Anthony Grafton: What the Renaissance teaches us about torture

[Anthony Grafton is a contributing editor at The New Republic.]

Just over half a century ago, the great historian J.H. Hexter set out to teach the world a modest lesson. In an essay titled "The Historian and his Day," he used the example of his own life to refute the claim--a common one in his era and ours--that historians, caught up in the passions and controversies of their own time, cannot view the past objectively. In fact, he explained, he usually worked in the opposite way. Hexter spent the bulk of his time not in the present but in the past, or at least in its remains: the records of earlier centuries that his job at Queens College required him to interpret. When called on to understand a contemporary political or social problem, he responded by marshalling his much deeper expertise about history: "Instead of the passions, prejudices, assumptions and prepossessions, the events, crises and tensions of the present dominating my view of the past, it is the other way about. ... I make sense of present-day welfare-state policy by thinking of it in connection with the 'commonwealth' policies of Elizabeth."

In recent weeks, I have found myself appreciating Hexter's work even more than when I first read it. Like him, I am a historian. Like him, I spend most of my time in the years between 1400 and 1700. And, like him, I have found that, if you devote yourself to reading early modern sources, you see a surprising number of things that illuminate our current situation.

Specifically, I have been working on a book about magic in Renaissance Europe. The subject could hardly seem more academic. And, yet, it has made me confront a body of fact and experience that speaks directly to the present. Magic was prestigious in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, but it was also dangerous. Many of those who practiced it borrowed terms, ideas, and amulets from the Jews--a people often seen as particularly magical and suspect. Magicians claimed that they practiced a high, learned art, one that drew only on the natural powers of stones and plants and planets. But they were constantly mistaken for witches: the men and women, widely thought to be ubiquitous, who supposedly sold their souls to the devil in return for power to do harm. More than one magician, finally, convinced himself that he possessed substantial powers: powers so vast that he could challenge the church in the name of his own ability to bring about miracles more astounding than those of Jesus.

In exploring these risky beliefs and their consequences, I found myself abruptly transported, again and again, from the distant past to the present. As I followed the fates of Jews and magicians, I encountered a body of information about torture and its uses--information that was put down on the spot by sworn notaries and witnessed by others in an age when those who ordered torture did not pretend otherwise, much less claim that they could annul the practice by calling it "enhanced interrogation." The historians who assembled this evidence did so in order to understand the past. Nonetheless, they have helped me see the present in perspective.

Modern scholars have long been both fascinated and horrified by torture. The pioneering medievalist Henry Charles Lea--who, in the nineteenth century, penned the first systematic, documented history of the Inquisition--wrote at length about the ways in which inquisitors had used torture to make prisoners confess heretical views and actions. An enlightened man writing in what he saw as an enlightened age, he looked back in horror at these barbarous practices and condemned them with a clarity that anyone reading public statements now must envy. Lea's successors--the British social historian Henry Kamen, the Yale legal historian John Langbein, and the University of Pennsylvania medievalist Edward Peters, among others--have modified his account in many ways. They have shown that the Inquisition was both fairer and less brutal than he held, and they have explained the abolition of judicial torture as the result not of the new critical spirit of the Enlightenment but of changes in the law of proof. (That is, as a range of penalties lighter than execution became available, judges no longer felt they had to have a confession in order to convict a subject--the principle that had necessitated the widespread use of torture in the first place.) Yet scholars continue to admire Lea's immense learning, and they still cite his accounts of the actual instruments of torture and the ways in which these were applied.

Most recently, historians of a new generation have plumbed the archives, where they have discovered a much wider range of documents than Lea knew, including many transcripts of actual trials. They have taught us much about the effects of torture as inflicted by professionals who were trained to use pain as a tool of inquiry. And their research makes clear that torture--as inflicted in the past--was anything but a sure way of arriving at the truth....

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