Elwin Hofman
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The ambiguities of nature
Self-talk as a challenge and as an opportunity
in Trials of the self

One of the main arguments of the book is that there was an increasing stress on individual psychological depth in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, both in the procedures of criminal justice and in the stories people told in the courts. This chapter looks in more detail at the words people used to talk about the self. In particular, the concept of ‘nature’ was of crucial importance. Three phases in talk about nature are distinguished: a first phase, in which ‘human nature’ was most negatively commented upon; a second phase, in which more attention was given to individual nature, and often in a more positive way; and a third phase, in which human nature was often positively commented upon, while individual nature was more often used to talk about negative characteristics. While the changes in the courts were less pronounced than in intellectual culture, this analysis shows how these intellectual currents had an impact in everyday life and how they affected the ways people could talk about the self.

In previous chapters, I have discussed how people practised different discourses of the self through regulations of the courts, through the use of criminal trials as technologies of the self and through interpretations of the self. I have not yet given much attention to the words people actually used to talk about the self, for ‘self-talk’ and for the conceptions of self this implied. That is what this chapter is about: the transformation of the self in criminal courts took place alongside a transformation of the language of the self. An important means to talk about the self were words relating to ‘nature’. The tensions inherent in and between different words referring to some form of ‘nature’ illustrate the changes in the importance and morality of the self.

Nature had many meanings in the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries. People could talk about nature in a general sense, as ‘human nature’, or in a more individual sense, as an ‘inner nature’, as a means to talk about the self. Both conceptions of nature were increasingly important, and both could have positive and negative connotations. They could provide challenges and opportunities. Tracing the ambiguous meanings of the concept of nature in the discourses of criminal justice, I will show that there were important evolutions during the period under review: if nature was, in the second half of the eighteenth century, mainly seen as generalised and negative, and rarely discussed in criminal court, it became more positive in some instances in the early nineteenth century, and at the same time more individualised and more commonly mentioned.

Talking nature, talking self

Nature was a key concept for eighteenth- and early nineteenth-century philosophers. Whether their writings concerned law, politics, science, literature, theatre, morality or indeed, the self, nature seemed the unavoidable term to relate to, in descriptions of specific and local natures and in the search for the universal natural laws that guided the universe and humankind.1 The ubiquity of nature was unhindered – and perhaps even facilitated – by its vagueness. The Encyclopédie, heavily relying on the seventeenth-century natural philosopher Robert Boyle, distinguished at least eight meanings of the term:

  1. The system of the world, the universe
  2. As in ‘human nature’ or ‘divine nature’
  3. The essence of a thing
  4. The natural order as studied by physicists
  5. The opposite of the ‘supernatural’
  6. The force of a body, as in ‘his nature is strong’
  7. Divine provision
  8. God.2

The Encyclopédie thus portrayed nature as a concept with many meanings, but the overview lacked a sense of nature as a person’s disposition or character – nature as (related to) the self. This meaning was discussed in a separate entry, under the headword ‘le naturel (morale)’, written by the ‘slave of the Encyclopédie’ (he wrote no less than a quarter of its articles), the Chevalier de Jaucourt. The natural, Jaucourt wrote, is ‘the temperament, the character, the humour, the inclinations a man tends to from his birth’.3 The dictionary of the Académie française gave a similar definition, both in the 1762 and the 1798 editions. Nature could mean ‘complexion, temperament’ and ‘a certain disposition & inclination of the mind’.4 For Jaucourt and many of his learned contemporaries, one of the meanings of nature was what we would call the self; nature was a means to talk about the individual psyche. It was the closest the Encyclopédie came to including a specific headword about the self – there was no headword on ‘soi’ and only a grammatical entry on ‘moi’.

Given its cultural salience, ‘nature’ would therefore seem a good starting point to analyse self-talk in the criminal records. Remarkably, however, in these records, the word ‘nature’ (natuur, natuer, nature, naturel) was rarely used in any of the senses that the Encyclopédie described, or only tangentially. In my sample of trial records, people mainly used it:

  1. To refer to the divine order, as in the ‘crime against nature’
  2. To refer to biological or physical patterns (e.g. ‘death from natural causes’; or, three months ago, he had sex with her for the first time, so he could not be the father of her new-born child ‘due to the course of nature’)
  3. To describe a logical, self-evident course of action, as in ‘naturally’
  4. To describe to what kind something belonged, as in ‘the nature of the crime’
  5. As in ‘natural child’ to refer to illegitimate offspring
  6. To refer to semen (a meaning curiously absent from the dictionaries of the time).

A list quite different from the one in the Encyclopédie: the concepts of inner nature, human nature and nature as essence were missing. Luckily, Jaucourt’s definition of the natural and the explanation in the dictionary of the Académie provide us with a set of related words to talk about nature as a part of the self – words that did occur in the trial records: caractère, tempérament, disposition, inclination, penchant, humeur, passion, instinct. Jan Des Roches’ French-Dutch dictionary (1769) allows us to add related Dutch terms: aerd, drift, genegentheyd, hertstogt, inborst, natuer and neyging.5 By tracing this set of words, we can uncover the meanings of nature and self not only in the learned communities of the philosophes or the Académie française, but also in everyday practice. At the risk of being rather enumerative, I will try to ascertain how people used these terms and how they related to the self. I will thus seek to uncover to what extent talking about nature implied talking about the self; and what this meant for the self.

Instinct and urge

Let us start with the least individualised of the terms I just discussed: ‘instinct’ and ‘urge’ (instinct, impulsion, drift). Instinct, the dictionary of the Académie française noted, was ‘a certain movement that nature has given to animals’.6 As the dictionary continued, and the trial records confirm, it was also said about humans when they acted without reflection. So in 1791, when Jacques Honton requested grace, he admitted that he had hit an assailer multiple times while one blow would have sufficed, but said that he had done so ‘in a first moment of agitation and trouble where, when one is in danger, one obeys only his instinct’.7 So, as in the many stories discussed in chapter 3, Honton claimed to have lost his reasonable self and reverted to a sort of natural, animal state which led him to commit atrocities. Similarly, in 1824, inhabitants of the Jodestraat in Antwerp complained against a brothel in their neighbourhood, arguing that the public women ‘inflame in the children certain urges which are not proper’.8 In both cases, people referred to instincts that were natural, universal and morally reprehensible. In a somewhat altered form, ideas of such natural urges that people need to repress continue to exist up to this day. People did not consider the instincts as inherent to the self, but more as part of a general human nature that the self had to control. The instincts were quasi-animal movements that were active when the self was displaced. Talking about instincts did not particularly contribute to a greater valuation of the self.

Humour and temperament

The term ‘humour’ (humeur both in French and in Dutch; but the word was infrequently used in Dutch, Des Roches suggested translating it as the catch-all aerd) was slightly more individualised and related to an individual physical constitution which affected the mind. Its use goes back to the humoral theories of antiquity, which continued to shape popular understandings of nature.9 The term had a double meaning. As today, people could be in a ‘good humour’ or a ‘bad humour’.10 In these cases, humour referred to a temporary mood. But in some cases, people referred to a more permanent kind of humour. Jacob Mol, for instance, could not ‘accommodate [his wife’s] humour’ in 1750.11 In 1770, a certain Gentil was renowned for ‘his turbulent humour’.12 Some people were also classified in the humoral system, being ‘choleric’ or ‘melancholic’. They had a particular ‘temperament’, a ‘natural constitution of the human body’ with a particular balance of the four humours, which influenced their behaviour.13 Unlike the instincts, humours could be good as well: neighbours of Joseph Bellens declared in 1813 that they had always found him to be of ‘a peaceful humour’.14 By talking about humour and temperament in this way, people affirmed their individuality and practised a self that was relatively stable and oriented towards the body: the bodily fluids explained and determined the self.


