Monday, September 3, 2012

Paul Friedland's "Seeing Justice Done"

Paul Friedland is an affiliate of the Minda de Gunzburg Center for European Studies at Harvard University. His first book, Political Actors: Representative Bodies and Theatricality in the Age of the French Revolution (2002), was awarded the Pinkney Prize for the best book of the year by the Society for French Historical Studies.

Friedland applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Seeing Justice Done: The Age of Spectacular Capital Punishment in France, and reported the following:
To be honest, I really wanted the page 99 test not to work for my book, as I couldn’t help thinking that the premise was a little silly. Well.... I hate to admit, but it does sort of work.

While the book as a whole explores the historical roots of modern capital punishment, this page focuses on a peculiar, and particularly important, aspect of all punishment: ritual expulsion and ostracism. Specifically, it describes an early medieval practice known as chrenecruda, in which individuals who had committed murder were required to throw dirt onto their own family members and then, “in a loose-fitting shirt, and barefoot, with a stick in his hand,” were supposed to jump over the fence of their property and banish themselves from the community. This ritual was related to the medieval practice of religious penance in which sinners would wear sackcloth and prostrate themselves before the entire congregation before being cast out of the community. As late as the 18th century, vestiges of this ritual of atonement and ostracism could still be seen in the ceremony of the amende honorable – the fine of honor – in which those condemned to death would publicly beg forgiveness, dressed in a loose-fitting shirt and carrying a large flaming candle.

From a facsimile of the original in Paul Lacroix, XVIIIme Si├Ęcle, institutions, usages et costumes: France 1700-1789 (Paris, 1885), p. 308.
While all of this may seem far removed from the present, I’m fairly sure that these pre-modern rituals lie at the origin of the modern practice of forcing prisoners to wear distinctive, loose-fitting clothing, visually setting apart from the rest of society as part of their punishment (and reminding us how imprisonment is, in the last analysis, a modern form of banishment).

As a whole, Seeing Justice Done focuses mainly on the history of capital punishment, and seeks to explain why executions were performed before enormous crowds of spectators and why these public performances became impractical in the modern period. So much has been written about punishment as a deterrent to crime that we tend to forget the ways in which it has functioned, both historically and in the present day, as a ritual of vengeance, atonement, redemption, and ostracism. In this sense, then, as reluctant as I may be to admit it, page 99 really does touch upon one of the most important themes in the book.
Learn more about Seeing Justice Done at the Oxford University Press website.

--Marshal Zeringue