By Danièle Cybulskie
It’s definitely true that medieval people used capital punishment far more frequently than we do today, and that the methods of execution could be pretty gruesome. To dismiss medieval executions out of hand as acts of simple bloodlust for the amusement of a crowd, though, is to misunderstand their purpose and their impact. Like the legal system that evolved over hundreds of years, medieval capital punishment was extremely complex and considered. Let’s take a brief look at what judicial execution was really like in the Middle Ages.
The acts for which a medieval person could be executed were various and ranged from crimes against property, to those against people, to those against cultural beliefs. Mitchell B. Merback sums it up succinctly in his book The Thief, the Cross and the Wheel: Pain and the Spectacle of Punishment in Medieval and Renaissance Europe.
Throughout most of Europe and across the better part of a millennium, hanging was the punishment of thieves; breaking with the wheel was inflicted on murderers, rapists and those who committed aggravated theft; arsonists, like heretics, witches and sodomites were burned; women charged with offences against religions or morality, such as adultery or infanticide, were drowned; and decapitation was used for a wide range of offenses, including manslaughter, robbery, incest, infanticide or major fraud.
Merback rightly points out that the most gruesome executions were for “arch criminals”, like traitors and assassins, who might be hung, drawn, and quartered. While some of the acts listed are not considered criminal in the West anymore (thankfully), it’s important to note that these medieval crimes were considered serious because they were thought to be threats against the pillars on which society was built – people were not hanged for jaywalking. It’s also important to remember that to be charged with these offences was not tantamount to being sentenced to death: judges could still find people not guilty, or negotiate terms, or the sovereign could pardon the offender.
Medieval European culture, and therefore its legal system, was firmly rooted in Christian theology. Because of this, executions were not just about revenge, but they were also fundamentally about atonement for the crimes committed. As with other sins, a Christian could ask forgiveness, make reparation, and be acceptable to God. So it was with convicted criminals: they were meant to show remorse, make reparation through the pain of their execution, and become once again acceptable to God (and therefore the community).
For this reason, as Merbeck mentions, medieval people were not as nervous as modern people are about executing an innocent person: an innocent person would simply be made more perfect through Christ-like suffering, and then enter the kingdom of heaven. We moderns think of execution as depriving a person of life; they thought of it as speeding a person to the afterlife, and the method with which criminals met their deaths would decide whether heaven or hell. As Merbeck emphasizes, execution was considered an opportunity for a criminal to confess and repent, and to earn himself a “good death” – something that, perhaps, he had denied another person.
The classic medieval mob scene is of people jeering and throwing things at the poor unfortunate on his way to the scaffold, but it seems that medieval people took the procession to the site of execution pretty seriously. While there were certain instances in which ridicule was an essential and acceptable part of a punishment, like time in the stocks, a prisoner who did not aggravate the crowd on the way to his execution did not necessarily have to expect to be mobbed.
Not everyone’s journey to the scaffold was dignified – sometimes criminals were tied or dragged, depending on their crimes or reputations – but it was the stoicism that criminals showed in the face of this which was essential to their good deaths. In some medieval traditions, the procession to the site of execution even involved revisiting the scene of the crime in order for the convicted person to remember before their public atonement.
Once the criminal had reached the scaffold, they often had the opportunity to speak, to ask the crowd to pray for them, and/or to forgive the executioner. This was a public spectacle of repentance, which would then be followed by the punishment being carried out. While the body might suffer, the soul was given the opportunity to achieve perfection: by order of Pope Clement V, no one was permitted to be executed without the chance to be shriven after the fourteenth century (Merback 148). For the crowd watching, this was an opportunity to satisfy a certain curiosity about how someone who has done awful things might act when faced with eternity, and a time to reflect on what he might do himself when faced with death. While there were some sadists in the crowd, no doubt, there were also devout people struggling with their own sins and asking themselves if they had the courage to meet their own deaths with fortitude.
The ideal death involved accepting the punishment, and willingly submitting to it with courage and humility. Anne Boleyn, although executed in the sixteenth century, reportedly had what medieval people would have considered as the best kind of death: she repented of her sins, praised the king, and lost her head with one stroke of a sword, like a warrior. The crowd watching would have seen someone so confident in her faith and forgiveness that she could accept death without fear of hellfire. Although Anne’s death was relatively private, this was a huge part of the purpose of public executions in the Middle Ages: to instruct other members of society to have faith in justice and in God.
People have always been interested in the crimes and punishments of their fellow citizens, as borne out by the legions of true crime books, television shows, and movies modern society keeps churning out. While our interest has remained the same, though, our views on the meaning and purpose of capital punishment are different. When we look at medieval executions, it is important to keep their purpose in the context of the time before deciding how much more savage our forebears were.
There are many great books on medieval crime and punishment, but I recommend Mitchell B. Merback’s The Thief, the Cross and the Wheel for a good overview of the rationale behind medieval justice and its penalties.
You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist