Tuesday, April 11, 2006

Foot Torture and the Star Chamber

In earlier times the desire to quell free thought and the need to elicit perceived truth were indistinguishable and achieved, in the main, through the medium of torture. Torture may be described as a form of cruelty or method of tormenting sanction by the State, and executed by duly accredited or appointed officials, through judicial authorities. Torture justifies itself as the most satisfying method of compelling acceptance of dictatorial jurisdiction, by repressing and preventing all attempts to rebel against that authority or the tenets of its creed. In both State and Church waging war either upon treason; or heresy torture was admitted to be the most powerful instrument available. Torture and punishment were the primitive law that provided a means for forcing the individual to act contrary to their wishes as well as preventing them from rebelling against the existent rules of the governing body. (Scott, 1995) Whilst torture was never recognised by the common law of England, it was practiced with the full authority of the reigning monarchs. Torture was used to extract confession and to obtain evidence but the activities were disguised, euphemised or justified under the name of punishment or as a discipline.

Torture (Latin torquere, or twist) is based on two fundamental elements i.e. the human capacity to imagine and the apprehension and susceptibility to pain. Throughout history the skills of the tormentor required to be highly developed as the turn of a screw could have dire consequence. Before and after torture, prisoners were strictly confined usually in a location which was in itself a passive form of torture. Authorities saw no need to pamper wrong doers and were determined to make their lives unbearable as possible to sap their resistance.

Throughout history the black art of inflicting pain has been ever present but perhaps had its heyday in the middle ages. Recorded history indicates witches were persecuted from the time of Noah but it was not until the end of the fifteenth century when Pope Innocent VIII issued a bull which specifically called to exterminate sorcerers and witches as enemies of the Christian religion that legitimate torture of prisoners was sanctioned.

The star council was formed by Henry VII (1485-1509); the name came from the magnificent room the chief justices prelates and members of Privy Council met. Their remit was to pass sentence on those too powerful to be dealt with by an ordinary court or to decide on cases too complex to be understood by the uneducated juries of the day. Frequently the King would preside and pronounce judgment. At first the intention was honourable but it soon deteriorated into a means for meeting out punishment. The supreme powers of the Star Chamber were not questioned until 1628. By the sixteenth century it was plain persuasion by means of pressing usually ended in death. Whilst this solved one problem by removing the deviant, it was less satisfactory in court cases where confessions and names of accomplices were required. Feet provided a most acceptable alternative. Reasonably easy to inflict excruciating pain with added advantage on not causing death, foot torture became well established in civilised societies and continues to exist to this day.

In America, the Oregon Boot was the equivalent to the medieval ball and chain. A heavy iron leg cuff was secured about the convicted ankle and held in place by a stirrup like attachment passing under the heel. The Spanish Chair was a variation of the gridiron and was used by the Inquisition. It was a heavy iron chair like a garden longer in which the victim was secured by straps around his neck arms and upper legs. Integral with the end of the chair was a pair of iron socks, in which the bare feet of the heretic were secured. A glowing brazier was placed at the feet. To prevent the feet from heating up to quickly the feet were basted with lard or oil. French criminals suffered a similar torture especially in Brittany, where the pan containing the white-hot coals was brought nearer and nearer with devastating slowness until the confession had been extracted. King Ferdinand VII of Italy had a portable chair made of iron and had a pan underneath the seat. Persia (now Iran) favoured Bastinado where the victim is gently and rhythmically beaten with a lightweight stick or bamboo on the soles of the feet. Continued for a length of time the torment results in uncontrollable hysteria and eventual mental collapse. Cold burning was common place in the British army. The regiment would use a boot – jack and then tie one arm extended high above the head. Bottles of cold water were poured down the sleeve until he was thoroughly soaked. Torture continues to be used in many countries around the world despite official denials. The provisions of the Magna Carta represents torture as abhorrent to the principle of English freedom but for 400 years judicial torture was used and inflicted as a form of punishment. Many brave people tried to put an end to the painful persecution but it took till the nineteenth century to become outlawed. The English renounced judicial torture in 1640 and it was abolished in Scotland in 1708. Frederick the Great abolished torture in Prussia. (1740). The Danes renounced torture in 1771; the Italians abolished torture in 1786, the French 1789. In Russia it came to an end 1801, and in Spain, 1812.

Chenoune F 1993 A history of men’s fashion Paris:Flammarion
Scott GR 1995 A history of torture London: Senate

Reviewed 23/01/2017


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