SACRILEGE, the violation or profanation of sacred things. The word comes from the Lat. sacrilegium, which originally meant merely the theft of sacred things, although already in Cicero's time it had grown to include in popular speech any insult or injury to them.
In primitive religions inclusive of almost every serious offence even in fields now regarded as merely social or political, its scope is gradually lessened to a single part of one section of ecclesiastical criminology, following inversely the development of the idea of holiness from the concrete to the abstract, from fetishism to mys ticism. The primitive defence against sacrilege lay directly in the nature of sacred things, those that held a curse for any violation or profanation (see TABU). Early criminal law brought a measure of physical sanction into consideration. The Levitical code ex acted of the offender reparation for the damage with the addition of one-fifth of the amount, and an expiatory sacrifice (Lev. v. 15, 16). The tragic story of the stoning of Achan, who stole some of the spoils of Jericho which Joshua had consecrated to the treasury of Yahweh, is one of the most graphic details of Old Testament history (cf. Joshua vii. 20-25).
No religion was more prodigal in rules to safeguard that which was holy or consecrated than the Jewish, especially in its temple laws ; violation of them often led to mob violence as well as divine chastisement. The temple rules do not apply to synagogues, how ever, and unseemly conduct in them is liable only to civil action.
While the Roman cults were amply protected by tabus, there was no comprehensive term in Roman law for religious violations and profanations in general. Sacrilegium was narrowly construed as the theft of sacred things from a sacred place. According to Ulpian the punishment for sacrilegium varied according to the position and standing of the culprit and the circumstances under which the crime was committed. For the lower classes it was crucifixion, burning or the wild beasts. The latter penalty was also attached to theft of sacred things by night, but stealing by day from a temple objects of little value brought only sentence to the mines. People of higher rank were deported. During classical times the law kept to the narrow meaning of sacrilegium, but in popular usage it had grown to mean about the same as the English word. Traces of this usage are frequent in Augustan writers. The early church Fathers use the word most frequently in the restrict ed sense, although an effort has been made to read the wider mean ing in Tertullian. But by the middle of the 4th century the nar rower meaning had disappeared. In Ambrose, Augustine and Leo I., sacrilegium means sacrilege. The wider meaning had invaded the law as well. Mommsen was of the opinion that sacrilegium had no settled meaning in the laws of the 4th century. But it was rather that an enlarged application of the idea of sacredness made the crime of sacrilege in the sense of violatio sacri a more general one. This was partly due to the influence of Christianity, which sought to include as objects of sacrilege all forms of church prop erty, rather than merely those things consecrated in pagan cults, partly to the efforts of the later emperors to surround themselves and everything emanating from them with highest sanctions. In the Theodosian Code the various crimes which are accounted sacrilege include—apostasy, heresy, schism, Judaism, paganism, attempts against the immunity of churches and clergy or privileges of church courts, the desecration of sacraments, etc., and even Sunday. Along with these crimes against religion went treason to the emperor, offences against the laws, especially counterfeiting, defraudation in taxes, seizure of confiscated property, evil conduct of imperial officers, etc. There is no formal definition of sacrilege
in the code of Justinian but the conception remains as wide.
The penitentials (q.v.), or early collections of disciplinary canons, gave much attention to sacrilege. The Frankish synods emphasize the crime of seizing church property of every kind, including the vast estates so envied by the lay nobility. The worst sacrilege of all, defiling the Host, is mentioned frequently, and generally brought the death penalty accompanied by the cruellest and most ignominious tortures. The period of the Ref ormation naturally increased the commonness of the crime. Un der the emperor Charles V. the penalty for stealing the Host was the stake ; that for other crimes was graded accordingly. In France, in 1561, under Charles IX., it was forbidden under penalty of death to demolish crosses and images and to commit other acts of scandal and impious sedition. In the declaration of 1682, Louis XIV. decreed the same penalty for sacrilege joined to superstition and impiety, and in the somewhat belated religious persecution of the duke of Bourbon in 1724 those convicted of larceny in churches, together with their accomplices, were con demned, the men to the galleys for life or for a term of years, the women to be branded with the letter V and imprisoned for life, or for a term. The trial of La Barre in 1766 at Abbeville is the most famous sacrilege case in modern times. Convicted of wear ing his hat while a religious procession was passing—as well as of blasphemy---,-he was accused as well of having mutilated a crucifix standing on the town bridge. Declared guilty, after tor ture, he was sentenced to have his tongue cut out, to be beheaded and the body to be burned, a sentence which was confirmed by the parlement of Paris and the bigoted king Louis XV. In the midst of the French Revolution respect for civic festivals was sternly enacted, but sacrilege was an almost daily matter of state policy. In 1825 the reactionary parlement once more brought back the middle ages, by decreeing the death penalty for public profanation, the execution to be preceded by the amende honorable before the church doors. "Theft sacrilege" was treated in a sep arate series of equally savage clauses. This ferocious legislation was expressly and summarily abrogated in 183o.