The fact that the most radical work of the Sixteenth Century (and well beyond), The Discourse on Voluntary Servitude, placed itself completely outside of the theological context indicates quite well the degree to which the discourse of God had fallen into disuse. Religious language, over which the Church and the [various other] orthodoxies claimed to exercise control, ceded place to the ideological language in which the changing economy – turning the liberties of yesterday into the constraints of tomorrow – extinguished the blazes that it ceaselessly lit.
If it is true that the principle “He who controls meaning controls the world” has been verified, ecclesiastical power, which conceived no other revolt against it than that of those who were outside of meaning (the senseless, the crazy), began to lose, from the Renaissance on, the means of persuasion and terror that somehow or other bolstered the correct line of the dogma around which gravitated the spirit of beings and things, if not their very hearts.
Assuredly, the mockery, sarcasm and irony that whipped the austere and unhealthy ass of religion were not born from the tumults of the Sixteenth Century. The difference was that they were formulated in speech and not in writing. Penal history teems with reports such as the one that Jundt relayed in his study of popular pantheism:
“In 1359, the town council forever banished a certain Claushorn, surnamed Engelbrecht, the school director Selden, and Cüntzelin of Atzenheim because they rapped on a wooden chair and three-legged stool, and said, ‘Here is God; we would like to break his foot,’ and because they had erased the black points with which their dice were marked and said, ‘Here is God, we would like to burst his eyes.’ One of them even threw his knife at the sky and cried out, ‘I would like to strike God with my knife.’”
The formidable network of awakening and moronic exhaustion that the printing press stretched between the towns and the countryside had placed in everyone’s hands the two Testaments – completely filled with incoherencies, absurdities and infamies –through which God manifested his uncertain presence in society. By emphasizing the antitheses contained in the Bible, Hans Denck abandoned each person to the care of devoting himself (or not) to the convictions of a faith that was intimate and deprived of reason. A little later, those whom the Church called “freethinkers” because they threatened the power of its Spirit began to disclose in writing the ironies that were capable of dissolving the authority of the Book that, for centuries, had crushed terrestrial and voluptuous life under its weight of guilt, fear, ferocity and contempt.
Much in this mixture of audacity and pusillanimity remains poorly known.
Despite his weaker attachment to violence, Valentin Weigel (1533-1588) does not fail to evoke the parish priest John Meslier. A Lutheran pastor in Zschopau, Weigel led an existence [apparently] deprived of remarkable traits. But, after his death, it was revealed that he’d written a book, partially published in Halle in 1609, in which he reduced the sacred texts of the Apocalypse and the Revelations attributed to John to the name of the Beast, whose number  nourished visions of the Third Age. He considered Luther, the Pope, Zwingli and others to be Antichrists, and he thought the pastorate to be perfectly useless. Each man possessed in himself the divine spark that, embracing the body and the soul, rendered the Scriptures, grace, the clergy, theology and all historical religion to be null and void. The knowledge of God proceeded, not from the Bible nor from the sacraments, but from an inward conviction that one could not restrain.
A polemicist, writer, engraver and humanist, Dirck Coornhert was among the principal representatives of the Renaissance in Holland. Versatile and courageous, [and this] in a country in which Protestant intransigence had succeeded Catholic intolerance, he led, despite persecution, an incessant fight in favor of religious freedoms and against the death penalty for committing heresy. A precursor of freethinking, he left to each person the care of depending upon his or her own conscience and founding secular morality on the respect for others and a certain stoicism. His belief in a perfection accessible to mankind brought down upon him charges of “Pelagianism,” a term already in disuse in the Sixteenth Century.
Born in Amsterdam in 1522, Coornhert was educated in the Catholic faith, which he never abjured, even when William of Orange took power; he especially kept to his evangelic principles. He traveled to Spain and Portugal, became familiar with biblical exegesis, and learned music and engraving. After his return to Amsterdam, he got married in 1540 and then moved to Haarlem, where he became a professional engraver. Around 1544, he discovered the works of Luther, Calvin and Menno Simons. In 1550, he wrote Comedie van de rijcke man, and shortly thereafter translated Boethius’ De consolatione philosophiae. Coornhert associated with Henry Niclaes, the founder of the Family of Love, with whom he later quarreled, not without maintaining a certain nostalgia for an idyllic, original community. He was also enthusiastic about Sebastian Franck and the mystical fragments of the Theologia Deutsch. In 1560, Coornhert took exception to Calvin and Menno. Two years later, Calvin threw at him his Response to a Certain Dutchman who, under the Guise of Making the Christians Completely Spiritual, Permits Them to Pollute their Bodies through Idolatry. In response to other texts by Coornhert on free will, Calvin was on his guard against “this man who pushes impiety to the extreme.”
