Executions, Spectator Emotions, and the Naturalization of Sympathy

Paul Friedland

in Seeing Justice Done

Published in print June 2012 | ISBN: 9780199592692
Published online September 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780191741852 | DOI:
Executions, Spectator Emotions, and the Naturalization of Sympathy

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  • Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500)


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By the turn of the eighteenth century, spectators from all social classes had developed a fascination with the spectacle of capital punishment. Unusual executions or the execution of particularly noteworthy individuals drew enormous crowds. At the same time, however, a revolution in sensibilities was reimagining human nature to be instinctively prone to compassion, and especially to sympathy with the suffering of others. As the very nature of humanity came to be defined as having “humane” sensibilities, the practice of finding pleasure in the sufferings of others came to be seen as unnatural and inhuman. This chapter traces these two, largely incompatible, and yet nearly simultaneous trends in watching and making sense of executions from the turn of the sixteenth century to the middle of the eighteenth century.

Keywords: executions; spectators; spectacle; sensibilities; human nature; compassion; sympathy; suffering; humanity

Chapter.  12362 words. 

Subjects: Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500)

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