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STANFORD -- Before she became an assistant professor of English at Stanford University, Joss Marsh once nurtured an ambition to be a police detective.

So when she opened a dusty cardboard box in the Bodleian Library at Oxford University, she recognized that she had tracked down important evidence in her study of blasphemy.

The box contained the prison memoir of George William Foote, the editor of a magazine called The Freethinker. The magazine, Marsh said, "was a notorious publication of the 1880s, which published comic Bible cartoons on the front, a page of profane jokes at the back, and sandwiched in between contents fairly offensive to high Victorian sensibilities."

Marsh had learned of the journal while doing research on atheism, and noted that one issue sported a banner headline: Prosecuted for Blasphemy. But she was unable to find any further information until she was shown the dusty box by an Oxford librarian.

She now is working on a book tentatively titled Word Crimes, a study of blasphemy and offensive literature from the early 1800s to the 1920s.

She will focus on the 19th century, when, she said, there were approximately 200 prosecutions for blasphemy. (In contrast, there had been only three such prosecutions in the 18th century.)

The trials, she said, tell "a story of cultural and class control. From 1817 on, these laws were invoked to curb and control working-class discourse. Everyone who was imprisoned for blasphemy was working class, without exception."

In an 1840s blasphemy case, the offender was convicted of "uttering language." There is a clear connection, Marsh said, "between language and property. You can coin a phrase; you coin money. These people were not of the class who were entitled to either."

In 1883, when Foote was prosecuted for The Freethinker, "the Third Reform Bill was being debated in Parliament and the Victorian establishment was becoming paranoid about the extension of the vote to all working men. They were about to be swept away on a wave of democracy and they were frightened."

The blasphemy trials also demonstrate "how literary value came to be applied as a standard in a court of law," Marsh said. Many of those tried for blasphemy had made literary attacks on religion, rewriting Bible stories as fairy tales or comic poems, for example. In studying the trials, she said, "you hear echoes of the process whereby the Bible starts the 19th century as the sacred repository of historical truth and exits the 19th century as a literary masterpiece."

And, Marsh said, the trials tell the story of "how the crime of blasphemy became the only legal outlet that could register a kind of paranoia about language, a fear of words."

Blasphemy is the only crime of language in which the intention of the defendant is completely irrelevant, Marsh said.

"If you were accused of slandering or libeling someone, intention was important; malice would have to be established," she said. "But with blasphemy, manner is important and you do not have to prove malice or intention. The words are automatically assumed to be malicious. This means that words are supercharged with a kind of magical potency."



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