Another day, another delayed blog. Things have been rather busy here of late. I got ill last month – happily just a really ugly cold – and now, my university is closed. We’re doing our best via online classes and long-distance working schemes. I can’t say that I mind that much, but I really feel for my colleagues who had organized major events, like our “Past Week” program, which have been cancelled. Hopefully, we will be able to repurpose some of the planning next year, after all of this has passed. In the meantime, I am pressing forward with my research, as are other members of UGent’s history department.
Professor Isabelle Devos, a colleague and historical demographer, recently published a newspaper article regarding the Belgian cholera epidemic of 1866, which resulted in 43,400 deaths, and the measures enacted at the time. Her field of study is of obvious relevance now. However, one of the advantages of New Diplomatic History is that the expansion of subject matter from the purely political aspects of interactions has opened up entirely new vistas for research, and all aspects of peoples’ social and personal lives become topics for investigation. This includes illness.
Diplomats and monarchs both fell ill during the early modern period, and indeed, one of an ambassador’s primary tasks was to report on the health of the ruler(s) of his receiving country. They may not have always had much of substance to report. According to Dr Klaas van Gelder, the prime minister of Holy Roman Empress Maria Theresa, Kaunitz, was a noted hypochondriac. His correspondence with the Marquis of Prié, Prince Eugene of Savoy’s plenipotentiary governor of the Habsburg Netherlands, often mentions his imagined health problems. Despite his various ailments, the former diplomat lived to the ripe old age of 83.
Balthazar Gerbier, the agent of Charles I in Brussels during the 1630s, also had health complaints, and they appear to have had an actual impact on his work. In November of 1633, Gerbier reported to the secretary of state that “a sciatike had kept me twoe monthes from this Court” but that he had nevertheless had an informal, domestic audience with the Queen Mother of France – then in exile – to congratulate her on the birth of a grandson in England. What precisely he meant by “sciatica” – lower back pain in modern medical terminology – or what caused it, is unclear. But it was apparently not his only ailment. Among the letters in his registers dated to October of 1633, is an entry containing a cure “the effects are most exillent” for a “stone and obstruction of water” – a bladder stone, in other words. It ran as follows:
Receipe to draine of the gravell, and to make
water in time of observation:
Was king Henry ye 4th of France his sole remedy
Take fresh butter, put it in a silver dish on the fire to
make it boil, while it boils take of the feumme wth
A swannes quill feather, till the butter be purified
Take a silver porrenger heated by the fire, putt three spoones
full of the said purified butter in ye porringer, & ad to it
Instantly two spoones full of white wine, & one spoone full
Of white sugar candy beaten into fine powder, mingle
it together, take it in ye morning, fast two howers
This may be taken weekely
It is doubtful that this actually was an effective remedy, although drinking wine on an empty stomach at the start of every day probably helped to make it seem like it was working. While his early morning tippling may have caused the agent some minor (and possibly amusing) impairment, infectious diseases constituted a much more serious threat to diplomacy. At the same time, however, they also presented opportunities for acting outside the framework of the usual ceremonial and protocol.
John Finet’s entries in his notebooks for 1636 indicate that the newly arrived Spanish ambassador, the Conde de Oñate, took advantage of an outbreak of the plague in order to delay his public entrance. Knowing that the infection was going around, he claimed he had an “indisposition,” “the remaynes of a feaver that had seized him in Spayne.” He used the delay to haggle over his quarters. Finet met the ambassador’s demands for a fancier house by pointing out that it would be difficult to arrange this in “the tyme of contagion.” The lord chamberlin eventually tried to stick Oñate – much to his displeasure – in a house on the other side of the river, “with especiall regard to the ambassadors conveniency, as being remote in this tyme of plague from danger of infection.”
I suspect that the remoteness was intended to discourage the exceedingly punctilious Grandee from afflicting the court with his presence too often. However, a further outbreak in 1640 appeared to have more serious consequences, and not just for the diplomatic corps. People had died near Hampton Court, and Charles removed for safety to Oatlands – a no longer extant palace located in Surrey. Yet another Spanish ambassador found his plans put on hold as a result of illness. He was unable to ride in state to his first audience as the plague had spread to the king’s coachmen and grooms – one of whom had died. They were quarantined, “and theyr coache also sequestered, as not without danger if they should be sodaynly made use of.”
