Showtime’s Penny Dreadful is set in the late Victorian era, specifically the early 1890s, and features a cast suggested by Bram Stoker’s Dracula and Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein. Both Frankenstein and his Monster, called Caliban and later John Clare, are prominent characters in the story, which takes place in London. But the series’ version of Frankenstein represents a pretty sharp deviation from Shelley’s character.
Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein
Although popular imagination views both Dracula and Frankenstein as Victorian works of literature, they come from opposite ends of the 19th century, and in fact Frankenstein is not a Victorian novel at all, having been published in 1818, just under two decades before Victoria became queen. Frankenstein is roughly contemporary, not with Dracula, which was published in 1897, but with the novels of Jane Austen, all of which were published in the 1810s. And the events of Shelley’s novel are set at an unspecified period in the 18th century, meaning that Frankenstein probably created his creature around the period of the French Revolution at the latest. So Penny Dreadful’s Frankenstein is a long way from his proper context.
Frankenstein is usually seen as one of the greatest examples of Romantic literature (as well as one of the first works of Science Fiction). The Romantic movement was a reaction against the rationality of the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment. While the Scientific Revolution and the Enlightenment sought to use science and human reason to explain all the mysteries of nature, Romantic artists and authors were much more attracted to the grandeur, power, and mysteriousness of nature. Romantic painters loved depicting shadowy moonlight landscapes, medieval buildings ruined by the passage of time, and a contrast between the immensity of the landscape and the smallness of humanity.
Whereas the Enlightenment favored the power of reason to explain things, Romantic authors and artists favored the internal experience of their own emotions, which they struggled to express in painting, music, poetry, and prose. The content of their creativity was supposed to emerge from the artist’s own imagination, and to express their inward reality more than the objective external reality. Shelley’s inspiration for her novel was reportedly a waking dream she had. Because Romantics sought to express their own interior feelings, another major theme in Romanticism was the isolation of the individual, both within nature and within society. Romantic characters in novels struggle to convey their feelings to those around them, find themselves overwhelmed by their emotions, and, overcome by a sense of isolation and the inability to communicate with others on a deep level, often commit suicide.
Shelley’s novel explores many of these themes. In her novel, Frankenstein is a brilliant scientist who discovers how to create life. In other words, he uses the tools of science to usurp one of the most mysterious facts of nature, the power of life and death. In doing this, he is transgressing the limits of nature and exploring What Man is Not Meant To Know; Shelley practically created this now-clichéd theme in Science Fiction. Thus from a Romantic point of view, Frankenstein is doing something foolish, and demonstrating the errors of the Enlightenment. The novel describes the process by which he learns the error of his ways.
He creates his Monster through an unnamed process, literally putting together an enormous human body and reanimating it. Both the modern idea of the Monster as being stitched together and the idea of electricity as the tool for its reanimation are later cinematic additions to the story. But the Monster is hideous, and unable to exist in human society, because Frankenstein is not truly the master of life and cannot replicate the beauty of nature, only crudely imitate it.
The Monster is never quite given a name, but there are several references to it as Adam, so that’s what I’ll call it. In contrast to the arrogant Frankenstein, who foolishly blunders into things he doesn’t understand, Adam is the Romantic hero. He is a deeply sensitive man who simply wants to fit into society and find friends, but is unable to do so because of his monstrous appearance. Tormented by his isolation, Adam demands that Frankenstein create a mate for him, but Frankenstein is disgusted by his own efforts and destroyed her, which drives Adam into seeking revenge by killing Frankenstein’s fiancée Elizabeth.
Although Adam is ugly on the outside, he is human on the inside. Frankenstein is just the opposite. Although to outward appearances he is a great and wise man, inwardly he is a sort of monster: selfish, arrogant, obsessed with discovering the secrets of nature and keeping them for himself. He steals corpses to cobble together Adam’s body. He is gradually consumed by his hatred of his creation.
Finally, Adam flees northward into the arctic, pursued by the increasingly weak Frankenstein. Discovered by a ship’s captain, Frankenstein relates his tale. He is wracked by guilt and has came to realize his folly. But he dies before he can destroy his creation. Adam appears to mourn his creator and then declares his intention to commit suicide. He is last seen on an ice floe, drifting into the darkness, still alone in the vastness of nature.
Penny Dreadful’s Frankenstein
The series’ Frankenstein (Henry Treadaway) is a far cry from Shelley’s character. Both men are scientists, and Treadaway’s character occasionally voices skeptical, if not atheist viewpoints. But he’s not the moral monster of the novel. He’s quite sensitive and loves Romantic poetry by figures like Wordsworth and Keats, as well as Shakespeare, whereas Shelley’s character is primarily interested in science. Only when he smothers Brona (Billie Piper) in the season 1 finale does he demonstrate any of the arrogant assertion of the power of life and death that so characterizes Frankenstein in the novel, and even then, his act can be viewed as trying to make amends for failing Caliban (Rory Kinnear).
Treadaway as Frankenstein
The biggest issue, for me at least, is a moment in the third episode of season 1 when Caliban explicitly tells Frankenstein “you are a Romantic.” But Shelley’s Frankenstein isn’t a Romantic. He’s too arrogantly obsessed with understanding the secrets of nature to be a Romantic. In fact, he’s the anti-Romantic. The whole point of the novel is that Frankenstein’s lack of appreciation for the power of nature causes much sorrow.
