Sara Beam

junior fellow
EURIAS cohort 2012/2013
discipline History
Associate professor in the Department of History at the University of Victoria (Canada)

Research project

Judicial Torture in Western Europe 1400-1700


Torture is an issue of compelling interest today. Contemporary examination of past and present practices in the Americas and in Europe testifies to the moral and political unease that “enhanced interrogation techniques” can arouse. Understanding how torture has been applied in the past and, more importantly, when authorities resist its application is useful knowledge. My research examines a transition point when the practice of judicial torture was reevaluated and substantially curtailed in Western Europe: the century between 1550 and 1650.
In the late eighteenth century, many Western European governments formally outlawed torture, largely as a response to the humanitarian critiques of Enlightenment philosophers. But the practical disengagement from this method of interrogation had begun much earlier, before 1650, when judges across Europe became more hesitant to use it. Until recently, historians who focus on the intellectual debates and legislative changes of the 1700s have overlooked this much earlier shift in European judicial practice. My project, by examining the practice and mindset of European judges a century before torture was actually outlawed, seeks to re-define the period between 1550 and 1650 as the more significant turning point.
This seeming contradiction, between the continuing legality of torture in early modern Europe and a growing reluctance to practice it, can be best resolved by looking at how, when and why torture was applied at individual courts. My methodology has been to privilege documents that describe practice, such as extant criminal trials, over theoretical discussions. Criminal records are mediated documents that can never objectively represent what occurred in the torture chamber. Nevertheless, because they are documents that are shaped by judges and by their scribes to represent their practice of justice as fair and as legal, they are particularly useful for understanding the worldview of the judges themselves. As a result, it is possible to analyze both quantitatively and qualitatively criminal trial records from a number of communities with different political, religious confessional allegiances. My research suggests that, despite local variations, an overall trend toward limiting the use of torture occurred throughout Western Europe by 1650. This trend away from practicing torture was shaped by both religious considerations and by concerns about the truth value of confessions produced by torture.



Sara Beam is associate professor in the Department of History at the University of Victoria (Canada). She holds a Ph.D. in History from the University of California Berkeley.

Selected publications


Rites of Torture in Reformation Geneva’, Past and Present, Ritual and Violence: Natalie Zemon Davis and Early Modern France, vol.214, no.7, 2012, pp.197-219.


‘Les canards criminels et les limites de la violence dans la France de la première modernité’, Histoire, économie & société, vol.2, 2011, pp.15-28.


‘La satire politique dans le théâtre de la Basoche’, in B. Renner (ed.), La Satire dans tous ses états: Le «meslange satyricque» à la Renaissance française, Droz, Geneva, 2009, pp.161-81. 


‘Les notables catholiques et la marginalisation de la culture populaire au xvie siècle’, Histoire Urbaine, no.25, 2009, pp.105-125.


Laughing Matters: Farce and the Making of Absolutism in France, Cornell, Ithaca, 2007.


‘The Basoche and the Bourgeoisie Seconde: Careerists at the Paris Parlement during the League’, French History, vol.17, 2003, pp.367-387. 


‘Apparitions and the Public Sphere in Seventeenth- Century France’, Canadian Journal of History, vol.29, 1994, pp.1-22.


junior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2015/2016
Paris Institute for Advanced Study
discipline Literature
senior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2018/2019
Paris Institute for Advanced Study
discipline Sociology
junior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2017/2018
Paris Institute for Advanced Study
discipline Music
junior fellow
EURIAS promotion 2018/2019
Paris Institute for Advanced Study
discipline Political Philosophy