeitsideasas to whatis possible(altering, but
notabandoning, itssenseof theimpossible) or theexperimental evidencemust
be brought intolinewithprevious knowledge. Allsciences(including Aristotelian
ones) carrywiththemsomeclaimsaboutwhatis naturally possibleand what
impossible, butthoseclaimsbecomemoreimperious as theexplanatory powers
ofthesciencesincrease.Themodemsenseofthenaturally impossible is bornas
sciencebecomesboldlyconfident of itsexplanatory power,convinced thatthe
validityofitsexplanations is guaranteed bytheexperimental method. Onlyrarely
is suchconfidence thrown intoquestion; at suchmoments itbecomespermissible
onceagainto believetheunbelievable.
Sciencehasoftenadvancedthrough therecognition thattheapparently impos-
sibledoesinfacttakeplace;thisprocesssometimes leadstonewerrors establishing
themselves alongsidenewtruths. Boyle,forexample,acceptedas truean obser-

84R. Boyle,TheScepticalChymist (London,1911),pp. 4, 50-51, 94-95, 101-2, 118-19,

85 A classic statement
of principleis B. Pascal's "Fragmentde pr6facepourun Traitedu
vide" (1651), in his Oeuvrescompletes, ed. J. Mesnard(Paris,1970), 2:777-85.
86 G. White,TheNaturalHistory ofSelbourne,ed. R. Mabey(Harmondsworth, 1977),p. 38,
and, e.g., p. 156. Whitefavoredtheview thatswallowshibernated in caverns(pp. 31, 138-
87 "Whento BelievetheUnbelievable," Nature333 (June30, 1988): 787. Followed(as this
issuegoestopress)bya rapiddefenseofHumeanskepticism: J.Maddoxet al., "'High-dilution'
Experiments a Delusion,"Nature334 (July28, 1988): 287-90.
718 Wootton

vationofRondeletius: "Thisdiligentwriter theninhisinstructivebookoffishes,

affirmsthathis wifekepta fishin a glassof waterwithout anyotherfoodfor
threeyears;in whichspaceit was constantly augmented,tillat lastitcouldnot
comeoutof theplaceat whichit was putin, andat lengthwas toobigforthe
glassitself,thoughthatwereof a largecapacity."88 Thiswas a mistake, butit
was notbomof simplecredulity. Boylewas willingto believethisseemingly
impossible storybecausehe saw it as confirmationof Helmont's theorythatall
elements couldbe madeoutofwater,andforthistheory, he believed,therewas
strongexperimental evidence.He himself had supervisedthegrowing of plants
thathadendedup weighing more,whenweighedalongwiththeirsoil,thanthe
waterwithwhichalonetheyhad beenfed.Whynotthenflesh?Havingbeen
rightlyconvinced of one seemingimpossibility,Boylewas willingto accepton
onewhoholdsHelmont's view,seesitas a simpleexampleofcredulity, butthis
is to isolate the belieffromthe evidence thatappearedto supportit.89Boyle's
problemwas notthathe lacked a criticalattitudeto evidence. It was thata false
butapparentlywell-supported theoryhad shapedhis sense of whatwas possible:
he had a sense of the impossible,but it was notours.
The alternative view would be thatBoyle's mistakelay in nottryingto repeat
theexperiment.Perhapsif we findan earlymodemscientistappealingto theidea
of a repeatableexperiment in orderto rejecta supposedeventas impossible,then
we will have locatedthebirthof a "sense of theimpossible"?The firstoccasion
knownto me whenarguments fromnaturalimpossibility become sharplydefined
and boldly assertedis the appearanceof Galileo's Assayer(1623), a workthat
is, Febvrewould have been pleased to note, a defenseof a physicsof quantity
againsta physicsof quality.Galileo is arguingagainstGrassi, who had claimed
thatcannonballs are sometimesheatedas theytravelthroughtheair to thepoint
thattheymelt and thatBabylonianswere able to cook eggs by whirlingthem
roundin slings. Galileo proteststhatin cases such as this thereis no pointin
citingwitnessesand authorities, for "we do not lack eggs, or slings,or sturdy
fellowsto whirlthem,and stilltheydo notcook." Galileo, in short,appeals (the
argument is too lengthyto recapitulatehere)fromhistoricaltestimony to contem-
poraryevidence, relyingon a principleof uniformity such as Lyle was laterto
formulatefor geology in orderto show thatit is inconceivablethatthe events
Grassi describescan ever have takenplace; or if theydid take place thesewere
Galileo's argumentrestspartlyon the idea of a repeatableexperiment.But it
restsalso on the claim thathe knows what the relevantfactorsare, of which

88Boyle,p. 214.
89Febvre,Au coeurreligieuxdu XVIe siecle (n. 27 above), p. 299, n. 1.
9 G. Galilei, TheAssayer,in The Controversy on theCometsof 1618, trans.S. Drakeand
C. D. O'Malley (Philadelphia,1960),pp. 297-308, andII saggiatore(1623), in hisOpere,ed.
A. Favaro,20 vols. (Florence,1890-1909), 6:197-372, esp. pp. 336-46.
LucienFebvreand EarlyModernUnbelief 719