The series does a better job of depicting Caliban as a Romantic figure. He too likes poetry, and in the second season takes his name from the Romantic poet John Clare. Like his creator, he is a sensitive soul, and what he wants most of all is what Adam wants, a mate. He demands that Frankenstein reanimate a woman for him, and threatens to kill Frankenstein’s friends until he does so, thus driving Frankenstein to eventually murder Rose Tyler Brona.
Kinnear as Caliban
(One nice thing the series does in the second season is to collapse Frankenstein’s beloved, Elizabeth, with the ‘bride’ he starts to make for Adam in the person of Brona/Lily Frankenstein. That creates an interesting love triangle for Frankenstein and his creation to grapple with. Actually, ‘triangle’ isn’t the right word, because Dorian and Ethan are also interested in her, but Ethan thinks she’s dead. I think the correct term for this geometric shape is a ‘clusterfuck’.)
Overall, the series loves Romanticism. Malcolm Murray quotes Keats’ Ode to a Nightengale, for example. In fact, the series’ creator, John Logan, has admitted that the series’ ultimate origin was Wordsworth’s poetry. Wordsworth led him to read Percy Bysshe Shelley, which led to Frankenstein, which led to Dracula.
For a show set in the 1890s, it’s perhaps not unreasonable that the well-educated characters would enjoy the poetry of half a century before. But why don’t any of them read poets closer to their own day, such as Gerard Manley Hopkins, Matthew Arnold, or Algernon Swinburne? Why don’t any of them quote Gilbert and Sullivan? Why doesn’t the Bohemian Dorian Gray read the works of the Bohemian Oscar Wilde? That’s such an obviously meta thing for the show to do, I’m a bit sad they didn’t think of it.
And while we’re talking about the late 19th century, would it kill Dorian to wear a fucking tie occasionally? For a show set in the high society of late Victorian London, he’s rather absurdly louche. The whole point of Wilde’s Gray is that the man appears reputable on the outside but is corrupt on the inside. The trope doesn’t work very well if he dresses in a way that rejects social convention.
When Quills (2000, dir. Philip Kaufman, based on the play of the same name by Doug Wright) came out, it was received quite well by critics, who praised Geoffrey Rush’s performance as the Marquis de Sade, and it earned Rush his second Academy Award nomination. But it wasn’t so popular with historians, who pointed out its many historical inaccuracies. In particular, Neil Schaeffer, author of The Marquis de Sade: A Life, published a scathing critique of the film as being both inaccurate and simplistic in its depiction of the notorious pornographer. So the movie, like De Sade himself, was quite controversial. Sounds like fun!
De Sade’s Life
Donatien Alphonse François, Marquis de Sade, was a minor French noble born in the mid-18th century and the poster boy for everything wrong with the 18th century aristocracy. By the time he was 23, he had begun sexually assaulting prostitutes and employees of both sexes egregiously enough that the police began paying serious attention to him, no small accomplishment at a time when the aristocracy enjoyed substantial legal prerogatives. When he was 28, he hired a woman to be his housekeeper, but then tied her up, and repeatedly tortured her with knives and hot wax. Four years later, in 1772, he and his man-servant were convicted of sodomy and poisoning and fled to Italy to avoid a death sentence.
During all this, his mother-in-law had obtained a lettre de cachet, essentially an extra-judicial order of imprisonment. In 1777, he was lured back to Paris and arrested under the lettre and imprisoned, although he managed to get the death sentence overturned.
The Marquis de Sade
By 1789, when the French Revolution was brewing, he was being incarcerated in the notorious Bastille prison, and nearly triggered the Storming of the Bastille two weeks early when he shouted out a window that the prisoners were being murdered. Just days before the Storming liberated the inmates of the Bastille, de Sade was transferred to the Charenton asylum. But a year later, he was released when the National Assembly invalidated all lettres de cachet. At this point his long-suffering wife divorced him.
He managed to get himself elected to the National Convention and spent several years as a politician before getting on Maximilien Robespierre’s bad side and being arrested. But before he could be executed, Robespierre fell from power and he was released.
He had already begun producing the pornographic works he is famous for during his first imprisonment. In 1801, Napoleon ordered the arrest of the author of the anonymous paired pornographic novels, Justine and Juliette, and eventually the works were traced to de Sade and he was arrested and imprisoned once again. In 1803, his family arranged for him to be declared insane, and he was sent back to the Charenton Asylum, where he remained until his death from natural causes in 1814.
The director of Charenton was the Abbé de Coulmier, a Catholic priest known for his liberal attitudes toward the inmates in his charge. Coulmier rejected many of the harsh treatments that were popular at the time, such as the physical restraint of patients and the practice of dunking patients head-first in water. Instead, Coulmier favored therapies such as self-expression, diets, and purges. In particular, he believed that allowing patients to express themselves in writing, theater, and music was helpful.
Because of this, Coulmier allowed de Sade to stage popular French plays, using the inmates as actors, for the viewing pleasure of the Parisian public. But in 1809, police orders required de Sade to be put in solitary confinement and forbidden to write. This confinement turns out to have been not so solitary after all, because in 1810, he began a relationship with Madeleine LeClerc, the 14-year-old daughter of an employee at Charenton. He died in his sleep 4 years later.