People discussed the passions (passions, hertstogten) in a similar way: on the one hand, as discussed in chapter 3, passions figured as temporary displacements of the self, causing people to act in a moment of heat. But people could use them, too, to refer to a more permanent state that was inherent to the self. Pierre van de Wiele, in 1757, had ‘an unruly passion for hunting’. Henry Janssens, in 1800, and Maria Theresia Cauwe, in 1822, both had a ‘passion for drink’. Julie Thalie, in 1826, was ‘like so many loose young people since long infected with the passion of chasing lovers’.15 People also qualified passions as negative: they were excessive, uncontrolled, they were vices. In his Premières idées, Fierlant noted that to prevent all crime, ‘one would have to reform the human race, deprive them of their passions, or of the power to abuse them’.16 Passions, this passage again reveals, were thought to be inherent to humankind and people should control them. It is not always clear whether people believed that everyone was susceptible to the same passions – with some people just better at controlling them – or that they were more individual affairs, connected to the individual body or self. But it is clear that the language of passion could be used to talk about the self, to talk about and explain individual predilections. Compared to humours, talking of passions practised a self more oriented towards the mind or the will than to the body.

Penchants and inclinations

The passions, the Encyclopédie noted, were extreme forms of penchants and inclinations (penchants, inclinations, neygingen, genygtheden).17 Inclination was defined as a ‘disposition of the mind for something, by taste & by preference’. An inclination was a ‘tendency of the will’ and came forth from ‘the particular mechanism of our organs’, but inclinations were less violent than passions and did not trouble the regular operations of the will. Inclinations determined people’s preference for music or study, or what they saw as a source of happiness. The Encyclopédie offered ‘penchant’ as a synonym with a slightly different meaning: ‘Inclination is acquired, penchant is innate; penchant is violent, inclination soft’. Both could be good or bad: there were honest penchants and just inclinations; and perverse inclinations and shameful penchants.18 There does not appear to be a similar distinction in Dutch – both terms translate as ‘neyging’; and in the trial records, the distinction between inclinations and penchants was generally not made either.

Like talk of the passions, talk of inclinations and penchants served to practise the self by explaining behaviour with references to the individual mind. Indeed, frequently, people discussed penchants and inclinations in precisely the same way as the passions. In 1819, for instance, Jean Verbrugge’s employer said that Verbrugge was a good employee, but that he had a ‘decided penchant for drink’. Similarly, Cecile Louise Broucke was said in 1820 to work properly as a maid, but to have ‘a penchant for libertinage’.19 As was the case with passions, when people discussed inclinations or penchants in the trial records, they were always bad. In 1762, Antoine Deleporte was tried in Kortrijk for hitting a woman who had died as a result. In his defence, several witnesses testified of the woman’s inappropriate behaviour. Two neighbours said that she was ‘quick-tempered [colericq] and inclined to insult everyone’. In his justification, Deleporte’s solicitor repeated that the woman was of a ‘vile humour’ and had repeatedly provoked the defendant. Even the victim’s mother was found willing to declare before a notary that her daughter was ‘naturally inclined to insult and defame anyone’.20 Both inclination and humour served to show the woman’s despicable nature.

The most positive context in which people discussed inclinations was when they said that someone did not have a particular inclination. Of Ambroise Vrancx and his father, aldermen in Grez advised in 1771 on an application for grace that ‘neither of them is inclined to trouble society with excesses’. In her defence, Marie Anne Peccau alleged in 1772 that she had never stolen anything and that ‘if she had been inclined to stealing’, she would have had the occasion often enough, but she was not. Josse Van Cutsem, applying for grace in 1781, wrote that his homicide had been a traffic accident. This was not a crime of a premeditated nature, ‘even less that of a man with a decided penchant to crime’. He hoped that his regular conduct and soft mores would convince His Majesty to grant him a pardon.21 It seemed better not to have penchants and inclinations – no one was ever said to have a good inclination in my sample of trial records, even though the Encyclopédie explicitly mentioned this as an option.


The word ‘nature’ itself could also be used to refer to an individualised nature. As noted above, I have not found any uses of the term in this sense, but the Dutch word ‘aerd’, which Jan Des Roches used as a catch-all translation for many of the words for nature (caractère, humeur, nature, naturel and tempérament), was referred to in one instance. In 1779, Guilliam Roms was tried for the murder of his wife. He claimed that he had only defended himself against her and that she had often threatened to kill him. The Brussels magistrates then asked him whether she had given any signs that she was indeed capable of killing him. Yes, Roms claimed, for she was always fighting with him. As testimony of her ‘villainous nature’ [boosaerdighen aert], he put forward that he suspected her of having killed her infant. With ‘such a woman of such nature’ [soo eene vrouwe van soo eenen aert] he could not live safely.22 Her nature was clearly not good. Roms used nature as an entirely individualised mental concept, to designate a stable self. By talking about this nature, the self gained importance. But as the case of Roms was the only one in my sample in which this happened, its influence remained limited.


A final word used to describe people’s natures was ‘character’ (caractère). Katie Barclay has found that ‘character’ was one of the most commonly used words to discuss the self in early nineteenth-century Irish courts, serving as a means to evaluate the credibility of witnesses.23 While the word was not as dominant in the records of the Belgian trials I have studied, it was also occasionally used, mainly with respect to suspects. The Encyclopédie defined character as ‘the habitual disposition of the mind, by which one is more inclined to portray, & in effect one does more often portray actions of a particular sort, rather than actions of the opposite sort’. More than the other words, character was rooted in actions and habits, rather than abstract preferences. Character was generally seen as habitual rather than inborn.24 In practice, the difference between character and other terms for nature and self was sometimes clear – remarks on people’s characters were sometimes closely tied to their actions – and sometimes not, when character, humour and inclination seemed interchangeable. In the latter case, magistrates concluded in 1780 that Guilliam Roms had ‘like most mutes a suspicious character, and moreover he seems to have a violent character’. In 1798, neighbours said that Joseph De Keyser had a ‘bad character’. In 1818, Augustine Henaux said that her mother-in-law was ‘of a rather vile character’, as she was ‘always of a melancholic humour’. And so examples abound: about Augustinus Heiremans, judges asked in 1822 whether he was ‘a man of a choleric and violent character’; the public prosecutor argued in 1828 that Pieter d’Halluin had ‘severe character’.25 Character was thus a word to talk about the individual self similar to the other terms, but less explicitly rooted in the body or the mind, and more in habit (but this distinction is, as the expression ‘choleric character’ shows, not absolute). Like the other terms, it promoted a sense of stability and uniqueness.

In some cases, however, descriptions of character were not so easily interchangeable with descriptions of temperament, ‘aerd’ or inclination. In these cases, character was more directly connected to specific actions. In 1753, for instance, Jean Giot applied for grace after committing a homicide. He asserted that he had always behaved impeccably and that he had the ‘character of an honest man’. Local judges confirmed this: ‘he has always lived irreproachably, being of a very peaceful character’. While talk about character was eschewed in further investigations, his honourable behaviour was mentioned several times. In 1812, magistrates interrogated Gisbert van der Linden on suspicion of murder, committed together with his wife. They asked him – a rare event – ‘what his wife’s character was’. Van der Linden replied that ‘she had a good character, & in no way vile’, adding that ‘she would not harm anyone’.26 In both these cases, character was not simply one’s given nature, but closely connected to one’s actions; it was, as Katie Barclay suggests, performative, something that people had to acquire through their everyday behaviour.27

The different words used to talk about nature imply different ways of talking about and appreciating the self. Many of these terms served to promote the idea that the self mattered: people had individual mental dispositions, linked to their body, their will or their habits. Their behaviour – their crimes or their lack of crimes – could be understood by referring to their self. But at the same time, many of the terms remained ambiguous as to what extent people’s natures were truly individualised: instincts, passions and perhaps inclinations as well could refer to basic dispositions that were present in every human being, but that could and should be controlled.

Nature as a challenge (I)

Especially up to 1800, it seems that in the trial records, people predominantly referred to nature – both human nature in general and individual nature – in order to stress that something was bad. While the encyclopédistes and other scholars accepted that individual nature, humours, character, inclinations and penchants could both be good and bad, witnesses, prosecutors and defendants only rarely referred to these concepts to put someone in a favourable light (instincts and passions were always bad – there was no disagreement there).

This negative use of nature as a general concept agrees with the dismissive view of nature as something that people should control. Classical Christian doctrine promoted a dim view of human nature (without, however, frequently using the term ‘human nature’). Humans were tainted by original sin – since the fall of man – and inclined to continue sinning. In their natural state, they were selfish and sensual. In sermons, the word ‘nature’ was often accompanied by the adjective ‘corrupted’.28 Only by exercising self-restraint could people avoid sinning. They should overcome nature; they should control it.29 This conception of nature was general, it concerned all humans, but could be extended to individual natures.