accountneedsto be takenin designing an experiment: thathe is justifiedin

presuming, forexample, thatatmospheric conditionsandastrological conjunctions
are irrelevant. His "evidence"thusdependson a widersetof theories. He is
right,forexample,in hispresumption thateggsandcannonballsprovidecom-
parablecases of bodiesin motionthrough theair,whereBoylewas wrongto
believethatfishandplantswerecomparable typesof biologicalorganism. It is
easy to readthispassagequickly,see it as confirmation thatGalileowas the
founder ofmodemphysics(cheerfully ignoring thefactthatthebookitselfis an
attackon theideathatcometsaresupralunary bodies),andbe satisfiedthathere,
in physics, we havethebirthofoursenseofthenaturally impossible,evenifit
wastobe centuries beforeitwas toappearinbiology.Thereis sometruth inthis
view;butlookfora moment atGalileo'sfinalargument againstGrassi.Ifcannon
balls,he says,wereheatedbythefriction of theairuntiltheymelted,thenthe
trackofonethrough theskyat nightwouldbe likethatofa rocket ora shooting
star.Galileo'sarguments fortheimpossibility ofcookingeggsbywhirling them
roundin slingsalso provethatmeteors cannotbe fallinglumpsof rock,heated
bytheirpassagethrough theatmosphere. A "modem"senseoftheimpossible,
in short,is inseparable from"modem"scienceandis obligedto changealong
withit. It is notsomething acquiredat a certain moment, a stableunderstanding
Thereis a furtherproblem, hidden inthephrase"Galileoappealstoevidence."
I havetriedto showhow strenuously one thinksevidenceneedsto be tested
inevitably dependson thetheories one holdsandtheotherevidenceone deems
relevant. BoylewaswrongandGalileoright althoughbothwereequallyprepared
in principle to respecttheevidence.Appealsto evidenceare rarelyas straight-
forward as theyseem.9'Butthedifficulties do notstopthere.Ian Hackinghas
argued,in The Emergence of Probability, thattheconceptof evidenceitself
dependson theidea of probability, whichdid notemergeuntil1660,and has
explicitlydeniedthatit is to be foundin Galileo.92Without a clearconceptof
evidenceone might think thatan appealto itcouldscarcely be conclusive.
Hackingstresses thatpeopleusedevidencebefore1660,justas theygambled
successfully withoutunderstanding themathematical lawsgoveming chanceevents,
butmaintains theyhad no morethana rule-of-thumb graspof whattheywere
about.Nowcertainly practicalskillcanbedivorced from theoreticalknowledge-
as anyreaderof Darwin'saccountof pigeonbreeding, written beforeMendel's
lawsof inheritance wererecognized, knows-butGalileo'sconfidence, I would
argue,is basednoton merepractical skillbuton a cleargraspof a theoretical
principle: thatinduction cannotreliablybe basedon singleor exceptional in-
stances.IndeedGalileogivesas clearan accountofwhatevidenceis through his
parableof themanwhothought he knewhowmusicwas madeas J. L. Austin

91 T. Kuhn,The Structure
2d ed. (Chicago, 1970).
92 1.
Hacking,The EmergenceofProbability
(Cambridge,1975). For sustainedcriticismof
argument,see GarberandZabell (n. 82 above); andR. Brown,
"HistoryversusHackingon Probability,"
HistoryofEuropeanIdeas 8 (1987): 655-73.
720 Wootton

(whom Hackingquotes as havingprovidedthe model definition of the concept)

does in his storyof theinvisiblepig.93The onlydifference is thatAustinhas the
term"evidence" to hand, while Galileo is forcedto talkin generaltermsabout
theprocessof drawingconclusionsfromexperience.
Galileo has theconceptbutnotthevocabulary.He can do everything thatneeds
to be done and, moreover,explainwhyhe is doingit. But at thesame timeit is
easierforus to followhis argument thanitwouldhavebeeneven fora sympathetic
contemporary. An unsympathetic one could simplysidestepit. Grassiin his reply
to Galileo insiststhathe had not been relyingmerelyon testimonybut also on
naturalreason,as if Galileo's pointhad notbeen thatevidence,the,testimony of
our own senses, has authorityover deductionsfromfirstprinciples.Some of
Galileo's arguments werebad ones, and Grassi's deductionsfromfirstprinciples
would indeedexplainshootingstars.But Galileo had theevidenceon his side.94
We have seen thatmereskepticismof factsis notsufficient to develop a sense
of the impossibleand thatearly modem science develops a notionof what is
impossiblethatis necessarilyshakyand unreliable.Of course,one could shortcut
such discussionsby maintainingthattheremust be a naturalexplanationfor
anythingthathappens. A medieval Aristotelianor an early modem mechanist
could attacktheidea of supernatural eventson a priorigrounds,appealingto their
sense of whatwas logicallyimpossible.Credulitycould thusbe combinedwith
irreligion.Febvre is rightto thinkthatthe developmentof science seemed to
providea new typeof argument againstbeliefin thesupernatural. But how could
it? For miraclespresenta quiteseparateproblemfromthatpresentedby whatwe
may termnaturalimpossibilities.They are by definitionnaturallyimpossible
events,and so theycannotbe repeatedat will (all repeatablemiracles,such as
transubstantiation, are heldto elude thesenses). No experiment can testa miracle.
It is interestingto comparetwo texts,a few decades apart, commentingon
what Febvreregardedas the premodemmethodof arguingagainstreligion.In
Religio medici,Browne,who we have seen epitomizesa new skepticismabout
mattersof fact,describeshow he had been temptedto play,as he putsit,at chess
withthedevil. Faced withthequestionof whetherbiblicalmiracleswerecredible
he had looked for naturalexplanationsfor them. Where he had been able to
conceive of such explanations,forthe destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah,for
example,he had foundthebiblical storycredible,butat the priceof destroying
its supernatural component.Thus thedevil had sacrificeda pawn,concedingthe
accuracyof the biblical text,but had done so in orderto capturehis queen,
destroying his beliefin thesupernatural.95 This was thegame as Febvrebelieved
it had been playedby Pomponazzi:thesupernatural was destroyedby extending
theboundariesof thenatural.A few yearslater,however,Pascal was to express
contempt forsucha strategy,referring to thosewhochosetobelieveinthemiracles
of Vespasian(who was said to have made a blindman see and a lame man walk)