The chapel at Charenten
De Sade’s Writings
Although de Sade is today mostly remembered as a pornographer and as the man who gave his name to ‘sadism’, he was more complex than that. Not all of his work was obscene; he wrote both political treatises and conventional plays, and he deserves to be ranked as a figure of the Enlightenment. And even his pornographic work is highly intellectual. His paired novels Justine, or The Misfortunes of Virtue and Juliette, or The Rewards of Vice tell the stories of two sisters raised in a convent. But whereas Justine strives to remain virtuous, Juliette comes to believe that morality, virtue, and religion are meaningless. Justine experiences a series of personal disasters, including becoming the unwilling sex-slave of a group of monks. Every good deed she does results in a further sexual assault, humiliation, or other catastrophe, and finally she is struck by lightning and dies, after which her corpse is sexually assaulted. But Juliette willingly engages in the most perverse behaviors possible, indulging in orgies and repeatedly murdering people. Her various accomplices commit rape, murder, incest, and cannibalism. She is ultimately rewarded with an audience with the pope, and the novel ends with another long orgy.
Despite the repulsive content, de Sade has a point to make. Several in fact. Like many 18th century intellectuals, he rejects conventional religion, and aggressively satirizes it; the clergy in his stories are often the most debauched characters. Given that the clergy enjoyed legal prerogatives as extensive as the nobility’s at this time, including immunity from taxation and most law courts and a strangle-hold on public religious life and education, de Sade’s attacks are remarkably bold and in favor of the separation of Church and State. Some have seen de Sade as challenging God to prove His existence by punishing de Sade’s blasphemies.
These two novels demonstrate the idea that virtue and vice are not neatly rewarded and condemned in real life, and the novels represent an effort to build an essentially atheistic moral paradigm celebrating the pursuit of pleasure as the only meaning in life. Nature consistently triumphs over the forces of civilization and restraint. (At least, that’s all assuming you read them seriously, and not as satire, as some scholars do.)
And de Sade’s slow corruption of Juliette, who gradually moves from simple sexual pleasures to full-blown sexual sadism of the most extreme sort, can be read as a challenge to the reader. How far are you willing to take your sexual fantasies? Will you at some point put the book down because you feel it is no longer titillating but rather disgusting, or will you allow the novel to corrupt you as it corrupts Juliette? These books may be deeply disturbing, but they’re also far more thought-provoking than most modern porn.
Nor was de Sade the only author in this period to intermingle pornography with philosophical musings. As the great intellectual historian Robert Darnton has pointed out, philosophical pornography was an extremely popular (if illegal) genre in 18th century France. Quite a few authors used obscene stories as a way to attack the French clergy and the French political system. De Sade’s novels are the most extreme, but he’s by no means the only author of the day to tell stories of priests fornicating in the confessional and monks debauching nuns during the Eucharist. He’s just the one we still remember.
So What Does Quills Make of All This?
The movie opens in 1794 with de Sade apparently writing a story about a woman who is guillotined during the French Revolution and then jumps to ‘years later’ with de Sade in the Charenton asylum. Instead of being sent there for having written Justine, he has written the novel and had it smuggled out of prison by Madeleine (Kate Winslet). Napoleon orders a stop to his publishing, and dispatches Dr. Royer-Collard (Michael Caine) to Charenton to force Coulmier (Joaquin Phoenix) to crack down on de Sade’s privileges. Whereas Coulmier is gentle and believes in art therapy, Royer-Collard is old school and favors water-boarding patients. He also has a child bride Simone (Amelia Warner), whom he rather sadistically has sex with on their wedding night.
Geoffrey Rush as de Sade
Antoine-Athenaise Royer-Collard is a real person. In 1806, he was appointed chief physician at Charenton, where he became convinced that de Sade was sane and ought to be in a conventional prison. But his function here is to be the catalyst for everything going wrong at the asylum. Prior to his arrival, de Sade and Coulmier are friends, with de Sade seeking to express his disturbed thoughts on paper.
But Royer-Collard’s attempts to restrain de Sade trigger a contest of wills between the two men, with Coulmier caught in the middle. Royer-Collard’s harsh treatment of his young wife becomes gossip that reaches de Sade’s ears, so de Sade stages a play that is a thinly-veiled sex farce of the marriage. Simone, who sees the first part of the play, becomes interested in de Sade’s writings and secretly tracks down a copy of Justine. Corrupted by it, she runs off with a young architect, played by Stephen Moyer.
Furious at this, Royer-Collard leans on Coulmier, forcing him to gradually restrict de Sade’s privileges. When he takes away de Sade’s writing implements, de Sade figures out how to write with red wine on his bed sheets. When the bed is taken away, he writes in blood on his own clothes. Coulmier states the whole point of the film when he says to de Sade, “The more I forbid, the more you’re provoked.” De Sade points out that Coulmier finds it arousing to have so much power over him.
Joaquin Phoenix as Coulmier
Finally, naked and with nothing in his cell, he arranges to dictate a story to Madeleine through a chain of inmates, like an obscene game of Telephone. But one of the aroused inmates intentionally lights a fire, and in the confusion, another inmate rapes and murders Madeleine. Coulmier, who has fallen deeply in lust with the woman thanks to de Sade’s corrosive influence, apparently has sex with her corpse, and then has de Sade’s tongue cut out after water-boarding him. Chained in a cell, de Sade continues writing, using his own feces as ink. He dies in Coulmier’s arms, rejecting the crucifix the priest offers him.
The movie ends with Coulmier now imprisoned in de Sade’s old room, begging a visitor for paper and quill so he can write. He finally understands de Sade’s compulsion to write.
Hopefully from this summary, it should be clear that the film starts off somewhat shaky on the facts, since de Sade didn’t write Justine in prison, because that’s what he was imprisoned for. But it rattles along in the right general historical direction until, in the last hour, the train jumps the track and goes veering off into Crazyland at full speed, bearing its passengers to a world of hurt none of them bought a ticket for.
