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Tortured SubjectsReview - Tortured Subjects
Pain, Truth, and the Body in Early Modern France
by Lisa Silverman
University of Chicago Press, 2001
Review by Rachel Cooper
Mar 30th 2002 (Volume 6, Issue 13)

Common wisdom has it that under torture most people will say whatever is demanded of them. Our image of the torture room is of a place where false confessions are already prepared, only waiting to be signed by the victim who, sooner or later, is bound to break down under pain. Testimony gained under torture is, we know, unreliable. Torture can never be a path to the truth.

Lisa Silverman seeks to question the inevitability of this folk wisdom. Through a detailed analysis of the use of torture in the French town of Toulouse between 1600 and 1788 (the year the use of judicial torture was abolished) she seeks to show that within a particular epistemological paradigm current in Early Modern France, torture made sense. While we assume that torture produces falsehoods, within this paradigm torture could be assumed to produce truth. According to the doctrine of The Fall human beings are essentially corrupt. Thus if one requires the truth, relying on what people intentionally say will lead one astray. Humans "forget" things they don't want to remember, they embellish, they lie. Thus, for the Early Modern French, if truth is to be gained at all, it must be extracted forcibly from people, by some means that bypasses their will. Torture is this means. It enables one to "destroy human will through pain as a means of achieving truth" (p.7). Within the torture chamber, the human mind is so taken over by pain that it is incapable of making up lies and the truth finally comes screaming out.

In addition, because the tortured subject was thought to be incapable of saying anything but the truth, torture had a redemptive aspect. Admittedly, the guilty would confess and be punished, but those who maintained their innocence under torture could be trusted, and thus cleared of the charges against them (although gradually the practice of releasing those who maintained their innocence stopped).

The idea that pain might offer redemption made sense within the wider cultural context. Pain could be a gift from God, enabling the sufferer to imitate the suffering of Christ. It could be a penance and indeed at this time members of Roman Catholic lay confraternities, including many court officials, practiced self-flagellation. Even beyond the religious sphere, pain was thought to be meaningful, and, possibly, beneficial. Thus surgeons debated whether pain should be relieved, maybe, they thought, it was best left, because it might aid diagnosis, or because it might itself be part of the curative processes.

Gradually, however, Silverman argues, pain became secularised. It came to be thought of as the mechanical consequence of tensions in the nerves, as something wholly physical, as opposed to spiritual. Pain ceased to be meaningful and came to be seen in a wholly negative light. No longer could the pain of torture being seen as something that enabled the subject to bypass their corrupted will and utter the truth. Rather the enlightened view had it that in destroying the will torture reduced the subject to an animal being. An animal being, furthermore, that instinct drove to say whatever would stop its suffering, whether that be the truth or not. As the links between pain and the truth came to be doubted, torture no longer made sense as a practice and was eventually banned.

Tortured Subjects is a very good book. Silverman's thesis is perceptive and original. Whether her claims are true is harder to judge. Although Silverman uses a wide range of sources ranging from official statistics, to court documents, to legal textbooks, some types of sources are noticeably missing. Silverman's central claim is that in Early Modern France it made sense to assume that under torture people spoke the truth. Surely the evidence of those who were actually victims of torture would be relevant to this thesis. Silverman notes that letters and other documents written by torture victims still exist but she doesn't tell us what they say. Did the victims of torture feel that they could do nothing but say the truth, or did they find themselves making false confessions and telling lies? If Silverman is correct and in Early Modern France there was a cultural expectation that torture victims told the truth surely this should come out in the felt experience of torture?

In addition, Silverman fails to adequately support her thesis by discussing cases that could be assumed to be hard for the Early Modern French if they held the epistemological paradigm that Silverman claims. Silverman claims that the Early Modern French believed that torture forced the victim to tell the truth. However, as she mentions, it was well known that in some cases suspects confessed under torture to crimes that they had not committed. Surely the way in which these cases were negotiated is relevant to assessing the plausibility of Silverman's thesis. If she is right and torture was assumed to produce the truth then this should be clearly revealed through contemporary discussions of false confessions, but Silverman makes no use of any such evidence.

Curiously, Tortured Subjects also omits information regarding the technical details of torture. While such a work could all too easily become pornographically voyeuristic, Silverman errs in the other direction. She tells us that the methods of torture employed were the estrapade (a device that lifts subjects by their wrists), the water torture (which involved stretching victims and then forcing water down their throat), and the mordaches or brodequins (a metal device fastened to the shins into which pieces of wood were forced thus compressing the bones). But many details are left unclear: Did the estrapade dislocate the subject's shoulders or not? What exactly happens to someone who is forced to drink three buckets of water? Were victims permanently injured? Did some of them die? Answers to these questions are needed not only to satisfy morbid curiosity, but also to enable the reader to judge the plausibility of Silverman's thesis. Claiming that torture was considered a means of gaining reliable testimony, rather than a punishment, is far more plausible if no permanent physical harm was done to those tortured.

In the end Silverman's thesis remains interesting and provocative, but under defended. Her work will be of use to those interested in conceptualizations of pain and suffering, and their relationship to the body and truth. Tortured Subjects is well written and accessible, but it is a work of intellectual rather than popular history; it's more concerned with religious thought and legal training in Early Modern France than it is with blood and gore.

© 2001 Rachel Cooper

Rachel Cooper is a lecturer in philosophy in the Department of Interdisciplinary Human Studies, Bradford University, U.K.


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