Teaching an undergraduate Legal History unit means venturing outside my usual medieval limits, and, when it comes to criminal law and criminal justice, it means engaging with the vast and ever-increasing scholarship on the 18th century.
I will admit to a bit of anti 18th century prejudice – probably stemming from having ‘done’ 18th C history at ‘A’ level and wanting to move on from Walpole, Bubbles and Wars. But I am starting to get over it by listening to some podcasts on crime and punishment in this era (study of which is more popular than ever amongst historians, at least partly because of the Old Bailey digitisation project).
Today’s mind-broadener was from 2013 at the Institute of Historical Research, London: Steve Poole (UWE) ‘For the benefit of example’: hanging felons at the scene of their crime in the long eighteenth century’. https://www.history.ac.uk/podcasts/british-history-long-18th-century/benefit-example-hanging-felons-scene-their-crime-long
This was extremely interesting. It was good to hear about places other than London (the Old Bailey project, marvellous though it is, has tended to push London even more to the fore in crime history scholarship than had previously been the case) and intriguing to learn about differences in practice, and cross-currents, in relation to the location of, procession to, and conduct of executions. The paper was also very worthwhile in its demonstration of the danger of trying to impose progress narratives on the past.Apart from anything else, my heart was gladdened to see yet another example of Foucault’s much-genuflected-at theories being proved inaccurate. (One can only hope that the end is in sight for the disciplining and punishment of academia by these pretty patterns which, when examined in the context of specific histories, show their lack of substance).
This paper, and the research behind it, however, showed real substance, and introduced important matters for consideration. In particular, it is vital – though hugely difficult – to try and get one’s head around what people of the past thought was good and appropriate about public execution. There are some good and thoughtful suggestions here, and some excellent examples to back them up.
Well worth a listen.