De Sade is somewhere between a full-blown lunatic with a sexual fixation and a martyr for the cause of free speech. The film can’t quite decide what’s really motivating him. On the one hand, his erotic writing appears to be a symptom of some mental illness; he is literally incapable of not writing, despite the increasing misery it’s causing him. And by the end of the film, he’s infected both Coulmier and arguably Madeleine with his madness.
Coulmier, about to do the literal nasty with Madeleine’s corpse
But on the other hand, he’s engaging in a willful defiance of Royer-Collard’s efforts to silence him. The two men fall into a chess match; each action by Royer-Collard to stop de Sade from writing elicits a response from de Sade in which he seeks to demonstrate the doctor’s ultimate impotence to control him. It is Royer-Collard’s efforts to still de Sade’s pen that triggers the next round of outrageous writing, and the marquis’ writings that trigger the next crack-down.
De Sade’s ideas corrupt everyone around him, driving them to lust, in the case of Coulmier, Simone, and the architect, or madness, in the case of the inmates who participate in his telephone game of dictation. Madeleine craves more stories from de Sade and is ultimately killed by the process of dictation, as is de Sade himself. The only character not corrupted by de Sade is Royer-Collard, who is already more of a sadist than de Sade. Perhaps it’s not such a good idea if your martyr for freedom of the press is a man whose writings literally corrupt and destroy those who read them.
Michael Caine as Royer-Collard
From a historical standpoint, the problem with Quills is that it too readily accepts the idea of de Sade as a charming madman and barely entertains the possibility that perhaps de Sade was actually trying to actually say something. And it soft-pedals the more literally sadistic elements of his writings. From the snippets of his stories that we hear, de Sade likes to talk about penises and vaginas a lot, and he readily mocks Christianity, but there’s only faint hints that he was also writing about rape, murder, incest, pedophilia, necrophilia, and a host of other disturbing things.
So for me at least, Quills doesn’t really work. It fails to grapple effectively with what the historical de Sade was trying to say, and it fails to offer a coherent message about who this man was and why he wrote such outrageous things. In a way, watching the movie feels a bit like reading Justine; instead of sympathizing with any of the characters or being turned on by its decadence, I just wanted to take a shower and put the whole experience behind me.
One of the things that the average person knows about witch trials is that they involved a lot of torture. Innocent women and men were tortured to force them to confess to crimes they didn’t and couldn’t possibly have committed, and so we look at the witch trials as a massive exercise in human irrationality, because things like that couldn’t happen today.
Salem fully embraces this idea. Cotton Mather (Seth Gabel) harasses Mercy Lewis (Elise Eberle), hacks her hair off, locks her in bondage gear, and later literally hangs her up in a church. He tortures Giles Quarry to force him to plead in court. Later, he catches an actual witch and hangs her from a tree. Then Increase Mather (Steven Lang) shows up and kicks the torture into high gear. He ducks the witch Mab in an effort to force her to confess. He captures Mercy’s pack of female wannabe witches and tortures them to throwing boiling hot water on them and strapping them down to various bondage chairs and tables. Then when Mercy accuses Tituba (Ashley Madekwe), he straps her down and goes full inquisition on her. He has a steamer trunk filled with all sorts of torture instruments that he lovingly shows her—various knives and other edged tools, the Pear of Anguish, a vicious ‘breast-puller’ (at least, that’s what I think he calls it), and so on. He clearly uses them on her, because she gets bloodier as the episode goes on.
The series, and the general audience, is very confused on these issues, because the reality was much more complex. The first issue of confusion is who tortured and who didn’t. Across most of Continental Europe, torture was generally a legally-accepted practice in at least some situations. The use of torture on witches was permissible, but generally quite regulated. If a suspected witch refused to confess, she (or perhaps he) would be warned that they could be tortured, and then they would be returned to their cell to contemplate this. A day or two later, they would be shown torture implements and urged to confess, and then returned to the cells. A day or two later, they were tied down for torture, but usually not actually tortured, before again being urged to confess and then returned to their cell. It was generally only on the third or fourth session that they might actually be tortured. So the authorities generally employed torture only as a last resort, whereas in popular imagination it’s the first resort. And in most jurisdictions there were legal rules about when and how torture could be used, just the way that today there are rules about when and how police can question a suspect. So torture was never the legal-free-for-all that it’s nearly always presented as (as in Salem, for example).
More importantly for the show, Salem was under English common law, and English common law forbade torture, except in the case of treason against the monarch. As English jurists understood torture, it was never legally applied against any witch either in England or in the American colonies. (Scotland, while ruled by the English monarchs, followed Scottish law, which did allow torture, so accused Scottish witches were tortured.)
The tricky thing here is that some things that most modern Americans would regard as torture were not considered torture at American facilities at Iraq and Guantanamo under English common law. Sleep deprivation, for example, was entirely legal, so accused witches were sometimes kept awake for several days as a way to extract a confession. Accused witches could be strip searched for the ‘Witch’s Tit’, any unusual mole or skin tag or wart that could be interpreted as a supernatural nipple that witches used to suckle their demonic familiar, especially if it was near their breasts, genitals, or anus. Ducking (not ‘dunking’), which involved tying an accused witch into a chair and lowering her into the water, was not an attempt to torture a witch into confession but rather a test to see if the witch floated, because it was widely believed that witches were supernaturally light or that water would reject them. So the above scene in which Increase ducks Mab, is entirely wrong; he’s breaking the law by ducking a confessed witch because, since she’s confessed, he doesn’t need to get more evidence that she’s a witch.