93 Galilei,TheAssayer,pp. 234-37, and Opere,6:279-81; Hacking,p. 32.

94 H. Grassi,Ratioponderum libraeet simbellae(1626), in Galilei,Opere 6:373-500, esp.
pp. 482-85.
95 T. Browne,TheMajor Works, ed. C. A. Patrides(Harmondsworth. 1977), pp. 85-86.
LucienFebvreand EarlyModernUnbelief 721

in orderto avoid believingin Christ's.These werethe "credulous" who thought

thatanythingwas possible in nature.96Pascal had a modem and sharpsense of
the boundarybetweenthe naturaland the supernatural.He was a "rationalist"
in thiscrucialrespect,even thoughhis reasonwas employedto protecthis faith.
Rationalismof thissortrenderedineffectual one of thedevil's gambits,butit
opened theway to another.In thenextcenturyHume arguedthatthemiraclesof
Vespasianwereas well-attested as Christ's,buthe did so notin orderto naturalize
Christ'shealingpowers-as Stubbe,forexample,had done whenwritingabout
were incrediblealthoughwell-attested, so too were Christ's.97
Hume's argumentrepresents the emergenceof a modem sense of the impos-
sibilityof the supernatural.It is importantto recognizethatit is the resultof
bringingtogethertwo quite separatecomponents.In thefirstplace it dependson
a clear sense of whatis possible in nature(a mistakenone, some would claim,
since it ignoresthe possibilityof psychosomaticcures). The evolutionof men's
views on naturalpossibilityproceeds, as we have seen, step by step withthe
progressof science,butwe have also seen thatPascal alreadyhad a clearenough
idea of what was possible to use it to mock the credulous.Pascal's claim was
thattherewere good reasonsforbelievingin Christ'smiraclesbut not in those
of Vespasian.Hume's argument dependedon developinga systematic skepticism
towardhistoricaltestimony, particularlytestimony regardingmiracles.In doing
so he was developingan obvious implicationthatfollowedfrom,forexample,
Galileo's backhandedconcessionthatSuidas mightindeedhavereported a miracle.
ForifSuidas and otherauthorities are wrongaboutBabylonians,slings,and eggs,
thenmay notmanyreportsof miraclesbe similarcases of false testimony?
Our sense of the impossible(in the full sense of the phraseas employedby
Ldvy-Bruhland Febvre) thusdependspartlyon the scientifictheorieswe hold,
and partlyon theruleswe employforassessingthevalue of historicaltestimony.
Arnauldand Nicole, theJansenist authorsofLa logique,ou l'art de penser(1662),
clearly recognizedthatmiracleswere inherently improbableevents. But they
maintainedthatifAugustineclaimedto havewitnessedthem,thensuchtestimony
was irreproachable. Hume, by contrast,maintainedthatno matterhow strongthe
testimony in favorof a miracle,it is morelikelythatthetestimony is false than
thatso improbablean event should occur. Hume's argumentthus depends on
stressingthe reliabilityof our sense of whatis naturallypossible, whichallows
us to measuretheimprobability of a miracleoccurring,butalso on emphasizing
thelimitations of historicaltestimony, particularly
whendistortedby self-interest,
forotherwisethereliabilityof thetestimony could indeedoutweighthe improb-
abilityof theevent.

96 B.
Pascal,Pensees,ed. A. J. Krailsheimer (Harmondsworth, 1966), no. 224, p. 100. On
thisnew outlook,see Gregory, Etica e religionenella criticalibertina(n. 12 above), pp. 26-
97 On Stubbeand miracles,see D. P. Walker,"ValentineGreatrakes, theIrishStroker, and
theQuestionof Miracles,"in Me'1anges sur la litte'rature
de la Renaissanceai la me'moire de
V L. Saulnier(Geneva, 1984), pp. 343-56; and Jacob(n. 8 above), pp. 52-63.
722 Wootton

