Executed for blasphemy: a review of Unspeakable by Dilys Rose

If Thomas Aitkenhead had been born 50 years later he might have been one of the leaders of the Scottish Enlightenment instead of the last man in Britain to be hanged for blasphemy. As Dilys Rose makes clear in her evocative novel, it was his love of learning, debate, and thinking for himself that led him to the gallows in 1697.

Edinburgh at the end of the 17th was a grim theocracy. The Church ran a kind of secret police. Rose describes how Aitkenhead’s mother, who along with many other Scots of her age loved to go A-Maying, dared to go with her children for a day of fun on Mayday beside the Water of Leith on the Sabbath. But she is seen by “the two black-coated elders…who [if they were frank] would admit to thoroughly enjoying their time in the open air, free from coccyx-numbing pews and the asphyxiating odours of humanity which accumulate between kirk walls during a Sunday sermon.” The result, despite the elders chased away with stones, is that his mother must stand in church for six weeks “on a raised wooden form situated directly beneath the pulpit, from which she and fellow sinners can be scrutinised by the congregation.” Her children share her humiliation.

Rose paints a vivid picture of 17th century Edinburgh, and her use of Scots in dialogue (which is easily understood after a few paragraphs) adds to the sense that you are there in the narrow, dark, grimy, stinking streets among the crowds. She creates the times as effectively as Hilary Mantel created Tudor England, an achievement that is rare in historical novels.

Aitkenhead’s father was a herbalist, contributing to his son’s taste for inquiry and allowing Rose to share the poetry of his stock and the secrets of his remedies, including a love potion that is, of course, forbidden by the church. A poor businessman, Aitkenhead’s father heads to bankruptcy and an early death. His family is, however, taken in by rich relatives, giving Rose a chance to describe the world of the rich as well as the poor. The rich relative provides for Aitkenhead to become a medical student at Edinburgh University at a time when the seeds of the Enlightenment were beginning to sprout.

Meeting men like Alexander Pitcairn who were willing to ignore the strictures of the church and read, think, and talk widely and exposed to the books flooding in from the world, Aitkenhead was intoxicated by the intellectual possibilities. Even while enjoying the fragrance of a physic garden he notes that “Every plant form is so particular, complex, perfectly designed. For some– for many–such abundance is proof of the existence of God. But why, if the true purpose of life is to conform to God’s will, would He need so many different species, such endless variety?” Darwin’s great book was more than a century away, but the questions were there.

Some of the teaching at the university was dull, and bored and hungry in a geometry lesson Aitkenhead reacts to the teacher asserting that “the principles of geometry were given by God so that his people might labour more efficiently.” He asks to speak: “if God is responsible for the rules of geometry, which can be proven mathematically by the rules of logic, why is not possible to follow a similar computation for the Creator Himself?” He continues and knows from the reaction in the room that he is on dangerous ground, but he can’t stop himself going further: “As Aristotle posited, we can imagine a creature that is half hart and half goat, but we know it doesn’t exist. We may be able to imagine a man incarnating God while knowing he doesn’t exist. Man’s imagination, with art and industry, can create anything.” After a whiff of atheism, the last sentence captures the spirit of the Enlightenment.

Like all students, Aitkenhead plays and jokes with his colleagues, none of whom are as questioning and curious as him and some of whom are jealous of his wit and learning. At a horse race Aitkenhead objects to the abuse of the horses, but his false friend says “It’s God’s will that an animal does man’s bidding.” The debate continues and responding to a Biblical quote from his friend Aitkenhead says: “If he ask me, the doctrine o theology is a rhapsody o feigned and Ill -invented nonsense. It’s patched up pairtly o the moral doctrine o philosophers, and pairtly o poetical fictions and extravagant chimaeras.”

These words combined with others he has said and some invented by his enemies are his undoing. His false friend reports his words and soon he is arrested, imprisoned, and tried. His punishment of hanging is recognised as excessive even at the time, and perhaps it reflected the theocracy recognising how learning, debate, and free-thinking would mark its decline.

It seems extraordinary in contemporary Britain that anybody could be executed or even fined for blasphemy, but it still happens in many countries. In Pakistan, as in 17th century Edunburgh, accusations of blasphemy are used by the unscrupulous to get rid of their political enemies. ISIS will kill for blasphemy much less than that of Aitkenhead.

As he sits in prison awaiting execution, Aitkenhead writes a letter to his family and friends to try and explain and justify his words and actions. “Each word must be weighed like a granule of precious matter; each must contribute to a true representation of his beliefs.” As I read that sentence, I thought how Rose in her novel has succeeded in creating a compelling novel by weighing each word and sentence like a granule of precious matter.

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