Of Questions, or Torture: Enforced Bodies in Early Modern European Visual Culture

Jason E. Cohen, Berea College
Montezuma: Know, I have gold, which you shall never find
No pains, no tortures, shall unlock my mind.
(John Dryden, The Indian Emperor 5.2.21)


Begin to assemble common ingredients—cord, pitcher, bucket, plank, water, cloth, fire, lead—in no particular order, but with careful thought about the ways in which each of these elements might be useful individually or aggregately. In what differentially civil or uncivil scenes might each object participate? Who inhabits each space, and in what locations do the scenes occur? How are we to make sense of common things shown to us in ways that we fail to recognize, understand, or find words to discuss? In this brief narrative, I examine forms of visual representation used to depict enforced and regulated bodies, as well as the regimes of judgment, enforcement, and retribution used to condone suffering in early modern European visual culture. I have found a collapse of different models of representation—whether juridical, religious, or anthropological; for retributive, documentary, or precautionary purposes—that reveals how scenes of pain depend upon transferences of visual tropes across narrative and discursive fields. It is the basic thesis of the argument made in the visual material I have assembled, consequently, that the distinct fields of torture collapse representational forms, and further, that the principle effect of this repeated collapse is a failure to maintain between the motivation as well as affects these visual materials are, formally and figurally, at pains to convey.

The common nature of torture’s basic components add to the terrible elegance of constructed scenes of torture: that same hearth fire used for cooking, in the forge, or for light and warmth takes on frightful and threatening hues when steadfastly held too close to the flesh. The common attributes of instruments, scenes, and applications imbue these images with an uncanny terror—we are presented with scenes we may never encounter directly, to which there may be no testimony, or which may be entirely fictional. Nevertheless, each scene of disgrace conveys a disconcerting familiarity. But we cannot know pain; Elaine Scarry reminds us that scenes of trauma are, despite their images, often described as “unspeakable” moments, subjects, or effects (4). The visualization of enforced pain shows us how one envisions that which cannot adequately be envisioned, and in so doing, it shows us how those modes of vision fall short of depicting the fullness of the experiences of pain in their specificities as well as in their most general contours.

Of the Question, Or Torture

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Discussion of Slides

Note: I have included a discussion of the first five slides from this set of images in order to frame the primary material, and further, to offer an analytical model that may usefully guide a student’s inquiries into visual materials.

Slide 1

The first slide presents a detail from a chapter about juridical torture (De quaestione translates most directly as ‘Of The Question,’ where ‘The Question’ is either a euphemism for torture, or a synecdoche for the category of answers enforced on pain of harm). This wood cut in Joost Damhoudere’s Praxis Rerum Criminalium depicts those common tools with which I began. The cord, pitcher, and bucket are most prominent, but the legs of a table are also evident, and the feet of the torturers are figured close by. The scene plays out in a necessarily claustrophobic space, with all those objects centered on the body we will see more fully in slide three, in the image at the lower right. (Zoom out to see the entire image.) The lines of perspective drawn on the floor render the image still fuller with the regulation of space as well as bodies and objects. This image occurs in an early modern manual on legal guidelines, practices, and procedures, and yet it does not question the basis for invoking torture, as the foundational legal documents had done since Aristotle. Consider Quintilian’s discussion of torture in the Institutio oratoria (5.4.1):

For if the point at issue is whether torture should be applied, it will make all the difference who it is who demands or offers it, who it is that is to be subjected to torture, against whom evidence thus sought will tell, and what is the motive for the demand. If on the other hand torture has already been applied, it will make all the difference who was in charge of the proceedings, who was the victim and what the nature of the torture, whether the confession was credible or consistent, whether the witness stuck to his first statement or changed it under the influence of pain, and whether he made it at the beginning of the torture or only after it had continued some time. The variety of such questions is as infinite as the variety of actual cases.

One further note should confirm the point: in the final analysis, Quintilian is ambivalent about the effects as well as procedures associated with juridical torture. So many variables are in play by the end of these few sentences that the taxonomy of replies it creates cannot simply be mapped onto claims for the truth status of any one admission. The truth or validity of any confession would have to be judged a posteriori, after the fact of the confessed event had been confirmed with other matters beyond the knowledge of the tortured subject. But in a legal moment preceding the emergence of material evidence (rather than confession, circumstance, or character), such forms of judgment remained largely outside the scope of regulatory fields of vision.