If we disregard the mistakes in the way Mab is ducked, her ducking itself is plausible (it was actually something that was done in the American colonies); however no one was ducked at Salem during the Witch Trials. But the other things he does to Tituba and Mercy’s posse would have been blatantly illegal and would have forced the Salem authorities to arrest him as a criminal. But, as I’ve already pointed out, the show has literally no legal framework for the trials and interrogations; the rules vary from episode to episode and Increase Mather just makes up the law as he goes, even when he contradicts himself.
But the Search for Witches was Irrational, So Who Cares?
While witch-hunting looks irrational to us, it was less unmoored from reality than it’s generally presented. For most of the Middle Ages, scholars and clergy maintained that while miracles were real, magic wasn’t. In the 10th century, a document known today as the Canon Episcopi declared that belief in magic was false, because Satan had no power to influence the physical world. The best that Satan and his demons could do was trick people into thinking magic had happened. So if someone thought they had flown through the air magically, this was impossible and what had actually happened was they had experienced an illusion or a dream. Although the Canon Episcopi was probably authored in the 10th century, it was later mistakenly ascribed to an important 4th century ecclesiastical council, and as a result it was taken to be binding on the entire Western church. So from the 10th to the 14th century, the official position of Western bishops and theologians was that magic and witchcraft did not actually exist; as a result, very few witchcraft trials occurred during the period, because church law refused to consider it a possible crime.
The text of the Canon Episcopi
But in the later 14th century, this idea began to be challenged by scholars who maintained that the Devil actually could affect the physical world. Modern scholars are still unsure exactly why beliefs changed, so I won’t go into that complicated question, but by the later 15th century, both religious and secular authorities were much more willing to consider the possibility that magic had actually happened when something inexplicable occurred. (When physicians were unable to explain what was happening to Betty Parris, her father Samuel began to consider the possibility of witchcraft.) So witchcraft was used as an explanation when other explanations seemed unconvincing or unavailable. That in itself is not irrational based on the level of scientific understanding at the time.
More importantly, most legal systems in Europe and the New World recognized that simple accusations of witchcraft were insufficient to prove a charge. It was not enough for someone to say that they had been bewitched or had seen a neighbor do something suspicious. Everyone recognized the possibility of false accusation driven by ulterior motives like spite or personal quarrels.Following Biblical precepts, moral crimes like witchcraft required the eyewitness testimony of at least two witnesses. But the nature of witchcraft as it was understood was such that it was unlikely to be corroborated by witnesses, because the witnesses to witchcraft were generally thought to be restricted to other witches. So law courts across Western society had the same problem that modern law courts do; how do you prove an accusation of a serious crime without witnesses to the crime?
Modern law courts have recourse to a wide variety of forensic tools such as taking fingerprints, blood spatter analysis, DNA evidence, and ballistics. But early modern courts did not have such tools. Instead, they turned to the expert testimony of the day, scholars and manuals that explained how to identify witches. So they searched the accused’s body for a Witch’s Tit (or, on the Continent, for the Devil’s Mark) and ducked her in hopes they could find evidence of the crime. They searched her house for poppets or other tools of witchcraft. They questioned neighbors and heard accusations of different examples of witchcraft. In other words, they sought hard evidence. Again, this is perfectly rational based on their understanding of how the universe worked.
A man holding two early 20th century poppets, made from clay, nails, and thorns
But in many cases, the evidence they found was insufficient. Was that wart actually a Witch’s Tit, or just an ordinary wart? Was the witch starting to sink just as she was pulled out during the ducking? Was that actually a poppet, or just a child’s toy? The judges weren’t always convinced that the scraps of evidence they had located was enough to justify convicting someone of a very serious crime.
In a situation like that, the best evidence would be a confession by the accused that she had actually committed the crimes, because a confession was considered solid proof of guilt. And that’s where torture came in. The idea of torture was that if it could extract a confession, the need for further evidence was moot, because the witch would have implicated herself and told who her accomplices were. In other words, torturers were interrogating accused witches for exactly the same reason that cops on CSI and Law & Order do, because getting a confession makes proving guilt in a court of law much easier. These shows rarely show the cops coercing false confessions out of innocent people for the same reason that judges were comfortable with torture in the 17th century, because they were sure that innocence was a powerful protection and that only the guilty had anything to fear. The notion of false confession as a common matter was not seriously contemplated because it would undermine the sense that the legal system generally worked to achieve real justice. (Although there are no hard studies of the rate of false confession in the modern American legal system, the Innocent Project has found that fully 25% of people convicted and then exonerated by later DNA evidence had made a false confession. That suggests that false confession may be a far larger problem in the American system than people generally recognize.)
So the desire for confession stemmed for an entirely rational concern that in the absence of compelling evidence, it was hard to prove the truth of an accusation without a confession. Many 17th century judges had a lower threshold of proof than modern courts do, but they still recognized the same problems.
