‘Rituals of Retribution’ by Richard J. Evans; Ruff

Introduction – There has been a change in way society has dealt with deviance – prior, punishments were very violent and focused on the body; now, sentences are more custodial and capital punishments are swift rather than drawn out. There are many theories as to why that happened. Michel Foucault argued that public punishments declined and became less violent as disciplining power was taken out of the hands of the sovereign and diffused throughout the whole of the society. The publicity of punishment was meant as a representation of the sovereign’s power over the people. Penal reform during the 18th c. gave rise to a new diffuse economy of power within society itself, and so individuals became the supervisors of each other and themselves. Norbert Elias argued that a ‘civilizing process’ was responsible. During the medieval period, power was exercised in a direct and personal way. As states began to form, ruling elites began to formalize their feelings and behavior, ‘civilizing’ themselves. Such self-control eventually made its way down throughout society, and so emotion and the operation of bodily functions were restricted to the private realm. In this context, those that were unable to restrain themselves in public were labeled insane and confined to asylums. Pieter Spierenburg argued that as states became more stable, people were more able to share their experiences and started to see themselves in the person of the offender, which influenced demands for reform. Also, as bureaucracy grew, the state also grew more impersonal, and so punishment in turn was less visible and more impersonal as well. Philippe Ariès argued that changing attitudes of death were responsible. During the Middle Ages, death was ‘tamed’ and people could prepare for it. As nature was brought under more control, beliefs in the afterlife declined, and the sense of destiny shifted from the collective to the individual. So, death began to be removed from the public domain. By the second half of the 20th c., death had become a private and concealed affair.

Chapter 1: Theaters of CrueltyThe intention behind cruel punishments was to destroy the offender’s body so that nothing remained. Often, the scars of punishment were used as identifiers by the general populace. Because central authority was ineffective in Germany during the 16th c., apprehension and punishment depended on the community. By the late 17th c., Germany was becoming a more ordered society, and crime decreased. Because they were less frequent, executions became occasions for even more emphatic demonstrations of state and community power.  They became highly ritualized and ceremonial. Here, death sentences where persons were bound and bodily movement was constricted were dishonorable deaths (as opposed to beheading, which required no touch from the executioner, something that brought great dishonor in itself). All this served as an example of respect for the Sovereign’s power and authority.

Chapter 2: Rites of Blood – Executions were sometimes preceded by rituals that were meant to reconcile together all those involved in the punishment. A last meal may be shared among the criminal, the judge, the criminal’s family, etc. This sharing expressed the criminal’s peace with the sentence, and absolved those involved of any guilt. The criminal and executioner could also reconcile by sharing a drink together. The ideas governing these actions was to have malefactors thank the authorities for their sentences, and that a criminal’s ‘good death’ absolved the community of its blood guilt and canceled out the ‘bad death’ of the victim. It also assured the community that the criminal’s soul would not return. Because of a criminal’s sudden death, there was a belief that their life-potency was still present in their bodies, and so some executions involved some extraordinary practices, such as the selling of the criminal’s blood to the crowd. In Germany, executions were highly ritualistic and represented community solidarity in the face of transgression. They were characterized by massive turnout rates, but such events rarely became chaotic.

Chapter 4: Farewell Songs and Moral Speeches – State-approved printers commemorated executions through notices in the paper, pictures, and pamphlets. Street balladeers also provided entertainment during executions, and would sometimes perform the ‘farewell speeches’ of dead criminals (these were mostly fabricated, though). As the higher classes withdrew from sharing in the manifestations of popular culture, these ‘farewell speeches’ became more strict. Balladeers had to announce the crimes of the dead, portraying them negatively. Even execution broadsheets changed, and there was a new concentration on the moral and educational failings of criminals. Because ‘farewell speeches’ may have prompted onlookers to identify with criminals, they turned into ‘moral speeches’ on the dangers of criminal life. They helped legitimize the torture and execution processes. In response, balladeers methods changed and they composed their own entertainments for the occasions. However, they made sure that they reflected official attitudes. Folk songs were sympathetic to criminals, and help provide an indication of the attitudes of common people to murder and execution. They had a different agenda, and were based on the realities of life.

Comment on Ruff: this chapter was a refresher and seemed to hit on points already discussed earlier in Spierenburg, Evans, and Kord. I did have one question, though, about the people exempt from judicial torture (pregnant women, young children, etc.): how were their confessions gained if they couldn’t be tortured?


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