Crime & Punishment

During the medieval period people carried out all sorts of crimes from petty crimes like stealing to more serious crimes like murder. There were no police in medieval times and in order to make sure that people kept themselves away from crime and disorder, they were subjected to strict punishments. These punishments included fines, shaming, cutting off body parts and death, depending upon the type of medieval crime committed. There were different types of trials and torture was also considered as a legitimate way to extract confessions from suspects. Accused persons had to go through different ordeals in order to prove their innocence from medieval crimes.

History of Medieval Crime & Punishment

The History of Medieval Crime and punishment is filled with harsh punishments. The punishments were harsh because the overall system was influenced by the Church and such punishments were given in order to create fear in the hearts of the people and to keep them from committing crimes. Punishments were mostly given through trials by ordeal in which the innocent and guilty both had to go through tough ordeals. In the 13th century AD trial by ordeal was replaced by trial by jury.

Types of Medieval Crime

There were different types of medieval crimes. Theft was very common as people were mostly poor, although stealing of valuable and less valuable items had different kinds of punishments. Vagrancy was also considered a crime during the Middle Ages as it was against the law to be a homeless or a jobless person. The gossip of women was also a type of crime. People not working hard, cheating on ones spouse and being drunk and disorderly were also considered to be punishable medieval crimes. Murder was also a very common crime in medieval times, high treason, heresy and witchcraft were also the types of crime that had strict punishments.

Types of Medieval Punishment

Different types of punishments were awarded for different types of crimes. For theft the punishment was extra work and fines or the hands of the guilty were cut off. Murderers were given the death penalty by hanging or beheading. Flogging was the punishment for people not working hard enough whereas the people accused of cheating and drunkenness were put in the stocks or pillory. The Stocks held peoples ankles whereas the pillory held their heads and wrists. The punishment for women’s gossip was the scold’s bridle. The punishment of high treason was very severe as the culprit was hung and cut down while he was still alive. Then he was beheaded and body hacked into four quarters, which were then sent to different cities throughout the realm and were put on public display. The punishment for heresy was banishment if the culprit repented and was burnt at the stake if did not repent. The punishment for witchcraft was strangulation whereas in case of serious offenses witches were also burned at stake.

Manorial Courts & Trial by Jury

The Manorial Court was the lowest court of law during the medieval period. All crimes apart from serious crimes were dealt by the manorial court. A manorial court was held multiple times during a year and it was mandatory for all the villagers to attend or else they had to pay a fine. All men were divided into the groups of ten known as the tithing. Each tithing was given the responsibility to make sure that no member of their group committed a crime and if one did then other members had to make sure to bring him to the court. The person in charge of the court was Lord’s Steward. There was a jury that consisted of twelve men chosen by the villagers. It was the jury’s responsibility to collect evidence in order to decide whether the accused was guilty or not. And if accused was found guilty the jury had to decide and they then decided the punishment as well.

The King’s Court – Trial by Ordeal

The King’s court dealt with the serious crimes such as assault, murder and treason as these crimes were considered as crimes against the King. The King’s court met several times in a year and had a prominent role in the medieval crimes and punishment system. The accused had to face the trial by ordeal in which their innocence or guilt was judged by subjecting them to unpleasant ordeals. These ordeals were ordeals by fire, The ordeal by water and The ordeal by Combat.

Medieval Punishment – Ordeal by Fire

During the ordeal by fire the accused had to walk a distance of around 9 feet either by holding a red hot iron or over a red hot plough share. After that, their wounds were bandaged and they were asked to appear before the court after three days. After three days their bandages were opened. In cases where healing of wounds had started the accused were declared innocent, whereas in cases where there were no signs of improvement the accused were pronounced guilty and were punished according to their crime. It was thought that God intervened in order to save the innocent and with God’s powers the healing of wounds started to take place.

Medieval Punishment – Ordeal by Water

In the ordeal by water, there were two kinds of ordeals. One was an ordeal by cold water, whereas the other was an ordeal by hot water. In the ordeal by cold water, hands and feet of the accused were tied together and they were thrown into the water. If they started floating, it meant that they were innocent but if they sank they were declared guilty. During ordeal by hot water the accused had to dip their hands in a kettle with boiling water and had to pick a stone from depth. After three days their wounds were judged. In case of healing signs they were considered innocent anything else mean’t they were guilty.

Medieval Punishment – Ordeal by Combat

In case of ordeal by combat the two parties in dispute had to fight. It was mostly done when one party was accused by the other, but there were no witnesses or confessions. The winner of the fight was declared innocent. It was one of the most common methods employed by the judiciary during the middle ages

Summary of Medieval Crime & Punishment

Crimes such as theft and murder were very common during the medieval ages and in order to create the fear in the hearts of people strict punishments were given to guilty people. These punishments included fines, mutation, banishment and death through hanging and by being burned at the stake.

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