This Christian doctrine has been found to have had an important impact on ideas about crime. Popular newssheets in early modern France frequently explained crimes by referring to human passions and the corruption of humankind. The criminal was a sinner and people had to conquer their sinful nature to avoid descending into crime.30 Published confessions and execution sermons in seventeenth- and eighteenth-century England and Northern America, similarly, portrayed the criminal as an ‘everyman’, not particularly different from other people. The doctrine of universal sin provided an explanation for everyone’s proclivity to commit sins and crimes. Published execution sermons and confessions served to warn communities of the dangers that were lurking in their own lives, of their own risk to hit the wrong path.31

In this universalist conception of crime, the psychology of the slippery slope played an important part. Crime – be it theft, murder, prostitution or sodomy – was the inevitable consequence of a progressive worsening of sins. Small sins became heavier and heavier and ended in murder. Only by interfering swiftly and actively, this descent into crime could be halted. Sinners were to repent for their sins and to control their impulses. While criminals could be born with ‘vicious inclinations’, it was everyone’s task to try and control these inclinations.32

The eighteenth-century crime literature of the Southern Netherlands was less abundant than in France, England and America; at any rate, it has not been extensively studied. There were no printed execution sermons, confessions or criminal biographies. But the psychology of the slippery slope was familiar. A cursory analysis of the genre of ‘murder songs’, songs sold and performed at the execution of a criminal, reveals a similar conception of criminal behaviour. In 1779, for instance, Ambrosius Carton was executed in Kortrijk for thefts and murder. At this occasion, a song was distributed, detailing how Carton got on the wrong path from his early youth, soon got in the habit of stealing small things, then larger things and finally to committing murder. In its final stanza, the author recommended that parents buy a copy of the text as an example to show their children that if they were living loosely, great dangers were lurking.33

In learned culture, Goswin de Fierlant subscribed to the psychology of the slippery slope as well. ‘A slight deviation is followed by several other slight deviations; soon it weighs on more important tasks, one commits excesses: the excesses bring delicts in sight, and from delicts one gets to crime’. Consequently, ‘everything that spoils the heart opens the way to crime, bad morals, vice, laziness and idleness’. Several barriers could halt these evolutions: Fierlant made numerous specific suggestions, from a new, moral catechism to rewarding merits. The most crucial means of prevention was a proper education in religion, true honour and virtue. As we will see in the next section, Fierlant did not view nature as entirely bad, but he helped to promote a negative view of nature by agreeing with a psychology in which humans naturally tended towards crime.34

This psychology and the negative view of human nature complemented each other. Humans had an inherently sinful nature and were to control this nature to avoid a life of crime. The predominantly negative view of individualised human nature – individual passions, penchants, inclinations, humour and even character – seems to stem from this general view of human nature. While talk about individual nature reinforced the importance of the self, this self was mainly negative: people should renounce and control it.

Now it could be put forward that the negative view of nature was inherent to genre of crime records and publications about crime; that as a consequence, it does not necessarily reflect more general perceptions of nature. After all, the people involved had committed crimes, so they were necessarily of a bad nature. However, not only the bad was noted when people were talked about in crime records. Indeed, to their own defence and to others’ defence, people often stressed their positive traits. To do so, they did generally not refer to nature: they never referred to passions or humours, rarely to penchants and inclinations and only occasionally to character. They mainly referred to specific behaviour, to people’s actions.

In the grace application of Ambroise Vrancx in 1771, cited above, the statement that father and son were ‘not inclined’ to cause trouble was accompanied by the conclusion that they had always been of good behaviour and that they had always laboured properly. Similarly, sixteen notable citizens of Heiremans’ village declared in 1822 that, contrary to reports of his violent and choleric character, he had ‘always been of good and irreproachable behaviour’.35 These statements – good behaviour and hard work – were the bread and butter of many applications for grace and cases for the defence, sometimes complemented with a recommendation of the ‘Christian life’ and ‘honourable behaviour’ of the defendants.36 If people mainly referred to passive nature for stressing the bad, active behaviour could be referred to for stressing the good.37 From this background, it is not surprising that when people referred to ‘character’ as positive, it generally appeared as active and closely related to behaviour.

Nature as an opportunity

Especially before 1800, people in the trial records mainly referred to human nature as something negative. This is a somewhat curious observation, for while early modern views of human nature are indeed known to be quite dismissive, the times were changing. Intellectual and literary historians have shown – and I have followed them when introducing this chapter – that ‘nature’ was a key concept in eighteenth-century thought. Nature – in its plurality of meanings – was present in all domains: in science, in morals, in religion, in education, in the arts, in theatre and in politics. And in all these domains, nature was overwhelmingly something that people desired: they wanted to study, know and follow nature.38

In line with this general appreciation for nature, attention for general human nature and individual nature also grew. As the eighteenth century progressed, this use of nature became increasingly positive. In 1762, the Dictionnaire de l’académie française noted that nature ‘is also taken to mean a certain disposition & inclination of the mind. Perverse nature. He is by nature inclined to such vice’. In its next edition in 1798, the dictionary repeated the same definition, but added a new example: ‘A happy nature’.39 The same thing happened in other dictionaries. Between 1750 and 1830, only two dictionaries of the Dutch language were published. In the first one, Des Roches’ 1769 French–Dutch dictionary, the example with the translation of ‘Naturel’ was ‘Mauvais naturel. Een quaden aerd’.40 In Pieter Weiland’s dictionary of the Dutch language (1799–1811), however, the example for ‘aard’ was: ‘Een mensch van eenen goeden, zachten aard’; ‘A man of a good, gentle nature’.41 Human natures were no longer all bad.

One of the most prolific propagators of the positive approach to nature – at least in the domain of human nature and personal nature – was Jean-Jacques Rousseau. For Rousseau, ‘[t]he fundamental principle of all morals […] is that man is a being that is naturally good’.42 Rousseau was not only concerned with human nature in general, but also with individual nature, which took the form of a ‘voice from within’. Rousseau argued that – I am digesting – people’s goals should be to liberate themselves from the constraints of society and the pressure of their peers and live according to their true nature. People’s ambitions in society and their longings for honour were but ‘amour propre’, vain self-regard. Rousseau denounced the social orientation of the self. People should rather cultivate their true self – their biologically provided, inner nature – and make that nature actual; a practice which Rousseau termed ‘amour de soi’, love of the self. He stressed the importance of the self and particularly of an inner-oriented self.43

The positive view of human nature was also present in the Encyclopédie. Jaucourt’s article on ‘le naturel’, after defining the natural as the characteristics we are born with, good or bad, tells us that ‘Education, example or habit may indeed rectify the natural of which the penchant is to the bad, or spoil he who tends more happily towards the good; but however great their power is, a constrained nature betrays itself in unforeseen occasions’. True nature always shows, regardless of education. But then, departing from his earlier position that nature could be good or bad, Jaucourt put forward that ‘the good nature seems to be born with us; it is one of the fruits of a happy temperament that education may cultivate with glory, but that she does not give’. Without this good nature, Jaucourt noted, no durable society would be possible in the world. The good nature is generalised; for without good nature there could be no society. So, Jaucourt concluded, as our fate depends on the natural, ‘happy is he who takes a way of life conform with the character of his heart & of his spirit, he will always find pleasure & resources in his choice’. In this final movement, Jaucourt praised the authentic life: people should live in accordance with their individual true nature.44

Of course, not everyone was as jubilant about human nature. Many more conservative writers continued to view nature negatively, in the Christian sense. And even more progressive thinkers were not always convinced. Mary Wollstonecraft, for instance, rejected Rousseau’s arguments in favour of the ‘state of nature’ as unsound, unphilosophical and impious: if nature was so good, God would not have given people the abilities to evolve to civilisation.45 Others decried the ‘naturalistic fallacy’ of deriving moral values from nature.46 Yet while such voices continued to disturb the positive appreciations of nature, they could not prevent the increasing attention for the inherent goodness of nature in its different forms.

