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Crime and Punishment in the Middle Ages

Gaynor Borade
The Middle Ages were a time in history when the masses were ruled by people who wanted to use their power to exploit the masses and dominate the land. This story highlights the crime and punishment in the Middle Ages.
The early Middle Ages' era began around 1066. This period is identified by battles and conquests. Ending in 1485, the era paved the way for what is recognized as the Medieval era. Historians believe that this phase in world history began with the death of King Richard III.
Thereafter, the phase around 1485 witnessed the end of an era, and the beginning of a period that changed world history altogether - The Renaissance in Italy and subsequently, the entire world. The epoch witnessed the reigns of the kings and wars like the Wars of the Roses and the Battle of Bosworth Field.
This period was enriched by the presence of enigmatic luminaries, including Joan of Arc, Geoffrey Chaucer, Martin Luther, Marco Polo, and William Wallace. The Middle Ages span nearly five-hundred years of European history. The times were violent and barbarous.
The Middle Age era was known for inhumane punishments for crime and exploitation of the commoners. The protection offered by the knights and the lords in return for labor often led the rebellious common man towards petty crimes like theft and treason, for which he had to pay a very high price.

Law and Regulatory Body

  • The law and rules in the Middle ages were highly influenced by the ancient Roman laws.
  • The Roman laws could easily reach Europe due to the written scriptures, known as the digest and because of the preachers and jurists who traveled to different parts of the continent.
  • The Church and the Monarchs had the authoritative right of the formation and change of laws directly, and the citizens did not have a fair say in these.
  • The judicial practice was regulated by the system of Ordeals. These were tough and rather dangerous exercises to be taken up by the accused to prove their innocence.
  • These were mostly used for women who pleaded not guilty to offenses.
  • The ordeal of fire included walking on coal blocks of fire.
  • Another type of ordeal was water. In the hot water ordeal, one would have to immerse their hand in boiling water, and the wound would be examined three days later to confirm innocence.
  • If the wound was healing, the person would be spared, or otherwise held guilty.
  • Similarly, the cold water ordeal would mean submerging an individual in a flowing stream. If he survived, he would be termed innocent. There were more such ordeals with poison, ingestion of dry bread, witch-hunt, and the ordeal of the cross.


This was an era of cruel and inconsiderate exploitation. In fact, much of the rebellion that the phase witnessed came from such aggravation. The commoners were either punished for going against the commands of the lords and knights or for thieving, to provide amidst scarcity. Rebellion against the unjust system and subsequently, treason was a common crime during these times.
When King Henry VIII took over as 'head of the church', hearsay was an offense. It was considered a sin as well, to be going against God. The other crimes in the Middle Ages, which were strongly reprimanded, included witchcraft and vagrancy.
While the former was largely a part of hearsay, the latter involved wandering aimlessly. Then, there was smuggling of prized articles like silk and tobacco, and highway robberies were common. Looting the rich was a game for the outlaws.
Strict rules were formulated to bring to justice murderers, as murders were the crimes that were most common. But despite the harsh punishments, the crime rate in the Middle ages was high.
If we compare the rate of murders today with that in the Middle ages, there would be forty-five incidents of murders for every lac people in the community, whereas the rate today is lower than one. Easy availability of weapons and no law restricting weapon use could have been the reasons behind high crime rates.
Also, the social structure and the law and order were contributing factors. Male dominance was responsible for the oppressive treatment given to women. However, it may not be very correct to compare the crime rate then and now, as the concepts of crime in the two ages differ.
There were quite a few instances of citizens being hanged for counterfeiting coins and rape. The senior officials and the government, which comprised only men would constantly harass and repeatedly rape women and exploit their modesty, and that was accepted as a punishment for women. The women could not raise their voice, or the consequence would be dire, with their spouses being killed and daughters raped.


During this era, punishments were severe and criminals were punished by the kings, knights, lords, sheriffs, and the church. The local police were responsible for confining the criminals to an area till any trial commenced.
The criminals were not fed by the authorities, and depended solely on family and friends for food and other necessities. The jails were filthy places, and many of the criminals died of disease and starvation.
The punishment could be anything from death, fines, public humiliation, and subjection to torture chambers, depending on the criminal's social status. Torture was mostly used to extract names of accomplices, testimonies, and confessions.
The methods of torture that were used include pillory, brodequins, execution by the wheel, quartering, hanging, and anything that could cause immense pain. The torture was a deliberate and systematic infliction of physical and mental pain and anguish.
The devices used were designed to ensure the infliction of unbearable agony. However, when devices were not used, the methods were barbarous and included ripping out nails and teeth, merciless beating, branding, disfigurement, limb removal, and starvation.

Kinship through Tithing

The system of tithing, usually called frank-pledge was formulated in which a group of ten people above the ages of twelve was made and each had to monitor and administer the others in the group.
This strategy was made to ensure that young boys and men abide by the laws and if they did not, the others with them had to bring it to the notice of the authority. This was an easier way to maintain discipline amongst the members, and if someone was found guilty of a crime, the others were punished too, to bring awareness and common suffering.
The rulers of the medieval ages had set extremely low standards in promoting goodwill and people lived in the fear of being axed to death in their own land too. Many a time, innocent people would be killed without any trials or verification of the crime.
Inhuman methods of punishment were employed until the late 19th century when people started to educate themselves and wanted a way away from such practices. The growing sensitivity towards life and its importance finally led to the end of cruel practices towards the middle of the 20th century.