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Tortured Subjects: Pain, Truth, and the Body in Early Modern France

Tortured Subjects: Pain, Truth, and the Body in Early Modern France

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Tortured Subjects: Pain, Truth, and the Body in Early Modern France

Justifying Torture via Religion and Science

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Torture was not imposed as a form of punishment - indeed, the rules specifically forbade punishment in the form of torture. The fact that it could be imposed as a means to elicit truth depended upon the assumption that pain could produce benefits for the sufferer. At times, these benefits were framed in religious language. Over time, however, the religious justifications receded into the background and more secular rationales were offered. Suspects were obligated to tell the truth, not as a duty to God or their soul, but instead because of their duty to society or even to truth itself.

Gradually, even science was employed as a justification, albeit metaphorically. Judges cast themselves in the role of a surgeon, who is forced to excise diseased flesh from a patient for the sake of the health of the whole body - regardless of the interim pain it caused (it must be remembered that anesthetics were not common at the time). Because law served the needs of the whole of society and not the needs of individuals, such a metaphor was appealing to many people.

The move away from religious language, however, also served to remove the primary pillars upon which the use of torture was justified. Philosophes, the social and political critics whose work helped institute the French Revolution and the Enlightenment, attacked the use of torture by attacking the original religious explanations - abolitionists argued against each of the basic assumptions which originally supported torture.

    The loss of the Christian consequences of truth - in effect, a kind of desacrelization of the truth - removed torture from a set of practices seen to engage the supernatural. With the loss of the association of torture, truth, and the divine, torture was deprived of a vital part of its intellectual foundation, and truth increasingly was constructed as a secular reality expressed through the limited notion of evidence.

Why were the philosophes attracted to the case of torture in the legal system? It wasn't because tortue was constantly used. On the contrary, torture was employed relatively rarely and the rate was declining over time. Torture was also most commonly used on members of the lower classes, people the philosophes did not have much contact with.

The primary reason seems to have been because torture was a symbol for many of the other political problems in society. And, because the average person doesn't like pain too much, it was an easy issue to rally others around.

In the writings of the philosophes, torture and pain were transformed from an ostensibly religious and spiritual experience to a form of extreme degradation. It was treated as a violation of the rights of citizens and a danger both to individuals and to society as a whole. This was political dynamite at the time, because it rested on the premise that people were free citizens, not "subjects" of a monarch who could do whatever he wanted, whenever he wanted.

Does this really matter? Is this anything more than a bit of arcane information about the distant past? Yes, it is - the critiques of the philosophes are, in many ways, part of the foundation of the society we currently have. Their arguments about human will and the necessity of the dignity of the individual are things we all take for granted today. Learning about the uses of torture in early modern France isn't just informative about history and religion, but also about ourselves as well.

Tortured Subjects: Pain, Truth, Body
Tortured Subjects: Pain, Truth, and the Body in Early Modern France

Silverman's study is undermined a bit at the end when she engages in a brief but inexplicable polemic against the philosophes and the Enlightenment, accusing them of elitism and of not really caring about the victims of torture. It is true that they were rather elitist - but large cultural shifts often depend upon the writings of some "elite" before the ideas are adopted by the general masses (especially in the past, when literacy was less common). Silverman's implication that the Enlightenment - and by extension our current society - are therefore lacking falls rather flat, especially in light of her failure to provide any positive counter-suggestions.

But that represents only a small section at the very end of the book. Aside from the fact that, like most academically oriented books, it contains a bit more detail than some regular readers may want to go through, this book does an excellent job in exploring the political, social and religious reasons why torture was used in Europe, and then why it was later abandoned. If these questions interest you, then you can learn a lot here and should consider getting it.

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