BOOK REVIEW : Delumeau’s ‘Sin and Fear’ Looks at Guilt as Seen in 15th Century : SIN AND FEAR: The Emergence of a Western Guilt Culture, 13th-18th Centuries <i> by Jean Delumeau</i> , <i> translated by Eric Nicholson</i> ; St. Martin’s Press; 39.95; 677 pages


On the dust jacket of “Sin and Fear” is a detail of the Bosch painting in which men and women in their baptismal suits are disporting themselves about a garden of earthly delights. Whether the ladies and gentlemen are enjoying lust, or just a bit of artistic luck, is not quite clear, but it does serve as an appropriate introduction to sin and fear and guilt, at least in the 15th Century.

In the inside back flap of the book’s dust jacket, author Jean Delumeau is identified only as a professor of history at the College de France, Paris. According to the translator, this is the second volume of a tetralogy, but only the first to appear in English. The first book deals with fear in the West, and the last with a history of Paradise.

Whatever comes before or after, the present volume divines, among the medieval and Renaissance kings and clergy, “a propensity to sensationalize the message of Holy Scripture,” and the author asks why these potentates did it.


“This book has attempted to answer this enormous question,” he writes, “by considering sin as a ‘historical object.’ It was, I believe, a new enterprise to undertake a cultural history of sin in the West.”

Indeed, Delumeau’s work is a sort of tour de force through the Museum of Spiritual History (my metaphor, not the author’s), wherein one can see “more than 600 years of guilt-instilling efforts.” Leading the tour is Delumeau, acting as a sort of historical curator.

In the first hall of the ground floor, one sees various manifestations of “contemptus mundi,” a once-useful ascetical concept of amazing plasticity; in a thousand forms it relentlessly urged the denial of all earthly enterprise.

In the next hall is “Danse Macabre,” the image of death that was rendered so imaginatively, if grotesquely, adding a little Fred and Ginger to the otherwise dull sermon, the otherwise static painting.

On the second floor in an exhibit entitled “A Failure of Redemption?” Delumeau presents the examination of conscience, the practice if not the sacrament of penance, the concept if not the doctrine of original sin, the relative paucity of the saved; under “Religious Uneasiness,” he dazzlingly displays the doctrine of pain, the disease of scruple, the difficulty of death.

On the third floor, where the placard reads “An Evangelism of Fear,” he details sermons and hymns, the tortures of the afterlife, the judgment or vengeance of a “lynx-eyed” God, the classifications of sins as mortal and venial, and the ascetic model, the svelte ideal.

The Catholic world comes in for a lot of corporal punishment at the hands of the historical curator, but the Protestant world also suffers from his lash, especially because of its emphasis on eschatology and predestination.

It isn’t that there was so much sin in the centuries covered by the book, the author seems to argue, as that there was not enough forgiveness. “A pessimistic brand of preaching” and “a series of vast collective disasters that besieged Europeans” seemed to have fueled the imaginations of princes and priests.

When the 18th Century began to alleviate the “serious threats to daily life,” however, such persuasion as the politicians and preachers possessed began to erode. Sin and fear began to disappear. Guilt too has been evanescing, but seemingly at a far slower rate.

Delumeau’s perceptions are not without spiritual perspective: “I think that sin exists,” he confesses. “I feel its presence in me. Furthermore, I cannot see how one can eliminate the idea of an Original Sin, whose scars we still bear.

“Freud felt this and tried to explain it, while both Bergson and Gouhier observed that ‘everything happens as if there were an original defect in man.’

“My book must therefore not be taken either as a refusal of guilt or the need for a consciousness of sin. On the contrary, I think it will shed light on the excessive sense of guilt and ‘culpabilization’ . . . that has characterized Western history.”

A most amusing afternoon, with vivid memories of the Black Death and the Wars of Religion. Out into the sunlight again. I can’t remember when I enjoyed sin and fear more.

But if I were to reread the book, re-enter the museum, as it were, and take the tour through the same materials, this time accompanied by the spiritual curator, the effect might be quite different. He would propose that what appears to be historical artifact may be as alive today as it was centuries ago.

Are those Rodinesque figures of “Lust” and “Sloth” really made of stone, he would ask, or are they Marceau-like mimes, motionless as one approaches, but after one passes, pouncing on one’s very back and clawing at one’s very existence?

“Sin and Fear” is full of pleasures and delights, but not for everyone who has suffered at the hands of theologically manipulated sin and fear, who has been ground down by clerically originated guilt. It is certainly for those who like to rummage around the European centuries, especially from the 13th to the 18th.