The Middle Ages were a time when crime – and often violent crime – was rampant. Serious crimes, such as murder and treason attracted the death penalty. Lesser crimes were dealt with in different ways – often less colourful than books and films would have you believe. Of course, there were variations on what constituted a serious crime across the country, and sheriffs, bailiffs, justices and juries were never above a bit of corruption, but in general, the methods below proved to be the main punishments for the common man and woman.
By the by, torture was never officially used in England until Tudor times, apart from a brief moment in 1311 when the Pope forced Edward II to allow some Inquisitors to come to England and ‘interview’ some of the Templars held in prisons there.*
Both of these devices consist of hinged wooden boards with holes in to receive head or limbs before being locked closed and both served the purpose of public humiliation. However the pillory was used to secure the wrists and head of a wrongdoer, whilst the stocks secured the legs, usually in a sitting position.
They were generally a local form of punishment, the miscreant exposed to the hurling of insults and other unpleasant substances. This was a common punishment for vendors who sold bad goods – for instance, a butcher who sold rotten meat might have some of the offending articles hung around his neck while in the pillory for all to see his crime. They served the same purpose as the cucking stool (see later).
After the Black Death, when labour became scarce, labourers were able to exercise a freedom they had never had before – that of charging what they wanted for labour, and moving to wherever paid the best. To a nobility used to feudalism, this was an enormous threat to the status quo, and so in 1351 Edward III passed the Statute of Labourers, part of which said:
… and that those, which refuse to take such oath or to perform that that they be sworn to, or have taken upon them, shall be put in the stocks by the said lords, stewards, bailiffs, and constables of the towns by three days or more, or sent to the next gaol, there to remain, till they will justify themselves. And that stocks be made in every town for such occasion betwixt this and the feast of Pentecost.
Both mutilation and branding for various crimes (theft, poaching) was quite common in the early Middle Ages but by the 14th century it had been replaced by other means. For example, where before a poacher may have lost a limb for taking the lord’s or the King’s game, now it was his animals who paid the price. Any dog found with him would have had it’s paw removed instead, and the man himself fined or imprisoned.
However, there was still a stigma was attached to loss of a body part, as shown by these entries in the Patent Rolls:
Mar 30 1324
Notification, lest sinister suspicion should arise hereafter, that the defect which William Sampson suffers in his right ear arose from the stroke of a tun of wine as he was walking amongst the tuns on board a ship to see that no harm came to them, as the king is informed on sufficient evidence.
Nov 20 1313
Notification for the security of Mariota de Karliolo, and to relieve her from sinister suspicion touching the loss of her ear, that she whilst in the army of Edward I in Scotland, passing between the carts of that army, stumbled and fell, and that a carter accidentally cut off her right ear with his cart which he was leading. By testimony of Hugh le Despenser.
That would be Hugh Despenser the elder by the way. However, no matter what official proof of their innocence they may have carried, it is not hard to think that many would have wondered how a tun of wine or a cart could have amputated an ear without causing more damage to the person!
(The term ducking stool came later, in the 16th century)
Interestingly, the name comes from the old Norse ‘kuka’ as well as the Latin ‘cacare’, which means to defecate, and which was also used as a term for a chamber pot. Therefore the person to be punished was tied to a ‘commode’, or even placed in a dung cart, and was paraded through the town or village to be jeered at as a means of public humiliation. Only in later times was the stool upgraded to a chair and the unfortunate person dunked in water
Although thought of primarily as a punishment for unruly women, witches or scolds, it was also used for dishonest traders of both sexes, especially of bread and beer (trades in which women, however, had prominence).
During the 14th century, fines were the most common punishment for any misdeed that did not deserve the death penalty. Even theft and assault were usually dealt with by fines (and sometimes a term of imprisonment as well). It made sense, for a fine (or amercement) would benefit a lord’s or the Crown’s coffers far more than a physical punishment. Fines ranged from 2d to 40 shillings or more but were generally not above what the offender could afford.
