Murder and Execution within the Political Sphere in Fifteenth Century Scandinavia
By Dick Harrison
Scandia, Vol 63:2 (1997)
Introduction: Medieval society is rumoured to have been violent. Angry young men are supposed to have beaten and killed each other more frequently than in subsequent centuries. The tiny arms of the law apparently did not reach very far outside the crenellated walls of castles and fortresses. The possibility of dying from wounds inflicted by fist, sword, dagger, axe or some other weapon would have been far greater in the Middle Ages than during the early modern period. In fact, violence forms an intrinsic part of our standard preconception of the Middle Ages – it is one of those elements that contribute to the making of the image of the medieval past. We have grown accustomed to imagining the frightened shrieks of poor, defenceless women in villages or convents under attack, the clamour of evil warriors on battlefields littered by corpses and reeking of human and equine flesh, and the public hanging, drawing and quartering of criminals that, in our society, would have got away with a fine or a mild prison sentence. Ghastly horror stories of semi-legendary brutes like Sawny Beane, the late medieval cannibal of Galloway, and Wad Tepeg, the Walachian impaler known as Dracula, hardly surprise us.
As has been shown by anthropological studies of history, violence was also a very public feature of medieval life. Killings often took the form of public rituals, regardless of whether the killing was an official execution ordered by the government or an act of rebellion. Heads were put on stakes, bodies were quartered, and various parts of the corpses were sent to towns and villages for public viewing. The Dutch historian Pieter Spierenburg has described this attitude in terms of familiarity with death – everybody believed in ghosts, and death as such (i.e., if it was a normal, expected, way to die) was looked upon in a less frightened way than is often the case today. The rulers used violence as a means of punishment in their attempts at manifesting their power over their subordinates. Ordinary people accepted it – violence was a natural part of their lives.
From the point of view of studies of crime and of war, this general image is not a problem: the Middle Ages was a violent era. Violent methods were used more easily than in later periods; they were regarded as, and used as, convenient tools of solving conflict. Violence is, however, a very complex social element. It is perfectly possible for one aspect of violence, such as private murders, to flourish at the same time as another kind of violence, e.g. peasant rebellions, are entirely absent from the social arena. In fact, violence is seldom, if ever, the object of historical research per se. Historians (including the author of the present study) usually study violence from one specific point of view – like feuds, rebellions, wars or crimes – but rarely as a social element as such. This important fact should be kept in mind. When asking about the scale of violence in a particular historical epoch, we mostly define violence in a very narrow way, often without realising this ourselves. Hence the image of the Middle Ages as a violent era – historians arriving at this conclusion have based their assumptions mostly on studies on medieval criminality. If they instead had chosen to emphasise the purely destructive aspects of violence, the Middle Ages would have been regarded as relatively non-violent compared to the twentieth century. No semi-legendary brute from the Middle Ages came close to inflicting terror and destruction comparable to that of the Nazi Endlosung, the A-bomb at Hiroshima or Stalin’s GULAG, although some (like Genghis Khan and Tamerlane) may have done their worst to achieve similar results.