Febvre'sdiscussionof thesense of theimpossiblefollowsa lengthydiscussion

of sixteenth-century science. Hacking too is mainlyinterestedin evidence and
probability as theconceptualtools requiredforscientificinduction.The resultis
an underplaying ofthesecondaspectofoursenseoftheimpossible,as exemplified
in Hume's argument,and a failureto recognizethatthehistoricalsciences were
at least as much a threatto religionas the naturalsciences.98RichardSimon's
biblicalcriticismcorrodedfaithwhereNewton'stheoryof gravitation reinforced
it. Gibbon's faith,it seems reasonableto surmise,was destroyednotby studying
physicsor biologybutby readingConyersMiddletonon themiraclesof theearly
church,a workthatforcedhimto concludehe mustbelieveeitherin innumerable
miracles(his firstresponsewas to convertto Catholicism)or in none.99
Particularlyvaluabletherefore is a recentstudybyCarlo Borghero,whichshows
how one of the key conceptsstudiedby Hacking-the conceptof assessingthe
reliabilityof testimonyin termsof probabilities-is centralto thehistoricalsci-
ences of theEnlightenment. 100Borghero'sworkhelps us to recognizethatwhen
Febvrepointedto a sense of theimpossibleas a precondition formodemunbelief
he was trying toidentify a setofconceptualtools-chance, probability, evidence-
that are to be foundat work not only in naturalscience but also in history,
mathematics, and philosophyby the end of the seventeenth century,and whose
importancecan only be understoodif one tracestheirimpact,not on any one
disciplinebuton intellectuallifeas a whole.
These tools were notparticularly threateningto religionbecause of whatthey
accomplishedin any one discipline:in the earlyeighteenth century,naturestill
seemed to be the handiworkof God, and the Gospel miraclesstillseemed well
attested.The new threatcame fromthejuxtapositionof a scientificbeliefin the
orderof naturewitha historicalrecordthatseemedto containa plethoraof well-
attestedmiracles.At firstsuch argumentsweredeployedwithcare, butGibbon,
when he called in questionthe credibilityof the Gospels' reportthatdarkness
descendedon theearthforthreehourswhileChristwas on thecross,was merely
applyingto thescriptures arguments ofthesortthatwereto be foundin Fontenelle,
Blount,or ConyersMiddleton.
The conflictbetweentheevidenceof scienceand theevidenceof historycould
not be evaded because it merelyreinforcedthe long-standing conflictbetween
Protestants and Catholicsover the natureand extentof God's miraculousinter-
ventionin history.Attackson "priestcraft"began whenarguments thathad been
initiallydirectedagainstCatholicpriestswereturnedagainstProtestant ministers,
just as Middletonturnedthearguments used by Protestantsagainstcontemporary
Catholic miraclesagainstthe fathersof the earlychurch,whom the Protestants
revered.The greatestimpetusto the new historicalsciences came fromconfes-

98 F. E. Manuel,TheEighteenth Century Confronts theGods (Cambridge,Mass., 1959).

99E. Gibbon,Autobiography, ed. J. B. Bury(Oxford,1907), pp. 46-47.
'?? C. Borghero,La certezzae la storia(Milan, 1983).
LucienFebvreand EarlyModernUnbelief 723

sionalstrife,and in thecourseofthisstrifeweaponsweredeployedthatthreatened
religionitself.This, as Febvreknew, had been predictedby sixteenth-century
Catholics,butwhenhe came to considerthepossiblesourcesof irreligion,
sional strifewas not among them,while when he looked ahead to the birthof
modemrationalismit was Descarteshe thoughtof, notGibbon.


One of the problemsHacking had to address in The Emergenceof Probability

was thatCardano had made the firstmajor contributions to probabilitytheorya
centurybefore the date at which Hacking wanted to claim that probability
"emerged." Hackingcould pointoutthatthisproblemdid notariseifone looked
at the date at whichCardano's contributions were firstprinted,ratherthanthe
date at whichtheywere written.This, he maintained,was symptomatic of the
factthatprobability was notan "autonomousconcept"; it was not"public prop-
erty" untilthe 1660s. Cardano was thusno morethanan isolatedprecursor.
Some would maintainthatthe word "'precursor"should almost always be
avoided.'01Mandevilleread Bayle withcare, and drew on himextensively,but
thismakesBayle a "precursor"of Mandevilleonlyifone is lookingat himfrom
Mandeville's pointof view; Bayle had no intentionof praisingvice and con-
demningvirtue.Precursorsonlyappearas such withtheadvantageof hindsight,
and muchofthehistorian'staskconsistsin trying to identifyspeciousassumptions
bom of hindsight.Nevertheless,the searchforprecursorsis an essentialpartof
the historyof mentalite6sas it was envisagedby Febvre.For if thereare episte-
mologicalbarriersseparatingone way of thinkingfromanother,thentheirexis-
tencemustbe confirmed by provingtheabsence of precursors.One simpleway
of doing this is to show how authorsinventprecursorsforthemselvesby mis-
interpretingtheviewsoftheirpredecessors:Locke's use ofquotationsfromHooker
in the Second Treatise is an example of someone seeking to supporta novel
argumentby providingit witha spurioustradition.
Thingsbecomecomplicated,however,when,as inthecase ofCardano,genuine
precursors are to be found.Such cases invitestudyof thecircumstances required
forthegeneralizedreceptionof new ideas. They bringus back to Locke's book-
seller,unable to finda marketforhis wares. An argumentmay fail to catch on
because it has been poorlyformulated, or because its authorlacks an adequate
vocabulary.But it may also fail because of censorshipor social pressure.The
moreprecursorsthereare to be found,the more importantit is to considerthe
possibilitythattheepistemologicalbarriersto thedevelopmentof an idea thatwe
maythinkwe have identified are eithereasy to surmount or else misidentified.

