Luigi Delia

1[Translator’s note : Since there was no torture in English procedure, there is no direct English equivalent for this term, which will be placed here in italics. The word question can be qualified as préparatoire (prior to a definitive verdict), préalable or définitive (applied before execution to obtain the names of accomplices), and ordinaire or extraordinaire depending on the quantity of pain inflicted.]

2To designate this aspect of investigative criminal procedure and of the preliminary procedure based on confession, Montesquieu used the term torture, but more often the technical term question, from the Latin quaestio ‘interrogation’: “On torture or la question against criminals” is the title used in The Spirit of Law (VI, 17).

3As a former magistrate of a sovereign court and a law historian, Montesquieu knew that with the exception of England, the question, in most European states, incorporated the medieval and Old Regime system of “legal evidence”. In France, it was formalized in a broad series of laws, including in particular edicts of 1498 and 1539, confirmed by one by Louis XIV in August 1670, which were in effect until the Revolution. Torture was supposed to help the judge establish the truth and also provide the definitive proof required for a death sentence. A method of interrogation, it was not in principle an infliction of suffering or corporal punishment, at least when it was ordered prior to trial. It was in order to compensate for the difficulty of obtaining the indispensable evidence for conviction that the judge could allow, in the case of serious crimes, “discovery of the truth of said crimes […] from the mouths of the accused” (ordonnance royale de Villers-Cotterêts, 1539, art. 146; Isambert, t. XII, p. 630). Forcing the accused to confess under duress, the judge’s intent was to move an uncertain crime to the status of certain crime, this being achieved thanks to the “queen of proofs” which confession represented for penal theorists of the classical period (Lange, Jousse, Muyart de Vouglans). Nevertheless Montesquieu stresses his direct experience that runs counter to the theory: “I have noticed that of ten persons condemned to torture, nine bear up under it” (“J’ai remarqué que, de dix personnes condamnées à la question, il y en a neuf qui la souffrent”). This observation is decisive: pain is not a trustworthy criterion for truth. To the contrary, “if so many innocent persons have been condemned to such suffering, what cruelty! If so many criminals have escaped death, what an injustice!” (“si tant d’innocents ont été condamnés à une si grande peine, quelle cruauté ! Si tant de criminels ont échappé à la mort, quelle injustice !”, Pensées, no. 643a).

4Torture is applied only in accordance with the accepted modalities sanctioned by local practice, varying with the courts and jurisdictions of kingdoms and states. In some locations it is administered with water or with a boot. Montesquieu notes the diversity and sophistication of the use of torture: “Each province has established particular forms of the question, and it is a sorry spectacle to think of the fertility of inventions for this purpose, most of them absurd” (“Chaque province a établi des tourments particuliers pour la question, et c’est un spectacle affligeant que de repasser dans son esprit la fécondité des inventions à cet égard, la plupart absurdes”, ibid.). Jaucourt endorses this thought in the Encyclopédie article “Supplice [‘punishment’ or ‘pain’] (government)”: “A dictionary of the various supplices practiced among the peoples of the world would make nature shudder ; the range of human imagination for barbarity and cruelty is an inexplicable phenomenon” (“Un dictionnaire des divers supplices, pratiqués chez tous les peuples du monde, ferait frémir la nature ; c’est un phénomène inexplicable que l’étendue de l’imagination des hommes en fait de barbarie et de cruauté”, t. XV, [‣]).

5Used in secular tribunals, torture was not less applied in the ecclesiastical jurisdiction of the Inquisition in Spain, Portugal and Italy. In article 122 of the Spicilège, Montesquieu copies from the “Desmolets collection” the dreadful description of hell taken from Marsollier’s History of the Inquisition and its origin (1693). It is recalled that the question is administered “in a subterranean place”, that inquisitors “are dressed as devils”, and that different reasons prevail in its adoption and during the forced interrogation. It can be intended to obtain a confession and learn the motive for the crime, what early law called the “prepatory question”; or else to coerce further confessions (divulgence of accomplices) when it is applied just prior to the gallows: this is the “prior question” to execution (or definitive question). Everything is brought to bear to terrorize or trap the accused. When the torments are not sufficient to extract the confession of the crime with which the accused is charged, judges are not loath to resort to specious methods: “people are hired to pretend they too are prisoners to try to obtain through ruse what could not be obtained by force” (Spicilège, no. 122, OC, t. XIII, p. 122). Montesquieu deplores such means: such accounts cannot be read, he writes with respect to the same sort of trap set for heretics by inquisitors, “without feeling sorrow in one’s heart” (Pensées, no. 898).

6The invention of torture is the product neither of modern penal culture nor of the Catholic Inquisition. Montesquieu rightly underscores that the procedure was already anticipated by Roman law, which nevertheless applied it only to slaves: “The question comes from slavery: servi torquebantur in caput dominorum; and that is not surprising. They were whipped and tormented in this circumstance as in all others, and for the slightest mistakes” (“La question vient de l’esclavage : servi torquebantur in caput dominorum ; et cela n’est pas étonnant. On les fouettait et tourmentait en cette occasion comme on faisait en toutes les autres, et pour les moindres fautes”, Pensées, no. 643). Indeed, considered by Roman law as merchandise, “an inheritable object” (res in patrimonio), the slave was not worthy, as was the citizen, of benefitting from the full protection of law. Comparing judicial torture to slavery, Montesquieu denounces two practices of domination of man by man and the obliteration of personal dignity: “As they were not citizens, they were not treated as men” (“Comme ils n’étaient pas citoyens, on ne les traitait pas comme hommes”, Pensées, no. 643).

