During the medieval times, a lot of people were burned at the stake in both Catholic and Protestant lands. Various methods were employed for burning at the stake and the practice was particularly common during the middle and late medieval times when the institution of Inquisition was in full force. Both men and women were burned at the stake during this era and a variety of charges were used to enforce the practice. Under inquisition, some of the common charges included heresy, blasphemy, and witch-craft. The practice of publicly burning at the stake was known as auto-de-fe which in Spanish means “act of faith”.
People were burned at the stake even before the practice took roots in the Europe of medieval times. Various methods were used to burn people at the stake, but three of them were particularly common. The most common method was to pile burning wood around a stake driven into ground, with the victim hanging from the stake with chained hands and feet. In the second method, which was generally used when witches were burned at the stake, the wood was piled close to the stake so that the plight of the burning victim was not visible to the surrounding public. In the third method the victim was tied to a ladder which was then swung into the flames. This method was particularly common in Germany and the Nordic countries.
The practice of burning at the stake became increasingly common during the middle and high medieval times in Europe. Cases of burning at the stake were found before that but the practice of public burning or auto-de-fe was first recorded in 1242 when it was first practiced under Louis IX. The practice later emerged in the Crown of Castile when King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella were allowed by Pope Sixtus IV to initiate the institution of Inquisition in order to protect the Catholic faith in 1478. King Ferdinand then extended the practice to the Crown of Aragon too in 1483. During the brief period from 1487 to 1505, more than 900 people were burned at the stake just in the Barcelona chapter.
Various charges, mainly of religious nature, were used to burn people at the stake. Originally, the practice was confined to women who were found guilty of treason, while the men convicted of the same crime were either hanged or quartered. Eventually, however, the scope of crimes which resulted in people being burned at the stake became wider and both men and women were included. Later after the medieval period and during the 16th and 17th centuries, witch-hunting became widespread in Europe and the women who were found “guilty” of being a witch were burned at the stake. During this era, some 200,000 people were burned at the stake for witchcraft. Other common reasons included heresy of various kinds and blasphemy.
Many renowned people were also burned at the stake during the medieval times. The most famous case is that of Joan of Arc who was in the army of Charles VII during the Hundred Year’s War. After her noteworthy victories at war, she was captured by the English authorities, and sentenced to be burned at the stake by Bishop of Beauvais Pierre Cauchon on multiple charges. Thus at the young age of nineteen years, she was burned at the stake on 30 May 1431. Among other famous people burned at the stake, Giordano Bruno was burned on 17 February 1600. He was a famous Italian philosopher, mathematician, and astrologer in addition to being a poet and a Dominican friar. The charge brought against him was heresy which included denial of various core doctrines of the Catholic Church.
Dead procession was an important part of auto-de-fe or public burning at the stake. The victim was generally taken to the final burning place amid a crowd of people before being burned at the stake. For instance, during the medieval times in France, a barefoot victim with rope around his or her neck was accompanied by the executioner to the determined spot. It was also common for the victim to hold a wax taper with a weight of about three to four pounds and was required to prostrate at the door of the Church and seek forgiveness for his sins. Since most people were publicly burned at the stake, death procession was a common occurrence as well.
Among other people burned at the stake, trials of the Knights Templar are also famous. The Knights Templar, after enjoying widespread popularity and mystery during the Crusades and middle medieval times, fell out of favour with the authorities and were charged with heresy in 1307. The leaders of the Templars, Jacques de Molay and Geoffroi de Charney, were publicly burned at the stake in 1314 under the orders of King Phillip. Before that, in 1310, 54 Templars were burned at the stake and The Order of the Knights Templar was officially disbanded and suppressed.
The role of executioner was particularly important when people were burned at the stake. He was the one who overlooked the public burning and was sometimes assisted by some other men. His role too varied from case to case depending on various factors. For instance, it was common for the executioners to make sure that women were dead before being burnt. A specific amount of money was reserved for the executioner for carrying out his duties and it varied from case to case. Paying anything else to the executioner other than the stipulated fee was strictly forbidden.
The practice of burning people at the stake existed before the medieval European period but more people were burned at the stake during the middle and high medieval times than any other era. After the official sanction of the auto-de-fe in 1478, permanent trials were established throughout Europe. The exact number of people who were burned at the stake during medieval times is disputed. According to one estimate by Juan Antonio Llorente, an official of the Church’s Holy Office, 31,912 people were burned at the stake under the Spanish Inquisition while another 17,696 were burned in effigy. However, the numbers are disputed and some modern scholars have placed the number of people burned at the stake at around 10,000.