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The Colours of Idolatry

Comparative Religion, Race Labelling, and Emotions in Early Modern Accounts of ‘the Religious Other’

In 1741, a bowdlerized version of Jean Frédéric Bernard and Bernard Picart’s Cérémonies et coutumes religieuses de tous les peuples du monde (1723-1737) was published in Paris. The work of two French Catholic clergymen, Abbé Banier and Abbé Le Mascrier, its purpose, they said, was to rectify its ‘most extravagant Tolerationism’ [le Tolérantisme le plus outré]. It has recently been claimed that Bernard and Picart’s Cérémonies, one of the first naturalistic accounts of the world’s existing religions, was “the book that changed Europe”, because it encouraged greater receptivity to the religious “Other” (Hunt, Jacob and Mijnhardt 2010).

For example, received views of the supposed barbarity of Congolese and Angolan natives are undermined by Bernard’s withering observation that missionaries sought to impose “the whiteness of the God of the Christians, in opposition to their black Deity” by ensuring that Blacks “exchanged their fetiches for crosses”. The popularity of the Cérémonies, both in the immediate and long term, was to a great extent due to Picart’s rich body of illustrations. Compiled and produced over the course of a decade, they also circulated independently of Bernard’s text, which, in turn, was widely translated, plagiarised and pirated. Bernard was at pains to draw out the affinities between peoples far removed in time and place. This aspect was accentuated by Picart’s mixing of European and non-European elements in his illustrations, questioning the belief of European readers that they had nothing in common with “savages” in far-flung places. He also graphically contended that some religions, especially Catholicism, were threatening to distort the essence of religious experience with empty ceremonialism. Picart thus provides a proleptic, emotion-driven example of the “orientalism grammar” propounded by Gerd Baumann, which holds that growing knowledge of other religious traditions provided parameters for interrogating one’s own culture (Gingrich and Baumann 2004).

It must be said, however,  that  in  seeking  to portray  distant  cultures  as  fully  human,  Picart  invests  them  with Europeanized affective traits. As so, despite his sympathetic treatment of the “other”, Picart’s discursive mode may have inadvertently presented whiteness (and perhaps Reformed Protestantism) as the standard, against which other races (and religions) failed to measure up. Surprisingly, little attention has been paid to the “African section” of Bernard and Picart’s work (published in 1728), in spite of its far-reaching influence. By bringing this significant section into the foreground for the first time, I shall map the origins of attitudes towards non-white peoples, which persisted through the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries.

My work will respond to the call by Carlo Ginzburg, in “Provincializing the World: Europeans, Indians, Jews (1704)”, to explore the fruitfulness of the early modern notion of conformité (as a vehicle to proto-cultural comparativism) and of its equivalents in different languages.