While nowhere near the size of the epidemic of 1665/66 (the subject of my next blog), these relatively small occurrences of infectious disease clearly had an impact on diplomatic business. However, it is worth noting – given our current situation – that they did not bring it to a complete standstill. Despite fears of contagion, people took what they considered sensible precautions and got on with things as best they could. In one instance, ‘social distancing’ (as they understood it) may have even been used as a way to avoid company unwanted even under healthier circumstances.
Isabelle Devos, “Gezondheidszorg in tijden van cholera,” De Standard, 16.3.2020, https://www.standaard.be.
John Finet, Ceremonies of Charles I. The note books of John Finet, 1628- 1641, Albert J. Loomie, ed. (New York: Fordham University Press, 1987), 204-07, 285.
Balthazar Gerbier, The Letterbooks of Balthazar Gerbier, National Archives at Kew, UK, State Papers, SP 105/10, folios 262v-263r and 272r-275r.
Bulstrode Whitelocke, anon. artist, 1634, National Portrait Gallery
I have spent the last month writing a draft of the introduction to my dissertation. I still have three years to go, but my contract is for half time teaching, half time researching. So it is above time that I got started writing. Although it was difficult knowing that I will probably end up rewriting the entire introduction just prior to submission (that seems to be the norm) it remained worth it as I now have a very clear overview of the literature. Moreover, I now have an outline for my analysis, which I can start filling in. I currently plan to have the first chapter completed by September 1, 2020.
The activities of the past few weeks have prevented me from following the US news with my usual interest, but I have since got caught up. And the evolving case surrounding the former US ambassador to the Ukraine, Marie Yovanovitch, has caught my eye. It appears that the Ukrainian authorities have started an investigation into allegations that she was spied upon during her time in office. The tip off derives from documented text messages that were released as part of the impeachment trial of Trump. Yovanovitch was a witness during the House of Representatives’ investigation, when she testified regarding her recall, and the possibility that she was removed from her post so that she could not prevent Trump’s long-time associate and TV lawyer, Rudy Giuliani, from brokering a deal with the Ukrainians to interfere in the upcoming presidential election. There is a growing body of evidence, much of it from Lev Parnas – another White House hanger-on turned snitch among a long list of indicted and eventually convicted criminals – that this may indeed be true.
Scandals involving Early Modern diplomats – and their subsequent recall – are not unknown. Balthazar Gerbier is a good case in point. But I recently came across allegations made by one, Bulstrode Whitelocke, concerning his appointment. Whitelocke wrote in his Journal of the Swedish embassy in the years 1653 and 1654, that he was blackmailed into accepting the post in an effort to get rid of him following his protests over Oliver Cromwell’s dissolution of Parliament. Another government official – in fact, the man originally appointed to the position – came to him, arguing that it
“would be a very great honor and advantage to him [Bulstrode] and his family, and to his profession, wheras his refusal of it would extreamly endaunger him and his fortune; that those in power would be highly offended att it, and all clamours of persons discontented att any thing that he had done would be let loose upon him, and favoured against him; an though he ware free from the least corruption, yet in these times, it was not prudent to put a man’s selfe upon the duanger of complaints, and to judges not his friends”
The problem with Whitelocke’s account, however, is that the preface (at least) appears to have been produced after the Restoration. And he had good reason to attempt to distance himself from the disgraced regime. Other members of the Interregnum governments had had their property seized and/or were imprisoned for treason, and those who had signed the warrant of execution for Charles I had themselves been executed. Blair Worden has thoroughly covered the problems that Whitelocke poses as a credible source. However, I find this aspect of his account rather credible. The ambassador, prior to his falling out with Cromwell, had been a very influential member of the government. He was a long-time member of Parliament, and that institution’s lead negotiator with Charles I during the Civil Wars. During the first years of the Commonwealth, he served as a councillor of state and commissioner of the Great Seal. And the historical record (not just his self serving report of a conversation in his Memorials) shows that he did indeed object (and publicly at that) to the increasing concentration of power in the circle around Cromwell.
So an extended trek to see Queen Christina of Sweden may have been a convenient way for him to be got rid of. It was both an honourable position, and a long way away. The fly in the ointment, however, is that he resumed his Interregnum career upon his return, sitting in the Protectorate Parliaments, was a commissioner of the treasury, and advised Cromwell on foreign affairs. So he wasn’t exactly an enemy of the rebel state. At the same time, however, he was not a staunch republican – which may have been what saved him following the Restoration. Maybe Whitelocke was temporarily got out of the way while the Protectorate was consolidated. It does seem plausible.
