Medieval Punishment – Law and Order of the Middle Ages

It’s considered a dark time by many, an age with no reason and a lack of learning and understanding. Medieval punishment and law in particular show a contrast to the stereotypes.

Medieval punishment would not exist without medieval law. The laws that ruled the land and set the medieval punishment for crimes varied depending on time and place. Early Germanic legal codes, which were widely used throughout Europe and Scandinavia, delve into medieval punishment to go along with the crimes. Under Germanic law, medieval punishment often involved the payment of something for the crime committed.

Germanic law often involved the seating of the Thing, which was basically a council that heard cases and judged them. They could dole out medieval punishments and were for the most part a forerunner of the modern jury system. Those who failed to answer a summons by the king’s Thing were charged 600 denars as their medieval punishment.

If cattle was stolen under these Germanic laws, the price could be high. Stealing the king’s bull, for example, earned the criminal a medieval punishment fine of 3,600 denars.

While much of the Germanic code involved paying a fine for a crime done, those guilty of offenses such as murder could face the medieval penalty of death if the fine could not be paid.

Interesting to note under the Germanic code, women did have rights and crimes against them came with stiff financial medieval punishments. Also interesting is the fact name-calling did cost a price – calling a woman a harlot without proof carried the hefty fine of 45 shillings. The medieval punishment for calling another a fox or a hare was 3 shillings.

Where the Germanic codes set fines for crimes, medieval punishment in England was a bit different. It was the belief there that law and order resulted when those people under rule feared the medieval punishment that would be doled out should a law be broken. Inasmuch, even the slightest crime came with a stiff medieval punishment here.

The three ordeals came into being as medieval punishment during the reign of Henry II in England. The ordeals were – fire, water and combat. Those who were accused of a crime faced these medieval punishments to prove their innocence. The fire ordeal involved carrying a hot iron bar for a set number of paces. The resulting wound was then bandaged. If in three days time the wound had not gotten better, that medieval punishment proved your guilt. The water ordeal involved tossing a tied up person in a body of water. If they floated, they were guilt.

Nobles faced their own medieval punishment trial to prove their innocence. Trial by combat. Whoever won the battle was in the right.

Failing a trail could result in a number of medieval punishments. Thieves hands were often cut off. Women guilty of murder faced strangling and burning. Those who hunted the royal parks faced the medieval punishment of having their ears cut off. Other crimes called for the medieval punishment of being drawn and quartered. Prison generally wasn’t an option as it was cheaper to hang, burn, or draw and quarter than house the guilty, making medieval punishment something truly to be feared.