The Pathos of Politics (113-4) Medieval Punishment

Medieval Punishment

The Germanic tribes that fell Rome and took over much of Europe crafted simpler laws: there was little need for the learned law of a lost empire. Germanic laws were chiefly concerned with establishing the rights of kings and regulating the settlement of private disputes. Public law had a rudimentary place. Prisons merited only occasional mention.

Those accused of a crime spent time in jail until their trial. Otherwise, prison continued to be an exceptional punishment in medieval times. Kings sometimes used monasteries to imprison captured rebels, but the duration of incarceration was typically weeks or months, not years.

Fines were common for minor crimes, including as settlement for simmering blood feuds between families. Only those who owed large sums of money languished in prison during the Middle Ages. They were held only until their family paid off the debt.

Those guilty of moral wrongdoings, such as public drunkenness or slander, were sometimes beaten with clubs.

Violent or repeat criminals might be put into stocks or a pillory in the town square. Stocks were heavy frames of wood or iron which held criminal’s ankles, rendering an offender immobile. There a criminal sat, where a passerby might enjoy pelting the miscreant with rotting vegetables or rocks. Those in stocks were only allowed to defend themselves against those who laughed at them.

Nobles were not usually placed in stocks, but almost anyone else who committed a crime could end up in them, including monks and nuns.

A more severe punishment was the pillory. Pillories were wooden or iron frames that held the heads, hands, and sometimes feet of criminals.

Those pilloried were forced to stand in a hunched-over stance for hours or days at a time. Pillories were more painful than stocks, and offenders had no means to defend themselves against assault.

The Chinese used a cangue in lieu of a pillory. A cangue was a large, heavy wooden collar. Standing with a cangue about the neck was exhausting.

Thieves and those guilty of assault were sometimes banished, losing all legal rights and property. Those who took in the banished themselves became outlaws. Towns that protected outlaws might have their walls destroyed by the king’s soldiers.

Manslaughter and murder were hanging crimes. Properly done, the drop in a hangman’s noose broke the neck, resulting in a quick death. Instead, hangmen often tied the knot wrong, letting a criminal suffer strangulation, and so give a better show.

While men might be hanged, most women were instead garroted. Considered more dignified than swinging at the end of a rope, it spelt a slower death.

Nobles sentenced to death were beheaded. Supposedly a statelier departure, a condemned noble knelt down with his head on a wooden block. In one stroke, an executioner parted the head from the body with an axe or sword.

Treason – conspiring against royalty – might draw only exile. More often, traitors were dragged behind a horse to the public square, where they were hanged. Then, after cutting out hearts and stomachs, their bodies were quartered. Sometimes a traitor’s remains were left on display as a deterrent to those not kindly disposed to royalty.

The most flamboyant death sentence was being burned alive. This torturous execution was especially favored by church authorities for more than symbolic reasons. Being roasted to death was an unusual punishment except for arsonists, who got a terminal taste of their own medicine.

Physical medieval punishments were public displays and popular entertainment. Those drawn by horse to the town square for hanging often created a procession, with spectators following in the condemned man’s wake.

Showing an early inclination for innovation, medieval Japanese creatively executed criminals. A condemned man might alternately be impaled, beheaded with a metal saw, or strung up and repeatedly skewered before the finale of slashing the throat to bleed out.