The rationality of the Salem judges is shown by the debate over the admissibility of spectral evidence. Betty Parris, Abigail Williams, Mercy Lewis, and other girls claimed that they could see invisible witches torturing them, but no one else could see these spirits. The judges who presided over the trials recognized that the testimony of teenage girls was not entirely reliable, especially given the rather outlandish nature of the testimony), so they asked Cotton and Increase Mather for their opinion on the issue. Both men responded by cautioning them to not put too much weight on the evidence, because the Devil could be causing the girls to see the images of innocent people in order to destroy the innocent. But Cotton’s letter admitted that God would certainly protect the innocent, and that equivocation seems to have persuaded most of the judges that spectral evidence was acceptable. Perhaps the judges were just looking for a reason to accept evidence they already wanted to accept. But at least one judge, Nathaniel Saltonstall, was sufficiently uncomfortable that he resigned from his appointment. Again, the standards these judges were using are rather lower than those of modern judges, but the issues are not entirely dissimilar.
A 19th century depiction of the Salem trials
In fact, one historian, Walter Stephens, has argued that among some early modern theologians, the interest in witchcraft arose not from an overabundance of credulity, but the growth of skepticism about the supernatural and the existence of God. Stephens’ argument, briefly put, is that the desire to find and interrogate witches and prove that they were employing magic stems from anxiety about the inability of theologians to prove the existence of God. If women could be found who would admit to having sex with the Devil (an activity that some witch-hunting manuals dwelt on at considerable length), then that would prove the existence of Satan and by extension the existence of God. In other words, Stephens suggests that many witch-hunters were trying to prove to themselves that God existed precisely because they were scared to acknowledge their own doubt, the way that many vocal homophobes are closeted homosexuals trying to persuade themselves that they’re straight. (George Rekers, I’m looking at you. You too, Pat Robertson.)
So if witch-hunting was more rational than it looks on the surface, why do we so strongly associate it with irrationality? For that, we can thank the major intellectual movement of the 18th century, the Enlightenment. Enlightenment intellectuals, like Voltaire, Montesquieu, Jean-Jacques Rousseau, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson, saw themselves as helping lead European society out of the darkness of irrationality and superstition into the light of science and rationality. These men emphasized that the Christianity of their day was irrational, superstitious, and anti-intellectual. Emphasizing the irrationality of the witch hunting of the previous two centuries was a perfect way of highlighting how backward the previous centuries had been in comparison to their contemporary drive for science and rationality, the way that American films often flatter the democratic impulses of modern Americans by showing that medieval and early modern society was autocratic.
Well, It Still Couldn’t Happen Today because We’re Too Rational Now
I’ve got three words for you: McMartin Preschool Trial. In 1983, a mother in Manhattan Beach, California reported to police that her daycare-aged son had been anally raped by a staffer at the McMartin Preschool, basing her claim on the fact that her son had been suffering from painful bowel movements. Initially, the police refused to investigate, but she sent out a letter to the 200 other families at the preschool warning them that their children might have been abused as well, and mounting public pressure led to the police questioning several hundred children from the McMartin Preschool.
The McMartin Preschool, where the alleged atrocities supposedly took place
They hired an organization named Children’s Institute International to do the questioning, since the police had not been trained to question such young witnesses. CII employed a range of novel and untested methods, inviting children to speculate about “what might have happened”, to play pretend, and to use anatomically correct dolls to show what might have been done to them. Children were sometimes told what other children had already said. Children who supported the accusations were praised for “telling the truth”, while those who denied anything had happened were sometimes badgered into changing their testimony.
The resulting testimony was often bizarre. The staffers didn’t just have anal sex with the children, they also had sex with animals, used power drills on the children, flew through the air (sometimes in hot air balloons), maintained a network of secret tunnels, flushed children down the toilet into secret rooms, sacrificed animals in secret rituals at an Episcopal church, forced the children to dig up coffins in cemeteries, and engaged in orgies in car-washes, circuses, and airports. One child reported that movie star Chuck Norris had participated in the abuse. A group of concerned parents began digging at a lot next door to the preschool in an effort to find the tunnels; an archaeological organization eventually got involved in the effort.
Digging for the secret tunnels next to the preschool building
Despite the absurd and logically impossible nature of much of the testimony, and despite the fact that even the prosecutor admitted that the children had “embellished and exaggerated” their stories, six women and one man were charged with 321 counts of child abuse; Virginia McMartin was in her mid-70s at the time. The trial began in 1984 and lasted two years, involving testimony from “experts” who claimed that there was a nation-wide organization of Satanists who conspired to sexually molest children and sacrifice them to Satan; a key piece of their evidence was the supposedly scientific notion of ‘repressed memories’, which has subsequently been largely debunked. Eventually in 1996, a new prosecutor dropped all charges against five of the defendants, admitting that the evidence was “incredibly weak”. Peggy McMartin Buckey and her son Ray Buckey were subject to a new trial that ended in acquittal for Peggy in 1990; Ray was found not guilty on 52 out of 65 charges but two jurors refused to believe he was innocent of 13 charges of child abuse. He was tried again on six of the 13 charges and the result was a hung jury. He spent 5 years in jail during the process. The McMartin trials were the longest and most expensive case in US legal history.
Peggy McMartin Buckey during the trial
Although the McMartin case was the most famous example of fears of daycare child abuse rings, it was not unique. In the later 1980s, there were at least 21 similar trials. Despite a near-total lack of actual evidence, at least 22 daycare employees were convicted, and 3 are still in prison today, although most have had their convictions overturned.
The parallels between the McMartin case and the Salem Witch Trials are fairly clear. The accused were mostly women while the accusers and victims were children. The charges depended on what even at the time was seen as dubious evidence, and involved shocking stories of highly sexualized activities and devil-worship. Charges of flying through the air and engaging in secret meetings to do abominable things were common to both. In both cases, some of the charges seem to be literally impossible without magic.
