Reason, Truth, and the Persecution of Heretics in Sixteenth-Century Switzerland

Woodcut device of Pietro Perna, ca. 1560

by Odile Panetta

The debate over the legitimacy of coercing heretics which flared up in Switzerland from the 1550s provided the context for new reflections on the limits of human knowledge and on the means of attaining certain truth in matters of religion. Scholarship on this debate has largely focussed on the thought of the opponent of persecution Sebastian Castellio, responsible for formulating a rationalist critique of the interpretation of the relationship between faith, understanding, and certitude as posited by defenders of coercion in the Reformed camp. In this paper, I reassess the nature of the challenge to Reformed epistemology which emerged from the Swiss heresy debate, by exploring both the original articulation of the problem of uncertainty and the reception of these early ideas. I conclude that the true import of Castellio’s contribution lay not so much in his rationalism, as in the unsettling consequences of his framing of the problem of knowledge and the multiple possibilities it opened.

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Author’s bio:
Odile Panetta completed a BA in History at University College London in 2017, and an intercollegiate MA in History of Political Thought and Intellectual History at UCL and Queen Mary, University of London, before moving to Cambridge for her PhD in 2018. Odile is broadly interested in the philosophical, political and religious thought of sixteenth-century humanists. Her current research project is centered around the debate over the legitimacy of the coercion of heretics in mid-sixteenth-century Switzerland, with a particular focus on arguments against religious coercion, and on the relationship between religion and politics, as developed and disseminated, in the context of this debate, by a number of heterodox Italian Protestant exiles.

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