Trials of the self

Murder, mayhem and the remaking of the mind, 1750–1830

Author: Elwin Hofman

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.

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