Violence and the Law in Medieval England: How Dangerous Was Life in the Middle Ages? Sean McGlynn Gets to Grips with the Level of Violent Crime, and the Sometimes Cruel Justice Meted out to Offenders

By McGlynn, Sean | History Today, April 2008 | Go to article overview

Violence and the Law in Medieval England: How Dangerous Was Life in the Middle Ages? Sean McGlynn Gets to Grips with the Level of Violent Crime, and the Sometimes Cruel Justice Meted out to Offenders


McGlynn, Sean, History Today


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The medieval world has an understandable reputation for brutality. In 2002, during the trial of Slobodan Milosevic at the war crimes tribunal at The Hague, the chief prosecutor, Carla del Ponte, accused the Butcher of the Balkans of 'medieval savagery'. A common perception of the Middle Ages is that society was brutalized by constant violence and even partly desensitized against death by the persistent presence of the Four Horsemen of the Apocalypse constantly trampling their way back and forth across Europe.

However, although the Middle Ages frequently did succumb to war, famine and plague, this neither inured people to the devastation of loss nor, of course, did it fundamentally alter human nature in any way. In fact, to a significant degree, the awareness of danger and violence was in itself a major driving force behind society's seemingly cruel and bloodthirsty acts that have often come to characterize the medieval world. This was most clearly manifested in the area of crime and punishment, adding to what Johan Huizinga influentially referred to as the 'the violent tenor of life'. In his famous The Waning of the Middle Ages (1924), Huizinga says that public executions in late medieval France and the Netherlands 'were spectacular displays with a moral. For horrible crimes the law invented atrocious punishments'. Crime was a

   ... menace to order and society, as
   well as an insult to divine majesty.
   Thus it was natural that the late
   Middle Ages should become the
   special period of judicial cruelty.

However, pressures for the severest forms of punishment came as much from below as from above: indeed, authorities that were deemed too lenient or lax in carrying out sentences were liable to come in for harsh criticism from ordinary people. In 1389 in England, public opinion led to Parliament successfully petitioning for the limiting of pardons granted for violent crimes. (This was an old problem: governments would commission trawls of prisons in order to boost army recruitment, as Edward 1 (1272-1307) did in 1284 for his Gascon campaign.)

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Throughout the whole medieval period there was popular demand for malefactors to receive punishment that was both harsh and purposefully terrifying. This reflected people's investment in the social order and their anxiety at any perceived threat to it. Such was this enthusiasm and the desire to see justice being done there was even an executions transfer market: bids were made to stage the executions of condemned men in front of home crowds.

Public executions were pitiless affairs. In Paris in 1427 an official harangued and set upon a condemned man attempting to make his last confession to a priest; he then assaulted the hangman for allowing this act of spiritual reconciliation. The unnerved executioner made a mess of the hanging and the condemned man fell to the ground, breaking a leg and some ribs. He was made to drag himself back up to the scaffold for completion of the sentence.

Legitimate, judicial violence was deemed essential in the fight to suppress illegitimate, random violence. The monarch, in his role as the supreme judge, was expected to employ whatever violence was necessary in pursuit of social stability and safety for his subjects. Mutilations sent out a message of warning and deterrence; executions offered the ultimate guarantee against repeat offenders.

Cautionary and minatory forms of visual, legal violence were everywhere in the Middle Ages, as Barbara Tuchman makes gruesomely clear in her book A Distant Mirror: The Calamitous Fourteenth Century (1978):

   The tortures and punishments of
   civil justice customarily cut off
   hands and ears, racked, burned,
   flayed, and pulled apart people's
   bodies. In everyday life, passers-by
   saw some criminal flogged with a
   knotted rope or chained upright in
   an iron collar. … 

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