The first chapter of his new book describes the dreadful conditions of imprisonment in dungeons. In 1275, the punishment of felons included that 'they be barefoot, ungirt and bareheaded . . . they drink not the day they eat, nor eat the day they drink, nor drink anything but water, and that they be put in irons'. Some prisoners were incarcerated for years, often in solitary confinement. Some were kept in cages. They were taunted by a horrible array of leg irons, metal collars, treadwheels and clinks.
Peine forte et dure was a severe punishment which involved adding increasing weights to the chest of felons, traitors, witches or heretics, until they confessed. Two other persuasive instruments were the rack, called The Duke of Exeter's Daughter, and a hoop compressing the victim into a sphere, the Scavenger's Daughter. Scottish, French, German, Egyptian and Spanish procedures to mutilate the victims are also described, as are thumbscrews, branding, burning, flogging and boiling alive. A final chapter deals with execution.
Why are books detailing bloodthirsty punishments so popular? First, because hatred seems to be a deeply ingrained human instinct. One can demonise an enemy, a heretic, a felon, a poor person, a traitor, and then enjoy their pain and humiliation. Heretics used to be burnt in the middle of towns. Prisoners were often dragged by horses through the streets or broken on the rack. Malefactors were once clamped in stocks in market places. Large crowds assembled to watch public hangings in Britain until the 1860s. Public executions still take place in China, Nigeria, Iraq and Saudi Arabia, although no one knows how many onlookers watch voluntarily.
The tortures and murderers of one generation also pass through the history books of the next generation to the music-hall stages of later centuries. The murders of Henry VIII's wives, the sadistic orgies of Count Dracula and the massacres of Stalin, Hitler and Mao Tse-tung, are gradually translated into the bogeymen of fairy- tales and television advertisements. By such mechanisms, people can forget the terror of history and continue their everyday lives.
The prison warders, tormentors, inquisitors and hangmen who carried out atrocities were often well rewarded and achieved status within their communities. They continued their gruesome occupations by demonising their victims, by giving affectionate nicknames to their instruments of torture, and by being fiercely loyal to those - monarchs, judges, clergy or inquisitors - who ordained the punishments. Studies of tortures in South America, Nazi Germany and the former Soviet Union have revealed similar attitudes.
The second half of the 19th century witnessed a gradual movement in advanced countries away from cruelty. In Britain, hanging, drawing and quartering was stopped in 1870; corporal punishment was abandoned by the British Army, except in military prisons, in 1871; minors under 16 were no longer hanged after 1905, and the last executions took place in 1964. The improvements in this country were paralleled all over the civilised world at that time, as Geoffrey Abbott records. Then came the Russian purges in the Thirties, the Nazi holocaust in the Forties, the Cultural Revolution in China in the Sixties. Today, tortures at least as diverse and sophisticated as those described here are more widespread than in any previous epoch.
This book can be recommended to historians, human rights activists, and romantics who hark back to a (non-existent) idyll of benign despotism. No doubt, it will also be read by the prurient.Reuse content