Wednesday, 22 May 2013


Fouquet's image of the martyrdom of St Apolline, Musée Condé, Chantilly

I’m in the process of reviewing a very interesting book about medieval torture.  As the author points out, it’s an appropriate time to be thinking about the question, given the rise of ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ in recent years.  Although torture was practised in the medieval period, perhaps rather more often than this author claims, her central argument is a convincing one: that torture figured so often in medieval texts not because it was common in reality, but because it shocked readers so much that descriptions could effectively be used to demonize others.  And certainly, we tend to use references to torture in such a way now too – to distance ourselves from those who practise it, whilst denying our own complicity in its use.  What really interests me about medieval attitudes to torture is neither its use, nor the frequent denials.  It’s the ambivalence of medieval people regarding torture.

And one way in which that was effectively expressed was through euphemisms.  In fourteenth-century France, torture was referred to by the term ‘question’.  Those responsible could gloss over the brutal violence which this involved to focus on the supposed function of interrogating the accused.  The euphemism indicates that they weren’t quite comfortable with the level of pain and violence this involved, but nevertheless wanted to stress the function of the practice.  Is the phrase ‘enhanced interrogation techniques’ so very different?  And even if we know precisely what it really refers to, how are we to read our own reluctance to do something about it?

The book I am reviewing is Larissa Tracy's Torture and Brutality in Medieval Texts, published by Boydell in 2012.

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