I came across an odd bit of information a couple of months ago. Even though I don't write historicals, I decided to save it. When looking through a stack of oddities in search of a subject for this week's blog, I found it.
Unlike the message we get from Hollywood, Medieval times weren't as barbaric as we've been led to believe. And with that thought in mind, here's a list of the ten biggest myths about justice in the Dark Ages.
10) Go Directly To Jail?
Most Medieval communities actually had a judge and jury type of system, although it was much quicker than today's long drawn out sessions. "Court" generally lasted less than half an hour. At the judge's discretion, he could ask a few simple questions and deliver a verdict without consulting the jury.
9) The Lawless Middle Age Villages?
Earlier Medieval communities had much more social responsibility than today. If one member claimed to be wronged, every resident had to join in the hunt and persecution of the criminal, otherwise they would all be held responsible.
8) Those Strict Church Types?
The pious Middle Ages were serious about religious offenses. Each town's church usually ran its own kind of court to investigate everything from bad attendance to heresy. However, the concept of sanctuary was also well known with the church as a place where criminals could avoid sentencing or punishment. And on some occasions even be assisted in leaving the country.
7) Out Of Sight, Out Of Mind?
Criminals who committed lesser offenses were often subject to a policy of three strikes and you're out—literally. Repeat offenders were often simply banished from a city and not allowed back rather than killing them or having them clutter up the prisons. Humane and cost effective.
6) Executions: Left, Right, and Center?
According to Hollywood, Medieval evil-doers were killed on whim and often in public squares for even the slightest of offenses. In reality, capital punishment was used only in the most serious cases which included murder, treason, and arson with the guilty usually hanged.
5) Royal Highnesses High Above the Law?
Medieval nobles did enjoy certain privileges when it came to bending laws or making new ones to serve their purposes. However, most European countries had legislation preventing their kings and queens from running wild, such as England's Magna Carta.
4) Public Beheadings as Weekly Spectacle?
Beheading was swift and painless—as long as the axe was sharp. It was considered a privileged way to die and reserved primarily for the nobility. Treason was the crime of choice with the beheadings usually taking place inside castle walls rather than in public.
3) The Burning Times?
A few witches, as proclaimed by their accusers, were burned at the stake during Medieval times. But it was during the following Reformation period (beginning approximately in 1550) that burning witches at the stake really took off. However, in England witches were rarely burned and were hanged instead.
2) Off With Your Ear?
Mutilation—severing of an ear or hand—was occasionally used as a punishment for serious crimes, especially in larger jurisdictions such as London. But more often, Medieval law enforcement used it as an empty threat rather than actually doing it.
1) Rack 'Em Up?
Immortalized in the film Braveheart, the most famous (or infamous?) torture device of all time was the rack. It probably wasn't used in England until the very end of the Medieval period. It was used extensively along with other devices beginning in the torturous days of the 1500s when Queen Elizabeth I, and other European monarchs, began purging religious opponents.
So, next time you're watching a high budget film set during the Dark Ages and filled with bloody and torturous actions, remember there's a good chance it didn't really happen that way.