Crime and Punishment in the Middle Ages
Written by Tim Nash
The middle ages was a time of severe punishment and harsh torture for crimes that today would seem trivial. People were beheaded and limbs cut off, vagabonds were often whipped and chained in stocks.
People lived in a state of fear thinking they would be the next victim.
Even the Catholic Church used torture and imprisonment to obtain confessions from people regardless of whether they were guilty.
Torture and punishment has existed for thousands of years. Roman and Greek law stated that only slaves were allowed to be tortured, eventually the laws changed and free men were tortured and imprisoned for committing crimes.
People often had their right hand cut of for stealing, people were beaten, burned alive, stretched on a rack and women committing adultery were drowned.
Suffocating people in water was a common practice. People were boiled in oil, eyes were burned out with pincher's and fingers torn off. Mutilation and branding's were common place.
During Tudor times English laws was practically geared toward torture. Vagrancy was considered a crime and people were put in stocks so towns people could beat them.
It was the poorer classes that were discriminated against. Lords and high official's were exempt. Courts and judges did exist, but were bias and often judgements were known before the case was even heard, if a person did not turn up to court they were considered an outlaw and their property was seized and became the kings.
Outlaws banded together roaming the countryside and committing crime the most famous of these is of cause Robin Hood. The harsher the crime the more horrendous the punishment, If a man committed Rape, Manslaughter or Robbery they would be hung up in a cage so people could see their slow death.
On some occasions they were taken down just before their death and quartered (cut into four pieces) so that the pain would kill them, a most cruel way to die. Public displays of torture were common.
Hangings and Public torture would be announced by the kings men, people would come from far and wide often bring children with them, this was encouraged by rulers thinking it was a deterrent from committing crime, bringing fear to the towns people.
Medieval towns people had a very close understanding of how punishment happened, as they were often present during punishment. Although murderers were often executed, the majority of lesser medieval offences were punished by shaming the criminal publicly.
By today's standards people may think this was harsh however crime was not as widespread as in today's society.
People also took pity on those in jail and prisoners were often let out to beg for food. Medieval officials lacked the resources or money to build suitable jails and people often died from illness before there trial.
In today's society we do not use torture as a means of punishment, as history progressed torture became less prolific, it was only 100 years or so ago that this was considered a barbaric practice.
In many modern countries the killing of murders and rapist's is not permitted. In some cultures the practice of cutting off limbs for stealing is still condoned although not widely practised, people are still executed in some societies.