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Medieval Punishment

The religious unrest during medieval times resulted in thousands of people being punished for their beliefs or rumors regarding their spiritual leanings. It took little more than the word of one person to be subjected to various forms of torture, which varied by the nature of the alleged crime and the region in which the punishment was rendered.

Medieval Punishment

Types of Torture

Medieval torture fell into two general categories—previous or predatory. If the accused was marked for execution, he was first tortured to punish him and to send a warning to others. In cases where the point of the torture was to gain information from the accused, the torture was known as predatory. Further classifications of torture practices broke them down into ordinary, which was less violent and lasted an hour or less, and extraordinary, which included more brutal methods that lasted five or six hours.

Popular Punishment Methods

Special tools and gadgets constructed specifically for the purpose of punishment and torture abounded. Two tools that get a lot of attention in historical accounts of the period were thumbscrews and racks. Thumbscrews applied pressure to the thumbs of the accused and gradually increased to intensify pain. Racks were frames to which a person's entire body was affixed and stretched to inflict the greatest amount of pain. Other common punishments involved injecting foreign liquid substances into people, including oil, vinegar, and water. Some torturers used the water dripping method to torment their captives while others placed hot eggs in armpits. Lit candles were also tied to the person's fingers so they burned off as the candle dissipated.

French Twists

Much of the punishment and torture of medieval peasants took place in France, although Germany, Spain, and Italy also engaged in the sordid activities. France was so divided it was more like separate countries as each region was ruled by leaders with diverse political views and assorted favorite methods of punishment. Orleans, most famous for torching Joan of Arc, favored hanging people from a ring affixed to their hands tied behind their back, putting their full body weight on the hands and wrists. In Brittany, the most popular punishment was tying the accused to an iron chair and slowly edging it towards a roaring furnace so the metal would become increasingly hot and hurtful. Torturers at Avignon employed a variation on the Orleans theme, attaching heavy iron balls to the feet of the prisoner and hanging them by their wrists. Normandy's purveyors of punishment were rather tame by comparison, using one thumbscrew for minor infractions and two for more serious charges.

Execution: The Final Frontier

At the conclusion of most punishments was death. Those charged with blasphemy or heresy usually died by fire in accordance with prevailing religious beliefs. Spain used fire to kill most of the accused during the Spanish Inquisition and France burned 59 people at once for acts of heresy and crimes related to practicing witchcraft. Decapitation was another popular execution method, traditionally with an axe, or, in France, with a custom-made two-handed sword. Hanging was heavily favored as punishment for a wide range of crimes in Spain, France, and Germany, and almost every French village had a permanent gallows in the center of town. The most horrific method of medieval execution was quartering, where each of the accused's limbs was attached to ropes and their bodies torn asunder by horses pulling on each rope in different directions.

The Evolution of Punishment

Medieval methods to rid the world of opposing secular beliefs were ghastly and included many variations on gruesome tactics and themes. Today, most industrialized countries no longer physically torture or execute people for religious views, although the practice continues in less developed societies and, unfortunately, commonly includes inflicting dreadful pain on people based solely on opposing opinions.