Sunday, March 10, 2013

Ten Biggest Myths About Medieval Torture

I came across an odd bit of information a while back.  Even though I don't write historicals, I decided to save it with the thought in mind that it might make an interesting blog.

Medieval times…the Dark Ages.  There are many documented tales of truly barbaric treatment.  But, unlike the message we get from Hollywood's entertainment industry, Medieval times overall 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.

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 signed by King John in 1215.

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 stage 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 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 Medieval times and filled with bloody and torturous actions, remember that there's a good chance it didn't really happen that way.


Margaret Tanner said...

Hi Samantha,
Now that was really fascinating. I falsely assummed that the middle ages were barbraric, now, thanks to your post I know that it wasn't always the case.



Samantha Gentry said...

Hi, Margaret. Medieval times were certainly barbaric by today's standards, but as you said it wasn't always the case. Novels, movies, and television have led us astray over the years. :)

Thanks for your comment.

Harlie Reader said...

Great post Samantha. I have been totally led astray by Hollywood.


Samantha Gentry said...

Hi, Marika: Even if the Medieval times weren't as horrific as we thought, I still wouldn't want to have lived them (unless it was in a castle with lots of servants...maybe). :)

Thanks for stopping by.

Pat Brown said...

Hollywood has a hard time getting today accurate, expecting them to try to get Medieval times right is guaranteed to fail. It would be too taxing to actually do the research, to spend hours reading material and learning the facts.

Besides, think how dull it would be. LOL.

Samantha Gentry said...

Pat: True, true...Hollywood is in the business of providing entertainment rather than factual education. :)

Thanks for your comment.

R. E. Mullins said...

I always love finding out where expressions really originated. Thanks for sharing.

Samantha Gentry said...

Hi, R.E. -- not sure how your comment about my trivia sayings got down here in the medieval torture blog section, but I appreciate you stopping by and leaving a comment.