[As a courtesy to our guests, please keep comments to the book and be respectful of dissenting opinions. Please take other conversations to a previous thread. - bev]
A few years ago, the American Civil Liberties Union (ACLU) released a one-page document the organization had obtained from the Justice Department’s Office of Legal Counsel (OLC) as part of its in its long-running Freedom of Information Act (FOIA) lawsuit related to the treatment of “war on terror” detainees in custody of the US government.
The document contained a list of nine questions OLC had sent to the CIA about the so-called “enhanced interrogation techniques” the agency intended to use on its high-value captives held at black site prisons around the world. Question number five stood out among the others:
“How close is each technique to the ‘rack and screw’?”
In a report I published in 2009 citing this questionnaire, I characterized the “rack and screw” as “medieval” torture devices. I specifically chose to use the word “medieval” to impress upon readers that the methods of torture the Bush administration devised were as barbaric and its use as systematic as the techniques people were subjected to during the Middle Ages.
Equating “medieval” with cruel forms of punishment is commonplace and was popularized in a particularly gruesome scene in the movie “Pulp Fiction” when Ving Rhames’ character Marsellus tells his rapist that he and “a coupla hard, pipe-hittin’ niggers” are “gonna go to work on [his rapist] with a pair of pliers and a blow torch.”
“I’ma get medieval on your ass,” Marsellus says.
But in her exhaustively researched new book, Larissa Tracy, an associate professor of medieval literature at Longwood University in Farmville, Virginia, says linking “medieval” with acts of torture is a fallacy.
“[T]orture was not a pervasive means of medieval judicial control, despite accounts of public brutality and secular punishment …,” Tracy wrote in the introduction to “Torture and Brutality in Medieval Literature,” which cites the “Getting Medieval” scene from “Pulp Fiction” as a way of explaining how our understanding of the medieval era has been misguided.
In an interview with the syndicated radio show “With Good Reason,” Tracy said the general public believes torture was “popular” during the Middle Ages because “we have museums full of torture implements all over Europe and even traveling torture museums in San Diego and Washington, DC.”
“There is this sense that because they were older people that they were more violent, they were less civilized and they used violence as a means of controlling their population,” she said. “Part of that is because we don’t have an awful lot of evidence to overtly contradict that.”
So Tracy spent more than six years closely examining how torture and judicial brutality are depicted in medieval literature, such as “The Miller’s Tale” by Geoffrey Chaucer, to prove that it was not as widespread and systemic during the Middle Ages as we were led to believe. In fact, she argues there was no more torture during medieval times than we’re confronting today. Moreover, she says brutal torture techniques, such as “equine quartering,” where a person’s limbs are torn off of their body, was likely more of a literary motif than a practice.
“Today we consider ourselves far away from the medieval country of tortures’ dotted with wheel, gibbets, and racks’ that Michael Foucalt (author of “Discipline and Punish: The Birth of the Modern Prison”) envisions, if such a landscape ever actually existed,”
Her conclusions, she wrote, will ultimately force us to “rethink our interpretation of the [medieval] period, and our interpretation of our own society and cultural norms – our own national identities.”
“The perception of national identity is influenced by our own culture of violence (real and imaginary), and perhaps our continuation of this debate on medieval torture and brutality brings us closer to the very society from which we attempt to disassociate ourselves,” Tracy writes. “Perhaps it is easier to distance ourselves from the violence (and even torture) in the modern era if we can situate it firmly in the past and convince ourselves that we are not as violent as medieval society.”