I’m preparing an article for the BBC History magazine on the subject of medieval crime and punishment. Lots of my own research has been about medieval violence and law, so these are subjects I’ve thought about quite carefully. One thing that is very striking about medieval law and punishment is how involved was the community. Nowadays, we tend to think of law as something which the police and the state should take care of. Apart from reading about it sometimes in the newspapers, we don’t really hear much about punishment of criminals, and we certainly wouldn’t expect to be involved.
But for much of the Middle Ages, there was no police force to speak of. Even when the king was able to take more control of the law and of dealing with criminals, he and his officials were still very dependent upon local people and local communities to report crimes, help catch the criminals, and even to punish them.
The classic example of this is the stocks. Whenever you visit a medieval castle, you’re pretty likely to come across some stocks – always good now for a photo opportunity.
But of course that’s never as humiliating as what would have happened to you in the Middle Ages. Famously, people would have thrown rotten food at criminals trapped in the stocks, and scoffed and taunted them. The punishment then, was really carried out by the community itself – the law could only work with the cooperation of local people. And, more than this, the real meaning of the punishment lay in the community too. Sure, it was deeply unpleasant being pelted with all the unpleasant things people could lay their hands on and extremely uncomfortable and painful to stand there through all weathers. But, most importantly, the punishment was about humiliation in front of one’s neighbours.
In the Middle Ages, reputation was absolutely crucial. You could even say that your life depended on it. To be put in the stocks in front of your neighbours could destroy your reputation, and certainly your standing in the community. This was the real punishment. Humiliation and exclusion.
The Middle Ages are famous for the gruesomeness of some of the punishments meted out, but in reality torture and extreme cruelty were fairly rare. If we want to really get to the heart of how punishment worked, we need to understand the crucial role of the community, and the devastation that could be wrought by humiliation. Sometimes this was frankly bizarre, such as being forced to ride backwards on a donkey…