Interesting, animals and objects could also be the object of a special fine, called a deodandum, if they happened to cause the death of a person. In this case the possession would be considered forfeit, its value assessed, and then either the owner or community were required to pay the deodand. The offending object was also meant to be forfeited, but this didn’t always happen. The money was then supposed to go to the king’s almoners to be used for charitable purposes (again, this did not always happen either!). Below is a record of a deodand incident from the Pleas of the Crown 1 Edward I:
259. William Sipring was trying to drag a ship into the Thames when the rope by which he was dragging it broke and he fell into the water and was drowned. Value of the ship *6s. 3d. (deodandum) for which the sheriffs are to answer. Robert le Taillur, a neighbour, does not come. He was attached by Austin le Taillur and Michael the Tailor. So they are all in *mercy. No one else is suspected. Judgment: misadventure
False accusations, or when a defendent was proved not guilty, could actually result in a fine for the plaintiff. And if a witness did not appear, then he or she could also be fined. It is in these cases that you often see the term ‘in mercy’, meaning that they are at the mercy or amercement of the court, and therefore due a financial penalty. As in the case below, again from the Pleas of the Crown 1 Edward I:
265. Abraham le Treyer and his wife Brunamia complain that on Monday before the feast of the Nativity of Mary 3 Edward I [2 Sep. 1275] Maud de Stanes went to their house in the parish of St. Michael Bassinggeshawe and against the peace etc. beat, wounded and ill-treated Brunamia, so that she was maimed; whence they say that they have suffered damage and loss to the value etc. and they produce witnesses. Maud comes and denies the force and injury. She strongly denies that she ever beat or maimed Brunamia as she is accused and puts herself upon the verdict of the aldermen who in the faith in which they are bound to the king testify to this. So it is adjudged that Maud is quit and Abraham and Brunamia be committed to gaol; but they are pardoned at the instance of John de Cobeham.
During early medieval times, prisons were rarely used as places of punishment (although undoubtedly the conditions could be considered punishment enough if one were in one), and more as a place of detaining people until their trial and proper punishment could be affected. However by the 14th century, imprisonment was becoming quite common as a form of penalty, although the terms were rarely longer than a couple of years (unless the prisoner was a political one).
This case from the Calendar of Early Mayor’s Court Rolls provides a rather humourous account of the events in 1306 which led to a man being both fined and sent to prison:
Friday the morrow of the Nativity B.M. [8 Sept.]
Stephen le Barber of London was attached to answer Robert le Barber of Graschirche and Maud his wife, in a plea of trespass, wherein they complained that Stephen came to their house with a woman and asked to see the solar and to drink there, and when Maud heard them making a noise she ascended to the solar and found Stephen pulling on his breeches, and he struck her on the head with a quart pot and kicked her, to her damage £20. The defendant pleaded that he went only to drink and buy wine, and that the plaintiff assaulted him first. Afterwards a jury of Grascherche, consisting of William Wastel and others, found for the plaintiff, with damages 10 marks. Judgment was given for that amount, and that the defendant go to prison.
Unlike today, prisoners were required to pay for their own ‘lodgings’ so to speak, as well as food and anything else that might make their captivity bearable. If they or their relatives could not find the means then the prisoner might be kept for longer, especially if the gaoler was corrupt and demanded unreasonable costs. Conditions were generally grim, being filthy, vermin-ridden and with the prisoners in shackles that restricted movement. Physical abuse, particularly rape, was also common.
Sometimes prisoners managed to escape, in which case the gaoler would be held accountable and heavily fined. On the other hand, if a prisoner was caught escaping, he could expect to be put to death.
As well as the secular courts, the church held its own courts for the judgement of moral issues. One punishment that was feared by both rich and poor was that of excommunication – being barred from communion and other holy rites. In such a religious age, excommunication, and its accompanying terror of going to hell, must have seemed a terrifying prospect. It was usually pronounced when individuals (or even communities) were guilty of some grievous or continuous behaviour against the Church. It was, however, intended as a ‘medicinal’ punishment, designed to correct wayward behaviour and could be reversed once the miscreant had undergone rigourous penance and repentance.
An outlaw was any man who, by his actions, had placed himself outside the law. Women could not be declared outlaws, nor could children – they were described as ‘waifs’ instead. To be declared an outlaw meant that the man was to be shunned from society, given no help or sustenance, excommunicated and could be killed on sight – by anyone. The usual path for someone to become an outlaw was for him not to turn up at his trial. Of course, to anyone accused of a serious crime, such as murder, this was probably thought to be a better alternative to swinging from a gallows. However, unlike the Disney image of a good life in the greenwood portrayed by fictional outlaws such as Robin Hood, an outlaw’s life was usually miserable, full of cold and hunger and being hunted. And the men who became outlaws were generally nasty pieces of work too, not ones who robbed the rich to pay the poor. Only a king could pardon an outlaw.
There is a great post on outlaws over at Clement Glen’s blog – click here to see it.
* There was also a punishment known as Peine Fort et Dure used on defendents who refused to speak in court and which could arguably be described as torture. Here the poor unfortunate was made to lie on the floor, and his or her body covered with a piece of wood, on top of which were placed heavy stones. The only sustenance allowed was stale bread on one day and water on the next. Many died from this ordeal, usually from the crushing of their inner organs.
The Medieval Underworld (Sutton History Classics) – Andrew McCall
The Patent Rolls
Pleas of the Crown 1 Edward I
Calendar of Early Mayor’s Court Rolls