Stuart Elden, Peasant Revolts, Germanic Law and the Medieval Inquiry, Review of Théories et institutions pénales: Cours au Collège de France 1971-1972, by Michel Foucault, edited by Bernard E. Harcourt, Paris: EHESS/Gallimard/Seuil, 2015.

Berfrois, June 2, 2015

Foucault remains full of surprises. This course, Théories et institutions pénales (“Penal Theories and Institutions”), was the second he delivered as Professor of the History of Systems of Thought at the Collège de France. In it, he discusses two main historical themes: popular revolts in seventeenth century France, and medieval practices of inquiry and ordeal. The second theme relates to Foucault’s longstanding interest in what he called the ‘politics of truth’. From courses given in Rio de Janeiro in 1973 and Louvain in 1981, it is clear Foucault saw the medieval period as crucial to that story (a review of the second appeared in Berfrois last year). He said in Brazil that “one could write an entire history of torture, as situated between the procedure of the ordeal and inquiry”. But only now do we have the sustained study of the inquiry that those two later courses drew upon. The first theme merely receives hints elsewhere. Foucault’s example is the Nu-pieds (“bare feet”) revolts of 1639-40 in Normandy. Given that Foucault is often criticised for talking of the positive, productive side of power, but rarely examining it outside of antiquity; or of never showing how resistance takes place or is even possible, this course provides an important corrective.

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