The Protestant Israelites of Sancerre: Jean de Léry and the Confessional Demarcation of Cannibalism

In: Journal of Early Modern History
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  • 1 University of Notre Dame
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This article explores how Jean de Léry understood Protestant, Catholic, and Brazilian acts of cannibalism. It argues that Léry constructed a new Huguenot confessional identity in the wake of the Saint Bartholomew’s Day Massacre by equating his own besieged community in Sancerre with the anthropophagous Israelites of the Hebrew Bible. He counts his own people as the worst of all cannibals, for like the ancient Israelites, the Huguenots of Sancerre possessed a superior understanding of God’s will but ate each other nonetheless. Léry makes these judgments by invoking examples of man-eating from the Bible and Josephus, as well as contemporary acts of cannibalism. His identification of the Huguenots with unfaithful Israel represents a break from the more optimistic conceptions of Israelite identity held by Jean Crespin and others prior to the St. Bartholomew’s Day Massacre. By equating the inhabitants of Sancerre with the cannibals of ancient Israel, Léry extends John Calvin’s sacramental reasoning concerning the linguistic relationship between the sign and the thing signified far beyond its original scope. He does this in order to come to grips with the new reality that the Huguenots, whose fortunes were ascending prior to the Massacre, were now witnessing a decidedly dark turn in what they perceived to be God’s providence.

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