Cruel and Unusual Justice: “Medieval” Law Enforcement and the Nineteenth-Century Imagination

AHA Session 30
Thursday, January 2, 2014: 3:30 PM-5:30 PM
Columbia Hall 1 (Washington Hilton)
Carol Symes, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Carol Symes, University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign

Session Abstract

Medieval scholars have long bemoaned the lasting effects of Enlightenment and nineteenth-century European characterizations of popular understanding of the medieval era, particularly on the subject of criminal law enforcement.  The Black Legend of the Spanish Inquisition and its allegedly depraved uses of torture and violence in the name of religion is merely the most famous example.  This panel brings together three early modern specialists, each with an expertise in a different geographical and legal context, to discuss how various nineteenth-century scholars, politicians, and popular authors created the titillating modern Gothic images of “medieval” (pre-eighteenth century) law enforcement.  Based on our familiarity with fifteenth and sixteenth-century legal practices, we will discuss how historical evidence was later appropriated (or ignored) for specific political, social, and religious agendas—not to mention for more venal artistic and entertainment purposes.  We will analyze and compare specific modern interpretations of legal objectives, methods, personnel, and social impact in our respective cases studies of the Spain’s Inquisition, Geneva’s execution of Servetus, and Nuremberg’s “torture museum” and other criminal tourism.  Finally, we will discuss how such re-imagining of medieval and early modern justice has influenced historiography in the years since.

This session should appeal to a broad audience of historians, ranging in period (medieval to modern), regions (Spain, France, Germany), and topic (legal, cultural, religious).  We have likewise sought diversity in approaches and backgrounds of the presenters.  Our hope is to spur a wide-ranging, comparative discussion on both criminal punishment and interpretations of the past for modern agendas.

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