A notary at the court of Holland, Coornhert was successful at making himself suspect to both the Catholics and the Protestants. Following the riots of the iconoclasts, in which his role has not been clearly established, he was imprisoned at The Hague in 1567. He used his detention to write short texts and pamphlets; he escaped in 1568 and was a secret agent for the Prince of Orange, despite the hostility of the Protestants, until 1572. He returned to Haarlem and, tasked with making a report about the “Beggars” led by Lumey, he denounced their brutalities and abuses of power, and thus attracted their hatred. Coornhert hid himself in Leyden, then Zamten. When Requesens, the Governor of the Netherlands, announced a general pardon in 1574, Coornhert was excluded from it. He didn’t hesitate to address himself to Philippe II in the hope of recovering his confiscated goods, from whence came his reputation, which followed him, for “playing all the angles.”
When Coornhert returned to Holland, the hostility of the Protestants towards him had grown and he did nothing to attenuate it. He defended the Catholic minority, which was oppressed in Holland; he produced many appeals for tolerance; he pronounced himself opposed to the death penalty for dissidents of all stripes; and he translated the writings of Sébastian Castellion. It was only because of the influence of William of Orange that Coornhert was not condemned to life in prison. Chased from Haarlem in 1585, he went to Emden, where he published a work of Stoic inspiration in 1586. Banished from Delft after a stay of three months, he sought refuge in Gouda and died there on 29 October 1590.
In Coornhert one sees the passage from Christian morality to a secular morality that was enriched with ideas of tolerance and freedom of spirit. The influence of the mystics and Denck appeared in his language, which was stripped of sacred references and exhorted his readers to have respect for all individuals. Finally, his idea that mankind could attain perfection through a constant effort of will that was so strong that it could no longer sin resembled Pelage’s theses and not – as one sometimes reproached Coornhert – the doctrines of the Spiritual Libertines.
Over the course of his lifetime, the humanist Bernardino Ochino (1487-1564) adhered to nearly all of the religions and doctrines of his time. He did not wait for the signs of old age to affirm that the unique value of life (with all its vicissitudes) is found in terrestrial favors and flavors. Born in Sienna in the Oca neighborhood, from which he drew his name, he entered the Franciscan order and became a Capuchin preacher. He met Juan de Valdés and let himself be seduced by Luther’s ideas. Ochino broke with Catholicism and went to Geneva, which tested Calvin’s repugnance for tolerant spirits. Ochino then went to Augsburg, Strasbourg and Canterbury, where he vituperated the Pope. He wrote The Labyrinth of Free Will or, to Speak Truly, Servile Will and the Means of Getting Out of It. He distanced himself from [an attachment to] all systems and professed a discreet atheism, allied with a Rabelaisian quest for pleasure. At the time, one attributed to him – and no doubt falsely – authorship of The Book of the Three Impostors, which was imputed to other adventurers of his type, whose influence merits being better studied: [for example] Simon de Neufville (from Hainaut), who died in Padua in 1530, a disciple of the skeptic Christophe de Longueil, himself the teacher of Étienne Dolet.
At the age of 60, Ochino wed a young woman. His Dialoghi XXX, which celebrated the merits of polygamy, caused his expulsion from Zurich in 1563. He took refuge in Poland, then in Slavkov (Austerlitz) in Moravia, where he succumbed to the plague in 1565.
Originally a schoolteacher from Suzanne, nearby Attigny, Noël Journet was among the disciples of Dirk Coornhert, whom he met during a visit to the Netherlands. Journet inscribed himself in the line of Hans Denck through his attention to the inconsistencies and absurdities in the Bible. The publication of his commentaries drew down upon him the denunciations of the Calvinists, who had him burned, along with his work, at Metz on 29 June 1582.
Pastor Jean de Chassanion thought it was useful to refute the pamphlet, which thereby added his name to the annals of infamous informers and Journet’s name to Reason’s misfortunes.
The Refutation of the Strange Errors and Horrible Blasphemies against God and the Holy Scriptures and the Holy Prophets and Apostles made by a Certain Miserable Person who for Such Impieties was Justly Condemned to Die and Who was Burned in the City of Metz on 29 June, the Year of Our Lord MDLXXXII, [written] by Jean de Chassanion, Minister of the Reformed Church of Metz quoted the following statements, among others:
“Moses was an enemy of humankind, a captain of murderers and brigands. He gave the orders to his people to sack [the place] when they entered Canaan, to kill the women and all the male children whom the downfall of the Madianites had spared; Moses also only preserved the virginal girls (Nb 31:17-18; Dt 7:2).
