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Crime and Forgiveness

Crime and Forgiveness

Christianizing Execution in Medieval Europe

Adriano Prosperi

Translated by Jeremy Carden

ISBN 9780674659841

Publication date: 07/14/2020

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A provocative analysis of how Christianity helped legitimize the death penalty in early modern Europe, then throughout the Christian world, by turning execution into a great cathartic public ritual and the condemned into a Christ-like figure who accepts death to save humanity.

The public execution of criminals has been a common practice ever since ancient times. In this wide-ranging investigation of the death penalty in Europe from the fourteenth to the eighteenth century, noted Italian historian Adriano Prosperi identifies a crucial period when legal concepts of vengeance and justice merged with Christian beliefs in repentance and forgiveness.

Crime and Forgiveness begins with late antiquity but comes into sharp focus in fourteenth-century Italy, with the work of the Confraternities of Mercy, which offered Christian comfort to the condemned and were for centuries responsible for burying the dead. Under the brotherhoods’ influence, the ritual of public execution became Christianized, and the doomed person became a symbol of the fallen human condition. Because the time of death was known, this “ideal” sinner could be comforted and prepared for the next life through confession and repentance. In return, the community bearing witness to the execution offered forgiveness and a Christian burial. No longer facing eternal condemnation, the criminal in turn publicly forgave the executioner, and the death provided a moral lesson to the community.

Over time, as the practice of Christian comfort spread across Europe, it offered political authorities an opportunity to legitimize the death penalty and encode into law the right to kill and exact vengeance. But the contradictions created by Christianity’s central role in executions did not dissipate, and squaring the emotions and values surrounding state-sanctioned executions was not simple, then or now.

Praise

  • Thoroughly chilling…[A] grimly fascinating story of public execution, viewed not as punishment for the body but as medicine for the soul…As a collection of stories assembled from archives little-known outside Italy, this is an invaluable exploration of the macabre. As a prompt to consider the relationship between mercy and truth, righteousness and peace, it raises​ questions of far wider significance.

    —Nicholas Vincent, The Tablet

Author

  • Adriano Prosperi is Professor of Modern History, Emeritus, at the Scuola Normale Superiore di Pisa and author of more than fifteen books that address the intersection of law and religion in early modern Europe.

Book Details

  • 640 pages
  • 6-1/8 x 9-1/4 inches
  • Belknap Press

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