Crime and Punishment in the Middle Ages

Table of Content

During the Middle Ages, civilization was only beginning to form itself and there were many aspects of social life that went through stages of development until it became what it is today. If you compare the middle ages to our time, there are differences is almost every one of these aspects, such as type of government, traditions and lifestyle.

As an introduction to better understand the literary works of this time period and to better understand where the authors are coming from and why things are described the way they are, it is suggested that we, as readers, investigate what it was like to live in that period in history to better understand the different aspects that are stated above. There are multiple choices of topics that are of importance with one of them being crime and punishment. We know that the Middle Ages were dark times for those that stood under the command of the laws.

This essay could be plagiarized. Get your custom essay
“Dirty Pretty Things” Acts of Desperation: The State of Being Desperate
128 writers

ready to help you now

Get original paper

Without paying upfront

This paper describes the situation that people found themselves in and the general environment of the era in regards to crime and punishment, as well as the different types of punishment that served as consequences for one or the other crime. The Middle Ages is the period of history encompassing one of the most exciting and turbulent times in English history. Society was really taking its turn but some things needed to be fixed before law and order could be restored.

The Middle Ages was an era when times were particularly hard, especially for lower class citizens. The living conditions in general were very poor, there was little to no systematic organization of how things worked in society and a lot of the times it was hard to control the masses since there were no set rules, no equality and no one to turn to. The nobles however, being the most influential and powerful people of that time, needed to control the people so that things would not completely fall out of order.

Therefore, the way to control the people was to gain their respect by scaring them and punishing them for even the slightest misbehavior. The people were either punished for going against the commands of the lords and knights or for thieving, to provide amidst scarcity. Rebellion against the unjust system and subsequently, treachery, was a common crime way back then. When King Henry VIII took over as “head of the church”, hearsay was an offense. It was considered a sin as well to be going against God.

The other crimes in the Middle Ages, which were strongly reprimanded, included witchcraft and vagrancy. While the former was largely a part of hearsay, the latter involved wandering aimlessly. Then, there was smuggling of prized goods like silk and tobacco and highway robberies and those by outlaws. There were quite a few instances of people getting hung for counterfeiting coins and rape. These are just some of the few examples of the behavior of the people to demonstrate how desperate they were (McCall, 1979). Law and order was very harsh during the medieval times.

It was believed that people would only learn how to behave properly if they feared what would happen to them if they broke the law. Even the “smallest” offences had serious punishment. For this reason all crimes from stealing all the way to murder had harsh punishments. All these areas of medieval punishment had their own means of justice, however the most interesting and most controversial would have to be the use of torture. Although there were gaols, which are a type of prison, they were generally used to hold a prisoner awaiting trial rather than as a means of punishment.

Fines, shaming, mutilation or death were the most common forms of punishment depending on the crime with the most interesting part of it being that there was no police in the medieval period so law-enforcement was in the hands of the community (Rousseaux, 2009). The Middle Ages was a time of severe punishment and harsh torture for crimes that today would seem trivial. People were beheaded and limbs cut off, vagabonds were often whipped and chained in stocks. People lived in a state of fear thinking they would be the next victim.

Even the Catholic Church used torture and imprisonment to obtain confessions from people regardless of whether they were guilty or not (McCall, 1979). There were no human rights protections at all and so what had to be done was done and it did not matter if that meant treating a person in an unjust manner or inflicting great pain on them (Nash, The Finer Times). In this era, punishments were severe mainly arising from the threat that the crimes posed to an exploitative reign. Criminals were punished by the kings, knights, lords, sheriffs and even the church.

The local police were mainly responsible for confining the criminals to an area till any trial commenced (Nash, The Finer Times). Criminals were treated very poorly. They were not fed by the authorities and they depended solely on family and friends for food and necessities, if they were lucky enough to have enough to share. The jails were very filthy places and many of the criminals died of disease and starvation. A lot of the times, the punishments, whether it included death, fines, public humiliation and subjection to torture chambers, depended on the criminal’s social status.

But punishment was to be enforced nonetheless. Torture and punishment has existed for thousands of years. Roman and Greek law stated that only slaves were allowed to be tortured but eventually the laws changed and free men were tortured and imprisoned for committing crimes also (McCall, 1979). However, torture and other means of punishment were also used to extract names of accomplices, testimonies and confessions. The methods of torture that were used in this very exciting period in European history include pillory and execution by the wheel, quartering and hanging, and so on.

