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§ 80. The Torture.

Henry C. Lea: Superstition and Force (Philad. 1866), p. 281–391. Paul Lacroix: Manners, Customs, and Dress of the Middle Ages and during the Renaissance Period (transl. from the French, N. York 1874), p. 407–434. Brace. Gesta Christi, ch. XV.

The torture rests on the same idea as the ordeal.365365    Tortura from torqueo, to twist, to torment. Ital. and Spanish: tortura; French: torture; Germ.: Folter. It is an attempt to prove innocence or guilt by imposing a physical pain which no man can bear without special aid from God. When the ordeal had fulfilled its mission, the torture was substituted as a more convenient mode and better fitted for an age less superstitious and more sceptical, but quite as despotic and intolerant. It forms one of the darkest chapters in history. For centuries this atrocious system, opposed to the Mosaic legislation and utterly revolting to every Christian and humane feeling, was employed in civilized Christian countries, and sacrificed thousands of human beings, innocent as well as guilty, to torments worse than death.

The torture was unknown among the Hindoos and the Semitic nations, but recognized by the ancient Greeks and Romans, as a regular legal proceeding. It was originally confined to slaves who were deemed unfit to bear voluntary testimony, and to require force to tell the truth.366366    “Their evidence was inadmissible, except when given under torture, and then by a singular confusion of logic, it was estimated as the most convincing kind of testimony.” Lea, 283. “The modes of torture sanctioned by the Greeks were the wheel (τρόχος), the ladder or rack (κλίμαξ), the comb with sharp teeth (κυάφος), the low vault (κύφων) in which the unfortunate witness was thrust and bent double, the burning tiles (πλίνθοι) the heavy hog-skin whip (ὑστριχίς), and the injection of vinegar into the nostrils.” Lea, p. 284. The Romans used chiefly the scourge. The instruments of torture employed during the middle ages were the rack, the thumbscrew, the Spanish boot, iron gauntlets, heated iron stools, fire, the wheel, the strappado, enforced sleeplessness, and various mutilations. Brace says (p. 182) that ” nine hundred(?) different instruments for inflicting pain were invented and used.” One tenth of the number would be bad enough. Collections of these devilish instruments may be seen in the London Tower, and in antiquarian museums on the Continent. Despotic emperors extended it to freemen, first in cases of crimen laesae majestatis. Pontius Pilate employed the scourge and the crown of thorns in the trial of our Saviour. Tiberius exhausted his ingenuity in inventing tortures for persons suspected of conspiracy, and took delight in their agony. The half-insane Caligula enjoyed the cruel spectacle at his dinner-table. Nero resorted to this cruelty to extort from the Christians the confession of the crime of incendiarism, as a pretext of his persecution, which he intensified by the diabolical invention of covering the innocent victims with pitch and burning them as torches in his gardens. The younger Pliny employed the torture against the Christians in Bithynia as imperial governor. Diocletian, in a formal edict, submitted all professors of the hated religion to this degrading test. The torture was gradually developed into a regular system and embodied in the Justinian Code. Certain rules were prescribed, and exemptions made in favor of the learned professions, especially the clergy, nobles, children below fourteen, women during pregnancy, etc. The system was thus sanctioned by the highest legal authorities. But opinions as to its efficiency differed. Augustus pronounced the torture the best form of proof. Cicero alternately praises and discredits it. Ulpian, with more wisdom, thought it unsafe, dangerous, and deceitful.

Among the Northern barbarians the torture was at first unknown except for slaves. The common law of England does not recognize it. Crimes were regarded only as injuries to individuals, not to society, and the chief resource for punishment was the private vengeance of the injured party. But if a slave, who was a mere piece of property, was suspected of a theft, his master would flog him till he confessed. All doubtful questions among freemen were decided by sacramental purgation and the various forms of ordeal. But in Southern Europe, where the Roman population gave laws to the conquering barbarians, the old practice continued, or revived with the study of the Roman law. In Southern France and in Spain the torture was an unbroken ancestral custom. Alfonso the Wise, in the thirteenth century, in his revision of Spanish jurisprudence, known as Las Siete Partidas, retained the torture, but declared the person of man to be the noblest thing on earth,367367    “La persona del home es la mas noble cosa del mundo. and required a voluntary confession to make the forced confession valid. Consequently the prisoner after torture was brought before the judge and again interrogated; if be recanted, he was tortured a second, in grave cases, a third time; if he persisted in his confession, he was condemned. During the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries the system of torture, was generally introduced in Europe, and took the place of the ordeal.

