Living Conditions in the 1500s: Crime and Punishment

It may help one to appreciate modern times by spending some time studying the way things really were in the past. Toward that approach, the Historical Perspective section of the Positive Press will occasionally analyze the real, as opposed to romanticized, living conditions of the past. In the last Historical Perspective we looked at the daily life of Medieval peasants, including what they wore and how they conducted themselves at meal time. This week we look at the Medieval system of crime and punishment.

The source material for this Historical Perspective is William Manchester’s best-selling book, “A World Lit Only By Fire.”

Long before the days of separation of church and state, the Roman Catholic Church was the law-maker and law-enforcer for most Europeans. Church law covered a multitude of life’s aspects, and carried heavy, often brutal, punishments for violations of Church rules and regulations.

A woman who broke Lent by cooking and eating ham was sentenced to walk for a month with a ham around her neck and a quarter of mutton, on its spit, on her shoulder.

However, this was a relatively minor punishment for a relatively minor sin. A knight who stole a chalice, with very little monetary value, from a church faced a tortuous punishment: first, he was forced to donate his entire fortune to the local bishop, then he lay prostrate in front of the church altar fasting and praying for 24 hours. Finally, he was forced to lay in submission while sixty monks and priests clubbed him as he yelled, “Just are thy judgments, O Lord!”

These ecclesiastical punishments often paled besides those of the lay courts, which included cutting off ears and similar bodily mutilations too gruesome to detail in the Positive Press. And noble birth did not mean living above the law.

Count Fulk the Black of Anjou, who had a history of sin stretching back 20 years, is a case in point. When he finally asked for the Church’s forgiveness, in order to save himself from an eternity in Hell, his punishment was a triple pilgrimage to Jersualem by foot. The sentence, with which he complied, required him to walk over 15,000 miles in chains. Thus he completed three round trips walking across most of France, over the Alps, through Hungary, Bosnia, Bulgaria and a number of other countries before reaching Syria and Jordan near the end of the trip. As he finished the final leg of the penance, he was bull-whipped by two men assigned to give him the climax of his punishment.

The modern American justice system is far from perfect. Innocent men are sometimes incarcerated while the guilty sometimes go free. The system often seems cumbersome and dominated by lawyers whose first concern is not necessarily justice. Nonetheless, would you trade the American system for the Medieval European one?