This positive sense of nature did not go unnoticed in the Southern Netherlands. In theatre, for instance, ‘naturalness’ became a central concern in the second half of the eighteenth century.47 The new appreciation of nature was also visible in legal thought. Goswin de Fierlant may have subscribed to the psychology of the slippery slope, as we have seen in the previous section, but he was also quite positive about nature. He argued, for instance, that the ‘barriers of nature’ and the ‘desire of self-conservation nature has given to all animated beings’ were sufficient to prevent people from committing suicide, as long as they were in their right mind.48 In the 1790s, Rousseau’s concept of the good human nature became central to the ideology of the French Revolution and indirectly influenced the revolutionary criminal justice system.49

After 1800, more positive uses of nature also appeared in the trial records. Some people, particularly interrogators, called upon ‘feelings of nature’ and ‘the voice of nature’. In 1812, Elisabeth Fisscher was suspected of infanticide. She initially denied the allegations, but during her second interrogation, after a medical examination, she confessed that she had given birth and had accidentally lost her child while on the privy. The interrogators then asked her why she had not told anyone about her pregnancy and why she had not called for help during labour, ‘help which the voice of nature and of motherhood imperiously command her to seek’. Fisscher admitted that she should have taken this course of action, and regretted that she had not.50 Similarly, in 1828, the judge of instruction concluded that Pieter D’Halluin and his wife Maria Doone had killed the latter’s father. This, he argued, was the result of ‘greed combined with the fierce character’ of the suspects. It ‘made the feelings of nature almost disappear’ and caused them to kill their family member.51 The voice of nature and feelings of nature were linked to good and moral ways of living. In these instances, nature appeared as a general condition, not particularly linked to the self.

This new, positive view of general human nature was especially well articulated for women. As I have discussed in chapter 2, the eighteenth century saw an important development in intellectual attitudes towards women. If people often saw early modern women as lascivious and unable to control themselves, they could portray later eighteenth-century women more easily as chaste and virtuous. Now, while this evolution was gradual and nonlinear, another important change took place in the late eighteenth century: chasteness, motherly love and care were increasingly cast as ‘natural’ virtues women possessed. Maternity became intertwined with the essence of femininity; deviating from this essence was ‘unnatural’. As Dror Wahrman has argued, in the late eighteenth century ‘prevailing gender norms were redefined as essential and natural’.52

This view was of course clearly articulated in the case of Fisscher, whom interrogators asked about ‘the voice of nature and of motherhood’. It was also present in the case of Adrien Braem and Levine Hellebuyck in 1797. They were accused of killing their child. Braem claimed that he had had a row with his wife, their child had started crying and his wife had hit the child. Then his wife started crying too. This had led him to think that she was going mad and he had run away. Judges found this a peculiar story. It should not have surprised him that his wife was crying, they said, ‘for there is nothing more natural than that a mother is sensitive when seeing her child die’. Braem acknowledged this, but claimed that he did not know that the child was dead at the time.53 I have never encountered such references to female nature as closely connected to caring motherhood earlier in the eighteenth century. The naturalisation of the loving mother was becoming common not only in print culture, but also in the courts of law, even if, for the time being, it was mainly used by the interrogators, and rarely volunteered by witnesses or suspects. With it, the idea that nature was inherently good gained currency.

This talk of nature in criminal records was talk about a generalised human nature. People did not explicitly connect it to the self, but to femininity in general or to humanity in general. But the more positive appreciation of general human nature spilled over to talk about individual nature – about the self. More than before, in the early nineteenth century people talked about this individual nature and saw it as positive. To discuss a good individual nature, people used a new metaphor: ‘the heart’. Of course, this metaphor was not really new; the heart had been used for centuries to denote ‘the interior, the foundation [le fond], the disposition of the mind’.54 Laura Kounine has found much talk about the ‘heart’ as a locus of sincerity and truth in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century German witch trials.55 But it was rarely used in this way in the trial records which I consulted from between 1750 and 1800, and received a stronger moral meaning in the early nineteenth century: the heart was naturally good.

In his analysis of crime prevention, Goswin de Fierlant had already attended to the importance of the good heart in criminal justice. Recommending religion, for instance, Fierlant wrote that ‘it prevented the heart from contracting that degree of corruption without which the passions would not be able germinate crime’. He railed against everything ‘which extinguishes in the heart of citizens the love of order and subordination, the desire to contribute to the general good’. The heart was naturally good, he assumed, but could be corrupted.56 More than some of the other terms for nature, such as ‘passion’ or the word ‘nature’ itself, the heart was always individualised. The language of the heart signified the individual application of the positive view of human nature.

It was only in the early nineteenth century, however, that the heart started to appear in trial records in the same way as in Fierlant’s treatise: a nature that was inherently good, but that could be corrupted. In 1812, we have already seen, Gisbert van der Linden and his wife Marie Ludwig were suspected of murder. Van der Linden had declared that his wife ‘had a good character, & in no way evil’. Judges disagreed, however, and put it to Ludwig that her crime was proven and that ‘by denying she only demonstrates more and more the wickedness of her character, and that despite her youth her heart is already so familiar with crime that it is inaccessible to all remorse & repentance’. This is, of course one of the techniques of interrogation discussed in chapter 1. But here, it stands as testimony of the idea that an individual’s nature was supposed to be good, especially during ‘youth’, when still uncontaminated by civilisation. Nevertheless, good nature and the good heart were easily corrupted. While human nature was expected to be good, in this case, this nature was lost, leading to a different, negative nature, represented as the character.57 The case was similar for Francisca Van Ryckeghem, who stood trial for infanticide in 1829. After the corpse of a child had been found, Van Ryckeghem was among a party of onlookers. One of them testified that she had said ‘that she couldn’t understand that there were people who had such an evil heart to do such things’.58 She commented upon the heart – an inner self – and performed surprise at the fact that it could be evil.

Talk about the heart was not only a practice of a relatively stable self, it was also a practice of inner orientation and depth. This is illustrated in the case of Josse Sersant in 1806. Sersant was suspected of the murder of Charles de Pascal in Ghent. Witnesses related that an unknown person had threatened Pascal before the murder. One witness had seen Pascal at a party and noted that he seemed to be amused. Speaking to the witness, however, Pascal declared that ‘it was not wholeheartedly, for I am in fear’. The witness then ‘started reflecting’ and concluded that ‘his gayness that day had not penetrated to his heart’. This same approach was offered in the case of Pierre De Mahieu in 1803: when a friend noticed that De Mahieu was ‘occupied by sinister plans and dark projects, he pressed him to open his heart and tell him the cause of his chagrin’. In both cases, people referred to the heart to denote something deep, something hidden inside, which could or could not be reflected in outward appearance. By using the language of the heart, people practised a deeper self and attached importance to this self.59

Nature as a challenge (II)

The increasingly positive view of human nature posed a problem for the criminal courts. If people were supposed to be inherently good, how could it be that they committed horrible crimes? The psychology of the slippery slope was not entirely abandoned; indeed, up to this day people continue to refer to the idea that small transgressions lead to bigger ones. But by around 1800, it was no longer as self-evident as it had been before. If human nature was good, the criminal could no longer be an everyman, a common sinner. The early nineteenth-century criminal had to be explained, made sense of as an individual, in a much more elaborate way than before.

The movement to make sense of crime is quite visible, in Belgium and elsewhere in Europe.60 In 1828, in an essay against a proposed new penal code, jurist Victor Savart reflected on criminals and punishments in general. He proposed that criminal justice was to pay more attention to human nature. All crimes had their origins in desires, he observed. When these desires became too strong, they became ‘a moral malady and often even a physical malady’, such as ‘imbecility, fury, consumption, rupture of the arteries, a stroke, inevitable death’. The legislator should therefore not view the criminal ‘as a bad person who needs to be punished, but rather as a madman who needs to be healed’.61 While casting criminals as madmen, requiring individualised treatment and a cure, Savart also cast them as ‘everymen’, driven by desires. He balanced between a universalising and an individualising conception of criminality. Likewise, Belgium’s most famous penal reformer, Edouard Ducpétiaux, constantly referred to human nature and asserted that criminals were driven by insanity, anger, despair, ignorance or fanaticism, but ‘at heart’, they were still human beings. The legislator should take their circumstances into account.62