See thediscussionof "anticipation"in Skinner(n. 37 above), pp. 10- 12, 22-24, 29.
102 1 havetried
toidentifysomeofthebarrierstotheadvanceofdemocratic ideasinD. Wootton,
"LevellerDemocracyand PuritanRevolution,"in TheCambridge HistoryofPoliticalThought,
ed. J. H. Burns,vol. 2 (Cambridge,in press).
724 Wootton

The searchforprecursorsis, I believe, of particularimportancein thehistory

of unbelief,but it needs, as Febvrerecognized,to be conductednot just as a
searchforunbelieversbutalso as a searchforwaysof thinking on whichunbelief
will laterdepend. It was Bayle's Pensees diversessur la cometethatfirstmade
theidea of thesociabilityof atheistspublicproperty and thatopened theway for
unbelieversto escape froman imprisoning worldof clandestinecommunication
into the open air of public debate. The claim thatindividualatheistswere not
necessarilyenemiesof societyhad alreadybeen made by Bacon, whileSarpi had
conceived,even earlier,of the possibilityof a whole societythatwould not be
dependenton thefearof God. Sarpi and Bacon wereisolatedprecursors.Bayle's
argumentdifferedfromtheirsin the firstplace because he had a much clearer
understanding of the complexityof humanmotivationand of the role of self-
interestin maintainingsocial order.Second, thisunderstanding derivedfroma
pious source. On these subjectsBayle was essentiallyrecapitulating views that
Nicole had alreadypresentedin his Essays.103Nicole unintentionally brokedown
theintellectualbarriersto theidea of thesociabilityof atheistsand by formulating
thekeyarguments in a religiouscontextmade itharderforothersto dismissthem
out of hand. He was Bayle's trueprecursor,and it is not surprising thatBayle
pretendedthatthePense'esdiverseswas theworkof a Jansenisttheologian.
Similarly,Hume's essay "Of Miracles" is oftenregardedas havingestablished
forthe firsttimethe idea of the incredibility of miracles.It is not difficult,
fact,to identifya largenumberofearlier,broadlysimilarattackson thecredibility
of miracles.Hume was only one among severalmid-eighteenth centuryauthors
preparedto make public arguments thathad been in clandestinecirculationfora
few decades. The sheernumberof these precursorsshould alert us to the fact
thattherewas nothingexceptionallydifficult in formulating themain outlinesof
theargumentthatHume presented.Hume mayhave made theidea thatmiracles
were-inherently incredible"public property,"but, as Hackingpointedout, the
arguments Hume employed,centeringaroundtheassessmentof thereliabilityof
testimonyfor miraclesin termsof probabilities,were no more than a skilled
adaptationof argumentsthathad been pioneered(in orderto show, as we have
seen, the rationalityof beliefin miracles)by Arnauldand Nicole in The Logic
ofPort-Royal.104It is theywho are Hume's trueprecursorsifwe look notforthe
firstattackon miraclesbut forthe firstattemptto assess theircredibilityusing
theintellectualtools thatHume would laterdeploy.
Turnfora momentfromarguments concernedwithunbeliefto science, to the
use of experimentalevidence to testclaims as to what is possible and what is
impossible.Modem experimental practice,and the associatedideas of evidence
and the testingof hypotheses,may be said to date to Pascal's greatexperiment
demonstrating the existenceof a vacuum,theRetcitde la grande expe6rience de

103 A. M. Battista,"Psicologiae politicanellacultura eterodossafrancesedel Seicento,"in

Gregory et al., eds. (n. 16 above),pp. 321-51, esp. pp. 340-51; D. vanKley,"PierreNicole,
Jansenism, andtheMorality ofEnlightenedSelf-Interest,"inAnticipations
ed. A. C. Kors and P. J. Korshin(Philadelphia,1987), pp. 69-85.
104Hacking(n. 92 above), p. 79.
LucienFebvreand EarlyModernUnbelief 725

l'equilibredes liqueursof 1648. Thisexperiment appearedto provethatAris-

totelianandCartesian claimsthata vacuumwas impossible weresimply wrong.
We haveseenthatPascal,in insisting thatexperiment was thetestof natural
possibility,hada precursor inGalileo,andhisproofoftheexistence ofa vacuum
was scarcelymoreshocking thanGalileo'sdiscovery of sunspots.
an actualexperiment plannedto testa hypothesis, nota chancediscovery or an
appealto dailyexpenence.
Pascal'sexperiment marksthedecisivemoment at whichevidenceestablishes
itssupremacy overauthority andphilosophy. I havejustdescribedthisexperiment
as a "demonstration" andPascalhimself callsitde6monstrative,
tohavebeenno analogouslinguistic usageinEnglishuntil1683.Demonstration
had longbeentheprerogative of themathematical anddeductive sciences,but
Pascalmaybe saidto havepublicized theideathatitwas possiblewithin a new
typeof experimental science.'05 Adopting thisnew conceptof demonstrative
evidence, however,involved recognizing thatthesortoffactualevidence towhich
Christianitycouldlayclaimwas farfromdemonstrative. TheGospelsmight still
be defended as factually true,buttheclaimto truth hadto be couchedin terms
of probabilities,notcertainties. The tiesof faithwereweakenedby thenew,
secularcertaintiesof science.106
Wehavelookedat whatwouldappeartobe threequiteseparate problems: the
sociabilityofatheists,theincredibilityofmiracles,andthedemonstrative character
ofexperiments. Andyetwhenwebegintolookattheseproblems wefind ourselves
beingbrought backeachtimeto thesamegroupofpeople.Theepistemological
breakthatwe havebeenconcerned withseemsinverylargeparttheachievement
of theJansenists: of Nicole,of Amauld,of Pascal. Perhapsthisparadoxof
intellectualhistorybearson an equallystrange factof socialhistory:thelink
betweenJansenism and dechristianization thatcan be tracedin somepartsof
France.107 Arguments thathadbeenconceived withina religious
framework seemed,
whenin thehandsof Bayleor Hume,to threaten religionas a whole.'08These
arguments werefarfrom beingentirely new-theyhadbeenprefigured inGalileo
and Sarpi,forexample-buttheysoonhad a quitenewpublicresonance and,
perhaps, a particularimpact in Jansenistcommunities.