In any case, it certainly makes me wonder how many modern day ambassadors may be serving time in honourable exiles. And how many more career diplomats in the Trump regime may be treated as dishonourably as Ambassador Yovanovitch before all is said and done.
Ruth Spalding. The improbable Puritan. A life of Bulstrode Whitelocke, 1605-1675. London: Faber and Faber, 1975.
Bulstrode Whitelocke. Journal of the Swedish embassy in the years 1653 and 1654, impartially written by the ambassador Bulstrode Whitelocke, 2 vols. Edited by Henry Reeve. London: Longman, Brown, Green, and Longmans, 1855. (Revised edition).
Bulstrode Whitelocke. Memorials of the English affairs: or, an historical account of what passed from the beginning of the reign of King Charles the First, to King Charles the Second his happy restauration […] London: Nathaniel Ponder, 1682.
Blair Worden. “Review: the ‘Diary’ of Bulstrode Whitelocke.” The English Historical Review 108, no. 426 (1993), 122-34.
Another November, another conference. I attended this year’s annual Association for Low Countries Studies gathering, titled “Worlding the Low Countries.” For me, the first highlight of the congress came with Yolanda Rodríguez Pérez’s presentation “On the transnational peregrination of early-modern Netherlandish pamphlets: a remarkable anti-Hispanic case.” I’d previously come across the pamphlet A pageant of Spanish humours, as I suspect that anyone working on English and Dutch or Spanish diplomatic relations has. But I did not know just how widespread the work was. Nor that it was originally an illustrated Dutch broadsheet titled Aerdt ende Eygenschappen van Seignor van Spangien. As Dr Rodríguez Pérez points out, the English publisher, John Wolf, states that is “Translated out of Dutche” but I never took the time to see if I could find it, and I wish that I had. The text (and the illustrations as it turns out) is remarkably flexible and could be easily adapted to suit whatever anti-Spanish sentiment was current. Certainly, Dr Rodríguez Pérez’s research has convinced me that I should replace the translation of Las Casas that I normally employ in my freshman course as a heuristics case study with A pageant of Spanish humours. It is entirely in line with the politics of the period and I will be able to kill two birds with one stone by discussing her work on the dissemination of images as well. An additional interesting question arose during the follow up regarding the nature of such publications – with so very many sins and flaws accredited to the Spanish, are these works really reflective of fear, or are they actually ridiculing?
The next two key presentations of the conference were made by my co-panelists, Cristina Bravo Lozano and Maurits Ebben. Dr Bravo Lozano has already made an important contribution to the field of diplomatic studies with her work on Spain and the Irish during the course of her PhD research. However, her investigations of ceremonial and material aspects of diplomacy were at the centre of our panel. Dr Bravo Lozano’s findings regarding the entrance of Dutch ambassadors into Spanish capital some time after the conclusion of the Peace of Madrid indicates an interesting interplay in which ceremonial may have been used to settle an issue of reciprocity and ambiguity. Moreover, her work highlights the importance of access to certain spaces for diplomats, and showed some similarities with what I’ve found regarding the entrances and defrayments of ambassadors in London. Maurits Ebben’s investigations into the material aspects of the Dutch embassy in Madrid played into this very well and formed a nice continuity in the presentations. Of particular interest is the matter of the ambassador’s art collection. An analysis conducted by Dr Ebben of the genres shows that the ambassador concerned – Hendrick van Reede van Renswoude – had a ‘diplomatic’ collection, with a mix of ‘Catholic’ and ‘Dutch’ themes. In fact, the embassy and ambassador’s belongings support the argument that Early Modern European ambassadors had a shared culture in many regards, influenced more by their socio-economic backgrounds than their nationalities.