7Although it was authorized by ancient and modern juridprudence, the question nevertheless remains, according to Montesquieu, unworthy of an enlightened magistracy: he refuses any justification of torture based on the argument of authority. Perhaps in the footsteps of Johann Greve (Grevius, or Jean de Grève), the Arminian minister who authored the Tribunal reformatum in 1624, a work republished in 1737 by Baron de Munchausen, Montesquieu recalls ordeals. Like them, torture is a practice from a bygone era and must end: “But one cannot, it will be said, reject a practice authorized by so many laws. But by that reasoning, proof extracted by hot iron, cold water, duels, nor the absurd and infamous congrès [coitus coram testibus: intercourse in the presence of witnesses, to disprove impotence], ought not to have been given up. We also would have to punish as a sorcerer every skinny person whose lungs are such that they can support them underwater” (“Mais on ne peut pas, dira-t-on, rejeter une pratique autorisée par tant de lois. Mais, par la même raison, il n’aurait pas fallu abolir la preuve tirée du fer chaud, de l’eau froide, des duels, ni l’absurde et infâme congrès. Il faudrait encore punir comme sorciers tous les gens maigres ou qui ont un poumon fait de manière à les tenir sur l’eau”, Pensées, no. 643). Abolished by the fourth Latran Council in 1215, the ordeal consisted in trusting God to establish the guilt or innocence of the accused: he would, for example, have to take hold of an red-hot object taken from the fire; rapid formation of a scar would prove his innocence. An archaic form of proof, judicial torture emanated from the same savagery. The arguments of the apologists of torture, most of whom were jurists, are moreover ridiculed. Among them, Montesquieu explicitly attacks the “absurd” considerations of Jacopo Menochio (1532-1607), the author of a De praesumptionibus conjecturis, signis et indiciis (1588) according to which (book I, question 89), there may be crimes that are so difficult to prove, such as sorcery, that the “ugly physiognomy” or bad reputation can be considered sufficient indications for subjecting the accused to the question.

8This criticism is part of the case Montesquieu makes against the criminal procedure of his time. Symbol of a judiciary culture authorized to torment the body of those accused, torture, “ordinary” or “extraordinary” according to the degree of suffering inflicted, is incompatible with the political project of moderating the penal and procedural regime (EL, VI, 1-2, 9, 12, 18, 19; XII, 5, 7, 11, 13, 17, 21, 22). “It has been established that twelve rounds will be applied for the ordinary question, twenty-four for the extraordinary. It is obvious that the idea was to double the pain; but they have been more than quadrupled: the thirteenth round was doubtless the cruellest” (“On a établi qu’on ferait faire douze tours pour la question ordinaire, vingt-quatre pour l’extraordinaire. On sent bien qu’on a voulu doubler les peines ; mais on les a plus que quadruplées : le treizième tour étant sans doute le plus cruel”, Pensées, no. 643). Partisan of a drastic restriction of the field of application of the death penalty, which in certain cases he considers “the remedy for a sick society” (EL, XII, 4), Montesquieu manifests unconditional hostility with respect to judiciary torture. Unlike a Diderot (“Just think that a few minutes of torment to a blackguard can save the life of a hundred innocents whose throats his accomplices are going to slit, and the question will seem to you a humanitarian act” [“Pensez que quelques minutes de tourments dans un scélérat peuvent sauver la vie à cent innocents que vont égorger ses complices, et la question vous paraîtra un acte d’humanité”, Notes sur le “Traité des délits et des peines” de Beccaria, 1766, p. 424]) or a Voltaire (“At least restrict this cruelty to avowed blackguards who have killed a paterfamilias or the father of his country” [“Réservez au moins cette cruauté pour des scélérats avérés qui auront assassiné un père de famille, ou le père de la patrie […]”, Commentaire sur le livre des “Délits et des peines”, 1766, § XII, p. 788]), who while opposing the preliminary question legitimate the use of the definitive one in exceptional situations (to save the innocent, for crimes of state), Montesquieu allows no exceptions. In the text which is by far the most often cited by commentators to illustrate his rejection of torture, Montesquieu evokes authors who precede him: “so many able men and great minds have written against this practice that I scarcely dare speak after them” (“tant d’habiles gens et tant de beaux génies ont écrit contre cette pratique, que je n’ose parler après eux”, EL, VI, 17): no doubt he has in mind Quintilian, Saint Augustine, Vivès, Montaigne, La Bruyère, Grevius, Bayle, Augustin Nicolas… He nevertheless does not hide behind their and condemns the question in the name of the English exception and “the voice of nature”. On the one hand, in England judiciary torture is in principle forbidden: thus it is “not necessary by its nature”. In other words, its possible suppression in no way affects the functioning of justice nor diminished the safety of citizens and public order. On the other hand, being opposed to nature, it is unsuited to any political institution: “I was going to say that it could be suited to despotic governments, where anything that inspires fear is more a part of governmental power […]. But I hear the voice of nature crying out against me.” (“J’allais dire qu’elle pourrait convenir dans les gouvernements despotiques, où tout ce qui inspire la crainte entre plus dans les ressorts du gouvernement [...]. Mais j’entends la voix de la nature qui crie contre moi.”)