105 Pascal, Oeuvrescompletes (n. 85 above), 2:677. AlthoughBoyle does notwritein the
ScepticalChymist (n. 84 above) of experimentsas demonstrations, he does writeof them"ex-
actingbelief" (p. 155).
106 "The prophecies,eventhemiraclesand proofsofourreligion,are notof sucha kindthat
theycan be said to be absolutelyconvincing, buttheyare at thesametimesuchthatit cannot
be said to be unreasonableto believein them"(Pascal,Pense'es[n. 96 above],no. 835, p. 286).
"It is a remarkablefactthatno canonicalauthorhas everusednatureto proveGod.. . . David,
Solomon,etc., neversaid: 'Thereis no suchthingas a vacuum,therefore God exists'" (ibid.,
no. 463, p. 179).
107 M; Vovelle,Pie6te'
baroqueetde'christianisationenProvenceau XVJIIesiecle(Paris,1973),
pp. 498-537.
108 Fora strikingstudyof thesubversive consequencesoftheologicaldebate,see A. C. Kors,
'A FirstBeing,of WhomWe Have No Proof': The Preambleof Atheismin EarlyModem
France,"in Kors and Korshin,eds., pp. 17-68.
726 Wootton

The conclusionI have reached in this search for precursorsmightseem to

vindicateFebvre:modem,rationalistunbeliefseems scarcelyimaginablebefore
thesecond halfof theseventeenth century,as he maintained.It was in 1686 that
J. Le Clerc commentedsadlythat"les libertinsdes siecles passez ne soutenoient
leursopinionsque commepar ddbauche,et n'attaquoientla ReligionChretienne
que par quelque railleriegrossiere,qui ne pouvoittoucherque ceux qui avoient
1'espritet la coeur tout 'a fait depravez. Mais prdsentement on se sert de la
Philosophieet de la Critique,pourdetruirenos dogmesles plus saintset les plus
Where Febvre regardedthe intellectualpreconditionsfor unbeliefas having
beenestablishedbyDescartes,a philosopherwhoclaimedtohaverefuted atheism,
I, formy part,would arguethattheywere establishedby theJansenistsin their
effortsto escape fromthedeductivecertaintiesof Cartesianism.To thisend they
developed a new conceptof evidence thatmade it possible to questionmen's
claims to reportfactsreliably,act disinterestedly, and reasonjustly fromfirst
principles.This new conceptof evidence, not Cartesianrationalism,represents
theepistemologicalcaesura thatFebvresoughtbetweenthe age in whichreason
favoredfaithand the modemage, in whichreasonoftenseems to tell againstit.
Like Febvre,however,I thinkthatthe historyof unbeliefbegins beforethe
birthof modem rationalism:my criticismhere is thatFebvrefailed to identify
two problemsassociatedwiththe studyof whatwe may tern the prehistory of
unbelief.First,it is important to note thatunbeliefin the sixteenthcenturywas
notnecessarilyintellectually feeblemerelybecause it was not modem. In some
respectsithad advantagesthatunbeliefin thelateseventeenth andearlyeighteenth
centurieslacked. Above all, thecosmologicaland biologicalarguments forbelief
based on the claim thatthe universewas evidentlythe productof design, not
chance, were immenselystrengthened by Newtonianismand preformationism,
whilein thelatesixteenth or earlyseventeenth centurythecosmologyand biology
of Epicurusstillseemed defensible."0In otherrespectstherewould seem to be
a straightforwardcontinuity betweenearlierand laterformsof unbelief.None of
the argumentsthatHume musteredagainstthe immortality of the soul, forex-

109"The libertines of centuriespast maintainedtheiropinionsoutof sheermoraldepravity,

andattackedtheChristian religionwithnothing morethancoarsehumour thatcouldonlyinfluence
thosewhoseheartsand mindswerealreadydebauched.Butnowadaystheyuse theweaponsof
philosophyand [historical]criticismin orderto demolishour mostsacredand unshakeable
doctrines"(J. Le Clerc,Defensedes sentimens de quelquesthe6ologiens[Amsterdam, 1686],pp.
219-20). Much can be learnedabouttheintellectual history of theperiodafter1670 fromthe
graphof "Le Mouvement de l'Apologetiquede 1670 a 1802" printed in A. Monod,De Pascal
a Chateaubriand(Paris, 1916), p. 4. Febvre'sthesisthatthe secondhalfof the seventeenth
century saw theemergenceof a new typeof unbeliefis thesubjectof current debate,mainly
sparkedby Gregory's"II libertinismo della primametadel Seicento,"in Gregoryet al., eds.
(n. 16 above), pp. 3-47; cf. Berti(n. 18 above), p. 31; D. Pastine,"Note al Theophrastus
redivivus,"Archiviodifilosofia51 (1983): 435-43.
'10 On thedebatesurrounding preformationism,see S. A. Roe, "VoltaireversusNeedham:
Atheism,Materialism, and theGeneration of Life,"JournaloftheHistoryofIdeas 46 (1985):
LucienFebvreand EarlyModernUnbelief 727

