Sacrifice in the Europe of the religious conflicts and in the early modern world: comparisons, interpretations, legitimations

Prin 2017

The backdrop of the project includes the rich historic-anthropological debate of recent years (though in part it has neglected the early modern era), the genealogy of contemporary terroristic, religiously-inspired violence (invoking the immolation of attackers and the blood of the defenseless enemy-victim) and the 400th anniversary of the Thirty Years’ War (1618), the most devastating conflict on the European continent before the 20th century. The project – bringing together scholars of early modern history and the history of Christianity and of oriental religions from the Universities of Bologna, Florence, Macerata and Naples – proposes to focus on and compare certain features of religious sacrifice from the Late Middle Ages until the Enlightenment. It will compare a variety of Christian denominations organized after Luther’s Reformation. It will also extend to the context of early colonialism, with special interest in European reflections on Islam, on Meso-American civilizations, and on Asia. Utilizing a wide spectrum of source material (biblical comments, normative texts, rites, images, philosophical and anthropological reflections, histories of ancient Christianity, letters from missionaries and travelers, and analysis dedicated to ‘idolatry’), the research group intends to focus on the language of sacrifice (the presence of the scapegoat, the ritual role of blood, the use of violence) and how it changed after the Late Middle Ages and during the early modern era. It will concentrate on the following themes: the survival of the idea of holy war following the 15th century during the period of the late, anti-Islamic crusades, and the use of certain figures from the Old Testament (the Maccabees, Samson) as examples of self-suppression and wartime sacrifice used to mobilize armies and annihilate the enemy in the religious conflicts and rebellions that plagued Europe until the peace of Westphalia (1648); the rituals and religious/theological legitimizations of wars in the late modern age; Catholic sanctity following the Council of Trent, its personalization, its use by the Roman Church, its canonization and rewriting of bodily sacrifice and of martyrdom as militancy in European disputes and in the missionary theater worldwide; Protestant martyrology as a genealogy of the true church and as response to Catholic sanctity; the insistence on sacrifice and militancy by Calvinism and the persecution as a source of legitimization for the non-conformist communities of the so-called Radical Reformation; the relationship between sacrifice, resistance, and sovereignty in legal and political discourse, the image of the State as a living body and the idea of immolating a part of it to save the entire organism, from Machiavelli to Rousseau; the birth of religious studies, the first histories of the origins of Christianity, Antiquarianism and Jewish studies, anthropological comparison and reflection on sacrifice, superstition, and idolatry from the 16th century (the discovery of the Americas) to the Enlightenment (religions as part of a history of civilization that expunges sacrifices); a view of sacrifice in the early colonial world, especially India, through Catholic and British missionary accounts of sat (the ritual immolation of the widow on her deceased husband’s funeral pyre), emphasizing the critiques and different strategies of conversion addressed to women, Jesuit works and the objectives of the Propaganda Fide. The Bologna unit will concentrate on the idea of the crusade and on the biblical images of immolation in religious wars; on modern sanctity as militancy and sacrifice, and on the birth of religious comparison in the early modern age. The Florence unit will focus on Jewish studies; Protestant martyrology; the Radical Reformation and persecution as chrism of truth; on the refusal of sacrifice by the first theorists of tolerance. The Macerata group will examine the missionary sanctity, the strategies of conversion and the Protestant and Catholic writings on the ritual sacrifice of sat in India. Finally, the Naples unit will investigate the State as a living, sacrificial body; reflections concerning idolatry; the history of religions of the 17th century until the period of late Enlightenment and European reflections on the Islamic world and the Far East. Besides organizing study seminars dedicated to the specific issues of each group, the units will work together on two international conventions, one intermediate and one at the project’s conclusion. The purpose of these will be to take stock of research progress and allow for debate and dialogue among other scholars. A database will index the sources used for the project, distinguishing them by type, moment of production and origin.  

March 2020 - September 2023
Local Coordinator 

Vincenzo Lavenia 
National Coordinator 
Vincenzo Lavenia (DiSCi) 


Università di Firenze 

Università di Macerata 

Università di Napoli – L’Orientale 

577.640 euro (395.000) 

2nd level Etc sectors

SH6_7 Early modern history