Adhering to any religion you choose, even if it’s Redneck or Scientologist, and publicly talking trash about all the others. Wearing your hat at a funeral (rude as it may be). Cheating on your wife or girlfriend. Begging. Talking crap about authorities and politicians. All of these commonplace, seemingly insignificant details of a person’s life were once very illegal — and punishable by law in the middle ages. Even sex was cracked down upon in the middle ages — no sex during periods, no sex completely naked, no sex unless it’s in an attempt to produce a child, no sex during daylight, no anal sex, etc.
Criminology in ancient times was harsher, less forgiving, and certainly much less understanding. Criminology was less about understanding crimes and their causes and much more about punishing the perpetrators. Even the criminology in the court system was absolutely ridiculous — trials by fire, drowning, and combat were all extremely common, especially for those accused of witchery, devil worshiping or sorcery.
Many suspects would be subject to “ordeals,” or trials by some form of ridiculous and dangerous shenanigans. The criminology of ordeals left little to psychology and everything in the hands of random testing whose outcome would be attributed to God or some unknown natural force. The simplest ordeal to understand was that of combat, which was a trial decided by a fight. Sadly, the suspect was sometimes forced to fight his or her own mother or father. Other times, the accused would don armor and fight a knight of remarkable stature and strength. If the accused won, it was assumed that God granted strength to the individual because he had been innocent.
Ordeal by fire had even more of an obvious (and painful) outcome; the accused would be severely burned on his hand. Three days later, the removed bandage would show a healing or festering wound — an infection implied guilt.
There was also ordeal by bread, where the accused was forced to attempt swallowing an entire piece of bread without chewing. If they miraculously managed not to choke, it meant that God helped him chew the bread. Yum.
Ordeal by water saw the accused thrown into the water; innocent parties would sink, while water would “reject” guilty people by causing them to float.
So Much for Jail
The punishment often fit the crime in the dark ages in the way that torturers tried to inflict pain upon a body part which somehow related to the “crime” committed. There were no criminologists trying to work out behavioral characteristics of burglars; thieves often had their hands chopped right off. Spies may have eyes removed, while other random body parts were cut off of people accused of other various crimes.
The most gruesome punishments, however, were often reserved for those accused of murder and high treason — but not always. The unrelenting criminology of the dark ages saw thousands tortured to death, their bodies finally giving up due to blood loss, internal damage or simply too much pain.
Liars, blasphemers, and other suspects accused of committing crimes with their attitudes and words were often condemned to The Pear, a pear-shaped metal bolt which was shoved into the suspect’s mouth. It would then be cranked, causing it to split into four parts from the middle and open wider and wider until the teeth cracked and the jaw was broken in half.
The pear was not only used in the mouth, however; other versions were meant for the anus or vagina, which was usually reserved for homosexuals or women who either committed adultery or performed abortions. Another punishment for adultery was a hot iron metal brace which wrapped around the woman’s shoulders and pierced her breasts in two places on either side.
A Gentle Shaming in England
Many historians say that criminology, punishments and trials in the middle ages were all actually much more fair than people tend to believe…in England, at least. Mary Carrel, a historian, says that limb amputation was fading out in the middle ages, while public shaming was much more common (except for murderers, who were still executed). Carrel says that the public shaming, which may consist of being forced to walk naked through the streets, was meant to gently chastise the non violent criminal.
She also points out that fines were collected, many of which took the place of jail sentences. Carrel states that begging was actually encouraged, and convicts living out jail sentences behind bars were permitted to beg on the streets as long as they shared their profits with the jailers. Stocks were also used, which are long wooden boards which would lock in a person’s hands or feet. These were less gentle, as the accused often starved or was beaten with rocks and fists by passersby.
Sound of the Beast
There was no police force in the middle ages. The police simply didn’t exist. It was often up to the victim to track down the suspect and present evidence of that person’s guilt in court, taking on multiple criminology positions in the process.
There was also the Hue and Cry, which was a method of chasing scoundrels throughout the town — if a person saw another committing a crime, they could cry out for those around him to give chase. If the townspeople decided to ignore the cry, they were then all guilty and responsible as well. The closest thing to police may have been the cruel and unruly small armies of local lords, who used these men to terrorize and harass the townsfolk of the local villages. Because the only people stopping crime were the villagers themselves, these armies could wreak havoc without fear of punishment.