Q&A: The Resonance of History

With the release of the Senate Intelligence Committee’s report on the CIA detention and interrogation program this past December, John Martin, a professor and chair of Duke’s history department, wrote a widely reprinted essay putting torture in a historical context.

How did you become interested in the history of torture?

As a graduate student, I worked on the history of the Inquisition in Venice. The Inquisition did not use torture frequently, but when it did put someone to torture, it recorded the entire event— including the screams. And that always haunted me, that there was this record of suffering.

How long is the history of torture?

The ancient Greeks practiced torture, but it was formalized by the Romans, as so many things were. It became part of Roman law. In theory, only slaves and noncitizens could be subjected to torture. Over time, that distinction began to break down. Throughout the Middle Ages, justice was highly privatized. But in the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, with the emergence of quite sophisticated political and judicial systems, city-states began to use torture.

In that early modern period, were there limits to torture?

Absolutely. The crimes that were primarily of concern to criminal courts were premeditated homicide, rape, theft, counterfeiting, and treason. But some individuals were exempt from torture—the clergy, persons of high professional status like lawyers. And if the person died while being tortured, the judge could be held for homicide. People knew torture was highly unreliable as a method for getting information. But they continued to use it, because they were in a system that valued a direct confession.

What constituted torture in that time?

One object of torture was extracting information from the individual in the course of a trial. Torture also involved bodily abuse prior to execution. The most common judicial torture was the strappado, where the person’s hands were tied behind his back. He was tied to a rope, which was on a pulley, and then pulled up into the air. Probably his shoulders would be dislocated, but there was an effort made not to inflict immediate damage to the head or the chest, since many judges were anxious about unduly harming or even killing a potentially innocent suspect.

What explains the dropping off of officially sanctioned torture?

In early modern justice, judges believed that if the persons they put under torture could withstand the torture, they would prove their innocence— almost by magic—and, on that basis alone, be exonerated. Over time judicial elites came to see this practice as completely irrational. Circumstantial evidence began to be taken much more seriously. So one argument about the demise of torture is that it’s not so much moralists saying this is an inhumane activity; it’s judges saying that it no longer really works.

Were there thinkers who were making the case against torture?

A key figure was a Spanish humanist, Juan Luis Vives, who, in 1522, edited an edition of St. Augustine’s City of God. Augustine didn’t see an alternative to torture. But Vives, in his commentary, said Augustine was writing about a pagan society, and Christians, at least in Vives’ view, should reject such a cruel practice. In the late sixteenth century, Michel de Montaigne, the French nobleman, was horrified by the religious warfare; massacres were routine. At the same time, reports were coming back about presumed barbaric acts—cannibalism, for example—in the New World. Perhaps, he said, his own society was more barbarous than the pagan world his contemporaries were encountering in the Americas.

Then, in 1764, the Milanese philosopher Cesare Beccaria published Of Crimes and Punishments. The city of Milan was haunted by the memory of the torture and execution of two innocent men on the allegation that they were spreading plague. Beccaria said the infamy was not that they had spread the plague; they were innocent, and the infamy was that they had been illegally tortured, illegally convicted. The book was translated widely, and regime after regime would go on to abolish torture.

What’s the focus of your current work?

I’m writing a book about an obscure sixteenth-century Italian jurist, Francesco Casoni. In his treatise he uses arguments from law, from rhetoric, from Scripture, to develop a case against torture. Curiously, he never calls for its absolute abolition, but he came close. And I think his ideas enable us to see a far more complex set of beliefs about torture and the integrity of the individual than we have assumed were present prior to the Enlightenment.

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