Finally, Matthijs Tieleman’s presentation “‘Get rid of that vreempie!’: Dutch perceptions of America during the American Revolution, 1775-1784” returned to the themes of circulation and adaptation of nationalist stereotypes. Interestingly, both Dutch royalists and republicans made use of German based stereotypes of Americans at the time – illiterate, boorish, and living beyond their means. However, as Tieleman showed, these discourses had far more to do with struggles within the Netherlands, as well as tensions in the run up to the Fourth Anglo-Dutch War and the involvement of the Hanoverians in the government – in particular, that of the Duke of Brunswick (Louis Ernest – not to be confused with his brother Charles). Of even more interest was the discussion that followed, in which the subject of ‘presentism’ arose. I appreciated Tieleman’s response – I believe he cited Gadamer – concerning the fusion of the horizons of the past and present.
There were also presentations by librarians, archivists, literature specialists and linguists. Many, in consideration of the theme of this year’s gathering, spoke in relation to contemporary topics such as museum repatriation policies and immigration. And while I was glad to see these more contentious subjects covered, there were some responses that I found it difficult to relate to. For example, there were gasps and expressions of disbelief when a presenter mentioned that the current head of the Democratic Republic of the Congo’s national museum did not object to repainting items to keep them contemporary and relatable – and during a discussion of Dutch migration to Australia, Aboriginals were never once mentioned. That absence was particularly odd to me considering the in-depth talks on other periods of Dutch colonisation, and I think more ‘worlding’ is required in these areas. But on the whole, the Association for Low Countries Studies conference was well worth attending, and I look forward to doing so in the future.
On August 27, 2019, Anne Sacoolas, the wife of a US diplomat stationed in the UK, ran over and killed the nineteen-year-old Harry Dunn. Sacoolas, only in the UK for three weeks by that point, was apparently driving on the wrong side of the road. While initially indicating that she intended to remain in the country, she later fled the UK and claimed diplomatic immunity, which had been extended to all Americans working at the RAF Croughton communications base – and their families – in 1994. The tragedy has the makings of an international incident. The Dunn family’s initial request for a waiver of her immunity was denied. Nevertheless, they are yet again asking for a waiver, and for her to be extradited. In addition to which, they have made a public appeal for her to return to the UK and face the consequences of her actions. And finally, Prime Minister Boris Johnson claimed today that he would ask Donald Trump to intervene.
Unfortunately, modern day US practice with regard to diplomatic immunity does not appear to be on the side of the Dunn family. The 1961 Vienna Convention, article 31, states quite clearly that a diplomatic agent shall enjoy immunity from the criminal jurisdiction of the receiving state – unless the agent or their government consents that they shall be subject to the jurisdiction concerned. In which case, a waiver of immunity will be granted. However, this is rarely done by the United States. The US State Department’s policy in this area is encapsulated in a memorandum from 1986, which outlines two main principals. First, that the State Department will usually only grant waivers in “benign circumstances” (such as to allow someone to give testimony in a court case) and that moreover, it is up to the State Department alone to waive such immunity. That right does not reside with the individual in question. As such the US State Department is unlikely to grant such a waver – and indeed, have refused to do so even when allegations of rape have been made against a diplomat’s spouse. As such, direct appeals to the driver, serve no legal purpose.
Finally, the current international state of affairs also does not bode well for such a waiver. Trump – he of the “America First” slogan – could face a significant degree of backlash were he to order the extradition of a US citizen – the wife of a service member no less. Plus, he is under an impeachment investigation for impropriety in his dealings with foreign governments, and he may not wish to be seen doing favors for people who he was recently seeking favours from. Lastly, Johnson’s increasingly desperate position amid the ongoing saga of Brexit gives him little leverage with the current occupant of the White House. At least for the time being, it seems that Mrs Sacoolas will not have to face any consequences for her actions.
You will no doubt be unsurprised to hear that this is not how things used to be. In the seventeenth-century, diplomatic immunity (what it covered and to whom it applied) was far from settled. Linda and Marsha Frey’s 1990 discussion of the famous Sá incident demonstrates just how unsettled the matter was. In late November of 1653, the brother of the Portuguese ambassador in London became embroiled in a fight in the fashionable New Exchange in the Strand.
