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Jordan Hames

Ms. Kozinsky

British Literature

20 September 2013

Medieval Crime and Punishment

            In Medieval Europe punishments were said to be effective only if citizens were afraid of them. “The main role of punishment in medieval society, as it is today, was to serve as a deterrent to would-be criminals and also to satisfy the victims of crimes with the terms of punishment” (Crabtree). In order to deter the so called would-be criminals, medieval punishments were extremely harsh. From stealing to murder crimes were not tolerated. Punishment for a crime could have been anything from having to pay a simple fine (number of shillings) to being shamed (banished from your town), to mutilation (having a body part cut off). The crime a person committed, however, could receive any one of the previously mentioned punishments. There were different punishments for different crimes and different ways of assigning those punishments.

            In England under the reign of King Henry the II, The King’s Court or Trial by ordeal was established. Trial by ordeal was a way of deciding whether or not the person was guilty. There were three different types of Trial by Ordeal, the first being, ordeal by fire. The person being accused of the crime had to hold a red hot iron rod and walk three to four steps, his hand was bandaged and if it began to heal in three days the accused was innocent, if not he was said to be guilty. The second type of trial was ordeal by water. The person being accused would have his hands tied and they would be thrown into water. If the person sank he was innocent, if he floated he was guilty. The third type was ordeal by combat. The accused would fight to the death with his enemy and the winner of the fight was considered innocent. Besides the three  types of trial by ordeal, execution was the most common and popular form of punishment. “Executions generally were conducted in public, not only to show the power of the state but also to show that the person actually had been executed” (Crabtree). The criminals that were executed were typically those who committed high treason.

In England in the year 1215 Trial by Jury was established, this was a less harsh way of prosecuting criminals, but most people believed that trial by jury would cause their fellow friends and neighbors to take revenge. Crimes and punishments were the following: theft was punishable by having your hands cut off, murder was punishable by strangulation and burning, and illegal hunting was punishable by having your ears cut off. Although these punishments were still extreme, trial by jury was a fairer way of punishing crimes, because you had more than one person deciding your fate. This is only England though.

Medieval crime and punishment, obviously took place in other parts of Europe, besides England. The Western Empire collapsed and the Roman Empire was in disarray. “The system of Roman law was in large part replaced by the new customs of the migrating peoples who were overrunning Roman cities and provinces” (Streissguth). Law codes of many different countries were combined to create on law for Rome, Germany, and other countries in Europe. Wergild, meaning man-price, was among the most important traditions in the legal system of medieval Europe. Wergild placed a value of gold on and individuals’ life. With each man, woman, and child having a price if one of them was murdered, the family of the murderer would pay the price in order to prevent a death in their own family as revenge.

In France, Salic law was the legal system, it was similar to that of England, but it was a lot less harsh. The Salic law can be summed up in these words; “the more powerful the victim of a crime, the more severe the fine or punishment” (Streissguth).  Salic law used fines more often than punishments. Under the rule of Charlemagne the Salic law was spread throughout North and Central Europe. In most cases the Salic law replaced the laws of other countries at the time.

As is in the United State today, religion and law were separated in Medieval Europe. “Where religious authority was established, ordinary crimes were separated from religious crimes, such as immoral acts and heresy, and systems of canon (church) law were created to try to punish infractions” (Streissguth). The Church was able to use its laws in place and on occasion, instead of, the Secular law.  The church was also able to offer “a place of sanctuary for fugitives” (Streissguth). Along with religion being separate from the law, crimes against others and crimes against others’ property were separated. Theft, trespassing, and fraud were considered to be crimes against property while things such as slander, assault, rape, and murder were considered crimes against people.  Crimes against people resulted in more harsh punishments and they were more humiliated by them.

Criminal Trials in Medieval Europe were also carried out by oath. “The parties in a dispute swore their innocence, and the final decision in the case rested in the hands of chieftains or feudal lords who had the right to dispense justice on their own lands” (Streissguth). Oaths were only valued and trusted if the person giving the oath was valued and trustworthy. Typically peasant and tyrant oaths were not taken seriously, but if you were noble your oath was honorable and you were more likely to be let off the hook.

Medieval punishment was also a form of entertainment. “If a person is convicted of a crime, and they are sentenced to death by hanging, many of the townspeople would come to watch his execution” (Phillips). The people were somewhat required to come, however, because the point of public execution was for the execution to be public and humiliating.  Medieval Crime and punishment was harsh and humiliating no matter what the crime and usually no matter who the person was. Luckily, punishment and crime like it was in the fourteenth century is no longer legal, but for the people of the fourteenth century it was inescapable.



Works Cited Page

Crabtree, Pam. “Infobase Learning – Login.” Infobase Learning – Login. “crime and punishment in the medieval world.” Encyclopedia of Society and Culture in the Medieval World. New York: Facts On File, 2008. Web. 20 Sept. 2013.

Streissguth, Tom. “Infobase Learning – Login.””Crime and Punishment in medieval Europe.”New York: Facts on File. Facts on File, 2008. Web. 20 Sept. 2013.

Phillips, Llad. The Economics of Crime and Punishment. Washington, D.C.: America Enterprise Institue, 1973. Print.