A Spectacular Crisis

Paul Friedland

in Seeing Justice Done

Published in print June 2012 | ISBN: 9780199592692
Published online September 2012 | e-ISBN: 9780191741852 | DOI:
A Spectacular Crisis

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  • Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500)


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In the mid-eighteenth century, France reached a crisis point as competing cultural trends and practices ran headlong into one another: the rising public fascination with executions, the logic of exemplary deterrence (predicated on the idea that the spectacle of execution terrified spectators and deterred crime), and contemporary sensibilities (which held that human beings were instinctively compassionate and incapable of watching the suffering of others). The execution of Robert-Francois Damiens in 1757, during which enormous numbers of spectators watched a human being torn to pieces and flayed alive, epitomized this cultural crisis, and marked a cultural turning point, after which the privileged classes would largely forsake the penal spectacle as “horrible.” The vulgarization of the penal spectacle marked a crisis in its own right, as the very individuals who continued to delight in the penal spectacle were precisely the ones who were meant to be the target audience for exemplary deterrence.

Keywords: executions; exemplary deterrence; spectacle; sensibilities; Damiens; spectators; cultural crisis; penal spectacle

Chapter.  14636 words.  Illustrated.

Subjects: Medieval and Renaissance History (500 to 1500)

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