Torture and violence – medieval style!

You often hear of how we’re living in a society getting ever more violent. But imagine going into your local bar and being killed because somebody didn’t like the look of you. Or being subject to torture by the state to extract a confession for an alleged crime. Welcome to torture and violence – medieval style!

A new book – The Better Angels of our Nature – blows apart the idea that the twentieth century was the most violent on record. The Middle Ages was way worse!

Medieval violence and torture was a commonplace

In the Middle Ages, during the Templar era, you were very likely to see criminals being hanged, beheaded or mutilated in public.  Disemboweling, being broken on the wheel and burned at the stake were all part of the judicial approach.

When a court was held in the open air, it would be an opportunity to see the guilty suffering in some or other way.  An ordeal by fire or water for example. What Steven Pinker argues in this book is that casual violence was a commonplace.

Comparing the killing of deposed rulers

Take for example the summary execution of the overthrown Libyan leader Colonel Gaddafi in 2011 with the killing of the Byzantine emperor Andronikos I Komnenos in the year 1185.

Gaddafi was dragged out of a sewage pipe. He was beaten up. Stabbed a couple of times. Then shot. It was all over within an hour if my memory serves me right. Andronikos had lost power in a coup while he was away from his capital and returned to reclaim the throne. But the people didn’t want him back.

The mob in Constantinople got hold of Andronikos and began by chopping his right hand off. Then pulled out his hair and teeth. Poured boiling water on his face. Then led to the Hippodrome – the huge chariot racing stadium in the middle of the city – and hung upside down. Then soldiers used him for sword practice, plunging their weapons into him.

Why might everyday violent and torture be less now than in the medieval era?

Pinker argues that the relative decline in violence is due to our society being more industrialised, urban, secular and cosmopolitan.  And the rejection of violence even extends to corporal punishment against children.  From an early age we are conditioned to be repelled by physical violence.

This wasn’t the case in the Middle Ages where children were beaten routinely.  At an early age, they had to assume adult responsibilities and therefore were subject to adult punishments.  Through to the eighteenth century, individuals we would class as children were executed for petty crimes such as theft.

Medieval nuns using violence and torture

In his excellent new history of England – part one of which is called ‘Foundation’ – Peter Ackroyd has a chapter on crime and punishment in the Middle Ages.  He gives a shocking example of a nun who lost her virginity to a young priest in the 1160s at a convent in Watton, Yorkshire.

The nuns interrogated the pregnant sister and when they found out who the culprit was, he was captured and brought to the convent.  He was then imprisoned in a cell and the nun he had impregnated was forced to castrate him with a knife.  The other nuns then stuffed his genitals in to his mouth!  As if that wasn’t traumatic enough for her, she was flogged and bound with chains in a cell.  What happened to the baby after all this – goodness only knows.

Ackroyd also describes ‘ritualised fights’ in churchyards between aggrieved parties.  I have read previously about these grudge matches which were a common feature of medieval village life.   Sometimes the fights were fairly informal, the two parties just got down to beating each other up.  But on other occasions, they involved a degree of planning and training for the big day and were to the death.

A very morbid game of football!

Ackroyd mentions a case that I’d read about before of a man called Thomas of Eldenfield who in 1221 was not hanged for theft – as was usual – but blinded and castrated instead.  The detail that burnt this in to my memory was that his testicles were used as “little footballs” by the local kids.

As Ackroyd points out, there was a definite and quite mindless culture of violence in England in the Middle Ages. One man simply walked in to a tavern, was disliked by the locals and killed on the spot.  A judge arriving at the city of Lincoln in the year 1202 was confronted with 114 cases of murder and 49 cases of rape!

Torture to extract confessions was not used quite as often as is widely believed.  Here is one website that lists some of the torture devices that were employed.   Ordeal was an on the spot way of determining the guilt of a criminal.  Ordeal by fire involved the accused fasting for three days.

An iron bar was placed on the local church altar to be sanctified.  At the beginning of mass, the iron bar was heated on a brazier and then at the end of mass, the accused was required to pick it up and walk with it.  After an agreed number of paces, he or she could drop the bar and their severely burnt hand was then bound up.  If after three days it had healed, then the accused was innocent.  But if it was still badly blistered and burnt, then the accused would most likely be executed.

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