“Jacob was a deceiver. He notably used striped sticks to influence the color of the lambs and to thereby increase his portion of the livestock (Gn 30:37-42).
“Moses did not write the Pentateuch, given that his own death is related at the end of it (Dt 34).
“Deuteronomy was drafted in the land of Canaan, because it says, Dt 4:47, that the children of Israel possessed the land of the two Amorean kings beyond the Jordan.”
Other affirmations more surely brought upon him the sanctions of the judicial system. In fact, he declared that the magistrates were all “tyrants and thieves,” that the great ones [les tailles] were “true tyrants” and that “a woman no longer married according to her tastes can take another husband so as to avoid bawdiness.”
Geoffroy Vallée owed his renown and premature death to a pamphlet entitled The Beatitude of the Christians, or the Scourge of Faith. Born in Orléans around 1550, the “beautiful Valley,” as his libertine friends called him, allied the search for the pleasures of existence with a taste for publicly critiquing the things that hindered and perverted them. He pushed imprudence as far as signing his name to a pamphlet that was directed, not only against all the religions, but against all the beliefs, which were all founded on fear, according to him. Sometimes distributed under the title De arte nihil credendi, this text was accused of committing divine high treason. Arrested on the orders of the Provost-Marshal Nicolas Rapin, Vallée soon after benefited from the support and friendship of the libertine aristocracy, though this did not save him. This was the same libertine aristocracy that, in the Seventeenth Century, boasted people like [Jacques Vallée] Des Barreaux (whose great-uncle was Geoffroy), Claude Le Petit, Bélurgey, Théophile de Viau, Blot, and Cyrano de Bergerac – free spirits who often drove to despair [those who issued] the prohibitions against the simple aspiration to live well.
The defense [in Geoffroy’s trial], adopting an old argument of the Church, invoked the “senseless” character of the writing and its author. Rapin would have been inclined to a relative leniency if the Bishop of Nevers, Armand Sorbin, had not personally intervened to demand the execution of the young man. On 9 February 1574, Geoffroy Vallée, 24 years old, was hanged and then burned. The Jesuit [François] Garasse [later] rejoiced at the “beautiful sacrifice to God at the Place de Grève, where he [Geoffroy] was burned half-alive.”
Geoffroy Vallée was dedicated to the execration of “this [religious] faith, since they want lodged within it all that we are, for all of our lives, and even when we die they sing the Credo to us.” He successively examined the Catholic faith, “from which comes all evil” and which forged the fear of the devil and executioners, and the faith of the Huguenots, with their “false intelligence (and) their fears and baton blows, which, if you do not believe [that faith], you cannot be saved.” The faiths of the Anabaptists and the libertines hardly fared better. Even atheism didn’t find a place [in his heart], because “I enjoy my sensual pleasures without God; in God I only have torment.” Atheism did not reject the fear that was inherent in all beliefs. “All the religions,” he wrote, with a great lucidity, “have removed from man the ecstasy of the body in order to make him ever more miserable.”
In sum, the important thing wasn’t believing or not believing, but being without fear: “He who is in fear, whatever that fear is, cannot be happy.” Thus one must banish the fear inherent in all the faiths in order to have “reason in one’s head, without seeking it outside oneself or in the sword.” Here Vallée attained a radicalism of which the libertines of the Seventeenth Century, the atheists of the Eighteenth Century and the freethinkers of the Nineteenth and Twentieth Centuries were ignorant. (Note that the interest of such humanists as Paracelsus, [Heinrich Cornelius] Agrippa von Nettesheim, Guillaume Postel, Tommaso Campanella, Giordano Bruno and Lucio Vanini exceeds that of the history of philosophy.)
 Translator: Written in 1548 by Étienne de La Boétie.
 Hegel, Chroniken von Closener und Königshofen, Leipzig, 1871, extracts in Livre secret du magistrat de Strasbourg, II, p. 1201; quoted by A. Jundt, Histoire du panthéisme populaire, op. cit., p. 106.
 Translation: The Comedy of the Rich Man and The Consolation of Philosophy, respectively.
 Translator: published in French in 1562.
 R. Bainton, Bernardino Ochino, 1940.
 R. Peter, “Noel Journet, détracteur de l’Écriture sainte (1582),” in Croyants et sceptiques.
 Translator: Latin for “The Art of Believing in Nothing.”
 F. Lachevre, L’Ancêtre des libertins du XVII siècle, Geoffroy Vallée, brulé le 9 février 1574, et la “Béatitude des chrétiens,” Paris, 1920.
(Published by Fayard in 1993. Translated from the French by NOT BORED! May 2013. All footnotes by the author, except where noted.)