A Secret Conspiracy Exposed!

Il Nicodemismo: Simulazione e dissimulazione religiosa nell’ Europa del 1500

by Carlo Ginzburg
Giulio Einaudi (Torino), 223 pp., 5,000 lire

The meaning of the term “Nicodemism” is briefly explained in the subtitle of Carlo Ginzburg’s book, namely, religious simulation and dissimulation; a Nicodemite is someone who conceals his own religious convictions, while outwardly conforming to the dominant religion of his country. The origin of the term is the title of one of Calvin’s pamphlets, Excuse à Messieurs les Nicodémites (1544), a sarcastic reply to those who had protested against the harshness of an earlier pamphlet directed against converts to some kind of Protestant doctrine who, living among Roman Catholics, took part in Catholic ceremonies, in particular the Mass, in order to avoid persecution. Calvin claimed that they misused the example of Nicodemus to excuse their conduct. Nicodemus was a Pharisee who came to Christ, having recognized that He was a prophet of God, but came by night, that is, secretly (John 3:1). The modern use of the term Nicodemite was launched by the great Italian historian of religion, Delio Cantimori, in his Eretici italiani del Cinquecento (1939).

Ginzburg, a worthy pupil of Cantimori, to whose memory he dedicates this book, has produced an extremely important study of Nicodemism, which is complementary to the latter’s work on the subject. Cantimori had dealt mainly with the second half of the sixteenth century, his starting point being Calvin’s attacks on Nicodemites around 1540, and he was primarily interested in Italian heretics. Ginzburg takes the same starting point, but goes backward from it by asking, and answering, the questions: who exactly were the people Calvin was attacking, and what were the origins of their Nicodemism?

The obvious and simple answer to these questions is inadequate: that in an age of extreme intolerance and bloody persecution many people holding unorthodox religious views would be driven into hypocritical behavior. No doubt purely practical motives, unwillingness to face martyrdom or the miseries of exile, were in some cases major causes of Nicodemism, but by no means in all; and, even where they were present, they alone do not account for the fact that the Nicodemites Calvin was attacking apparently held a positive doctrine of systematic concealment and conformism, and justified themselves by appeal to Scriptural examples. It is with this doctrinal aspect of Nicodemism that Ginzburg is mainly concerned, and he does not aim at giving a historical panorama of practicing Nicodemites, though inevitably many of them appear in his pages.

There are difficulties and dangers inherent in trying to trace the history of a clandestine movement: the historian is inevitably dealing with deliberately masked, ambiguous documents. Indeed, if the movement were successfully secret, it should have left behind no documentary evidence at all, and there is a real danger of historians being tempted into inventing fictitious secret societies. But Ginzburg is acutely aware of these dangers, and, in this particular case, there are several reasons why such movements should have left some unequivocal traces.

Once the Reformers had acquired politically secure centers in Germany and Switzerland, from which they could continue …

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