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Tuesday, July 4, 2017

Executions: The Thrill is Gone

     During the late Middle Ages (1000-1500), executions took place in the marketplace or in the village square, but by then they had become more formal, dignified, even ceremonial undertakings. Procedures were more elaborate; rage was blunted by formalities. For the grievous offenders of this time--a category including heretics--executions were elaborate highly planned exhibitions orchestrated by high officials. Rage was absent altogether in these pageants, but other strong emotions reigned. Most notably, there was excitement and awe, especially before the might and majesty of the Inquisition.

     Executions marked by a restrained ceremony were the norm during the early modern period (1500-1800). Crowds of spectators might have lapsed into unseemly behavior, but such behavior was sharply at odds with the formal execution script. These executions featured ritual and etiquette, as in the late Middle Ages, but little pomp or circumstance. Milder feelings, such as those of devotion were given an outlet in ceremony; excitement or awe was deemed inappropriately expressive. Officials and spectators were instead expected to show a quiet reverence, tinged by sadness.

     In the modern period (from 1800 on), ceremony gradually gave way to bureaucratic procedure played out behind prison walls, in isolation from the community. Feelings are absent, or at least suppressed, in bureaucratically administered executions. With bureaucratic procedure, there is a functional routine dominated by hierarchy and task. Officials perform mechanically before a small, silent gathering of authorized witnesses who behave with marked restraint. Executions have come to be seen as "dirty work." Hence, there is no communal involvement of any sort. The proceedings are antiseptically arranged; few of us get our hands soiled.

Robert Johnson, Death Work, Second Edition, 1998 

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