What follows is the account given of the affair by Lorenzo Paulucci, the Venetian Secretary in London:
“Last Monday at the new Exchange, a public place at present much frequented by ladies and gentlemen of condition during the tedious hours of the night an accident occurred of sufficient importance to warrant a detailed account. That evening the brother of the Portuguese ambassador was accidentally jostled there by an English gentleman. For this or, some say, because of insulting language, the Portuguese in a great rage, drew his sword and mortally wounded the Englishman, who even in that state used his adversary roughly. The Don’s attendants intervened at once and the affray was stopped for the moment. But it left so much irritation that on the following morning early the Portuguese returned to the spot, some 50 in number, armed with every sort of weapon, with the determination to avenge themselves on the first Englishman who might appear, and barred the way. Two English gentlemen, each with a lady at his side, then appeared on the scene and attempted to pass, utterly unconscious of all that had taken place and only desiring to purchase fashionable articles for their approaching marriage. Without more ado the Portuguese drew upon them. The English gentleman was killed by a pistol shot, his betrothed swooning away, thus experiencing the extremes of joy and grief. Another Englishman was also killed and several wounded, whereas the aggressors, being armed for defense and offence received no injury whatever. The affrighted tradesmen all took refuge in their shops and the Portuguese remained masters of the whole of Britain’s Bourse, until the news reached the horse guards, always on duty near the palace. These restored order by capturing five of the Portuguese and putting the rest to flight. Unless the prisoners inform against the murderer all five of them, according to a fundamental law of the land, are liable to death, and above all the ambassador’s brother himself, if it is proved that he committed the homicide. A number of other troops surrounded the ambassador’s dwelling and demanded his brother who was handed over to them accordingly. The ambassador’s earnest entreaties to General Cromwell for his brother’s release availed nothing for yesterday he was removed to the Tower. It is firmly believed that the government will inflict the extreme penalty on him and his five accomplices as the crime was premeditated and treacherous. By infringing the prerogative of the state and the liberty of the subject it may be said to affect the whole nation at one and the same time. It was further aggravated by very foul suspicions by the discovery in the Portuguese coaches of a quantity of gunpowder and some grenades and other explosives. This incident is calculated to upset entirely the adjustment between the two countries, as no peace has yet been proclaimed.”
As Paulucci indicates, the incident could hardly have come at a worse time. Cromwell was in the midst of negotiating a peace treaty with Portugal. A treaty that King John IV desperately needed in light of the ongoing struggle against Spain, which claimed sovereignty over the country. And, having initially backed the Royalists in the English Civil War, the Portuguese were not starting the talks on a firm footing. But few other allies were available. France did not wish to bring Spain to their doorstep, and the Dutch were certainly going to take the opportunity to prey on the Portuguese’s overseas empire in its weakened state. John needed Cromwell. And Cromwell – in turn – needed international recognition for his regime, founded as it was upon the execution of Charles I.
Against these odds, the Portuguese ambassador tried to save the life his brother, arguing that such a trial could not take place because it would violate the law of nations. The legal matters were referred to a number of experts, but all that they could agree on was that murder violated the laws of nature – as opposed to local, “municipal” laws of individual states – and the law of God. But who had the right to try an ambassador? Did an ambassador give up his privileges if he broke the law of nations? Eventually it was concluded that an ambassador could be tried for a crime such as murder. But did this answer apply to Sá?
Sá’s defense, as he outlined in a pamphlet about the affair, called A Narration of the late Accident in the New Exchange, was not well calculated to inspire sympathy. He complained that the prison was awful, English justice bad, and that he – far from home – was hated unfairly by all. And that this “unhappy accident” was not his fault. He’d had no idea that his servants would follow him back to the New Exchange, and that blood was shed on both sides in the rumble. Moreover, Sá asserted that that he was immune from any such proceedings as both the brother of the ambassador, and because he was credentialed to act in his brother’s stead when he was absent.
And even though the letters he presented confirmed that John IV intended to make him ambassador after his brother departed, the judges appointed to the court set to hear the case ruled that he had no actual appointment now. Nor was his relationship such that the ambassador’s immunity extended to him, being but a brother and not a spouse or child. And therefore, he had no claim to immunity. Moreover it was argued by the judges that the extension of diplomatic immunity to any and all in an ambassador’s employ or entourage was not to the public’s benefit. At his trial – during which he had no counsel as that was not standard in English jurisprudence at the time – Sá plead not guilty. Nevertheless he was convicted. Only Oliver Cromwell could save him. But Cromwell remained unmoved, and following a few desperate escape attempts, Sá was beheaded, at the age of 19, on July 10.
