The Ordeals of Medieval Punishments | History Hit

The Ordeals of Medieval Punishments

Amy Irvine

22 Jul 2022
A husband beating his wife with a stick
Image Credit: Getty Center, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

Throughout the medieval period, those in charge of law and order believed the way to keep society in order was through punishment. Consequently all crimes, from small offences to murder, tended to have harsh punishments – justice was random and brutal, and the law was frequently used to instil fear and act as a deterrent.

Community law enforcement

No police force existed before the 16th century, and thus it was deemed the victim and local community’s responsibility to find and catch the criminal themselves to help combat crime. Justice was local rather than national, and most crimes were dealt with by a Manorial Court – a form of Trial by Jury.

Held at various intervals throughout the year, all local villagers had to attend. Men were placed in groups of ten (a ‘tithing’) – if one member of the group broke the law, it was thus the responsibility of the others to catch him and take him to court, whereupon a jury of twelve men chosen by the villagers decided the case and what the punishment should be.

The most common punishments usually included fines, public shaming and humiliation i.e. being placed in pillory or stocks. However, for more serious crimes, the accused were sometimes kept in prison whilst awaiting trial.

If you travelled back in time to the Medieval period this very second, do you think you would survive? The short answer is probably not. If you weren't wearing a hat, wore glasses on the street, or even laced your corset in the wrong way, things would go south for you very quickly. Luckily, this week Matt is joined by Toni Mount, author of the book 'How to Survive in Medieval England' who provides an insight on what it would take to avoid beatings, homelessness, and hunger in Medieval times.
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Prison life

There were comparatively few prisons in this period as local communities weren’t prepared to pay for their upkeep. Conditions were squalid and grim and disease spread easily. Prisoners had to pay for their rent and food, and thus those with the least funds inevitably ended up reliant on charity and housed in the most basic and unpleasant conditions – sometimes dying due to starvation and ill treatment. Many weren’t able to pay their discharge fee, unable to be liberated.

Some prisons were also a site of torture. One of the most infamous prisons of the medieval period was ‘The Clink’, part of Winchester Palace. Prison guards weren’t responsible for prisoners’ welfare, only to ensure they didn’t escape. Poorly paid, the guards often tried to maximise their income by relying on wealthy prisoners to pay for more lenient treatment, better facilities and food and drink, or to bribe them to loosen chains. Wealthy nobles could sometimes buy themselves out of prison, otherwise they were held for leverage or political power.

An illustration of the punishment dealt to bakers that had violated weight regulation on bread (image was cropped)

Image Credit: Peter Isotalo, Public domain, via Wikimedia Commons

There is evidence that excessive use of irons were employed by corrupt officials to try and extort more money from prisoners, knowing their financial status and thus ability to obtain their own release. Nevertheless, often imprisonment was intended more as a quick shock to make offenders conform rather than a punishment in its own right. (Sometimes it was seen as cheaper to either flog, mutilate or execute an offender than keep them in prison long-term. Many towns had a gibbet just outside where serious criminals were hung as a warning to others).

The role of God

In medieval times, the power to decide who was guilty or innocent was seen as being up to God. Thus the Church demanded that all accept its authority, and along with the nobles of the country, were the ones deemed to have the power and wealth to be able to define ‘punishable’ crimes. These ranged from the petty to incredibly serious. The court, usually held in a church, was therefore seen as a place where God’s judgement was revealed.

(Cases of leniency did exist, where some churches offered criminals sanctuary provided they then went to court or left the country. Church members who committed a crime could also claim the ‘Benefit of the Clergy’, meaning they could be judged by more lenient church courts instead).

Miniature of Gregory the Great writing, 12th century

Image Credit: British Library, CC0, via Wikimedia Commons

‘Trial by Ordeal’

This was reserved for serious crimes. A suspect could be tried by the Church to see if they were guilty or innocent through undertaking an ordeal. If the suspect didn’t pass their trial, it was seen as God’s punishment as the priest had called upon God to give his judgement, and God was viewed to come to the aid of the innocent. Due to the religious element, these trials were supervised by the clergy and included:

Ordeal by fire: The suspect had to walk several paces while carrying a red-hot iron bar in their bare hand. After this their hand was bandaged. After three days, they returned to court and the bandages were removed. If their wound showed signs of healing they were deemed innocent by God, if not, they were pronounced guilty.

Ordeal by water: Here, the suspect’s feet and hands were bound together and they were then thrown into water. If they floated they were pronounced guilty of the crimes they’d been accused of, if they sank they were innocent.

Ordeal by combat: William I (‘William the Conqueror‘) made changes to law enforcement after 1066 when ordeal by combat was introduced. The opponents, often noblemen who saw this as a more dignified way of resolving disputes, would fight with their accuser. Fights took place in front of large crowds. Whoever won was considered to have been in the right, as people believed God ensured the innocent prevailed. Whoever lost or surrendered was usually dead by the end of the fight anyway.

After 1215, Trial by Ordeal was fully replaced by Trial by Jury after intervention from the Pope.

Medieval historian Dr Eleanor Janega takes us on a whistle-stop tour across London, visiting some key historical sites and shining a light on the various communities of medieval London.
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Amy Irvine