Slide 2

This image, the frontispiece of Thomas Gale’s Certain Workes of Chirurgerie (1563/4), departs from images of St. Sebastian, traditionally figured as being pierced by arrows. Here complementing those images of St. Sebastian, the full human figure displays an impossibly calm face while being pierced by instruments of war. Gale’s work was known best for its early treatment of wounds resulting from firearms, as well as its disclosure of certain “secrete medicines simple and compounde.” What interests me in this image, however, is its insistence on showing an impossible scene: what surgeon could possibly save this body from its impending fate? Any one of these injuries might be survived; taken together, however, this frontispiece presents an image of mortality—the surgeon along with his “certain workes” is no further removed from death than the needless tortures of, for instance, the Inquisition or an invading army. The epistemological discourse governing this piece—surgical, medicinal, and practical though it may be—makes every attempt to render the pain of the surgery itself comprehensible under the heading of progress. But when presented with a broken body like this one, there can be no question that the underlying epistemology will have given way to death before surgery has had the chance to administer its procedures. Perhaps, like torture then, the most valuable knowledge can only be extracted from this surgery a posteriori and despite regular failures to produce the intended results.

Slide 3

These composite details feature the first of many comparisons I offer: here I would suggest that the discourses of surgery, juridical procedure, and Recusant history (from Richard Verstegan’s 1605 polemical A Restitution of Decayed Intelligence) each participate in the transportation and adaptation of the history of torture into the realms of history, medicine, and law. The ink note at the bottom of Gale’s Chirurgerie indicates its desirability (even though the note is in a later hand and refers to its print history, rather than its content): “;For an account of this very scarce book, see Aikin and Friend [?].” These three appearances, while absolutely separated by context, nevertheless relentlessly implicate the bodies of the accused, wronged, or compromised in structures of meaningful relations governing the body’s role in those systems.

Slide 4

The outcomes of history included in documents like the previous Verstegan image (which is sympathetic to Catholic persecution) echoes the image from Samuel Clarke’s A General Martyrologie (1677). Clarke’s woodcut shows the “ministers loaden with great burthens and prickt forward with swordes & speares.” I have included a pair of excerpts from the title page to Reginald Scot’s 1584 Discoverie of Witchcraft because the treatment of the minister in the top image matches one accusation leveled at ministers, namely the “abomination of idolatrie,” which in Scot figures as a problem associated with witches. The minister’s treatment, moreover, approximates several descriptions of the torments meted out to witches in the frenzy of German witch trials, which in another context could be explored more fully.

Slide 5

An audience tends implicitly to identify with the body in pain, which presents a problem for representations of torture in scenes of oppression, resistance, and ideological malice. That is, seeing a body strapped down and under duress, the oppressors scan as unjust, regardless of context. These atrocities are, on their face and in their deepest structures, inhuman. Immediate and visceral responses to such images include discomfort, embarrassment, or shame, coupled with an urge not to look. In addition, the emotional and somatic forces marshaled by these images dehumanize those people who perpetrate these actions, just as their victims become less human in moments of being reduced to images of punishment or retribution. Ayanna Thompson, despite her focus on the theater as the scene of such representations, makes this point eloquently as she reminds us that these images “constantly recreate themselves and the audience” every time they are viewed (137). Given an afterlife of images defined by reincarnation and return, in what forms of identification does an audience participate, particularly when victims as well as perpetrators are dehumanized in the process of being represented? In the following slides, we will see that the images I have provided early in this presentation resonate with the images I have included in the later slides (including scenes documenting the Spanish Inquisition in slides 12–13, the Dutch massacre of English at Amboyna in slides 1415, as well as an early English embassy to China in the final slides). None of the ambiguities are easily resolved, and only some of them are even available to be clearly identified.


In a moment of colonial expansion and imperial aspiration, these images of pain, suffering, and torture remind us that the simplicity with which these figures and devices can be transported belies a tremendously complicated network of motives, implications, and aftereffects. The desire to reduce the complex discourse of suffering to a basic appearance, or to use images to explicate the motivation driving dehumanizing conduct, reveals certain ways in which distant subjects still rely, indeed insist, on making sense of things that have never stood up to sense-making. In visualizing pain, the spectrum of the body’s sensual reactions are projected onto the page, and thus, digest, codify, and anticipate the sense perceptions that might emerge from these moments. The act of rationalizing and taxonomically ordering pain, however, diminishes the appearance of disruptive terrors that are wreaked upon bodily flesh and the body politic. The over determined appearance of such events contains within it the call to step back from discourses of reason to examine how such discourses collapse into the too comfortable tropes of crime and punishment, and which finally make the uncanny appearance of common torments all the more relentless for present and future witnesses.

Suggested Reading

Dryden, John. The Indian Emperour, or The Conquest of Mexico by the Spaniards. London, 1665.

Lezra, Jacques. Unspeakable Subjects: A Genealogy of the Event in Early Modern Europe. Stanford: Stanford, 1997.

Peters, Edward. Torture.. London: Basil Blackwell, 1985.

Scarry, Elaine. The Body in Pain: The Making and Unmaking of the World. . New York: Oxford University Press, 1985.

Thompson, Ayanna. Performing Race and Torture on the Early Modern Stage. . New York: Routledge, 2008.