The fact is that both the Salem Witch Trials and the McMartin Preschool Trials are examples of what scholars call a “moral panic”, a widespread fear among society that something is threatening the moral order, in which shocking charges create intense pressure for authorities to act. In the McMartin case, those who have studied it have sometimes argued that it reflects a deep but unspoken fear that leaving children at a daycare is somehow morally wrong, because rather than working, their mothers ought to be taking care of the children. The charges of intense sexual abuse acted to dramatize the fear without directly expressing it, and created a situation in which the authorities are reluctant to simply ignore the problem. But once authorities began treating the charges seriously, that legitimized the fears and intensified the panic. So the McMartin case may reflect anxieties about working mothers and proper forms of child-rearing. But what about Salem? What was driving the charges there? I’ll start looking at that next time.
Finally, Walter Stephens’ Demon Lovers: Witchcraft, Sex, and the Crisis of Beliefmakes a very interesting argument that one of the core texts of witch hunting, the infamous Malleus Maleficarum, has been badly misunderstood and is a reflection of its author’s doubts about the existence of God rather than an irrational credulity in the existence of witches. It’s a bold thesis and I’m not sure that he’s convinced all the scholars, but it certainly influenced my understanding of witch hunting. If you’re interested in witch hunting, or specifically in the Malleus, it’s well worth the read.
The 18th century is a critically important period in the history of modern Western civilization. Politically, it was characterized by absolute monarchy almost everywhere except England and the Netherlands. To summarize a complex political system, absolute monarchy was based on the principle that all legitimate political power came from the king, who recognized only God as the limit to his political powers. In theory, the king had the power to run the state at his will, legislate as he saw fit, and enforce or waive laws as suited him.
The reality, of course, was more complex. While kings were supposed to rule in person, they typically depended on royal councils and bureaucracies to manage the state for them, and this meant that they had to compromise with the various other powers in their states, particularly the clergy and the nobility. Kings were more absolute in theory than they were in practice, and in some situations it took a truly determined absolute monarch to overcome resistance to the changes he wished to enact.
The 18th century was also the Age of the Enlightenment. The Scientific Revolution, which had gotten going in the previous century or so, had encouraged the growth of rationalism and a demand for scientific evidence for ideas about how the world worked. As Western society began to accept the existence of the laws of physics, it naturally began to occur to intellectuals that rationalism could be applied to human society. Intellectuals, often called philosophes, began to develop a rational critique of Western society in a movement that they saw as paralleling the Scientific Revolution. These men and a few women began searching for the laws of human society, the principles upon which society ought to be based. Broadly speaking, philosophes opposed anything they saw as irrational or arbitrary, such as laws that give the nobility legal privileges simply for being nobles. Many, such as the great thinker Voltaire, accused the Catholic Church of teaching not religion but superstition, while Montesquieu called for legal reforms and a more rational balance of powers in which executive, legislative, and judicial branches enjoyed separate spheres of power that mutually limited each other branch’s powers. Sound familiar? It should; this is the period that gave birth to American democracy.
Denmark in the late 18th Century
From 1766 to 1808, Denmark was ruled by Christian VII, at least in name. The Danish kings were, like all other kings except the English ones, absolute monarchs. But Christian VII was a rather poor monarch. He was a smart and sensitive man and seemingly quite talented, but he was the victim of a personal tutor who physically and emotionally terrorized him while growing up, and of a group of courtiers who provided him with a steady string of prostitutes and mistresses. The result was an emotionally unstable man who may have suffered from some form of schizophrenia. He was given to sudden outbursts of emotion and fits of anger, moments of paranoia, and perhaps even self-mutilation.
As a result, instead of Christian ruling personally, control of the government was in the hands of the nobles who controlled the royal council. Public opinion also had a remarkably strong role in Danish politics in this period, such that one historian has declared it “absolutism driven by opinion”. The details of government bored the young king, and he often ignored his responsibilities for days on end, which only strengthened the control of the royal council.
In 1766, in addition to becoming king, Christian married his cousin Caroline Matilda, the younger sister of George III of Great Britain. However it was a very poor match. Christian publicly declared that it was “unfashionable to love one’s wife”, and instead continued carrying on with a string of mistresses and prostitutes. They consummated the marriage long enough to have a child, the future Frederick VI, and then apparently stopped sleeping together.
Caroline Matilda was an intelligent and well-educated woman, by the standards of her day; she spoke four languages. But whether she might be considered an intellectual is by no means clear; it is unlikely that she was deeply exposed to the ideas of the Enlightenment. She may also have had a taste for men’s clothing and riding astride rather than side-saddle, although this might be political slander from later in her life.
In 1770, Christian went on a tour of Europe, and when he returned home he brought with him a new German physician, Johann Struensee, who proved remarkably adept at managing Christian’s erratic mood swings. This gave him a great deal of control over the young king. Struensee was a man deeply sympathetic to the Enlightenment critique of government and society.
As a result of his influence over the king, Struensee was able to displace the royal council and essentially took over the running of the kingdom. Initially he had the king sign documents, but eventually the king signed off on a law allowing Struensee’s signature to count as his own. For three years, from 1770 to 1772, he produced an explosion of new legislation, averaging three new decrees a day. In accordance with Enlightenment principles, he centralized the government in a cabinet with himself at the center; replaced the senior officials (who mostly represented the land-owning nobility) with bourgeois bureaucrats; abolished censorship, torture, noble privileges, and the compulsory labor of the lower classes; restructured the state’s finances to the disadvantage of the landowners; reformed the university and the army; found a way to keep grain prices stable; and banned the slave trade, among other things. He also introduced vaccinations for small-pox, persuading the king and queen to permit their infant son to be vaccinated.