The torture was a deliberate and systematic infliction of physical and mental pain and anguish. The devices used were designed to ensure the infliction of unbearable agony. Moreover, when devices for torture were not used, the methods were barbarous and these included the ripping out of nails and teeth, merciless beating, branding, disfigurement, limb removal and starvation (The Town –Law and Order). People often had their right hand cut off for stealing, people were beaten, burned alive or even stretched on a rack and women committing adultery were drowned. Suffocating people in water was a common practice.

People were boiled in oil; eyes were burned out with pinchers and fingers torn off. With all this physical torture we must keep in mind that there were no medical facilities in any way to turn to for help or to be cured. Not only was it a barbarous time but it was also very unhygienic and unclean in every way – this was one of the greater reasons for such a low life expectancy because people were not expected to survive major physical damage such as after having been tortured the way these people were in that time (McCall, 1979). But who decided how to punish the citizens?

Minor lords of the manor generally sentenced minor offenders and had the power of inflict any sentence except death, so this included fines, extra duties, whipping, branding, and mutilation, again depending on the crime. If the offence warranted death, the lord of the manor consigned the accused to prison to await “gaol delivery” and he would be thrown into a lockup or castle dungeon. When the king or his justices visited the area, the accused would be tried by the jury. If convicted, the presiding judge or the King sentenced them to death – usually by the rope to be hanged. Furthermore, there was also a church ourt where the Bishop decided the sentence. Instead of death, church courts consigned the guilty to life imprisonment, which often meant starvation or burial alive, or they even handed the guilty to the secular arm, the King’s court, where they would be condemned to burn (Rousseaux, 2009). Overall, you can say that that the judicial system of the Middle Ages was unjust and harsh since there was not real law concerning the issue. Depending on the crime, social status and income, the punishment was either stricter or less harmful. Throughout the early Middle Ages justice and law was dominated by the principles of the Feudal system.

Feudalism was not only a system of the local government but it was also a system or the local justice. It gave judicial power to the nobles and the lords in cases that arose in their domains where they had not appeal but to the king himself. Later, the Magna Carta described the distribution of power. The Magna Carta was a collection of 37 English laws, some of which were copied, some recollected, some old laws and some new laws, and was a document that King John of England was forced to sign because it greatly reduced the power he held as the king of England and it allowed for the formation of a powerful parliament.

The Magna Carta became the basis for English citizen’s rights. Its purpose was to control the King and make him govern by the old English laws that had prevailed. Overall, the Magna Carta had a strong impact on society. Because it took power away from the king, it caused the creation of a parliament (Murphy, 1995). In 1258 Simon de Montfort and his men forced King Henry II to agree to the provisions of Oxford which abolished the absolutist Anglo-Norman monarchy and gave more power to a council of fifteen barons to govern England and a parliament.

Representatives of the towns and boroughs were invited to attend the Parliament which instituted the House of Commons. The House of Commons is regarded as the bulwark of civil and political liberty. Furthermore, the decline of the Feudal system led to courts being established in the larger towns. And with time magisterial courts were introduced into the towns. With the help of the Magna Carta and the voice of the people as they were slowly but surely more integrated into the decision making policies and laws, society began taking shape and benefitting all people. In regards to crime and punishment, there were now set laws regarding the incidents and the distribution of punishment was no longer as careless and before.

Works Cited

Nash, Tim. “Crime and Punishment in the Middle Ages. ” The Finer Times: War, Crime and History Resource. N. p. , n. d. Web. 08 Oct. 2012. . “Meet the Middle Ages – The Town – Law and Order – Crime and Punishment. ” Meet the Middle Ages – The Town – Law and Order – Crime and Punishment. N. p. , n. d. Web. 08 Oct. 2012. . Xavier Rousseaux , « Crime, Justice and Society in Medieval and Early Modern Times : Thirty Years of Crime and Criminal Justice History », Crime, Histoire & Societes / Crime, History & Societies [En ligne], Vol. 1, n°1 | 1997, mis en ligne le 03 avril 2009, Consulte le 08 octobre 2012. URL : /index1034. html ; DOI : 10. 4000/chs. 1034 McCall, Andrew. The Medieval Underworld. London: H. Hamilton, 1979. Print. Murphy, Gerald, and Nancy Troutman. “The Magna Carta (The Great Charter). ” The Magna Carta 1215. Constitution Society, 25 Sept. 1995. Web. 08 Oct. 2012. .

Cite this page

Crime and Punishment in the Middle Ages. (2017, Jan 28). Retrieved from

Remember! This essay was written by a student

You can get a custom paper by one of our expert writers

Order custom paper Without paying upfront