ample, need have surpriseda contemporary of Rabelais.III The decisive strength

of sixteenth-century Christianity lay, I would suggest,not in the absence of a
modem science to whichunbelieverscould appeal but in the factthatbothun-
believersand believersaccepted thatreligionwas socially necessary.This pre-
ventedunbelieversfrommustering thosearguments, oftenverydifferent fromthe
ones theEnlightenment was to relyon, thatwere available to them.
Febvre's failureto considerthatsixteenth-century authorsmighthave had dif-
ferent,ratherthansimplyweaker,argumentsagainstreligionthanthose of the
Enlightenment meantthathe oversimplified the problemof anachronism.He
complainedthat"to speak of rationalismand freethoughtwhenwe are dealing
withan age when the most intelligent of men, the most learned,and the most
daringweretrulyincapableof findinganysupporteitherin philosophyor science
againsta religionwhosedominationwas universalis to speakof an illusion.More
precisely,it is to perpetrate,under the cover of fine-sounding words and an
impressivevocabulary,themostseriousand mostridiculousof all anachronisms;
in therealmof ideas it is like givingDiogenes an umbrellaand Mars a machine
gun" (p. 353). Had he paused to look closely at Cardano or Vaninihe would
have been obliged to recognizethatmen in the sixteenthcenturymighthope to
findsome supportin theirphilosophyand in theirscience againstreligion.If he
was rightto attacktheanachronismwithwhichpreviousscholarshad written of
"'rationalism"and "free thought,"he was wrongnot to reflecton the factthat
Diogenes could always obtainan oilcloth,and Mars a sharpsword.Justas prim-
itivetechnologiesare oftenmoreefficaciousthanwe mightexpect,so premodern
argumentsmay lead further thanwe at firstsuppose.
If Febvre'spredecessorswere like da Gama's sailors,who traveledin orderto
imagine themselvesat home, Febvre himselfimaginedthathe had found in
sixteenth-century Francenota civilizationalmostas sophisticated as his own but
a primitivetribe,incapable of sequentialthought.FebvreacknowledgedLevy-
Bruhlas his teacherbecause he had taughthimthat"primitivesreasondifferently
fromcivilizedmen" (p. 6). Had he turnedforonce to Montaigne,as he triedto
thinkabout the intellectuallimitsof the sixteenth-century mind,he would have
been obliged to rereadMontaigne'sencounterwiththe cannibalsand been re-
mindedthat,even iftheyreasondifferently, primitivessometimesreasonwell.'12
My second criticismis thathe made no seriousattemptto look forprecursors.
He devoteda fewpages to "the problemof a precursor"(pp. 352-53, 422-23),
butthisprecursoris purely(and in Febvre'sview,necessarily)an imaginaryone.
In factFebvrewas notquite as farfromhome, or among such an alien people,
as he imagined.Had he knownwhereto look, he could have foundin Brunfels
evidence of historicalcriticismof the Gospel narratives,an undertaking Febvre
believedalmostimpossibleforthesixteenth-century mind(p. 456). 113Of course,

III D. Hume,"On theImmortality of theSoul" (1777), in Humeon Religion(n. 35 above),

pp. 263-70.
112 Therearenumerous philosophicaldiscussionsoftheproblemsraisedbyLevy-Bruhl, e.g.,
M. Hollis and S. Lukes,eds., Rationality
and Relativism(Oxford,1982).
113 Wirth(n. 7 above), pp. 613-14.
728 Wootton

it would be unreasonableto expect Febvreto have looked anywhereand every-

where.But thereis at least one authorhe shouldhave looked at closely.
Febvrestressed,as an indicationof thedifference betweensixteenth- and late
seventeenth-century viewpoints,thegeneralbeliefin witchcraft thatis to be found
in the sixteenthcentury.When is a modem outlookfirstto be found?In 1641,
he claimed,whenCyranode Bergeracsaid thatone shouldlook fornothingfrom
men but that which is human: supematuralhypothesescould be discounted
(p. 441). 114 But was CyranodoinganythingotherthanquotingMontaigne,who
had said thesame thingon thesame subject?"5 In thesame essay,"Of Cripples,"
Montaigneinsistedthatone shouldbe sureof whatthefactsare beforeone seeks
an explanationforthem.WhenFontenellemakesthesame remarkin his Histoire
des oracles historiansseize on it as representingthebirthof themodem,critical
spiritof theEnlightenment. 116 But was he notjust quotingMontaigne?Who does
Pascal thinkof whenhe wantstoconsidernota credulousbuta rationalist opponent
of miracles?"7 Montaigne,against whose Essais, Sainte-Beuvebelieved, the
Pense'eswere primarilydirected,as if Montaignewas Pascal's contemporary.
Montaigne,who had foreshadowedHume's argumentby insistingthattestimony
in favorof miracleswas simplyunreliable."Wise Montaigne,"as Febvrecalls
himon theonlyoccasion whenhe makesseriousreference to himin The Problem
of Unbelief,whenhe notesthatMontaignebelievedit was impossibleto foretell
thefuturethrough astrology(pp. 409- 10). He failsto notethatin thesame essay,
"Of Prognostications," Montaignequotes Diagoras to suggestthatprayersare
neveranswered.People who presentas evidenceoccasionson whichprayershave
seemed to be answeredfail to recognizethatyou musttake intoaccountall the
occasions on whichprayersare unsuccessfulif you are to claim thatsomething
otherthan mere chance is involved. Alongside every sailor who believes his
prayershavesavedhimfromthestormyoumustplace all thosewhohavedrowned.
This is a good example of the elementarygraspof the principlesof probability
theorythatwas possible long before"the emergenceof probability."
Could an unbelievingcontemporary of Pascal's have presentedany strongar-
gumentsagainstChristianity thatwerenotto be foundforeshadowed inMontaigne
or in Sarpi?To talkof Montaigneand of Sarpi as precursorsis, of course,to talk
unhistorically if it impliestreatingthemas being "ahead of theirtime." Febvre
rightly protestedagainstsuch language(pp. 6, 461). One of thepurposesof my
studyof Sarpi was to show how he was of his time,and how-where his ideas
were apparentlyunparalleled,on thequestionof the sociabilityof atheists-one
could finda partialexplanationforhis noveltyin the peculiaritiesof the social

