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Murderers, whores and sodomites. Stigma and the Self in the Southern Netherlands (1750-1830).

Scholars in the history of the self often stress the importance of change in the late eighteenth century, noting an increasing stress on interiority, stability, wholeness and self-control. Their analyses are often based on sources pertaining to literate elites: learned philosophical tracts, memoirs and diaries, journals and novels. The aim of my dissertation is to analyse whether common people also took part in the new modes of selfhood, and if so, how this came to be in the area that is currently Belgium.

To tackle this question, I take inspiration from philosophers in the tradition of Friedrich Nietzsche, Michel Foucault and Judith Butler. They have argued that the self was not primarily formed through voluntary self-reflection, but through power and in particular the power of the criminal courts. The self is formed as a response to the demand for people to give an account of themselves. I build on their insights, looking to both expand their scope by attending to the influence of broader processes of everyday stigmatization, and to add more historical detail by looking at what kinds of self-narratives courts and ordinary people demanded.

My main sources are criminal trial records of people suspected of homicide, prostitution, suicide and sodomy before the courts that had jurisdiction over Brussels, Antwerp and Kortrijk between 1750 and 1830. These were complemented with pardon letters sent to the Governor between 1750 and 1795. Through interrogations, depositions and supplications, these records provide us with interactions between magistrates and a broad cross-section of society, with people from the lower social regions especially well presented.

The thesis consists of nine chapters. The first two chapters concern practices of ‘regulation’ of the self. In the first chapter, I argue that throughout the period, a socially oriented and malleable self was promoted by families, friends and neighbours of wrongdoers. Conversely, the criminal justice system, which I study in the second chapter, increasingly encouraged an individualised and introspective self, with a true nature which could only be changed with great difficulty.

In the third and fourth chapter, I shift the perspective away from general regulating practices towards specific technologies with which people could change their self. The first one is the technology of religious penance, which continued to be hugely popular. The second one is the experience of going through criminal trial – the experience of being accused, being questioned, confessing or denying accusations. I find that in both cases, there was an increasing stress on interiority and depth from the late eighteenth century on.

In chapters 5 and 6, I look at the accounts people gave of themselves when they stood accused in criminal court, at how they interpreted their own actions. First, I discuss narratives in which people portrayed themselves as rational beings, acting as anyone else would have acted in a particular situation. Then I analyse narratives in which they claimed that they were not themselves at the time of their actions. While both types of narratives occurred throughout the period, misbehaviour was increasingly ascribed to either character flaw or insanity.

The final two chapters deal with two important threads in the history of the self. Chapter 7 studies sentimentalism and its influence in the courts and in wider society, observing that it was not only an affair of the middling sorts, but also of the lower classes. The final chapter attends to the ambiguities of the concepts of human nature and inner nature in criminal records. As the general appreciation of human nature became more positive in the late eighteenth century, court increasingly needed to attend to individual natures to understand crime.

In conclusion, my thesis confirms that the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries witnessed an increasing stress on depth, interiority and individuality: the period witnessed what Nietzsche has called ‘the internalization of man’. This was not only an affair of the elites, but affected people of all social layers. The criminal justice system was an important institution for the dissemination of models of the self. Its influence was not uncontested: everyday practices of stigmatisation, for instance, continued to make a socially oriented, malleable self acceptable. But almost no-one could entirely ignore the new practices of the interior and stable self. 

Date:1 Oct 2013 →  30 Sep 2017
Keywords:stigma, self, emotions, eighteenth century, nineteenth century, crime, sexuality, criminal justice, Belgium
Disciplines:Curatorial and related studies, History, Other history and archaeology, Art studies and sciences, Artistic design, Audiovisual art and digital media, Heritage, Music, Theatre and performance, Visual arts, Other arts, Product development, Study of regions
Project type:PhD project