Sunday, January 5, 2020

10 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 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. At the Salem witch trials in the U.S., most of the accused who were actually put to death were hanged.

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


Ashantay said...

Many "historical" films and TV shows are historically inaccurate. Thanks for pointing out the facts!

GiniRifkin said...

Enjoyed your interesting post. Always glad to read research material in various time periods.

Anna Taylor Sweringen said...

You have the best topics. Thanks for this one.

Terry Graham said...

This actually makes more sense than the gory stuff in the movies. I especially liked the idea about everyone having to hunt down the criminals. There's definitely a plot point idea in that one.

Mary Morgan said...

Great post, Samantha! To add another note, there are a few known cases of burning witches in Scotland as far back as the 1400's. When doing research for one of my books, I was stunned at all the documentation regarding the witch trials.

Ilona Fridl said...

Interesting post! Thank you!

Janice Seagraves said...

They also didn't have a dungeon. Dungeons are something Hollywood made up. A little fact I stumbled upon way back when. They usually housed the criminals in the guard tower where the guards could watch over them.

Lucy K. said...

Thanks for another interesting post. I always learn something new here.

Samantha Gentry said...

Ashantay: Unless the TV program is a true documentary, the movies and TV shows are made for entertainment which certainly results in some big departures from the truth and reality.

Thanks for your comment.

Samantha Gentry said...

Gini: I'm glad you enjoyed my post.

Thanks for your comment.

Samantha Gentry said...

Ana: I have a similar topic for the week of January 12th.

Thanks for your comment.

Samantha Gentry said...

Terry: Yes, the idea of all the townspeople being involved in tracking down the criminal gives that time frame more of a community feel rather than the peasants constantly beaten down and stepped on.

Thanks for your comment.

Samantha Gentry said...

Mary: I've done a little bit of research on the witch trials. Fascinating stuff. Burning at the stake was prevalent in France. By the time the witch trial frenzy reached across the Atlantic to the colonies, witches were hanged rather than burned. At the Salem witch trials, of 20 convicted witches, 19 were hanged and 1 was crushed under stones (he's the one who put the curse on the sheriffs of Salem).

Thanks for your comment.

Samantha Gentry said...

Ilona: Glad you enjoyed it.

Thanks for your comment.

Samantha Gentry said...

Janice: That dungeon point is interesting. A dungeon is certainly a lot more 'atmospheric' for the movies than a guard tower and something with a more oppressive dark and dank feel to it.

Thanks for your comment.

Samantha Gentry said...

Lucy: Glad you enjoyed it.

Thanks for your comment.