From The Art and Popular Culture Encyclopedia
In law, treason is the crime that covers some of the more extreme acts against one's sovereign or nation. Historically, treason also covered the murder of specific social superiors, such as the murder of a husband by his wife or that of a master by his servant or slave. Treason against the king was known as high treason and treason against a lesser superior was petty treason. A person who commits treason is known in law as a traitor.
Oran's Dictionary of the Law (1983) defines treason as "...[a]...citizen's actions to help a foreign government overthrow, make war against, or seriously injure the [parent nation]." In many nations, it is also often considered treason to attempt or conspire to overthrow the government, even if no foreign country is aiding or involved by such an endeavor.
Outside legal spheres, the word "traitor" may also be used to describe a person who betrays (or is accused of betraying) their own political party, nation, family, friends, ethnic group, team, religion, social class, or other group to which they may belong. Often, such accusations are controversial and disputed, as the person may not identify with the group of which they are a member, or may otherwise disagree with the group members making the charge. See, for example, race traitor, often used by White supremacists and of people in inter-racial relationships (cf. miscegenation).
At times, the term "traitor" has been used as a political epithet, regardless of any verifiable treasonable action. In a civil war or insurrection, the winners may deem the losers to be traitors. Likewise the term "traitor" is used in heated political discussion -- typically as a slur against political dissidents, or against officials in power who are perceived as failing to act in the best interest of their constituents. In certain cases, as with the German Dolchstoßlegende, the accusation of treason towards a large group of people can be a unifying political message.
In English law, high treason was punishable by being hanged, drawn and quartered (men) or burnt at the stake (women), although beheading could be substituted by royal command (usually for royalty and nobility). Those penalties were abolished in 1814, 1790 and 1973 respectively. The penalty was used by later monarchs against people who could reasonably be called traitors, although most modern jurists would call it excessive. Many of them would now just be considered dissidents.
In William Shakespeare's play King Lear (c. 1600), when the King learns that his daughter Regan has publicly dishonoured him, he says They could not, would not do 't; 'tis worse than murder: a conventional attitude at that time. In Dante Alighieri's Inferno, the ninth and lowest circle of Hell is reserved for traitors; Judas Iscariot, who betrayed Jesus, suffers the worst torments of all: being constantly gnawed at by one of Lucifer's own three mouths. His treachery is considered so notorious that his name has long been synonymous with traitor, a fate he shares with Benedict Arnold, Marcus Junius Brutus (who too is depicted in Dante's Inferno, suffering the same fate as Judas along with Cassius Longinus), and Vidkun Quisling (cf. quisling for the proverbial status of the latter's name). Indeed, the etymology of the word traitor originates with Judas' handing over of Jesus to the chief priests, captains of the temple and elders( Luke 22:52): the word is derived from the Latin traditor which means "one who delivers."
Christian theology and political thinking until after the Enlightenment considered treason and blasphemy as synonymous, as it challenged both the state and the will of God. Kings were considered chosen by God and to betray one's country was to do the work of Satan.
There are a number of other crimes against the state short of treason:
- Apostasy in Islam is considered treason in Islamic belief.
- Compounding treason is dropping a prosecution for treason in exchange for money or money's worth.
- Defection, or leaving the country, is regarded in some communist countries (especially during the Cold War) as disloyal to the state.
- Espionage or spying.
- Lèse majesté is insulting a head of state and is a crime in some countries.
- Misprision of treason is a crime consisting of the concealment of treason.
- Sedition is inciting civil unrest or insurrection, or undermining the government.
- Treachery, the name of a number of derivative offences.
- Treason felony, a British offence tantamount to treason.