Robert Priest – Renan, Religion, and the Republic: The Life of Jesus Controversy in Fin-de-Siècle France

Event Date: 20 January 2015

McCrea 336

Royal Holloway University of London
Egham, Surrey
TW20 0EX

Royal Holloway University of London Department of History


Departmental Research seminars 2014/2015

Dr Robert Priest (RHUL) – Renan Religion, and the Republic: The Life of Jesus Controversy in Fin-de-Siècle France

Disputes over the iconoclastic depiction of sacred figures in France are not a new phenomenon, but the belligerents and their context have certainly changed. In the midst of the Republican campaign for the separation of church and state in 1903, the leading figures of the French government trooped off to a small town in Brittany to unveil a statue to one of their intellectual heroes: Ernest Renan. As this talk will explain, republican secularists celebrated Renan, above all else, as the author of Life of Jesus: a commercially successful biography of Jesus that had been published to great controversy in 1863. Many French Catholics detested Renan for the same book, which had depicted Jesus as an all too human character, neither divine nor miraculous but heroic and troubled. The event in Brittany descended into a brawl between Catholic and anticlerical protestors. These polarised crowds seemed to typify the ‘War of the Two Frances’ that some argue had – and has – divided the nation ever since the French Revolution. Exploring both the long history of Renan’s controversial book and the short-term politics of the statue, this talk will ask whether this is a useful way of looking at things.

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