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Crime and Punishment in the Middle Ages

Crime and punishment in the Middle Ages was defined very differently than crime and punishment today. During the Middle Ages, there was little opportunity for a person accused of a crime to defend himself or to participate in the justice system. In fact, the justice system largely involved kings and royalty having the power to inflict terrible punishments on those who displeased them. There were even people who were thrown into prison during the Middle Ages simply for being unable to pay their debts.

Crime and Punishment in the Middle Ages

The crime and punishment concept in the Middle Ages was different depending on where a person lived and on a person's social status. For example, for minor crimes in places like Germany, the punishment doesn't seem terribly out-of-line or cruel and unusual: those who were accused of minor crimes simply had to pay fines. Typically, if the crime or affront had been committed against an important individual, the person who had been accused of the crime and who was being punished simply had to pay a larger fine.

However, even in other parts of Germany, where a relatively reasonable system of punishment was in place for minor crimes, the death penalty did exist for more major crimes. For example, for something like murder, a criminal in Germany could be put to death.

Torture and Serious Punishment

Of course, not all crime and punishment in the Middle Ages was quite so civilized or reasonable as the assessment of a fine for someone who had done wrong. There are numerous stories from the Middle Ages of prisons, torture, dungeons, and horrors inflicted on criminals. Many of those stories are true.

Castles in certain parts of Europe were sometimes built with torture chambers and prison cells. Some cells were so small a person could neither sit nor lie down while confined. The cells were often in towers, lower levels, or distinct parts of castles so royals or nobles living within those castles could not hear the screams of the prisoners.

Generally, those who were imprisoned in some of the castles and dungeons were kept alive only as long as they remained useful to the king or the person keeping them there. While not always the case, often those who were no longer useful to the king were put to death.


Execution in the Middle Ages wasn't a minor ordeal either. One horrible form of execution used was something called quartering, where a person's arms and legs were tied to bars attached to four different horses. When the horses eventually ran in separate directions, the person who had been tied in such a manner would be killed. Since the horses did not immediately run in separate directions, however, the death could sometimes take hours with each move the horses made in different directions causing agony for the person who had been tied up.

Sadly, this fate or other forms of execution were not terribly uncommon, as it was generally much less expensive to execute a person than to keep him alive in a prison cell.

Debtors Prisoners

Another form of punishment that occurred during the Middle Ages were debtors prisons. Essentially, if a person could not pay his or her debts, the person's things were sold and the person was put into prison where he would then become unable to make a living or earn money to get out. This created a situation where it became difficult or impossible to ever get released unless the debtor's family was able to raise the money owed or he was somehow able to curry favor with the king or with a person of importance who would seek his release from prison.