Beam, Sara

Associate Professor and Honours Advisor


Phone number: (250) 721-7406
Department: History

Research description:

-Social and cultural history of early modern Europe, with a focus on 16th and 17th century France
-The use and decline of torture in the 17th century

Expertise Profile
In today's world, torture is considered a violation of human rights and is prohibited under international law and the domestic laws of many countries. But as we all know, this wasn't always the case--torture was liberally used in ancient times as a method for extracting confessions or information.

How and when did sensibilities toward torture change? And how can lessons from the past help inform modern public policy and debate on this issue?

These questions intrigue UVic historian Sara Beam, who studies European history with a special focus on torture practised by judicial courts in the 16th and 17th centuries.

"Studying history makes you realize that justifications for the use of torture don't change very much over the centuries. Even in medieval times, judges rationalized torture by claiming to be searching for the truth, even though what they were finding--religious deviants and witches--makes us doubt the validity of their definition of truth," says Dr. Beam. "Over time, new ideas about modern science forced European judges to re-examine what they meant by a truthful confession under torture. I've discovered that the practice of torture was changing during the 16th and 17th centuries; in fact, judges across Europe were increasingly making a decision not to torture. Even though it remained legal until around 1800, already by the end of the 17th century, torture was rarely practised."

Yet the debate over torture continues. For example, the US and the UN are still debating whether interrogation techniques used during the Iraqi war were torture. Many who agree that the US did use torture argue that it was necessary.

We can gain important insights by studying how a society comes to realize torture is not an acceptable or effective method of extracting a confession or information, says Dr. Beam.

"What do you do with someone who refuses to talk? What are the legitimate means of interrogation? How far can you push someone? And if someone is pushed too far, how reliable is the information, especially in a court of law?" she asks. "These are issues we're confronted with today, just as European society was three to four centuries ago."

Related Links
Dr. Beam's Faces of UVic Research:

International research:

History of France, 1500-1800

Countries lived or worked in:

France, Switzerland, India, Japan, and the United States



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