The making of the ‘modern self’ is one of the grand narratives in the history of the western world. Yet most scholars of the self disregard to what extent common people participated in this history. This book uses five hundred Belgian criminal trial records of murder, sodomy and prostitution cases from between 1750 and 1830 to retell the European history of the self. By means of these unusual sources, the book not only shifts attention towards common people’s changing self-conceptions, but also to the diversity of discourses and practices of the self. The book indicates that, along with conflicting tendencies, there was an increasing stress on inner depth in the interactions in criminal courts after around 1800. This depth was not only important for elites, but also, and sometimes especially, for common people. In five chapters, the book discusses the impact of changing criminal procedures on practices of confession and remorse, the increasing claims people made that their actions were rational and universal, the ways in which they claimed to have ‘lost’ their self by drinking, passion or insanity, the changing displays of tears and sympathy, and talk about human and individual nature.
The introduction outlines the existing historiography of the self, discusses its lack of attention for social status, and develops a new methodology that can be used as a guide for future studies. It suggests to refocus the investigation on four sets of discourses and four sets of practices of the self, which will allow us to take into account the diversity and paradoxes of the self. Moreover, the introduction shows the need to bring power into the analysis, taking inspiration from Nietzsche and Foucault to highlight the importance of institutions of criminal justice in the making of the self. The introduction concludes with a reflection on archives of criminal justice, suggesting that we must heed to the formative nature of legal records, rather than seeing them as more or less dependable indicators of pre-existing ideas and practices.
This chapter attends to how the changing forms and procedures of criminal trials affected the self. Rather than focus on grand trials and punishments, the chapter highlights the pre-trial investigations and procedures, attending to how people gave accounts of themselves. The forms of accusations, interrogations and confessions increasingly encouraged an individualized and introspective self, with a true nature that could only be changed with great difficulty. The impact of the legal reforms before, during and after the French Revolution is discussed. The chapter explores how interrogation techniques and records became increasingly personal, for instance with the trend to record speech in the first person and the increasing stress on remorse. The chapter emphasizes the agency of those involved in the changing procedures, discussing the different power mechanisms in criminal procedures and the possibilities for resisting them.
Chapter 2 takes a fresh look at one of the pivotal concepts of the Enlightenment – the concept of reason, of which the possibilities and limits were extensively debated. The chapter discusses the role of this concept in criminal justice and in the stories suspects told before their judges. The model of the rational, calculating individual was important for the working of criminal justice, but contained many paradoxes. People who were acting rationally were not expected to commit crimes. Yet many suspects claimed that their actions were rational – they served to defend their lives, to be able to survive, or to defend their honour. The role of calculation and reason complicated the increasing stress on individual psychological depth: many people claimed that they had acted as everyone else would have in a similar situation. By the early nineteenth century, however, these arguments were in most cases only accepted by the courts if they came from men of the better sorts. Magistrates generally denied the claims of reason made by women and common people. As such, being reasonable became a privilege, while inner depth was a form of subjection.
The third chapter discusses the stories in which people claimed that they had ‘not been themselves’ at the time of their crime. Many people claimed that in general, they acted reasonably, but at a specific moment in time, they had lost their reasonable self. They referred to drunkenness, passions, witchcraft and temporary insanity to excuse themselves. But like the claims of reason, the claims of ‘displacement’ of the self were not easily accepted. If in the eighteenth century, there were relatively diverse ways to claim a temporary loss of the self, these possibilities became increasingly narrow in the early nineteenth century. Only temporary insanity was still acceptable, and it required a clear medical diagnosis. More and more, courts saw witchcraft as impossible and drunkenness and passionate behaviour as inherent character flaws. In this process, people’s inner depths became an increasingly urgent topic of discussion.
One of the main arguments of the book is that there was an increasing stress on individual psychological depth in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, both in the procedures of criminal justice and in the stories people told in the courts. This chapter looks in more detail at the words people used to talk about the self. In particular, the concept of ‘nature’ was of crucial importance. Three phases in talk about nature are distinguished: a first phase, in which ‘human nature’ was most negatively commented upon; a second phase, in which more attention was given to individual nature, and often in a more positive way; and a third phase, in which human nature was often positively commented upon, while individual nature was more often used to talk about negative characteristics. While the changes in the courts were less pronounced than in intellectual culture, this analysis shows how these intellectual currents had an impact in everyday life and how they affected the ways people could talk about the self.
The concluding chapter connects the different threads in this book, links them up with the traditional historiography of the self and places them within larger temporal and geographical frameworks. It does so by confronting the people in the courts with the Prince de Ligne, an elite cosmopolitan figure who is often seen as an ‘incarnation’ of the period around 1800. The chapter highlights that the making of the modern self was not an elite affair, but affected people of all social layers, and common people and women sometimes even more than elite men. The late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries witnessed an increasing stress on depth, interiority and individuality and the criminal justice system was an important institution for the dissemination of the new models of the self. Its influence was not uncontested, but almost no-one could entirely ignore the new practices of an interior and stable self.
Practising sentimentalism and romanticism in criminal court
Two famous emotional styles swept through Europe in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries: the culture of sensibility or sentimentalism, and the culture of romanticism. This chapter connects the history of the self to the history of emotions. Up to around 1770, few traces of the cult of sensibility could be found and in trial records, only women were occasionally reported as weeping. This changed in the 1770s and early 1780s, when men were also said to have wept. Only in the 1780s and 1790s, however, when male tears were already disappearing again, explicit references to the central concept of sympathy made their way into the trial records. In the immediate aftermath of the revolution, in the late 1790s, there was a short-lived return of male sentiment, followed by the virtual disappearance of all male tears and sympathy around 1800. In the romantic period, feelings became more private and more profound. The chapter shows that feelings, which are often expected to change only slowly, could in fact go through rapid changes.