Johann Frederich Struensee
Struensee also reputedly began an affair with Caroline Matilda. I’m not an expert on 18th century Denmark, so I don’t know what the actual evidence for the affair is. None of the information I could find online seems conclusive to me; Caroline Matilda became a more powerful figure at court during Struensee’s period, he had a bedroom in the royal palace, and in 1771 Caroline Matilda gave birth to her second child, Louise Augusta (who was acknowledged by the king as his child).
Regardless of whether Struensee had an actual affair with the queen, in January of 1772, Christian’s step-mother Dowager Queen Julaine-Marie organized a coup against Struensee with the help of various disaffected nobles. She appears to have been seeking to promote the position of her own son, Christian’s half-brother. The king was persuaded to sign an arrest warrant, and in the middle of the night, Struensee, an associate Enevold Brandt, and Caroline Matilda were all arrested. Struensee was accused of usurping the royal authority (which, to be fair, he had), and of adultery with the queen. The fact that the adultery charge was so perfectly convenient politically leads me to be suspicious of it. But it was treated as serious at the time, and Struensee, after considerable torture, confessed to the charge.
Struensee and Brandt were both publicly executed, an action Christian later regretted. Caroline Matilda was divorced and imprisoned. After a while, pressure from George III led to her being shipped off to Hanover, George’s continental state, and she lived under loose house arrest in Celle, since George was reluctant to allow his sister to return home. She died suddenly in 1775, of scarlet fever, while she was in the middle of a conspiracy to overthrow her ex-husband in favor of her son.
However, while the Dowager Queen and her faction were able to return to power, they were unable to roll the clock back on the fundamental shift that had occurred away from the power of noble landowners. Danish agriculture underwent drastic reforms over the next two decades that modernized it and permitted small Danish farms to begin farming not just for subsistence but for the export market. That in turn increased their influence in society and prevented a return to a pre-Enlightenment status quo.
In 1784, a young Prince Frederick and a group of more liberal-minded nobles forced the Queen Dowager’s faction out of power and rather than governing by decree, found ways to incentivize the liberalization of the both the economy and the political system. In some ways, this was the beginning of modern Denmark’s social evolution.
So Is There A Movie Involved, or Was This Just an Excuse to Prattle on about 18th century Danish Politics?
Yes there is. A while ago, I was looking for movies about Scandinavian history on Netflix, and I stumbled across A Royal Affair (2012, dir. Nikolaj Arcel, Danish with subtitles). I’d never heard of it, but I knew just a little bit about its subject matter, so I watched it. It turns out to be a romance, but one with a rather strong interest in the politics and intellectual currents of the period, and far from the worst film I’ve seen on Early Modern Europe.
A Royal Affair
The film is told from the point of view of Caroline Matilda (Alicia Vikander). It opens with a framing device, a letter she supposedly wrote to Frederick and Louise Augusta as she was dying of scarlet fever. This letter establishes that she is not being allowed to see her children, and then the movie turns into a straight-forward narrative of the events mostly from her perspective. The film gets all the major facts right, and assumes that Struensee (Mads Mikkelsen) and the queen did have an affair.
Struensee and Caroline Matilda
The film does a reasonable job of trying to depict Struensee’s reforms and the complexity involved. Having revoked the censorship law, he is eventually shocked to learn that the press can be used against him, and he reluctantly has to re-instate it. His economic changes require financing, and once he starts paring back the government subsidies to the nobility, they begin to resist his changes. Indeed, the film claims that Struensee was betrayed by a noble who had previous been a friend that he refused to help out of debt. Juliane-Marie successful subverts the palace guard by pointing out to their captain how the reforms are negatively affecting the Danish army. So the film spends a fair amount of time exploring both the business of running an 18th century kingdom and the extraordinary challenge of introducing major changes to an established system.
What the film gets wrong is that it combines the story of the affair with the story of Struensee’s political reforms. The film asserts that Caroline Matilda was intellectually interested in the Enlightenment and political reforms; indeed that is one of the things that draws her to Struensee in the first place. The film also claims that Christian (Mikkel Folsgaard) was interested in reform but was too emotionally weak to act on those desires until Struensee helped him find his strength of will. While Christian and Caroline Matilda feel no attraction to each other, they become friends through a shared interest in Struensee’s projects and the three of them form the nucleus of a group of reform-minded people at court.
This is unlikely. There doesn’t seem to be any actual evidence that Caroline Matilda was part of Struensee’s intellectual circle, nor does there seem to be much evidence that Christian was truly interested in political reforms. But linking the two major issues of Christian’s reign is an intelligent decision, because by getting the viewer to care about the relationship, it also gets the viewer to care about the politics.
What dooms both the affair and the political reforms is Struensee’s inability to keep a hold over the king. His relationship with Caroline Matilda and the enormous effort of running and reforming the government lead him to neglect his friendship with the king, which creates the opening that allows Juliane-Marie to drive a wedge between them and ultimately sink her hooks into the king. Thus the film extends the linkage between the romance and the political reforms by showing how the one essentially doomed the other.
Overall, the film does a nice job of presenting what is probably to most English-speakers a fairly obscure period, both culturally and intellectually. Given that there aren’t many films about the Enlightenment, I’d have to recommend it as an easy way to learn a little about it.
Incidentally, Caroline Matilda seems to have become the focus of a number of romance novels.