Torture (Latin torquere, “to twist”), in law, infliction of severe bodily pain either as punishment, or to compel a person to confess to a crime, or to give evidence in a judicial proceeding. Among primitive peoples, torture has been used as a means of ordeal and to punish captured enemies. Examination by torture, often called the “question,” has been used in many countries as a judicial method. It involves using instruments to extort evidence from unwilling witnesses.
In ancient Athens, slaves were always examined by torture, and for this reason their evidence was apparently considered more valuable than that of freemen. A free Athenian could not be examined by this method, but torture may have been used occasionally in executing criminals. Under the Roman Republic only slaves could be legally tortured, and as a general rule, they could not be tortured to establish the guilt of their master. Under the Roman Empire, however, by the order of the emperor, torture was frequently inflicted even on freemen to obtain evidence of the crime of laesa majestas (“injured majesty,” or crime against a sovereign power). The statesman Cicero and other enlightened Romans condemned the use of torture.
Until the 13th century torture was apparently not sanctioned by the canon law of the Christian church; about that time, however, the Roman treason law began to be adapted to heresy as crimen laesae majestatis Divinae (“crime of injury to Divine majesty”). Soon after the Inquisition was instituted, Pope Innocent IV, influenced by the revival of Roman law, issued a decree (in 1252) that called on civil magistrates to have persons accused of heresy tortured to elicit confessions against themselves and others. This was probably the earliest instance of ecclesiastical sanction of this mode of examination.
During the Middle Ages the influence of the Roman Catholic Church contributed to the adoption of torture by civil tribunals. The Italian municipalities adopted torture early, but it did not appear in other European countries until France legalized its use in the 13th century. Ultimately, torture became part of the legal system of every European nation except Sweden and England. Although torture was never recognized in the common law of England, it was practiced by exercise of the royal prerogative. In the American colonies torture was illegal; the few instances of its use were in forms of execution.
The horrors of the Inquisition and the excessive use of judicial torture from the 14th to the 16th century brought about a progressive change of sentiment, which eventually led to the abolition of torture in all countries of Europe. It was last used in England in 1640 to compel a confession of treason. By the middle of the 18th century legal torture was abolished in France, Prussia, Saxony (Sachsen), Austria, and Switzerland. Under a papal bull issued in 1816 the use of torture was banned in Roman Catholic countries.
Torture in Europe through the Ages
The history of torture...