The Ritual and the Spectacle: Audience Perceptions of Capital Punishment in Early Modern France

Friday, January 7, 2011: 3:10 PM
Room 104 (Hynes Convention Center)
Paul Friedland , Bowdoin College, Brunswick, ME
Before the sixteenth century, audiences attended executions in order to experience a profoundly moving ritual which, more than anything else, enabled the community to “overcome” the fact of the crime itself. The condemned traditionally played the part of the repentant sinner, and it was not uncommon for those who attended to weep, pray, and sing throughout the execution. Although executions in ancien régime France have often been characterized as the display of sovereign power and as spectacles of exemplary justice, there existed several categories of executions into which one reads deterrence only with great difficult (the execution of dead bodies, effigies, and animals). When Lutheran heretics began to be executed in the sixteenth century, the traditional ritual of execution was short-circuited when those condemned for heresy refused to play the part of repentant sinners and instead went to the scaffold joyfully. Spectators flocked to these executions in order to “see something new.” And from this moment, a new kind of voyeuristic pastime was born, as people attended executions not to participate in a meaningful ritual, but to watch them as a form of entertainment. The purpose of this paper is to explore executions both as rituals and spectacles, as a means of understanding those aspects of spectacular capital punishment that do not fit neatly into the reading of executions as the display of sovereign might.
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