Its difficult to doubt that cruelty is a major obsession and obscenity of modern life. The mediatised examples are a running faucet of lurid sensationalism that play on the disquieting tendencies of attraction and repulsion. Leaving aside, the more large-scale but often equally ritualized violence of war, are we as individuals more cruel than our ancestors? Are we more wanton in our infliction of pain?
In January, 1757, Robert Francois Damiens made a feeble attempt to assassinate Louis XV of France. Though his small life barely penetrated the king’s thick winter clothes, causing little more than a four inch scratch, Damiens was caught,and tortured to make him name his accomplices of which he had none. Then he became centerpiece of a theatre of cruelty. The philosopher La Condamine, for one, was so fascinated by the prospect of such an extravagant spectacle that he got himself a place on the scaffold to watch the victim. He was part of a huge audience that paid exorbitant sums to view Damiens’s flesh pulled off with red-hot pincers and his battered body pulled apart by horses. After that the Parisians- aristocrats, bourgeoisie and workingman alike- went back to their dinners.
The Damiens execution was more elaborately staged than most for the time, but it was still highly traditional. Damiens’s executioners had carefully copied, with scrupulous attention to detail, the way Francois Ravaillac, the assassin of Henry IV, had been put to death in 1610. The French however, should not be branded a peculiarly ferocious. The treatment of traitors in England, a method of execution that had first been used against Catholic priests in Elizabeth I’s reign, was equally horrifying.
Before a vast crowd in a carnival-like atmosphere, the traitor was hanged, but taken down while still alive; then his genitals were cut off and stuffed in his mouth, he was disembowled, and finally his head was cut off and his trunk quartered. The head, stuck on a pike, would festoon Temple Bar for years; sometimes the quarters were sent to decorate provincial cities. These were but upsurges in an ocean of cruelty. Several times a year huge crowds swarmed to Tyburn to watch and enjoy the executions by hanging of men and women, youths and girls, turned off the ladder into eternity for minor robberies and petty pilfering, as well as murder and mayhem.
Such sadism was not merely an occasional visual thrill, for cruelty had been deeply embedded in western European society for centuries and was still to be for a century or so more. It was a constant theme of everyday life, a continuing event of family experience.
Cruelty to animals was widespread. One might say total. Cocks fought each other to the death, bulls and bears were baited by specially trained dogs; cats were sewn up in effigies of the pope to create realistic howls when they were burned. Oxen and horses were driven and flogged until they dies. And yet, animals were not treated much different, or worse than infants or small children. The callous behavior of parents and adults to infants in seventeenth-century England or eighteenth-century France is scarcely credible. Swaddling was universal. Newborn babies were stretched out on a board, a piece of diaper stuck between their thighs, and then strapped down so tight they could not move. Swaddled infants were frequently hung up on pegs on the wall and left there, and of course they lived in their own feces and urine until they were re-swaddled. In any event death of an infant was of small consequence: 50 per cent of all infants died before they were a year old.
The fight against cruelty was long and arduous. However, this attitude never permeated the whole of society or restrained th
havior of governments. Its influence has always been fragile and may be even growing towards certain classes of men and women. There is no cause for self-congratulation; the aesthetic and pornography of violence stirs deep and dangerous emotions and seems ingrained in the world of advertising and marketing to create tension, fear, and anxiety to sell product.