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Gallows in Late Medieval Frisia

Gallows in Late Medieval Frisia

By Johannes A. Mol

Advances in Old Frisian Philology, edited by Rolf H. Bremmer Jr., Stephen Laker and Oebele Vries (Amsterdam, 2007)

Introduction: Gallows were a familiar sight in the landscape of fifteenth-century Frisia. I am not thinking here primarily of temporary installations erected for executions in the town square to be dismantled afterwards, but rather of permanent constructions of wood or iron upon which the corpses of miscreants were exhibited after the execution, until they decomposed. For this purpose, wagon-wheels were attached onto poles nearby the gallows to serve as platforms upon which the beheaded and broken bodies of criminals were laid. Frisia between the Vlie and the Lauwers, the area on which my research is focussed in particular, counted at least forty such gallows-and-wheel constructions prior to 1515. Set high upon natural elevations, beside busy thoroughfares and waterways or beyond the dyke, these structures stood out conspicuously in the landscape and were intended to be seen from afar.

Despite their emphatic position in public spaces and the significance which they thus acquired for the general public, little attention has been paid to the history of the gallows, neither in the Low Countries nor elsewhere in Western Europe. General histories of crime and criminal law devote only marginal attention to this phenomenon; studies of state building entirely pass it by. This neglect has nothing to do with the morbid nature of the subject. After all, there is plenty of literature on the hangman and his job. The most likely reason for this dearth of studies would seem to be a lack of source material regarding the construction, distribution and function of the gallows in the Middle Ages. Localisable illustrations on maps, prints and paintings begin to appear only in the sixteenth century; few reports and administrative documents are extant which predate 1500, and the gallows themselves have perished. Hardly any foundations survive of even the sturdiest structures from early modern times. At most, archaeologists may now and then come across a skull and some bones of the hanged, self-buried as it were at the place of execution.

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