The church, true to her humanizing instincts, was at first hostile to the whole system of forcing evidence. A Synod of Auxerre (585 or 578) prohibited the clergy to witness a torture.368368    Can. 33: ”Non licet presbytero nec diacono ad trepalium ubi rei torquentur, stare.“ See Hefele III. 46. Pope Gregory I. denounced as worthless a confession extorted by incarceration and hunger.369369    Epist. VIII. 30. Nicolas I. forbade the new converts in Bulgaria to extort confession by stripes and by pricking with a pointed iron, as contrary to all law, human and divine (866)370370    Responsa ad Consulta Bulgarorum, c. 86. Hefele IV. 350. Lea, p. 305. Gratian lays down the general rule that “confessio cruciatibus extorquenda non est.”

But at a later period, in dealing with heretics, the Roman church unfortunately gave the sanction of her highest authority to the use of the torture, and thus betrayed her noblest instincts and holiest mission. The fourth Lateran Council (1215) inspired the horrible crusades against the Albigenses and Waldenses, and the establishment of the infamous ecclesiastico-political courts of Inquisition. These courts found the torture the most effective means of punishing and exterminating heresy, and invented new forms of refined cruelty worse than those of the persecutors of heathen Rome. Pope Innocent IV., in his instruction for the guidance of the Inquisition in Tuscany and Lombardy, ordered the civil magistrates to extort from all heretics by torture a confession of their own guilt and a betrayal of all their accomplices (1252).371371    In the bull Ad extirpanda: “Teneatur potestas seu rector, omnes haereticos … cogere citra membri diminutionem et mortis periculum, tamquam vere latrones et homicidas animarum … errores suos expresse fateri et accusare alios haereticos quos sciunt, et bona eorum.“ … Innoc. IV. Leg. et Const. contra Haeret. § 26. (Bullar. Magn. in Innoc. IV. No. 9). Comp. Gieseler II. 564-569. This was an ominous precedent, which did more harm to the reputation of the papacy than the extermination of any number of heretics could possibly do it good. In Italy, owing to the restriction of the ecclesiastical power by the emperor, the inquisition could not fully display its murderous character. In Germany its introduction was resisted by the people and the bishops, and Conrad of Marburg, the appointed Inquisitor, was murdered (1233). But in Spain it had every assistance from the crown and the people, which to this day take delight in the bloody spectacles of bullfights. The Spanish Inquisition was established in the reign of Ferdinand and Isabella by papal sanction (1478), reached its fearful height under the terrible General Inquisitor Torquemada (since 1483), and in its zeal to exterminate Moors, Jews, and heretics, committed such fearful excesses that even popes protested against the abuse of power, although with little effect. The Inquisition carried the system of torture to its utmost limits. After the Reformation it was still employed in trials of sorcery and witchcraft until the revolution of opinion in the eighteenth century swept it out of existence, together with cruel forms of punishment. This victory is due to the combined influence of justice, humanity, and tolerance.


I. “The whole system of the Inquisition,” says Lea (p. 331), “was such as to render the resort to torture inevitable. Its proceedings were secret; the prisoner was carefully kept in ignorance of the exact charges against him, and of the evidence upon which they were based. He was presumed to be guilty, and his judges bent all their energies to force him to confess. To accomplish this, no means were too base or too cruel. Pretended sympathizers were to be let into his dungeon, whose affected friendship might entrap him into an unwary admission; officials armed with fictitious evidence were directed to frighten him with assertions of the testimony obtained against him from supposititious witnesses; and no resources of fraud or guile were to be spared in overcoming the caution and resolution of the poor wretch whose mind had been carefully weakened by solitude, suffering, hunger, and terror. From this to the rack and estrapade the step was easily taken, and was not long delayed.” For details see the works on the Inquisition. Llorente (Hist. crit. de l’Inquisition d’Espagne IV. 252, quoted by Gieseler III. 409 note 11) states that from 1478 to the end of the administration of Torquemada in 1498, when he resigned, “8800 persons were burned alive, 6500 in effigy, and 90,004 punished with different kinds of penance. Under the second general-inquisitor, the Dominican, Diego Deza, from 1499 to 1506, 1664 persons were burned alive, 832 in effigy, 32,456 punished. Under the third general-inquisitor, the Cardinal and Archbishop of Toledo, Francis Ximenes de Cisneros, from 1507 to 1517, 2536 were burned alive, 1368 in effigy, 47,263 reconciled.” Llorente was a Spanish priest and general secretary of the Inquisition at Madrid (from 1789–1791), and had access to all the archives, but his figures, as he himself admits, are based upon probable calculations, and have in some instances been disproved. He states, e.g. that in the first year of Torquemada’s administration 2000 persons were burned, and refers to the Jesuit Mariana (History of Spain), but Mariana means that during the whole administration of Torquemada “duo millia crematos igne.” See Hefele, Cardinal Ximenes, p. 346. The sum total of persons condemned to death by the Spanish Inquisition during the 330 years of its existence, is stated to be 30,000. Hefele (Kirchenlexikon, v. 656) thinks this sum exaggerated, yet not surprising when compared with the number of witches that were burnt in Germany alone. The Spanish Inquisition pronounced its last sentence of death in the year 1781, was abolished under the French rule of Joseph Napoleon, Dec. 4, 1808, restored by Ferdinand VII. 1814, again abolished 1820, and (after another attempt to restore it) in 1834. Catholic writers, like Balmez (I.c. chs. xxxvi. and xxxvii.) and Hefele (Cardinal Ximenes, p. 257–389, and in Wetzer and Welte’s Kirchen-Lexicon, vol. V. 648–659), charge Llorente with inaccuracy in his figures, and defend the Catholic church against the excesses of the Spanish Inquisition, as this was a political rather than ecclesiastical institution, and had at least the good effect of preventing religious wars. But the Inquisition was instituted with the express sanction of Pope Sixtus IV. (Nov. 1, 1478), was controlled by the Dominican order and by Cardinals, and as to the benefit, the peace of the grave-yard is worse than war. Hefele adds, however (V. 657): “Nach all’ diesen Bemerkungen sind wir öbrigens weit entfernt, der Spanichen Inquisition an sich das Wort reden zu wollen, vielmehr bestreiten wir der weltlichen Gewalt durchaus die Befugniss, das Gewissen zu knebeln, und sind von Herzensgrund aus jedem staatlichen Religionszwang abhold, mag er von einem Torquemada in der Dominikanerkutte, oder von einem Bureaucraten in der Staatsuniform ansgehen. Aber das wollten wir zeigen, dass die Inquisition das schaendliche Ungeheuer nicht war, wozu es Parteileidenschaft und Unwissenheit häufig stempeln wollten.”

