In the Old West of Legend, legend has it that horse thieves got hanged. The logic ran as follows: your horse-owning cowpoke depended on his horse to make a living. He, and his, if he had any, might just die if you stole his horse. Therefore, stealing a man’s horse was akin to attempted murder.
Sometimes, a punishment may seem excessive if one has no context, but in context, it makes more sense.
In the 1780’s, Pestalozzi – remember him? – started a school on a farm in order to try to feed a bunch of orphans and abandoned children. A series of wars had raged across what is now southeastern France, northern Switzerland and Austria (and much of the rest of Europe) for decades (well, centuries, really), and left in their wakes many destitute and starving people. Only in our modern times and in Western nations have armies been entirely provisioned by the state – everywhere else, and at all other times, armies generally ‘lived off the land’ – pillaged the farms and villages along their routes. (1)
Recall also that, until the last couple of centuries, populations everywhere in the world were ‘harvest sensitive’ – if the amount of food raised locally in one year fell below sustenance levels, people there starved. Thus, when wars raged, people in those areas tended strongly to starve – their pigs and cows and crops and anything else the soldiers could lift were stolen. Often their farms were the battle grounds, torn up and mangled, so their ability to replant was damaged (if the peasants even survived). Also recall that the 10% or so of people who were not farmers were now also liable to starvation, since they also got their food from the surrounding farms.
Thus Pestalozzi attempted to gather the large numbers of starving orphans and abandoned children onto a farm, both so that they could have enough food to survive and that they could learn farming, so that they could survive once grown. For these efforts, he is correctly recognized as a great humanitarian.
We saw a very good amateur production of Les Miserables recently. The plot centers on the fate of Jean Valjean, a man sent to prison for 19 years – 5 for stealing bread to feed his starving sister and her family, and the other 14 for resisting arrest and attempted escape. To modern audiences, this punishment seems insanely and cruelly excessive – but we can walk down to the local supermarket and buy loaves and loaves of bread for the typical hourly wage. In 1815, in Europe devastated by decades of war, stealing that bread could have very well meant that some other family got to starve. It might take a day’s wages to buy that bread, and there might be not nearly enough bread to go around. Just as stealing a horse had very serious consequences in the Old West, stealing bread in Jean Valjean’s time was no trivial matter. Just imagine the social breakdown in a time of famine if stealing bread when there isn’t enough to go around was not punished harshly.
But we can hardly believe this. Victor Hugo drives the point home by having the bishop who feeds Valjean upon his release from prison go hungry – a bishop might not even have enough to eat. (2) Valjean is a tragic character, but it is not his punishment that makes the tragedy, it is the wars and subsequent social upheavals that makes such punishments reasonable.
- Here’s a nice bit from Wikipedia: “During the first years of the Napoleonic Wars, the French government offered a hefty cash award of 12,000 francs to any inventor who could devise a cheap and effective method of preserving large amounts of food. The larger armies of the period required increased and regular supplies of quality food. Limited food availability was among the factors limiting military campaigns to the summer and autumn months.” It took decades for canning to be developed and spread enough to make much of a difference – everybody still relied on locally-produced food for their survival: “Throughout the mid-19th century, canned food became a status symbol amongst middle-class households in Europe, being something of a frivolous novelty.” The ability to go to a local store and buy food from around the world all year round is entirely modern.
- Read somewhere that some of Hugo’s contemporaries were appalled that he made a bishop into a hero, as he was a well-known critic of the church. He is said to have responded that he wished to shame the real bishops of France by having his fictional bishop practice what he preached.