9Centered on the paradigm of penal moderation, Montesquieu’s discourse against torture was to strengthen the argumentation of those who loathed the question engaged in the abolitionist struggle during the 1760s in Enlightenment Europe: the Encyclopédie (article Question, t. XV, 1765 by Jaucourt) and chapter XIV, “On torture” in Beccaria’s Dei delitti e delle pene.



The royal Ordonnance of Villers-Cotterêts (1539), art. 146, in Recueil des anciennes lois françaises de l’an 420 jusqu’à la Révolution de 1789, François-André Isambert, Paris: Belin-Leprieur, Plon frères, 1828, t. XII, p. 630.

Jacopo Menochio, De praesumptionibus conjecturis, signis et indiciis, Lyon: Guillaume Rouillé, 1588 [].

Johannes Grevius, Tribunal reformatum, in quo sanioris et tutioris justitia via […] demonstratur, rejecta et fugata tortura, cujus iniquitatem […], aperuit, Hamburg: H. Carstens, 1624 (new ed. by J. G. Pertsch, Guelpherbyti: sumptibus J. C. Meisneri, 1737 []).

Jacques Marsollier, Histoire de l’Inquisition et de son origine, Cologne: P. Marteau, 1693.

François Lange, Nouvelle Pratique civile, criminelle et bénéficiale, Paris: N. Gosselin, 1702.

Daniel Jousse, Nouveau commentaire sur l’ordonnance criminelle d’août 1670, Paris: Debure l’aîné, 1757.

Pierre-François Muyart de Vouglans, Institutes du droit criminel, Paris: L. Cellot, 1757.

Cesare Beccaria, Des délits et des peines [Dei delitti e delle pene] (1764). Introduction, translation and notes by Ph. Audegean, Lyon: ENS Éditions, 2009 (ch. XVI, “On torture”).

Encyclopédie of Diderot and D’Alembert, Paris, 1751-1765, articles QUESTION (Procédure criminelle), t. XIII, 1965, p. 704-705, et SUPPLICE (Gouvernement), t. XV, 1965, p. 674, by Chevalier de Jaucourt.

Diderot, Notes on Beccaria’s Traité des délits et des peines (1766), in Œuvres complètes, ed. Jane M. Dieckmann, G. Dulac, J. Varloot, Paris: Hermann, t. XX, 1995, p. 424.

Voltaire, Commentaire sur le livre Délits et des peines, § XII (1766), in Mélanges, ed. J. Van den Heuvel, Paris: Gallimard “Pléiade”, 1961, p. 788.

Études critiques

Catherine Larrère, “Beccaria et Montesquieu, droit de punir et qualification des crimes”, in Cesare Beccaria et la culture juridique de son temps, dir. Michel Porret, Genève: Droz, 1997, p. 89-108.

David W. Carrithers, “La philosophie pénale de Montesquieu”, Revue Montesquieu, 1 (1997),

Michel Porret, “Les ‘lois doivent tendre à la rigueur plutôt qu’à l’indulgence’: Muyart de Vouglans versus Montesquieu, Revue Montesquieu, 1 (1997),

L’aveu : histoire, sociologie, philosophie, Renaud Dulong dir., Paris: PUF, 2001.

Marie-Renée Santucci, “L’exception anglaise”, in La Torture judiciaire: approches historiques et juridiques, Bernard Durand dir., Lille: Centre d’histoire judiciaire, 2002, vol. I, 209-240.

Édouard Tillet, “La place de l’Inquisition dans la doctrine pénale des Lumières”, in Inquisition et pouvoir, Gabriel Audisio dir., Aix-en-Provence: Publication de l’Université de Provence, 2004, p. 337-354.

Luigi Delia, “La torture judiciaire dans l’Encyclopédie”, in Filósofos, filosofía y filosofías en la Encyclopédie, Miguel Granada, Rosa Rius et Piero Schiavo dir., Barcelona :Universitat de Barcelona, 2009, p. 175-188.

Éric Wenzel, La Torture judiciaire dans la France de l’Ancien Régime : Lumières sur la Question, Dijon: EUD, 2011, p. 111-127.

Torture et droits. Abandon et retour d'une pratique de pouvoir (xvie-xxie siècle), Norbert Campagna, Luigi Delia, Benoît Garnot dir., Paris, Imago, 2014.

Bibliographical reference

Delia Luigi , « Torture », translated by Philip Stewart, dans Dictionnaire Montesquieu [online], directed by Catherine Volpilhac-Auger, ENS Lyon, September 2013. URL :