The aim to understand criminals led some to adopt novel methods. From the late 1820s, some penal reformers started to refer to statistics to support their claims, among them Ducpétiaux. None became more famous for doing so than Adolphe Quetelet, the so-called ‘father’ of social statistics. Influenced by natural science – Quetelet was an astronomer and mathematician by education – he sought to explain crime through statistical ‘laws’. He proposed that there was an ‘average man’ in each time and society, whose behaviour was typical for the whole nation. Using crime statistics, Quetelet investigated the probability that a person would commit a crime under similar circumstances, particularly attending to seasons, climate, education, sex and age. He found that there was a greater ‘penchant’ to commit crime among men and people around twenty-five. Although the poor and the uneducated had a higher penchant to commit crime, the influence of these variables was less pronounced; and he argued that it was moral education rather than knowledge; and sudden decline in wealth rather than poverty itself which stimulated crime. Although Quetelet stressed that he was not analysing at the level of the individual – everyone could choose their own destiny – he definitely did away with the idea of the criminal as an everyman. Not everyone had the same risk of committing crime. It depended on their place in society.63

In trial records, too, looking for and offering explanations – more particularly, looking for and offering ‘motives’ – became a much more common affair in the early nineteenth century. People rarely used the term ‘motive’ (motif/motief) in eighteenth-century criminal trial records or applications for grace.64 In my sample, the word was only used in the grace case of Denis Dierens in 1780. Dierens had gotten in a fight and had the ‘accident’ of lethally injuring another man, upon which ‘he has immediately fallen in excessive sadness and has shown his mournful heart to the victim, his father and his other friends’. In their advice, local judges noted that it seemed that a blow he had received had been ‘the only motive for his crime’; as a consequence, he was granted grace. While judges sometimes asked people why they had committed their crime, particularly in sodomy cases, this remained relatively sporadic and was rarely a prime concern.

This was changing in the 1790s. As we have seen in chapter 1, interrogations started to become more extensive with the installation of the new criminal justice system. The abolition of the system of legal proof and the rise of ‘inner conviction’ as the sole guideline for determining guilt or innocence required above all that judges or juries were convinced that an individual had committed the crime. A clear explanation of why they should have committed this crime helped a great deal to this end. This evolution contributed to the problematisation of the self: precisely at the time that understanding crime became a legal necessity, ideas about a good generalised human nature made these understandings more difficult.

As a result, in many cases, interrogators started to ask suspects explicitly ‘why’ or ‘for what motive’ they had committed their crime; and defendants frequently used the word ‘motive’ in their own answers. Similarly, magistrates often asked witnesses about the perpetrator’s possible motives, or the witnesses volunteered such information. So in 1798, interrogators asked Marie Therese Boyen why her assailer had attacked her; and they asked Marie Joseph Davaine why her master had supposedly killed her infant. In 1800, they asked Cuny Renaud ‘what motive he has had for killing’ a man. In 1812, they asked Marie Ludwig why she had lied in a previous interrogation.65 In the 1820s, indictments started to refer to motives as well. In 1821, for instance, the indictment of Pascal Bastiaens noted that ‘the motive [of the fight] were the pleasantries that Bastiaens held towards a girl’.66 Examples like this abound: judges no longer simply wanted to establish what had happened, but also why; they needed specific motives to understand the crime.

Not everyone was able to declare such motives. In 1806, for instance, Maria Alsteens was asked about a fight between her sons, one of whom had killed the other. Asked why her son had hit his brother, she said that ‘she cannot say, she can’t know that, for sometimes a person has something in his head’. Rather than offering an acceptable motive, she inclined towards the explanation of displacement or mental illness.67 And courts did not accept every motive offered. In 1795, Joseph André confessed that he had murdered his uncle and his maid. He told this in a very matter of fact way: they all ate together, he had words with the maid, took a stick and hit her on the head, after which she died. The uncle shouted from his room, asking what was happening, so André went to him and stabbed him with a knife. Then he set the building on fire.

‘Why has he committed such cruel actions?’ judges asked. ‘Because of the words they had had, especially the servant’. The interrogation was closed with this explanation, but the president of the criminal tribunal later returned to the matter, again asking why he had committed the crimes. He said that his victims had ‘received him grumpily’, and that the maid ‘behaved as if she was the mistress of the house’ and had mistreated him. The case had to be started over because of a procedural error, and again the magistrates returned to his motives. This time, they inquired further: was his uncle rich? Would he inherit? André claimed that he did not know. Once again, in his final hearing, the substitute president of the criminal court asked if no other motive than bad words had led to his actions. André answered affirmatively but returned to the claim that they had mistreated him – not going along with the magistrates’ suggestion that he was after the inheritance.68 Clearly, however, a simple confession of the material facts of the crime did not satisfy nineteenth-century magistrates. They wanted a confession that made the crime understandable.

The increasing interest in motive is also apparent in the way the courts and the police dealt with suicide. Suicide was not punished after 1782, but courts continued to conduct pro forma trials until the end of the old regime. An interest in the suicide’s motives was occasional and generally stemmed more from a desire to excuse suicides (because they had been insane), rather than to properly understand them. Since the French occupation, suicides were no longer part of the criminal law, but the police still reported deaths by suicide. These reports were generally very matter-of-fact and did not contain many witness statements or investigations. But more commonly than before, they recorded why the suicide had taken place. For instance, in 1803, the police wrote that it seemed that the cause of Jacques Chatenier’s suicide was ‘his embarrassment’; while a report noted about Albert Leonard in 1819 that ‘one believes that jealousy and chagrin have taken him to this act of despair’. When the police found no clear causes, they even wrote that ‘the motives for this act of desperation are unknown’.69

The belief in a generally good human nature thus stimulated an interest in people’s individual motives. But most motives did not solve the problem. In murder cases, the most commonly offered motives were personal gain (an inheritance or theft) and envy (personal feuds or jealousy). That suspects were after monetary gain and believed that they would be able to escape punishment squared well with the common idea of rational calculation, as discussed in chapter 2. Popular newssheets also commonly suggested such financial motives.70 Neither this motive, nor the motive of envy was testimony of a good human nature, however. Things were even worse when no understandable motive whatsoever could even be found.

To save the idea that human nature in general was good, it was necessary to cast criminals as radically different. Instead of ‘everymen’, they became ‘aliens’, ‘monsters’ or ‘unhuman’.71 They could hardly be identified with; their deeds were so ‘unnatural’ that they evoked horror, fear and wonder.72 As we have seen in chapter 3, for the most ‘horrific’ and ‘unexplainable’ crimes, people sometimes referred to mental illness as a way to make sense of this radical deviation from human nature. But there was a less incisive option. While human nature in general might be virtuous, these individuals had a bad individual nature.73

In the previous section I discussed the use of the ‘heart’ to discuss positive individual nature in the early nineteenth century. But this does not mean that there were no longer any negative sentiments about individual natures. Let me return to two cases discussed above. The first is the case of Marie Ludwig in 1812. Recall that her interrogator told her that ‘by denying she only demonstrates more and more the wickedness of her character, and that despite her youth her heart is already so familiar with crime that it is inaccessible to all remorse & repentance’. While this quote shows that human nature (the heart) was supposed to be good, her individual ‘character’ was bad. The second case is that of Pieter D’Halluin and Maria Doone in 1828. Here, the judge of instruction concluded that ‘Greed combined with the fierce character of […] D’Halluin made the feelings of nature almost disappear’. Again, the judge portrayed feelings of nature as positive, while he argued that the suspect’s character was bad. This way of formulating things was opposite to the pattern of the second half of the eighteenth century, when people generally called nature bad and character more often good. Of course, there were exceptions, but overall, a general bad human nature with occasional good individual characters had changed into a general good human nature with occasional bad individual characters. The general virtuous human nature could be reconciled with criminal behaviour by accepting the existence of individuals with a corrupted, monstrous and criminal nature.74

With the proliferation of the idea that human nature was inherently good, criminal courts needed to look more at individual nature and motivation to understand criminals. As a result, self-talk in the criminal courts increased. More than before, courts in the early nineteenth century sought to assess suspects’ individual minds – their motivations, their ‘character’, their self.75 As self-talk and interpretations of self became more common in the criminal courts, people reflected on their self, deepened their self and expanded it.

The change is, of course, not neatly delineated. Talking about nature and about character occurred throughout the period and was ambiguous throughout. Character was sometimes closely connected to behaviour, while at other times it seemed to connect to innate dispositions. People mentioned good and bad characters throughout the period. But as the positive view of human nature became more popular, it became necessary to discuss character and motive as a way of highlighting an individual deviation from the good human nature.

