Torture and violence in the Middle Ages


English: Steven Pinker
English: Steven Pinker (Photo credit: Wikipedia)

A new book – The Better Angels of our Nature – blows apart the idea that the twentieth century was the most violent on record.  Yes, there were holocausts and global wars, but actually you were far less likely to die a violent death in the last hundred years than in centuries past.  In the Middle Ages, during the Templar era, you were very likely to see criminals being hung, 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.  What Steven Pinker argues in this book is that casual violence was a commonplace.

Take for example the summary execution of Colonel Gaddafi in October this year.   A lot of people were pretty horrified by the way in which he was dragged from a sewage pipe then beaten up and killed.  In a medieval setting, he would have counted himself lucky to die that quickly and relatively painlessly.  Indeed, rebels and political leaders who were defeated in battle might very well end up being dismembered and their limbs displayed in various parts of the kingdom.  Going back to Gaddafi, he once hanged student rebels from lampposts and had traffic deliberately re-routed so that drivers would see the bodies dangling in public.  This was back in the 1970s.  But frankly, no different to the kind of public retribution meted out to rebels in the 1170s.

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.

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.

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.

This video clip below is from the TV series ‘The Tudors’ so falls outside the Middle Ages but it’s a pretty good representation of medieval execution methods: hanging and beheading.  The former faced by the poor and the latter, quicker way to die reserved for the wealthy.  Hanging, drawing and quartering – what happens to the second guy – was a very gruesome form of execution reserved for traitors.

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