Execution for Crime in Medieval Times – how Gruesome was Medieval Torture?

Execution for Crime in Medieval Times – how Gruesome was Medieval Torture?

In contrast to popular belief and medieval myth, crime and punishment in the days of yore wasn’t all guts and gore.

Although executions may be uncommon these days, they were regular events until the late 20th century. Humankind even invented “Humane” ways of sending a convicted criminal to the eternal prison. These methods include the gas chamber, electric chair, and lethal injection. Culprits from medieval times were escorted off this earthly soil by more macabre methods none of which could be considered morally acceptable by today’s standards. Here’s the story behind the history.

Common criminals weren’t drawn and quartered for petty insults, nor were they sentenced for their transgressions by mob justice without the benefit of a formal inquiry. There were judges and there were trials. Although justice was swift, it was rarely sudden. Hearings lasted less than half an hour, and judges often deliberated and delivered the verdict themselves. In today’s system, prison terms are handed out like traffic tickets, but offenders in medieval times were subjected to a three strikes policy.

If a person was caught committing a crime for a third time, he or she was ushered out of town, which kept the jails uncluttered and the street safe. The malcontent was sent elsewhere to transgress in a new location. Banishment, not be-heading, was the rule of the day. Considering that most common people spent their entire lives within 10 to 15 miles of where they had been born, being sent away from everything they’d ever known was serious punishment.

Significant offenses such as murder and arson were treated seriously, often resulting in capital punishment. Most of these wrongdoers met their fate at the end of a rope, which was the preferred method of execution.

Being burned at the stake was the designated demise for pagans and heretics. It was a common punishment in the earlier years of the Protestant Reformation, and the definition of a heretic changed depending on who was in power. In England Henry VIII split from the Catholic church, but he still burned Protestants such as Anne Askew. His son Edward VI, was a devout Protestant however. Being Catholic during his reign could lead one to the stake. This alternating Catholic-Protestant persecution switched once more after Mary I was crowned, and then back again with Elizabeth I.

The rack was one of the stake’s partners in criminal justice. It was used to extract confessions and to “persuade” those already judged guilty to accuse others. Being put to the rack was a torment for commoners only, since it was considered uncouth to torture a member of the nobility. However, jailers had few compunctions about racking a commoner in order to get him to implicate a noble.

Nobles convicted of high treason were spared the traditional drawing and quartering. Instead, they were beheaded. Having one’s head lopped off with a swift swipe of the blade was considered a privileged way to die. The honor was dubious, though, since the ax was usually dull, and it often took several swings before the head was severed.

The crime of treason was considered the most momentous transgression of its day. People found guilty of disloyalty to their monarch, spouse, or country were often hanged, drawn, and quartered, not necessarily in that order, in a trilogy of torture techniques that went on until the 1800s.

The criminal was dragged to his place of execution on a wooden rack, hanged until he was “almost” dead, then dumped on a table where his entrails and genitals were extracted and his frame pruned into four quarters. Only men were subjected to such sectioning. Women found guilty of treason were hanged or burned.

In 1814, an effort was made to reduce the barbaric nature of the proceedings, but the offender who led that charge was hanged until dead before his corpse was filleted into fourths. He got off easy, at least he wasn’t breathing when he was butchered.

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