Postscript: the strange career of the crime against nature

The concern for nature – individual or universal – provided an opportunity for increased self-talk. From the late eighteenth century on, people more than before talked about and interpreted the self (the individual psyche) in explicit terms. They questioned people’s motivations and often connected these to their selves, to their character and their feelings. Interrogators sought for particular answers while suspects and witnesses offered their own versions of their motivations and motives. They related their stories to the new conceptions of good nature, individuality, interiority and stability. If nature never became the principal concern of the criminal court – throughout the period, people were expected to remain in control of their nature – its ambiguities are clearly present in the trial records. Nature appeared both as a challenge that people should overcome and as a chance for an authentic and good life.

In the second half of the eighteenth century, talk about nature in the records of criminal justice was rare. When people spoke of aspects of human or individual nature, these were mostly negative. The more positive appreciation of nature was hardly visible at all. If it occurred, it was referred to as ‘character’ and firmly rooted in actions. This changed after the French annexation. Talk about nature was still mostly eschewed by witnesses and suspects, but interrogators and judges sometimes formulated their questions and conclusions using the language of nature, inclination, penchant and character. Their words show us that a more positive appreciation of nature had found its way into society; at least among the elites that populated the criminal courts. This is significant, not because it is surprising that these elites were familiar with these ideas, but because they used them in the criminal justice system, thus confronting juries, witnesses, suspects and audiences from all layers of society with them. Many of the people who had to answer to questions about nature were low-skilled workers and servants, some of them were even illiterate. In response to the demands of the criminal courts, they had to reflect on themselves in terms of nature; they had to think about an inherently good nature and bemuse the horror of deviating from this nature.

At the same time, this more positive appreciation of nature posed a problem for criminal justice. If people were naturally good, how could they still commit crimes? The courts henceforth became more interested in individual motives and characters as a way to explain crime. They had to confront that at least people’s individual natures were not necessarily inclined towards the good. A culture stressing self-control, honour and reason over inner nature therefore continued to be dominant in the early nineteenth century. Nature and the self thus gained a greater visibility in the discourses of criminal justice, but always remained ambiguous.

My analysis has mostly been based on the discourses of nature in the more serious cases in my sample: cases of murder during the whole period, of sodomy and suicide in the eighteenth century and of infanticide in the nineteenth century. People rarely referenced nature and only occasionally explicitly mentioned the self in cases of prostitution, or in the pederasty cases of the nineteenth century. Discourses of nature and self were most clearly articulated in cases that were grave enough to merit extensive attention; the rise of self-talk and nature-talk in the courts was contingent on social norms, laws and legal procedures. Perhaps, then, the evolutions I have sketched reveal more about the increasing problematisation of murder and infanticide than about general views of nature and self. For the remainder of this chapter, I will explore this question with an excursion on the history of homosexuality – a domain where nature has done much conceptual work.76 I will show that while discourses on same-sex sexuality underwent a somewhat different evolution, they do not invalidate the larger evolution that I have been able to analyse mostly by reference to homicide cases.

The case of Peter Stocker, a forty-year-old cobbler who was arrested on suspicion of sodomy in Antwerp on 8 February 1781, reveals the importance of the concept of nature to the legal dealings with sodomy. One of Stocker’s supposed partners, only nineteen years of age, had confessed to the officer of justice that Stocker had sodomised him on multiple occasions during the last two months. Although Stocker denied the allegations, magistrates continued their investigations and heard many more men who admitted to having had sex with Stocker.

The Antwerp mayor saw the gravity of the case and wrote to the Privy Council in Brussels for advice. Our court is considering a case, he wrote, against Peter Stocker, who is accused of the ‘horrible crime against nature’. The magistrates had taken precautions to avoid that this sensitive matter would become known among the public. How should they now proceed? The Privy Council agreed that discretion was of the highest essence. The magistrates should continue the trial, but in secret, with only the essential legal staff and with as few witnesses as possible, preferably those ‘whose innocence could not be damaged too much anymore’.

In his first interrogation, the delegated magistrate did not directly ask Stocker whether he had committed sodomy. He only asked questions like ‘does he know Posenaer and has he done something particular with him?’ Stocker generally assented to knowing these people, but noted that he had done ‘nothing in particular’ with them. Judges then heard more witnesses – more partners and neighbours – and interrogated Stocker for a second time. This time, they were more explicit. They asked Stocker ‘why he had taught and made different boys to spill their nature [doen hunne natuer storten], and how he had lost himself so far as to forcing his nature [sijne natuer te forceren; ejaculating] in their presence or together with them?’ Stocker claimed never to have done such things, and continued to deny further allegations that he had had sexual intercourse with several young men.

Then, after a long interrogation, judges resorted to one of the interrogation techniques discussed in chapter 1, playing to Stocker’s religious fears. They asked him ‘whether he knows that he has a soul that he must try to save’. Stocker confirmed that he knew this. ‘How does he dare, then’, judges continued, ‘to keep denying the truthful truth, does he not fear to be abandoned by God, and that his soul will be torn out of his disastrous body to be thrown into the abysses of hell?’ Stocker said ‘not to fear this, as he is falsely accused’. But the judges had planted a seed. A month later, Stocker requested to be interrogated anew. He told his judges that he would tell ‘the true confession of all facts and crimes for which he thinks he is imprisoned’. And indeed, Stocker confessed to having had sex with numerous men and detailed his frequent encounters and sexual habits. His story was not a proud one, however: Stocker often professed shame and claimed to have performed sexual acts ‘only because of his urges [drift] and beastliness’.

To some of his partners, Stocker had elaborated on his sexual preferences. When one of his partners had said ‘you’d better go with women, than with boys’, Stocker allegedly said ‘blech, blech, that’s filth!’ To another partner he said ‘that he wouldn’t leave this trade, even if he saw the gallows erected before him’. Stocker thus professed some kind of stable sexual preference, which he linked to his urges and beastliness.77

The ambiguities of nature are immediately present in this case: sodomy was portrayed as a ‘crime against nature’, but also a result of nature. In the first sense, nature represented the divine order, to which a heinous crime such as sodomy was opposed. The label ‘against nature’ served to stress the severity of the crime. With the destruction of Sodom and Gomorrah, God had made His opinion of men who had sex with other men amply clear. A crime against nature was a crime contrary to the laws of God. Since it was given by God, this nature was of course good; but remained very abstract. It hardly related to human nature or individual nature.78

Many eighteenth-century philosophes agreed that sodomy was a crime against nature, but they did not necessarily refer to the divine order. They argued that as same-sex sexual relations did not produce offspring, they were contrary to the demands of nature that required the human species to preserve its own existence. But they also recognised the ambiguities of this nature and hinted at a different meaning. Voltaire, for instance, wondered how it had happened ‘that a vice that would destroy the human race if it were widespread, that an infamous vice against nature, is nevertheless so natural?’ Initially, Voltaire used nature in the sense just discussed, as a fundamental necessity of the human race. The second time, he referred to nature as a sort of instinct, as a sexual drive.79

Indeed, the trial records of Peter Stocker include similar discourses about nature, in Stocker’s explanation for his behaviour with references to instinct, urge and beastliness. Nature was now portrayed as morally bad: these were natural, bodily impulses that people should conquer and control. Sometimes, this nature was individualised and related to the self: these were Stocker’s individual preferences and urges, inherent to his self. At other times, however, these urges were referred to as general, universal instincts that could be present in every man.

In light of the absence of much talk about human or individualised nature in the homicide trials of the eighteenth century, all this talk about nature in this 1781 sodomy case is remarkable. Indeed, in other sodomy cases as well, discourses about nature and self were relatively well-articulated. In the same year, Joannes Baptiste Jacobs was also tried for sodomy with several young men. His victims testified that he had said that ‘this is no evil’, for ‘what do we have this for but to use it’.80 In this instance, Jacobs also used nature – here as the sheer existence of sexual organs and sexual pleasure – to justify his actions.

In the Dutch Republic, where sodomites were far more frequently tried in the eighteenth century, some sodomites started to offer even more sophisticated arguments in the second half of the eighteenth century. Witness reported in 1757 that preacher Andreas Klink had claimed that ‘it was in his nature [hem van natuuren eygen], for his mother was pregnant with him while his father was away and his mother was always full of appetite and desire, which he has inherited from his mother’.81 For Klink, his desires were inborn and (therefore) natural. Natural was used as a synonym for innate. Klink was not the only one to volunteer such ideas. Several others did the same in the later eighteenth-century Northern Netherlands.82

After the decriminalisation of sodomy in the Southern Netherlands in 1795, the discourses about nature also disappeared from legal and police records. The police still arrested men who had sex with other men, henceforth often called ‘pederasts’, and sometimes even brought them to court. They could be prosecuted under charges of public indecency, which judges interpreted very broadly – it sufficed if anyone had seen them, or even if someone could have seen them. However, police reports of these cases rarely contained more than a dry description of the material facts that had taken place.