Paulucci once again wrote to the Doge and Senate with the details:
“he was beheaded in public, his fate exciting universal compassion. An English servant was hanged as an accomplice acquainted with the law of the land and two other Portuguese have had their punishment commuted to imprisonment, as subject to their master’s orders. He displayed exemplary firmness in his last moments with every mark of devotion and resignation to the will of God, without the least tremor, and to the confusion of the heretics, holding the rosary in one hand and a crucifix in the other, his intrepidity drawing tears from many and the compassion of all. Had Cromwell pleased he might have granted him a pardon or at least a reprieve until the meeting of parliament. Instead the Portuguese and the other ambassadors were deceived in their expectations and he let the law take its course, possibly thinking that the unpopularity of commuting sentence on a murderer might injure him, and so he agreed to the execution from self interest. On the eve of it the ambassador, without waiting to hear from Portugal signed and fully ratified the treaty of peace, in the belief that he might thus promote his brother’s safety.”
General opinion at the time seems to indicate that the execution was politically motivated, and while ‘just’ by the standards of the day, was not carried out entirely in the interests of justice. Politics played a part as well. The case was later cited by legal theorists of the seventeenth century while they struggled with the questions surrounding diplomatic immunity – who did it apply to, and could it always be drawn upon? But while the law is somewhat more settled now and enshrined in documents such as the Vienna Conventions, the politics are not. And the potential denial of justice to the Dunn family seems every bit as inhumane as the events that took place nearly four hundred years ago.
Frey, Linda and Marsha Frey. “The bounds of immunity: the Sá case. Politics, law, and diplomacy in Commonwealth England.” In The Canadian Journal of History 25, no. 1 (1990): 41-60.
Israel, Simon. “Boris John plea to Trump to waive diplomatic immunity after teenager’s death. Channel 4. 7.10.2019. https://www.channel4.com.
Manji, Fatima. “Mother of crash victim urges American diplomat’s wife to return to UK.” Channel 4, 6.10.2019. http://channel4.com.
McClanahan, Grant V. Diplomatic immunity. Principles, Practices, Problems. London: Hurst & Company, 1989.
Paulucci, Lorenzo to Giovanni Sagredo, 5.12.1653. In Calendar of State Papers, Venetian.
Paulucci, Lorenzo to Giovanni Sagredo, 25.7.1654. In Calendar of State Papers, Venetian.
The billionaire and the horse thief. Suicide, medical expertise and forensic controversies in early modern Flanders – K. Dekoster
On 10 August 2019, the sex trafficking case against Jeffrey Epstein took a dramatic turn when the corpse of the sixty-six-year-old billionaire was discovered in his New York prison cell. The cause of death immediately became a matter of fierce debate. Suicide according to most observers, murder according to some adepts of conspiracy theories. Although the autopsy finally pointed to suicide by hanging, it is likely that the publication of the medical examiner’s conclusions will probably not convince those who stubbornly maintain that Epstein was killed on behalf of one of his rich and powerful ‘partners in crime’.
Scepticism regarding the cause of death of alleged suicides is certainly not a modern phenomenon, and one might expect that it was even more of a concern in the early modern period, when ‘self-murder’ was still considered a felony, with punishments including desecration of the suicide’s corpse together with the confiscation of his or her goods. Thus relatives had a clear interest in hiding suicides from the legal authorities. Two questions therefore arose: Was an alleged suicide by hanging a real suicide, or a camouflaged homicide? And were all accidental deaths really accidental? The early modern period witnessed an important medico-legal debate on the question of how to distinguish suicidal deaths, especially hangings, from homicidal deaths staged as suicides. Starting with the Traité de Rapports (1575) of the French surgeon Ambroise Paré (ca. 1510-1590), the first vernacular treatise on legal medicine, medico-legal theorists went to a lot of effort to establish the signs by which one could determine whether a person had hanged himself, or whether his corpse was hanged after death in order to simulate a suicide.
