Crime and Forgiveness
The Death Penalty in the Mental Horizon of Christian Europe (14th–18th Century)
During the centuries of the ‘long Middle Ages’, a great public spectacle gradually acquired a structure: death by justice.
In the night between the 1st and 2nd May 2011, the President of the United States Barack Obama made a special appearance on television and announced to the nation and the world the death of Osama bin Laden. His first words were: ‘Justice has been done’ – ‘justice’, which in Italian has the same etymological root as the verb ‘giustiziare’, to execute. This single sentence brings out the fundamental question underlying the function of justice: is it a physical elimination of the criminal or a punishment which enables that person to repent and achieve moral regeneration? Is it an act of revenge or forgiveness?
In the light of this history, Adriano Prosperi investigates the complex links with condemned people which our culture gradually established, until it eventually arrived at a Christianization of death as punishment: a public spectacle where the Christian cross occupies a central place in a great, cruel festival, and where the offering up of the criminal’s life was celebrated on the scaffold as a way of expiating the individual’s sins and purifying the community from evil.