Take, for instance, the case of Peter Dehaes and a certain Deraadt in Antwerp in 1825. The police report only indicated that the military watch had arrested both men on the Castle Square while they ‘committed vices against nature’. ‘Having taken more information on this disgrace, it results from the mutual statements of the accused that they were urinating on the said Castle Square and have touched each other with their male members’. The police officer put them at the disposal of the prosecutor but wrote nothing else on the case.83 These were police reports, but even when a trial took place, our information remains limited. Public indecency cases were not very important, so trials and interrogations were short and focused on material facts. Magistrates did not ask about the background, motivations or explanations in any of the cases I have found. Words like inclination did not turn up in the records.

The discourses of nature and self in cases concerning ‘crime against nature’ therefore went through a different trajectory than the discourses in the homicide and infanticide cases. But why, then, have I taken the latter as more representative of a general movement towards more attention to nature and self in the early nineteenth century, when I could have argued the opposite by looking at sodomy cases? First, because the evolution I have sketched on the basis of homicide cases was much more outspoken. Not only were there more cases to reveal an evolution, but judges, witnesses and suspects spoke much more explicitly about an individualised nature, moral motivation, and sometimes an inner-oriented self, with words such as ‘character’ and the ‘heart’, in early nineteenth-century homicide cases than in eighteenth-century sodomy cases. If nature and self were relatively often spoken about in these latter cases, this is only when compared to other eighteenth-century cases, not when compared to nineteenth-century criminal cases.

The second reason why I argue that discourses in cases of same-sex sexual behaviour were the exception to a more general pattern is the changing legal status of the crime. Homicide, and especially murder, was consistently seen as a serious crime meriting extensive legal attention. Prostitution was more or less consistently seen as a minor nuisance, to be dealt with without much ado. As a result, much more discourse was recorded in homicide cases, allowing for the analyses I have made above. But sex between men changed from one of the most serious crimes up to 1795 to not a crime at all afterwards. While sodomy continued to be seen as improper and criminal, it could only be prosecuted as an offence against public decency, tried by the lower correctional courts. These cases were of minor importance and there was little time and limited means to deal with them. Legal discourses about nature and self were smothered in the everyday practice of policing and justice. The homicide cases therefore provide a more reliable guide to the general positions of the criminal court: if some crimes perhaps became seen as crueller in the early nineteenth century, and if legal records became more extensive, this was not because homicide had not been seen as meriting much attention, but because legal procedures more generally were changing. While I cannot exclude, of course, that an analysis of, for instance, property crimes would yield different results, it seems clear that the evolutions I have sketched point to an important evolution in the discourses of the law – an evolution people involved in its proceedings had to relate to.

While nature and self all but disappeared in the pederasty cases of the early nineteenth century, talk about nature could still be used in relation to same-sex sexual behaviour. The important innovation of the eighteenth and nineteenth centuries was that people increasingly saw nature as individualised and as a source of moral guidance. By the 1820s and 1830s, Swiss authors Heinrich Zschokke and Heinrich Hössli started to use the idea of a ‘sexual drive’ and an immutable sexual preference. Hössli even suggested that ‘male love is true nature, a law of nature’ – and therefore good.84 None of the people accused of sodomy went so far in the Belgian trial records from the period before 1830; indeed, they rarely did later in the nineteenth century either.85 But this approach to sodomy and nature – same-sex sexual desire as natural; nature as good – laid the basis of later emancipation movements. The understanding of homosexuality as an orientation and an identity was interspersed with thought about nature, while views of homosexual practices as ‘unnatural’ continued to abound. Up to today, homosexuality remains one of the topics where the ambiguities of nature are most clearly articulated.


