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Durham University

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Publication details for Dr Tom Hamilton

Hamilton, Tom (2015). Contesting Public Executions in Paris Towards the End of the Wars of Religion. In Cultures of Conflict Resolution in Early Modern Europe. Cummins, Stephen & Kounine, Laura Farnham: Routledge. 179-202.

Author(s) from Durham


A major focus of French historical writing about the early modern period is the growth and affirmation of state power, particularly in the distribution of justice. The most extreme interpretation in this tradition is Michel Foucault's account of the exceptional public execution in Paris of the attempted-regicide Robert-Francois Damiens on 28 March 1757, an event which repeated the execution of the regicide Francois Ravaillac on 27 May 1610 but was otherwise entirely unrepresentative of pre-modern justice. Foucault's account has provoked rigorous historical research into how early modern criminal courts carried out public executions as a 'political ritual' to perform good justice and enforce the rule of law. Yet, as this volume shows, public executions represented only a final stage among a range of formal and informal procedures for processing disputes. While the rhetoric of royal justice in early modern France made great 180claims to efficacy, the role of public executions in cultures of conflict resolution was limited. Public executions were used sparingly even at the highest level of criminal justice, held in crucial balance with the king's capacity to pardon. Nevertheless, public executions demonstrated to the people royal justice in action. They reveal the capacity of criminal courts to achieve their goals. Focusing on the contests over public executions in Paris towards the end of the Wars of Religion, this chapter exposes the inadequacies of state-directed conflict resolution in practice. In particular, it examines both the ritual of public executions ordered by the Parlement of Paris and the responses they provoked at a moment of acute crisis, the troubles of the Catholic League (1588-1594) towards the end of the Wars of Religion, which tested to the limit the court's capacity to resolve conflicts at the highest level of criminal justice.