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Medieval Crime and Punishment

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In medieval times, being punished for committing a crime was something to be fearful of. There were brutal torture machines designed to bring agonizing pain to whoever was unlucky enough to be placed in them. These barbaric practices were widely used throughout medieval England. There were also many other punishments that didn’t use machines but still brought uncontrollable pain, and in most cases, death. Punishments varied between social groups. For peasants and serfs, punishments were much more prominent and happened more regularly. Punishments given to people higher up in the social hierarchy were less known and less brutal. Many different types of punishments occurred, they were called ordeals. There were many different types of ordeals, ordeal by fire, ordeal by water, trial by ordeal and ordeal by combat.

Homelessness was considered a crime, and often they would be put into stocks so people could beat them. It was not just the homeless though, the poorer classes were discriminated against and had no say. This chain of poor classes going through agonizing pain never ended. This was due to the fact that most people where uneducated, so in order to survive they had to steal. If your family was starving, you had to find a way to feed them somehow, so, you could go into debt, or risk it all and commit a crime. And often many people committed crimes because impunity lets them. Courts and judges existed but they were bias and judgments where often known before the case. If you did not turn up to court you were considered an outlaw, your property was seized and became the kings. Outlaws often joined together, roaming the countryside and committing crime. Roman and Greek law stated only slaves could get tortured, but, the laws eventually changed so that free men could be tortured and put in prison.

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Blasphemy and Heresy were considered the worst crime you could commit, this is because it went against the ways and beliefs of the church. They would then often be sentenced to death. If a man committed rape, robbery or manslaughter they were hung up in a cage so that people could see their slow death. Sometimes, they were taken down just before their death so they could be quartered so the pain would kill them. These public hangings were announced by the kings’ men. Most people would bring their children with them, this was encouraged by rulers, thinking that giving them the fear would become a deterrent of committing a crime. This also meant that the public had a very close understanding of how punishment happened. Medieval officials lacked the resources and money to build suitable jails, so people often died of sickness before their trial. The people then took pity of people in jail and often let them out to beg for food.

The catholic church used torture to get confessions from people even if they were innocent, and the harsher the crime the harsher the punishment. They were beaten, whipped, burned alive, chained in stocks, beheaded, suffocated in water, had their eyes burned out with pinchers, stretched on a rack, burned in hot oil and would have their limbs and fingers cut and torn off. There were also many torture machines, they included the pillory, breast ripper, iron chair, thumb screw, stocks, and many others. The breast ripper (see figure 1) was made for women who committed adultery and abortion. First, it was heated up in a fire, then the four claws would slowly rip apart the woman’s breast. If she didn’t die from the pain and wounds that were caused, she would remain disfigured for the rest of her life. The Spanish Boot was a device designed to crush the foot. It was held the foot in place and caused additional pain and destruction. The toes were often left uncrushed so further damage could be done to them.

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Medieval Crime and Punishment. (2022, Jun 09). Edubirdie. Retrieved December 9, 2022, from
“Medieval Crime and Punishment.” Edubirdie, 09 Jun. 2022,
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