1 Lorraine Daston, Against Nature (Cambridge, MA: MIT Press, 2019), pp. 29–31.
2 Jean le Rond d’Alembert, ‘Nature (Philos.)’, in Diderot and d’Alembert, Encyclopédie, vol. 11, p. 40.
3 Louis Jaucourt, ‘Naturel, le (Morale)’, in Diderot and d’Alembert, Encyclopédie, vol. 11, p. 45.
4 ‘Nature’, Dictionnaire de l’Académie française, 4th ed. (1762), ARTFL; ‘Nature’, Dictionnaire de l’Académie française, 5th ed. (1798), ARTFL.
5 Jan Des Roches, Nouveau dictionnaire françois-flamand (Antwerp: Grange, 1769).
6 ‘Instinct’, Dictionnaire de l’Académie française, 4th ed. (1762), ARTFL.
7 NA, PCAP-C, 606/A (Jacques Honton 1791).
8 FA, MA, 525/1 (Request of 10/6/1824).
9 Noga Arikha, Passions and Tempers: A History of the Humours (New York, NY: Harper Perennial, 2008), pp. 231–68. See also Rublack, ‘Fluxes’.
10 E.g. in SABR, AC-WEST, 116–81 and 286–409.
11 FA, V, 103 (Jacob Mol 1750).
12 CAB, HA Trials, 10449.
13 ‘Tempérament’, in Diderot and d’Alembert, Encyclopédie, vol. 16, p. 56.
14 SABE, AC-ANT, 808.
15 SAK, OCAK, 8343; NA2, AC-BRA, 1609; SABR, AC-WEST, 349–1014; SAK, Court of the First Instance of Kortrijk (FIK), 130/1.
16 Fierlant, ‘Premières idées’, fo. 18v.
17 ‘Passions’, in Diderot and d’Alembert, Encyclopédie, vol. 12, p. 142.
18 Louis Jaucourt, ‘Inclination’, in Diderot and d’Alembert, Encyclopédie, vol. 8, p. 651.
19 SABR, AC-WEST, 310–620 and 320–723.
20 SAK, OCAK, 8293.
21 NA, PCAP-C, 631/B (Ambroise Vrancx 1769); CAB, HA Trials, 9631; NA, PCAP-C, 597/A (Josse Van Cutsem 1781). See also SABR, AC-WEST, 232–1109.
22 CAB, HA Trials, 6367.
23 Barclay, Men on Trial, chap. 7.
24 Cf. Thomas Ahnert and Susan Manning, ‘Introduction: character, self, and sociability in the Scottish Enlightenment’, in Thomas Ahnert and Susan Manning (eds), Character, Self, and Sociability in the Scottish Enlightenment (New York, NY: Palgrave Macmillan, 2013), pp. 1–30. On the interest in character in the eighteenth- and nineteenth-century English and Irish courts, see Nicola Lacey, Women, Crime and Character: From Moll Flanders to Tess of the D’Urbervilles (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2008), pp. 14–23; Katie Barclay, ‘Performing emotion and reading the male body in the Irish court, c. 1800–1845’, Journal of Social History, 51 (2017), 296.
25 CAB, HA Trials, 6367; SABE, AC-ANT, 73; NA2, AC-BRA, 2195; SABE, AC-ANT, 1236; SABR, AC-WEST, 393–1416.
26 NA, PCAP-C, 620/A (Jean Giot 1753); SABR, AC-WEST, 246–83.
27 Barclay, Men on Trial, p. 9.
28 E.g. in Joannes Verslype, Historie en overeenkominge der vier evangelien (Ghent: Mauritius vander Ween, 1712–1729); Petrus Franciscus Valcke, Sermoenen op de sondagen en feest-dagen (Ghent: A. B. Steven, 1802).
29 Dixon, From Passions to Emotions, p. 70; Karen Halttunen, Murder Most Foul: The Killer and the American Gothic Imagination (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1998), chap. 1.
30 Maurice Lever, Canards sanglants: naissance du fait divers (Paris: Fayard, 1993), pp. 23–4.
31 Halttunen, Murder Most Foul, chap. 1.
32 Andrea McKenzie, Tyburn’s Martyrs: Execution in England, 1675–1775 (London: Hambledon Continuum, 2007), chap. 3.
33 W. L. Braekman, ‘Marktlied bij een publieke executie in Kortrijk 1779’, De Leiegouw, 49 (2007), 237–42. See also Julien De Vuyst, Het moordlied in de Zuidelijke Nederlanden tot de XIXe eeuw (Brussels: Aurelia, 1976).
34 Fierlant, ‘Premières idées’, fos. 18r-93v.
35 NA, PCAP-C, 631/B (Ambroise Vrancx 1769); SABE, AC-ANT, 1236.
36 Examples are numerous; among others see CAB, HA Trials, 5401; SAK, OCAK, 8823, 8343, 6676; NA, PCAP-C, 596/A (François Vanden Bossche 1780), 606/A (Charles & Henri Van Sant 1791), 620/A (François Soudan 1755), 620/B (Barthelemi Neutjes 1753); NA2, AC-BRA, 471–1662, 593–1232; SABE, AC-ANT, 407, 1288; SABR, AC-WEST, 360–1114, 211–883; SAK, FIK, 133–90.
37 Behaviour was of course not necessarily good: bad behaviour was also frequently noted, but behaviour was not as exclusively bad as nature.
38 Jean Ehrard, L’idée de nature en France dans la première moitié du XVIIIe siècle (Paris: Sevpen, 1963); Henry Vyverberg, Human Nature, Cultural Diversity and the French Enlightenment (New York, NY: Oxford University Press, 1989); Ludmilla Jordanova, Nature Displayed: Gender, Science and Medicine, 1760–1820 (London: Longman, 1999); Christophe Madelein, Juigchen in den adel der menschelijke natuur. Het verhevene in de Nederlanden (1770–1830) (Ghent: Academia Press, 2011); Van Oostveldt, Tranen om het alledaagse.
39 ‘Nature’, Dictionnaire de l’Académie française, 4th ed. (1762), ARTFL; ‘Nature’, Dictionnaire de l’Académie française, 5th ed. (1798), ARTFL. See also Taylor, Sources of the Self, pt. IV.
40 ‘An evil nature’. Des Roches, Nouveau dictionnaire.
41 Petrus Weiland, Nederduitsch taalkundig woordenboek (Amsterdam: Johannes Allart, 1799).
42 Cited in Arthur M. Melzer, The Natural Goodness of Man: On the System of Rousseau’s Thought (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 1990), p. 15.
43 Peter Abbs, ‘The full revelation of the self: Jean-Jacques Rousseau and the birth of deep autobiography’, Philosophy Now, 68 (July 2008), 17–20; Carnevali, ‘Rousseau et l’authenticité’; Udo Thiel, ‘Self and sensibility: From Locke to Condillac and Rousseau’, Intellectual History Review, 25:3 (2014), 265–70.
44 Jaucourt, ‘Naturel’, vol. 11, pp. 45–6.
45 Wollstonecraft, A Vindication, p. 39.
46 Daston, Against Nature, pp. 3–4.
47 Van Oostveldt, Tranen om het alledaagse; Verschaffel, De weg naar het binnenland, pp. 165–80.
48 Fierlant, ‘Premières idées’, fo. 1027v.
49 Carol Blum, Rousseau and the Republic of Virtue: The Language of Politics in the French Revolution (Ithaca, NY: Cornell University Press, 1986).
50 SABE, AC-ANT, 787.
51 SABR, AC-WEST, 393–1416.
52 Wahrman, The Making of the Modern Self, p. 18. Cf. Thomas Walter Laqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud (Cambridge, MA: Harvard University Press, 1990); Tim Hitchcock, English Sexualities, 1700–1800 (Basingstoke: Palgrave, 1997), p. 48; Sturkenboom, Spectators van hartstocht, pp. 327–34; Soile Ylivuori, ‘Rethinking female chastity and gentlewomen’s honour in eighteenth-century England’, The Historical Journal, 59:1 (2016), 71–97.
53 SABE, AC-WEST, 116–81.
54 ‘Coeur’, Dictionnaire de l’Académie française, 4th ed. (1762), ARTFL.
55 Kounine, Imagining the Witch, pp. 75–7.
56 Fierlant, ‘Premières idées’, fos. 19v–20r, 1027v.
57 SABR, AC-WEST, 246–83.
58 SABR, AC-WEST, 396–1444.
59 SABR, AC-WEST, 196–748; SABE, AC-ANT, 329.
60 Robert Shoemaker and Richard Ward, ‘Understanding the criminal: record-keeping, statistics and the early history of criminology in England’, British Journal of Criminology, 57 (2017), 1456.
61 Victor A. Savart, Observations critiques sur le code pénal (Brussels: H. Tarlier, 1828), pp. 22–4.
62 Ducpétiaux, De la peine de mort, pp. 152–3; Ducpétiaux, De la justice de répression, pp. 20–5.
63 Adolphe Quetelet, Recherches sur le penchant au crime aux différens âges (Brussels: Hayez, 1833). See also Beirne, Inventing Criminology, pp. 65–110; Kaat Wils, De omweg van de wetenschap: het positivisme en de Belgische en Nederlandse intellectuele cultuur, 1845–1914 (Amsterdam: Amsterdam University Press, 2005), pp. 117–24.
64 Similarly, the term motive only started to be popularly used in American crime reports in the first decades of the nineteenth century: Halttunen, Murder Most Foul, p. 43. The word was occasionally used in eighteenth-century legal manuals and commentaries, however: e.g. Jousse, Traité de la justice, vol. 2, pp. 292–3; Fierlant, ‘Premières idées’, fo. 807r.
65 NA2, AC-BRA, 255–500 and 248–452; SABE, AC-ANT, 179.
66 NA2, AC-BRA, 481–1733. See also SABE, AC-ANT, 1473.
67 NA2, AC-BRA, 1873.
68 SABR, AC-WEST, 101–7.
69 CAB, ADM-POL, 438 (reports of 30 Pluviose XIII, 13/12/1819 and 6 Ventose XIII). Similar reports can be found in CAB, ADM-POL, 439, 440 and 441.
70 Thomas Cragin, Murder in Parisian Streets: Manufacturing Crime and Justice in the Popular Press, 1830–1900 (Lewisburg, PA: Bucknell University Press, 2006), p. 148.
71 Cf. Halttunen, Murder Most Foul, pp. 35–44; McKenzie, Tyburn’s Martyrs, pp. 87–90; Cragin, Murder in Parisian Streets, p. 148.
72 Daston, Against Nature, chap. 5.
73 Cf. Halttunen, Murder Most Foul, pp. 45–59.
74 SABR, AC-WEST, 246–83; SABR, AC-WEST, 393–1416.
75 Cf. Barclay, ‘Performing emotion’, 296.
76 For a more expansive treatment, see Elwin Hofman, ‘The end of sodomy: law, prosecution patterns and the evanescent will to knowledge in Belgium, France and the Netherlands, 1770–1830’, Journal of Social History, 54:2 (2020), 480–502.
77 FA, 731, 1514/2; NA, PCAP-C, 576/B (Advice Peter Stocker 1781).
78 Harry Cocks, Visions of Sodom: Religion, Homoerotic Desire, and the End of the World in England, c. 1550–1850 (Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press, 2017), pp. 106–7.
79 Both quotes are taken from Merrick, ‘Sodomy, suicide’, 188–9.
80 City Archives, Bruges, TBO 119, 716, cahier 6 II. Thanks to Jonas Roelens for providing me with a transcription of this case.
81 Cited in Theo van der Meer, Sodoms zaad in Nederland: het ontstaan van homoseksualiteit in de vroegmoderne tijd (Nijmegen: Socialistische Uitgeverij Nijmegen, 1995), p. 316.
82 Meer, Sodoms zaad; Theo van der Meer, ‘Sodomy and Its Discontents: Discourse, Desire, and the Rise of a Same-Sex Proto-Something in the Early Modern Dutch Republic’, Historical Reflections / Réflexions Historiques, 33:1 (2007), 41–67.
83 FA, Police Archives (450), 151 (Police report, 24 May 1825).
84 Robert Deam Tobin, Peripheral Desires: The German Discovery of Sex (Philadelphia, PA: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2015), pp. 27–40.
85 Wannes Dupont, ‘Free-Floating Evils: A Genealogy of Homosexuality in Belgium’ (PhD dissertation, University of Antwerp, 2015).
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Trials of the self

Murder, mayhem and the remaking of the mind, 1750–1830


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