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

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Tortured Subjects: Pain, Truth, Body

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

People may understand that torture was once used as a normal part of the legal process in Europe, but do people really understand how and why? Is it because the system had so little regard for human suffering? Is it because the system was simply sadistic? Or was there perhaps a better reason, one which appeared reasonable at the time?


Title: Tortured Subjects: Pain, Truth, and the Body in Early Modern France
Author: Lisa Silverman
Publisher: Published by the University of Chicago Press
ISBN: 0226757544


Book Review

Lisa Silverman, in her recent book "Tortured Subjects" argues for the latter, exploring how people regarded the nature of the body, physical pain, and of free will itself. At the heart of her argument is the idea that the use of torture is culturally bound - it is done for specific reasons in specific historical circumstances, and as such, understanding one helps us to understand the other.

Using a wealth of original source material, particularly from the municipal and parlementary courts of Toulouse, Silverman is able to show how the use of torture in early modern France was predicated on important assumptions regarding the relationship between the body and the will. Because of the Christian premise of Original Sin, it was assumed that the human will was defective - that is to say, it is difficult if not impossible for us to readily will what is true and good.

If a suspect could not be trusted to tell the truth, where else could the truth be obtained? The only other source was the body itself - reflecting another assumption, namely that "truth" resided in the physical body itself:

    It was widely believed that the body had many ways to betray the criminal involuntarily, speaking the truth in signs for all to see while the will stopped the tongue. Pallor, for example, was well known to indicate guilty knowledge.

Although this may seem like a bizarre assumption, we must remember that people have similar beliefs today. Lie detectors are predicated on the idea that even when a person lies, their body will automatically betray them, thus spontaneously revealing the truth to a trained technician. Police and detectives practice methods of discovering liars, seeking subtle changes in how people act on the assumption that, once again, the body will betray the truth even when the will tries to hide it.

If truth lies in the physical body, then physical means must be used to extract it. This leads to us the third and critical assumption behind the use of torture: that physical pain is not evil in itself, but instead can have important spiritual, emotional, psychological and even physical benefits for the person in question.

Tortured Subjects: Pain, Truth, Body

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

Silverman, like Ariel Glucklich in the book "Sacred Pain: Hurting the Body for the Sake of the Soul," is able to show that our modern conception of pain is not necessarily the most "natural" or common. Through cultural beliefs, people have been able to recast physical pain in new ways, sometimes treating it as a force for good.

This has certainly been true in the case of religion. Early modern France, for example, had a large number of penitential companies - confraternities which practiced various forms of mortification and self-inflicted physical punishment well into the eighteenth century. According to Silverman, it was no coincidence that judges and magistrates, the same people who imposed torture on suspects, belonged to such confraternities in high numbers.

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 and eventually science was employed to justify what was going on.

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