A Poisoned Chalice

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Princeton University Press, 2002 - History - 236 pages
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A Poisoned Chalice tells the story of a long-forgotten criminal case: the poisoning of the communion wine in Zurich's main cathedral in 1776. The story is riveting and mysterious, full of bizarre twists and colorful characters--an anti-clerical gravedigger, a hard-drinking drifter, a defrocked minister--who come to life in a series of dramatic criminal trials. But it is also far more than just a good story. In the wider world of German-speaking Europe, writes Jeffrey Freedman, the affair became a cause c l bre, the object of a lively public debate that focused on an issue much on the minds of intellectuals in the age of Enlightenment: the problem of evil.

Contemporaries were unable to ascribe any rational motive to an attempt to poison hundreds of worshippers. Such a crime pointed beyond reason to moral depravity so radical it seemed diabolic. By following contemporaries as they struggled to comprehend an act of inscrutable evil, this book brings to life a key episode in the history of the German Enlightenment--an episode in which the Enlightenment was forced to interrogate the very limits of reason itself.

Twentieth-century horrors have familiarized us with the type of evil that so shocked the men and women of the eighteenth century. Does this familiarity give us any special insight into the affair of the poisoned chalice? In its final chapter, the book takes up this question, reflecting on the nature of historical knowledge through an imaginary dialogue with Enlightenment-era interlocutors. But it does not reach any definitive conclusion about what happened in the Zurich cathedral in 1776. To search for the truth about such a mystery is merely to extend a dialogue begun in the eighteenth century, and that dialogue is as open-ended as the process of Enlightenment itself.


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Murder in the Cathedral
Proof and Persuasion
Not Wirz Not the Gravedigger
The Enlightenment in GermanSpeaking Europe
And God Fell Silent The Enlightenment on Trial I
Radical Evil The Enlightenment on Trial II
The Sword of Justice
The Search for Truth

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Page vii - Nicht die Wahrheit, in deren Besitz irgend ein Mensch ist, oder zu sein vermeinet, sondern die aufrichtige Mühe, die er angewandt hat, hinter die Wahrheit zu kommen, macht den Wert des Menschen.
Page 218 - Aussichten in die Ewigkeit, in Briefen an Herrn Joh. Georg Zimmermann, Königl. Großbrittanischen Leibarzt in Hannover, 4 Bde, Zürich 1768/69, 1773, 1778 (Phantasien über das jenseitige Leben analog zu Erfahrungen des diesseitigen, von Bonnets und Leibniz" Theoremen beeinflußt; BH 1351-54) I 58,1*( II 148,«.
Page 217 - Anhang zu dem fünf und zwanzigsten bis sechs und dreyßigsten Bande der allgemeinen deutschen Bibliothek, zweyte Abtheilung, S. 1276—1277. — Das „Schreiben eines Viehhändlers

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About the author (2002)

Jeffrey Freedman is Professor of European History at Yeshiva University.

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