Monthly Archives: February 2022

The reception of Cesare Lombroso’s theories in France: the case of Le Mans’ learned society

By Franco Orlandi, University of Turin

In 1876 Cesare Lombroso (1835-1909), a professor of Forensic Medicine and Public Hygiene at the University of Turin and widely regarded as one of the founding fathers of modern criminology, published the first edition of The Criminal Man, one of the most famous criminological treatises ever written. In his book, Lombroso claimed that criminals were a subspecies of the human race and that they exhibited distinct physical and mental features than law-abiding individuals, such as unusual shapes of the skull, the presence of tattoos and a lack of moral sense. According to Lombroso, criminal behavior was not the result of a free will, but of a biological predisposition. Criminals were basically “throwbacks” to an earlier stage of human evolution, modern primitive men unable to control their violent and immoral instincts. The theory of the “born criminal” travelled all over the world and had an enormous influence on nineteenth century European culture, even though it had no scientific basis. This does not mean, however, that Lombroso did not encounter resistance to his ideas.

Cesare Lombroso. Photogravure. Credits: WikiMedia commons

This was particularly true in France, where Lombroso’s theories were rejected by the two leading representatives of the French School of criminology: Gabriel Tarde (1843-1904), magistrate and director of the Justice Ministry’s statistical service in Paris, and Alexander Lacassagne (1843-1924), professor of Forensic Medicine at the University of Lyons. Unlike Lombroso, both scholars explained crime in sociological rather than biological terms. Tarde denied the existence of a “born criminal” marked by a cluster of physical anomalies and maintained that the similarities between offenders derived from their belonging to the same professional group. In Tarde’s view, criminality was a learned behavior that resulted primarily from the interaction with disadvantaged social environments rather than the product of a biological predisposition. Similarly, Lacassagne dismissed Lombroso’s atavistic explanation of crime and stressed the importance of poor living conditions in the etiology of crime. ‘The social milieu – he wrote – is the culture medium of crime; the microbe is the criminal, an element which only becomes active when it finds the medium to make it ferment’ (Lacassagne quoted from Renneville 2014).  

While the reception of Lombroso’s theories in France has been the subject of numerous studies in recent years, the way in which they were received by less known actors and in more peripheral contexts is still worth investigation. One interesting case study in this regard is represented by the learned society of Le Mans. Founded in 1761 by a royal decree of Louis XV, the Society of Agriculture, Sciences, and Arts of Sarthe is the oldest learned society in the Sarthe region. In 1840 it launched its own journal, which continues to be published to the present day. An analysis of all the volumes of the Bulletin published from 1840 to 1927 seems to reveal that Lombroso’s ideas did not spark much debate in the local scientific community. In fact, only one article refers to the controversial theories of the Italian scientist. The text was published in 1890 by Paul Hervé, a physician at the local hospital and a member of the Sarthe’s learned society, and reported the content of a communication he had presented a few months earlier to the Medical society of Le Mans. The article, which was entitled Essai sur la suggestion mentale (Essay on Thought Transmission), quoted the testimonies of several men of science of unquestionable credibility who had witnessed firsthand apparently inexplicable phenomena of thought transmission, mental telepathy and hypnosis, and concluded that the latter should be made the subject of serious scientific investigations. In the final bibliography, Hervé included two works written by Lombroso: the 1889 French translation of L’Homme de génie (The Man of Genius) and the 1886 second Italian edition of Studi sull’ipnotismo (Studies on Hypnotism). In addition to studying crime and criminals, Lombroso became in fact very interested in spiritualism, mediumship and hypnosis, publishing several works on the topic and even attending séances presided over by the world-famous medium Eusepia Palladino, an experience that produced a strong impression on him. After outlining the main theories that had been formulated hitherto to explain thought transmission, Hevré went on to discuss whether this phenomenon could be considered the product of a pathological condition. After all, he noted, most of the subjects involved in these experiments suffered from nervous disorders, hysteria in particular. Although he discarded this hypothesis, Hevré quoted in a footnote a passage from Lombroso’s L’Anthropologie criminelle et ses récents progrès (Criminal anthropology and its recent progress), in which the Italian criminal anthropologist had claimed that genius was often associated with pathology, especially with epilepsy and degeneration:

The fact that genius is frequently derived from parents either addicted to drink, of advanced age, or insane, certainly points to this conclusion, as also does the appearance of genius subsequently to lesions of the head. It is also indicated by frequent anomalies, especially of cranial asymmetry; the capacity of the skull being sometimes excessive, sometimes abnormally small; by the frequency of moral insanity, and of hallucinations; by sexual and intellectual precocity, and not rarely by somnambulism. To these we may add the prevalence of suicide, which is, on the other hand, very common among epileptic patients

(Lombroso 1890, pp. 110-111)
Cesare Lombroso attending a séance in Milan in 1908. Salt print photo. Credits: Cesare Lombroso Museum of Criminal Anthropology

In conclusion, an analysis of the Bulletin de la Société d’ agriculture, sciences et arts de la Sarthe seems to confirm that French scientists and physicians adopted a rather hostile attitude towards Lombroso’s theories. However, the article by Paul Harvé shows that Lombroso’s publication were read and discussed not only in intellectually thriving cities like Paris and Lyons, but also in more peripheral locations like Le Mans.

Selected bibliography

Paul Hevré, “Essai sur la suggestion mentale”, Bulletin de la Société d’ agriculture, sciences et arts de la Sarthe, 24 (1889), pp. 357-424.

Cesare Lombroso, L’anthropologie criminelle et ses récent progrès, Paris, Felix Alcan, 1890.

Marc Renneville, “Exploring the History of French Criminology (1885-1939): the Case of the Archives de l’Anthropologie Criminelle”, Criminocorpus, 2014,

Francesco Paolo de Ceglia, Lorenzo Leporiere, “Becoming Eusapia: The Rise of the ‘Diva of Scientists’” Science in Context 33, 4 (2020), pp. 441–71. doi:10.1017/S026988972100020X.

Carlos S. Alvarado, Massimo Biondi, “Cesare Lombroso on Mediumship and Pathology”, History of Psychiatry 28, 2 (2017), pp. 225–241. doi:10.1177/0957154X16686904.