What is the conference Priestcraft: Early Modern Variations on the Theme of Sacerdotal Imposture about?

The only place anyone is likely to hear the term “priestcraft” today is in a historical seminar, so the topic of this conference definitely needs some explanation. An appropriate place to begin is with the most recent instance I could find of the term’s usage in a sincere and naïve sense. This was a pamphlet from 1994 written by a Mormon fundamentalist with the title: The Four Crafts: Doctorcraft, Lawyercraft, Priestcraft, Kingcraft. In fact the title references a quotation made by Brigham Young in 1863 about the four “professions” that in his eyes were responsible for oppressing God’s people.

It is interesting to think about this word “craft.” Obviously it has positive connotations (“craftsmanship,” “craft beer,” etc.). But it can also take on the more negative connotations of slyness and subterfuge, as in the term “crafty.” This is a little speculative, but I think the attitude towards specialized knowledge, embodied in particular trades and professions, has always alternated between respect and suspicion. That was especially so with regard to the priesthood, given its power and the importance of religion in people’s lives in the early modern period. “Priestcraft” represents the negative side of this relationship. It implied that the specialist knowledge possessed by the priests was in fact a fraudulent knowledge that they had concocted and that they peddled in order to maintain their power and status.

What are the big questions/issues/themes addressed by this conference?

One of the questions we wish to consider is how “priestcraft” was related to the other “crafts” mentioned in the title of the Mormon pamphlet from 1994, particularly “kingcraft” or “statecraft” or “princecraft”; given how entwined the power of the political authorities and the church was, the charge of “priestcraft” almost always carried with it political overtones. Indeed, in some of the more radical literature one often finds allusions to an alleged alliance of the princes and the priests who work together to pull the wool over the eyes of the people and thus jointly perpetuate their power.

Of course, such ideas were largely polemical in nature. In fact, “priestcraft” seems to have really taken off as an idea in the disputes between the confessions after the Reformation. So we are interested in exploring this dynamic: Protestants accusing Catholic priests of imposing superstitious beliefs and practices upon the laity, Catholic polemicists claiming that the Protestant clergy had led their flock astray. In the course of time, such conflicts gave rise to a tendency among some to shun, if not the idea of religion itself, then certainly the institutional forms religion had taken in European society. It is easy to imagine how such critiques of religious institutions and practices – critiques whose character we might cautiously describe as modern or secular – could also employ the charge of priestcraft in more generally impugning the role of the clergy in society.

Polemical dispute of course seems very distant from current norms of dispassionate, objective inquiry. It is, however, important to realize that, even if priestcraft had a pronounced polemical character, it was not entirely bereft of use as a means to comprehend church history and the history of other religions. In other words, the story is more than just one of accusations being hurled back and forth. We hope to examine this use of priestcraft in a historical register and to also consider applications the idea might have found in a “proto-ethnographic” sense: Europeans in their encounters with non-European cultures would try to understand the power relations within these cultures on the basis of this notion of priestcraft.

Who will it be of interest to?

Most obviously the conference will speak to the historians, particularly those with an interest in the history of ideas and church history. Of course the themes also touch upon aspects of theology, political science and anthropology, so it would be great to have people with these backgrounds participating in the discussion.

How did this conference come about?

The first time I encountered such ideas was in accounts of the pre-history of the sociology of knowledge. The sociology of knowledge looks at how our knowledge is shaped and conditioned by social factors. One crude version of this perspective lies in the claim that our knowledge is foisted upon us by those who then profit socially, politically and economically from our belief in it. In some of my earlier work on the Radical Enlightenment in the German context I ran into these ideas in an obviously derivative form: the challenge, which I noted at the time but did not really pursue, was to trace the story back and work out where these ideas had come from.

Upon arriving at Cambridge to join the Conspiracy and Democracy project at CRASSH, I continued to encounter these ideas in other contexts. One of the P.I.s on our project, Professor David Runciman, has been interested in the affinities between the thought of the philosopher and social reformer Jeremy Bentham and what we today denote as conspiracy theories. In some of Bentham’s work old ideas of priestcraft continue to echo.

I soon realized that Cambridge was full of people who had made important contributions to the research on this topic (Professor Mark Goldie, Professor Larry Klein, etc.). My friend, James Lancaster at Royal Holloway, was also very receptive to the idea of a conference, not least because he studied under Professor Justin Champion, whose research has also been crucial for promoting an awareness of priestcraft as a fundamental idea in early modern debates on political and religious authority. So in conversations with James early last year we started to develop the idea of a conference devoted to the topic.

Who are the speakers and what can delegates expect from the conference?

We will kick off with a paper given by Justin Champion, looking at the history of priestcraft from the Reformation to the Enlightenment. That is very appropriate in view of Justin’s contributions to the field: his inquiry into the thought and intellectual network of freethinkers such as John Toland is indispensable in any work on this topic. And Mark Goldie should also be mentioned in this context because his work has also identified the notion of priestcraft as a touchstone of early modern thought. We have, in addition to the other senior scholars (Winfried Schröder, Michael Hunter, John Marschall, Ariel Hessayon), a number of more junior scholars at the PhD or post-doc level, who will be taking the inquiry into this topic in new directions. And we are hopeful that the contributions from some of our international guests will provide a way of contextualizing the English case, which until now has attracted the most attention.

And yet it is obvious to me that we are only really scratching the surface. Much work remains to be done. Perhaps I can indicate this by simply noting some of the papers that were originally on the programme but were withdrawn because our dates clashed with other commitments. Alison Knight from the Bible and Antiquity project at CRASSH was planning to talk on Edmund Grindal, Church Transparency, and Priestcraft in 16th Century London, Sébastien Drouin from the University of Toronto was going to tell us about Prophets and imposture sacerdotale in French Clandestine Literature, and Gaby Mahlberg was preparing a paper on Machiavelli, Neville and the Seventeenth-Century Discourse on Priestcraft. Hopefully we might be able to hear more about these topics in the collection of conference papers that will be available next year in printed form.

How can people find out more? 

  • More information is available at the CRASSH website, where it is also possible to register for the conference (until 28 August 2016).
  • The concept paper for the conference, also containing a bibliography which we will continue to update, is available from my academia page.
  • A collection of conference papers will be published as a special issue of the journal Intellectual History Review in autumn of next year. So those who are interested in the topic but might not be able to make it to the conference should keep this in mind.



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