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 a legitimate way to extract confessions from suspects.
People accused of a crime had to go through different ordeals in order to prove their innocence!
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 many types of medieval crimes. Stealing of valuables and other forms of theft was common, 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 homeless or a jobless person.
The gossip about women was also a type of crime. People not working hard, cheating on one’s spouses, and being drunk and disorderly were also considered to be punishable medieval crimes.
Branks Torture Device
Murder was also a very common crime in medieval times, high treason, heresy, and witchcraft were also the types of crimes that had strict punishments.
Types of Medieval Punishment
Different types of punishments were awarded for minor and more serious crimes in medieval times.
Punishment for stealing *Commonly extra work and fines or in some cases, the hands of the guilty were often cut off
Punishment for Murder *Commonly the death penalty by hanging or beheading.
Punishment for being lazy *Commonly flogging was the punishment for people not working hard enough.
Punishment for cheating and drunkenness *Commonly people were put in the stocks or pillories. The Stocks held people’s ankles whereas the pillory held their heads and wrists.
Punishment for women’s gossip was the scold’s bridle.
Punishment for high treason was very severe as the culprit was hung and cut down while he was still alive. he was then beheaded and his body was hacked into four quarters, which were then sent to different cities throughout the realm and were put on public display.
Punishment for heresy was banishment if the culprit repented and was burnt at the stake if did not repent.
Punishment for witchcraft *Strangulation whereas in the case of serious offenses witches were also burned at the stake.
Manorial Courts & Trial by Jury
The Manorial Court was the common court of law during the medieval period. All crimes apart from serious crimes were dealt with 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 groups of 10, this was 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, if the accused was found guilty the jury had to decide and they then decided on the punishment as well.
The King’s Court *Trial by Ordeal
The King’s court dealt with serious crimes such as assault, murder, and treason as these crimes were considered crimes against the King. The King’s court met several times 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, 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 plowshare. 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, the 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 the ordeal of 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 meant 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 fear in the hearts of people strict punishments were given to guilty people. These punishments included fines, mutation, banishment, and death through hanging and being burned at the stake.