In eighteenth century continental Europe penal law was barbaric. Gallows were a regular feature of the landscape, branding and mutilation common and there existed the ghastly spectacle of men being broken on the wheel. To make matters worse, people were often tortured or put to death (sometimes both) for minor crimes and often without any trial at all. Like a bombshell a book entitled On Crimes and Punishments exploded onto the scene in 1764 with shattering effect. Its author was a young nobleman named Cesare Beccaria (1738-1794). A central message of that—now classic—work was that such punishments belonged to ‘a war of nations against their citizens’ and should be abolished. It was a cri de coeur for thorough reform of the law affecting punishments and it swept across the continent of Europe like wildfire, being adopted by one ruler after another. It even crossed the Atlantic to the new United States of America into the hands of President Thomas Jefferson. In a wonderful sentence which concludes Beccaria’s book, he sums up matters as follows: “ In order that every punishment may not be an act of violence, committed by one man or by many against a single individual, it ought to be above all things public, speedy, necessary, the least possible in the given circumstances, proportioned to its crime (and) dictated by the laws.” Civilising penal law remains a topical issue but it began with Cesare Beccaria.
John Hostettler is one of the UK’s leading legal biographers. He was a practising solicitor in London for 35 years as well as undertaking political and civil liberties cases in Nigeria, Germany and Aden. His earlier books include several biographical and historical works among them A History of Criminal Justice in England and Wales (2009) and Sir William Garrow (2010) (with Richard Braby).