Long Arm of the Law: Medieval Crime and Punishment

After a week in absence, Dame Aoife is back, with links on medieval criminal justice.

Greetings my Faithful Readers, and thanks for you patience as I took longer than usual to produce this column.

This week's column is all about crime and how it was handled in the Middle Ages. Let me tell you, there are some pretty inventive punishments that were invented in the Middle Ages! And some of the "crimes" would barely be looked at today. In absence of an organized police force, exactly how was crime handled? If you've ever wondered about it, read on to find out how crime was discovered and how punishment was meted out. It's a fascinating subject worthy of the interest of every "Law and Order" fan out there.



Dame Aoife Finn of Ynos Mon
m/k/a Lisbeth Herr-Gelatt
Endless Hills, Aethelmearc

Medieval Crime Museum
(Site Excerpt) Additionally, these exhibits include instruments of torture, items used in the execution of sentences, costly books, graphic arts, documents of emperors, princes, the nobility and towns. Also included are coats of arms, seals, crafts, trades and patents of the nobility; caricatures of the judiciary, juristic ex libris, schools and their punishments, medals of law and justice, and legal symbolisms from seven centuries.

Medieval Crime, Violence and Superstition: Symptomatic Dysfunction
By Jerrold Atlas
(Site Excerpt) Seventy-three million people crowded Europe at the start of the fourteenth century; 23 million died or moved during the 1348-1352 plagues. France (14 million), England (5 million), Germany (11 million), Italy (10 million) and Scandinavia enjoyed the greatest population increase while Russia, Poland, Hungary and the Mediterranean world declined to year 1000 levels. Food supplies and agricultural differences were the keys to understanding these differences. Beans and peas returned nitrogen to the soil as did other crop rotations and technologies. Wage labor replacing obligatory serf work also altered the productivity of the expanding land under cultivation.

Medieval Law and Order
An excellent article. Adobe Acrobat required to read. (Site Excerpt) Law and order was very harsh in Medieval England. It was believed that people would only learn how to behave properly if they feared what would happen to them if they broke the law. Even the 'smallest' offenses had serious punishments.

Medieval Sourcebook: The Ecloga on Sexual Crimes (8th Cent.)
(Site Excerpt) 3. A person who has carnal knowledge of a nun shall, upon the footing that he is debauching the Church of God, have his nose slit, because he committed wicked adultery with her who belonged to the Church; and she on her side must take heed lest similar punishment be reserved to her. 4. Anyone who, intending to take in marriage a woman who is his goddaughter in Salvation-bringing baptism, has carnal knowledge of her without marrying her, and being found guilty' of' the offence shall, after being exiled, be condemned to the same punishment meted out for other adultery, that is to say, both the man and the woman shall have their noses slit.

Outlaws and Highwaymen: The History of the Highwaymen and their Predecessors, the Medieval Outlaws
(Site Excerpt) The Dominican preacher John de Bromyard complained that England was more crime-ridden than any other country. Wealthy men surrounded themselves with gangsters and thugs, who acted as their enforcers and strongarm men. The legal system was corrupted by influence and bribery, so it was hard to bring serious criminals to justice.

Medieval Punishment/Torture
(Site Excerpt) During the Middle Ages, punishment was the solution to every criminal or social offense ranging from stealing to adultery to heresy. All these areas of medieval punishment had there own means of justice, however the most interesting and most controversial would have to be, the use of torture.

Penalties of Shame and Honor
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(Site Excerpt) The Kriminal Museum displays Medieval through 18th-century forms of punishment and of shame. The Masks of Shame: Those being punished had to wear these masks for public displays of their shame. There was a "Flute of Shame" for bad musicians, "Swine Mask" for men treating women poorly, the "Hood of Shame" for bad students, and many more masks of shame.

British National Archives Learning center: What were the purposes of punishments given by courts in the Middle Ages?
(Site Excerpt) As you can find out in Gallery 2, crime prevention was in the hands of the local community. Punishments therefore had to be simple and generally seen to be fair. It was also, as you can see in Gallery 1, a mainly law-abiding time, with a powerful Church which taught a duty to be merciful. Fierce, physical punishments like mutilation (cutting off part of the offender's body), common in earlier periods, were now rarely used. On the other hand, there was no police force, so serious offences had to be dealt with firmly and quickly. The death penalty was used quite often.

(Site Excerpt) The logic of indulgences is hard for moderns to understand, but in reality they make a great deal of sense. The whole concept of an indulgence is based on the medieval Catholic doctrine that sinners must not only repent of sins that they've committed, they must also confess these sins and pay some sort of retribution. You see, the problem with repentance and confession is that the only evidence you have of repentance is the sinner's claim to be repentant.

Did the Punishment fit the Crime?
A Bibliography

History of Punishment
A list of links on the subject

Early Forms of Justice and Law
(Site Excerpt) Most kings knew that for ordinary people to obey a law, they had to understand it, and know the consequence if they broke it. This was true in Ancient Egypt, Mesopotamia and among the ancient Hebrew people. As a result, most ancient codes of law seemed to be a punishment for some action or misbehavior. The harsh punishments of ancient codes make sense when it is understood that ancient peoples thought law was something that had been given to them by God. So, in their view, if a person broke a law, they were also disobeying God.

Crime, Punishment and Protest through time

http://www.learnhistory.org.uk/cpp/ (Site Excerpt) Why Study CPP? You learn what crimes have made the news through time - and what the authorities have tried to do about them! What has made the people of this island rise up and demand change? You'll study the protest movements from Kett through to the Poll Tax Protests.

About.com Discipline of the Medieval Child
(Site Excerpt) The primary guideline followed by medieval parents in training their children was the biblical admonishment: "Spare the rod and spoil the child." Scolding was considered ineffectual, and cursing a child was a terrible thing.1 Centuries before the field of child psychology came into being, medieval parents would have had no use for a "time out," which may have appeared more like a reward than a penalty. Corporal punishment was undoubtedly the norm.

Medieval Inquisition
(Site Excerpt) The medieval inquisitions were in response to growing mass heretical movements, in particular the Cathars first noted in the 1140s and the Waldensians starting around 1170. Heretical individuals, for example Peter of Bruis, had always been a challenge for the Church. However, the Cathars were the first mass heretical organization that posed a serious threat to both the authority of the Church and the accepted teachings of Christianity. To counter the threat of heresy the church used the weapon of inquisition.

(Site Excerpt) Angelo Clareno joined the Franciscan order around 1274, just in time to become involved in the first serious confrontation between spiritual Franciscans and their leaders. It was in the province of Ancona, and by the 1280s things were bad enough there so that Angelo and others were thrown in prison for several years. They were released when the newly-elected minister general, Raymond Geoffroi, came through on an inspection tour. Raymond, the only minister general whose sympathies lay with the spirituals, ordered Angelo and his colleagues released and, realizing he could do little to protect them from their superiors, sent them to Armenia. Eventually they fell out with Franciscan leaders there too, and by 1294 they were back in Italy presenting themselves to the new pope, Celestine V.

Click2History: Instruments of Torture in Medieval Times
(Warning: Strong Political Opinion)
(Site Excerpt) Sometimes instruments of torture defy human comprehension. The links to photographs in this story will allow you to examine actual torture devices, gathered together for an exhibit that began in Florence (in 1983) and closed in Barcelona (in 1986). Many of these objects of legal tyranny are originals, used as far back as the 1500s. Others are accurate reconstructions. The links to drawings and illustrations depict how these instruments of torment were used.

Medieval Torture Devices
5 Links on the subject