II. The torture was abolished in England after 1640, in Prussia 1740, in Tuscany 1786, in France 1789, in Russia 1801, in various German states partly earlier, partly later (between 1740 and 1831), in Japan 1873. Thomasius, Hommel, Voltaire, Howard, used their influence against it. Exceptional cases of judicial torture occurred in the nineteenth century in Naples, Palermo, Roumania (1868), and Zug (1869). See Lea, p. 389 sqq., and the chapter on Witchcraft in Lecky’s History of Rationalism (vol. I. 27–154). The extreme difficulty of proof in trials of witchcraft seemed to make a resort to the torture inevitable. English witchcraft reached its climax during the seventeenth century, and was defended by King James I., and even such wise men as Sir Matthew Hale, Sir Thomas Browne, and Richard Baxter. When it was on the decline in England it broke out afresh in Puritan New England, created a perfect panic, and led to the execution of twenty-seven persons. In Scotland it lingered still longer, and as late as 1727 a woman was burnt there for witchcraft. In the Canton Glarus a witch was executed in 1782, and another near Danzig in Prussia in 1836. Lecky concludes his chapter with an eloquent tribute to those poor women, who died alone, hated, and unpitied, with the prospect of exchanging their torments on earth with eternal torments in hell.

I add a noble passage on torture from Brace’s Gesta Christi, p. 274 sq. “Had the ’Son of Man’ been in body upon the earth during the Middle Ages, hardly one wrong and injustice would have wounded his pure soul like the system of torture. To see human beings, with the consciousness of innocence, or professing and believing the purest truths, condemned without proof to the most harrowing agonies, every groan or admission under pain used against them, their confessions distorted, their nerves so racked that they pleaded their guilt in order to end their tortures, their last hours tormented by false ministers of justice or religion, who threaten eternal as well as temporal damnation, and all this going on for ages, until scarce any innocent felt themselves safe under this mockery of justice and religion—all this would have seemed to the Founder of Christianity as the worst travesty of his faith and the most cruel wound to humanity. It need not be repeated that his spirit in each century struggled with this tremendous evil, and inspired the great friends of humanity who labored against it. The main forces in mediaeval society, even those which tended towards its improvement, did not touch this abuse. Roman law supported it. Stoicism was indifferent to it; Greek literature did not affect it; feudalism and arbitrary power encouraged a practice which they could use for their own ends; and even the hierarchy and a State Church so far forgot the truths they professed as to employ torture to support the ’Religion of Love.’ But against all these powers were the words of Jesus, bidding men ’Love your enemies’ ’Do good to them that despitefully use you!’ and the like commands. working everywhere on individual souls, heard from pulpits and in monasteries, read over by humble believers, and slowly making their way against barbaric passion and hierarchic cruelty. Gradually, in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, the books containing the message of Jesus circulated among all classes, and produced that state of mind and heart in which torture could not be used on a fellow-being, and in which such an abuse and enormity as the Inquisition was hurled to the earth.”

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