114 L. Febvre,"Sorcellerie,sottiseou revolution du XVIe

mentale?"inhisAu coeurreligieux
siecle (n. 27 above), pp. 301-9, esp. pp. 308-9.
115A. Boase, "Montaigne et les sorci6res," in Culture et politique en France, ed. F. Simone
(Turin,1974), pp. 375-86.
Histoiredes oracles,ed. L. Maignon(Paris,1908), pp. 30-
116 B. Le Bovierde Fontenelle,

31. P. Hazard, La crise de la conscience Europe'enne, 3 vols. (Paris, 1935), 1:220.

117 G. Ferreyrolles,"Lecturepascaliennedes miraclesen Montaigne,'in Montaigneet les
'Essais,' 1580-1980, ed. F. Moreauet al. (Paris,1983), pp. 120-34.
LucienFebvreand EarlyModernUnbelief 729

institutionsof Venice in contrastto thoseof themonarchiesof WesternEurope.

Montaignetoo is of his time. But did "wise Montaigne" thenhave, as Febvre
believedall menof thesixteenthcenturyhad, a "primitivementality"?Was he,
like them,a "grown-upgulliblechild" (pp. 6, 96, 438)?
Febvre'sclaim was thatthemenof thesixteenth centurydid nothave available
tothemthekeywords,concepts,and arguments thatwouldbe used againstreligion
in theeighteenth century.WhileFebvrewas right,itseemsto me, to tryto identify
theconceptuallimitswithinwhichthought andargument tookplace inthesixteenth
century,he failed to testhis definitionof those limitsby consideringwhat he
knewto be the mostdifficult case. I do notmean to claim thathe oughtto have
portrayedMontaigneas an unbeliever.I would merelyarguethatin Montaigne,
as inPascal, or Browne,orBayle, arguments againstbeliefarepresented alongside
argumentsin favorof it. Pascal and Browne clearlyopted forfaith.The final
judgmentsof Montaigneand Bayle are, I think,much harderto assess. In the
end theirprivatedecisionsare muchless important thanthe factthatthe terms
in whichtheypresentedthechoice stillseemedrelevanta centurylater,and still
seem relevanttoday.
One of Febvre's great achievementswas to underminethe evolutionistas-
sumptionsof late nineteenth- and earlytwentieth-century intellectualhistory,
placingan idea of incremental progresswithone of radicaldiscontinuity. But he
was no skepticin thetradition of Montaigneor Bayle. He tookit forgrantedthat
therewas one characteristically modernway of thinking thatcould be identified
withrationality itself,and he presumedthatit gave the modernsan inestimable
advantageover the ancients.Or at least so it seems at firstsight.Perhapsthis
unarguedconfidencein thereasoningsof civilizedmen was somethinghe clung
to, somethinghe appealed to, in the face of whathe termedthe "tragediesand
cataclysms"of the day (p. 2). For it was his hope thathis book would be read
as "an act of faithin the futureof intellectualfreedom"(p. 8) at a timewhen
therewas littleintellectualfreedomto be had.
What would Febvrehave made of his moderncritics?One can imaginethe
pleasurewithwhichhe would have read Ginzburgor Gregory,the speed with
whichhe would have guttedBrunfelsor Tahureau,theskillwithwhichhe would
have marshaledpassages fromMontaigneto supporthis own argument.I doubt
if he would have changedhis views, forthe essence of his positionwas thatit
was immoderateand provocative.Here he is, forexample, summingup four
pages on sixteenth-century Frenchsyntax:"It was a long-winded,verboselan-
guage, too oftenlackingin rhythm and style,a languageof peasantswho spoke
rarely,but,whentheoccasion presenteditself,spokeendlessly,losingthemselves
in explanationsand tangents,in details and circumstances,because theywere
ineptat untanglingthe threadof theirthought,because theyhad time, lots of
time,all thetimein the world" (p. 362).
It wouldbe hardto defendthisas a fairdescription of thelanguageof Ronsard,
Rabelais, or Montaigne.But it is a fairguide to the virtuesFebvreaspiredto in
his own prose:concision,rhythm, urbanity,coherence,haste. And it tellsus not
merelyhow Febvreaspiredto writebut also how he read. His own claim was
that,in the sixteenthcentury,people reliednot so muchon theirsense of sight
730 Wootton

as on smell,taste,touch,and hearing.Reducedto learningaboutthisworldfrom

books alone, Febvreallowed the words on the page to excite his othersenses.
Above all, he listened,and he writesas if he were speakingaloud. Harvard
University Press has mistakenly describedthisbook as a "magisterialstudy."It
is muchbetterthanthat.Febvre's intentionwas to publishhis book not as a set
of well-digestedconclusions,butas thevisiblerecordof "a searchfora method"
(p. 8). He talks to his reader,not at him. He called a collectionof his essays
Combatspour l'histoire,and thisis a pugnaciousnota magisterialbook. On the
firstpage he wrote, "Of all stupidsayings,the one about the book that'will
neverhave to be rewritten' runsthe riskof being the stupidest."Febvre's book
has stoodthetestoftimewell, butitshouldbe readnow notas a definitive answer
to "the problemof unbelief" butas an invitationto debate.

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