In 1763, the French professor of surgery Antoine Louis (1723-1792) published a treatise devoted exclusively to how to “distinguish, when a corpse is found hanged, the signs of suicide from those of murder”. The immediate impetus for writing this work was the notorious affaire Calas, involving the wealthy Huguenot merchant Jean Calas, who was executed on behalf of the Parliament of Toulouse in 1762 for having strangled his son Marc-Antoine, who was supposedly wanting to convert to Catholicism. The case was strongly influenced by religious hatred towards the local Protestant community, and supported by a dubious autopsy report written by local medical practitioners. After a polemical campaign spearhead by Voltaire, Jean Calas was posthumously rehabilitated in 1765. In order to avoid similar unjust charges in the future, Louis deemed it necessary to clearly lay out the signs distinguishing a genuine suicidal hanging (which Louis considered to be the real cause of Marc-Antoine’s death) from a camouflaged homicide. According to Louis, an examination for external signs of hanging (such as the imprint of a rope, the presence of mucus and saliva in nose and mouth, and a blackened, swollen tongue) always had to be supplemented by a thorough dissection of the neck in order to discover injuries that might point to external violence.
Nonetheless, in eighteenth-century Flanders, the region I study for my own doctoral research, Louis’ advice was only partially followed. Dissections of hanged bodies were extremely rare, and the physicians and surgeons consulted by the authorities usually limited themselves to observations regarding the presence of a clear imprint of a rope or cord around the neck, and the absence of other external injuries.
However, the term ‘suicide’ almost never appears in the expert’s reports. Early modern medical practitioners were very careful to limit themselves exclusively to the medical cause of death (strangulation by a cord or rope), leaving the legal qualification – suicide – to the judicial authorities. The absence of similar qualifications in the majority of reports was eagerly exploited by the lawyers who were required to defend the corpses of suicides at trial. The fact that such a report did not explicitly state that the victim killed him- or herself was used to cast doubt on the actual cause of death. In 1715, for instance, the body of the horse thief Francies Vande Kerckhove was discovered in his cell in the town prison of Aalst. According to the medical practitioners who examined the body, a hole had been stabbed in Vande Kerckhove’s head with a nail. Inside the wound, the examiners discovered a straw, the presence of which had caused an ulceration in the brain, and which had finally resulted in the prisoner’s death. While the legal authorities concluded that Vande Kerckhove had stabbed himself in the head with a nail and inserted a straw in the wound, the lawyer designated to defend the corpse maintained that nothing in the report demonstrated that the wound in question had been self-inflicted.
While this argumentation did not convince the judges, and Vande Kerckhove’s body was posthumously punished, allegations of this kind routinely appeared in eighteenth-century suicide trials, although the defendants gradually discovered a much more effective way to obtain the ‘acquittal’ of suicides: the so-called ‘insanity defence’. As suicides were only punished when committed intentionally, the bodies of those who killed themselves in a state of permanent or temporary insanity were mostly left unharmed and permitted burial in consecrated ground. Over the course of the eighteenth century, suicidal acts gradually became ‘medicalised’, meaning that more and more self-killings were considered the consequence of mental pathologies rather than rational intent or diabolical temptation. In turn, this process of medicalisation – in which medical practitioners in fact only played a marginal role – resulted in an increase in acquittals and a de facto decriminalisation of suicide. Finally, in 1782, Emperor Joseph II officially decriminalised suicide within the Habsburg Netherlands. While this definitively put an end to actual suicide trials, public controversies regarding the actual causes of death of alleged suicides have proven much more resilient.
State Archives Ghent, Archives of the Council of Flanders, no. 169, fol. 148v-154v: Trial against the corpse of Francies Vande Kerckhove (February 1715).
Louis, Antoine. Verhandeling over een ontleedkundig geschil, tot de rechtsgeleerdheid betrekkelyk, waar in de grondregelen om, op het aanschouwen van een hangend gevonden dood lichaam, de kenmerken van Zelfsmoord, van die van Manslag te onderscheiden, translated by Isaac Le Roy. Amsterdam: Petrus Conradi, 1775.
Bosman, Machiel. “The Judicial Treatment of Suicide in Amsterdam.” In From Sin to Insanity. Suicide in Early Modern Europe, ed. Jeffrey R. Watt: 9-24. Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 2004.
Deschrijver, Sonja. “From Sin to Insanity? Suicide Trials in the Spanish Netherlands, Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries.” Sixteenth Century Journal 42, no. 4 (2011): 981-1002.
Macdonald, Michael. “The Medicalization of Suicide in England. Laymen, Physicians and Cultural Change, 1500-1870.” In Framing Disease. Studies in Cultural History, eds. Charles E. Rosenberg and Janet Golden: 85-103. New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1992.
Watt, Jeffrey R. Choosing Death. Suicide and Calvinism in Early Modern Geneva. Kirksville: Truman State University Press, 2001.