Medieval Crime and Punishment

By: Tyler, Kaden, Alyssa and Cutter


Throughout the medieval period it was believed that the only way to keep order was to make sure that the people were scared of the punishments given for crimes committed. For this reason all crimes from stealing to murder had harsh punishments. Although there were jails, they were generally used to hold a prisoner awaiting trial rather than as a means of punishment. Fines, mutilation (cutting off a part of the body) or death were the most common forms of punishment. There was no police force in the medieval period so law-enforcement was in the hands of the community.

Manorial Court

The manorial court dealt with all but the most serious crimes. It was held at various intervals during the year and all villagers had to attend or pay a fine. All men were placed in groups of ten called a tithing. Each tithing had to make sure that no member of their group broke the law. If a member of a tithing broke a law then the other members had to make sure that he went to court. The Lord’s steward was in charge of the court. A jury of twelve men was chosen by the villagers. The jury had to collect evidence and decide whether the accused was guilty or not guilty and, if found guilty, what the punishment should be.

The King's Court (Trial by Ordeal)

The most serious crimes went the the King's court. The accused had to face trial by ordeal. Ordeals were replaced by jury trials after 1215.

Ordeal by Fire:

In these ordeal the accused had to pick up a red hot iron bar and walk four paces. After three days if their hands started healing they were innocent, if their hands had not started healing they were pronounced guilty.

Ordeal by Water:

The accused had their hands and feet tied together and they were thrown into a body of water. If they floated they were guilty and if they sank they were innocent.

Crimes and Their Punishments

Most crimes during this time resulted in cruel torture and death. Some crimes and their punishments included,

Treason- death by hanging or guillotine

Theft- public humiliation

Rebellion- death by hanging also faced, pear of anguish, the guillotine, and rat torture

Types of Torture

Boot/Spanish Boot
-It consisted of a pair of horizontal iron plates which tightened around the foot by means of a crank mechanism in order to lacerate the flesh and crush the bones of the foot. Variations were added including the addition of hundreds of sharp spikes to the plates and horrifically a crank mechanism was connected to a drill, so that when the instrument was tightened around the foot a hole was drilled in the center of the instep. Foot roasting was also a method commonly used. The soles of the feet were smeared with lard and slowly roasted over red-hot coals. A bellows was used to control the intensity of the heat and a screen could be interposed between the feet and the coals as the victim was questioned. If the questions were not answered satisfactorily, the screen was withdrawn and the naked soles were again exposed to the flames

-The Spanish boot were high boots made of spongy leather had been placed on the culprit's feet, he was tied on to a table near a large fire, and a quantity of boiling water was poured on the boots, which penetrated the leather, ate away the flesh, and even dissolved the bones of the victim.

Branding Irons
-The red-hot brazier, which was passed backwards and forwards before the eyes of the culprit, until they were destroyed by the scorching heat. Red hot pokers were applied to various parts of the body. Various marks branded on to the flesh using red hot branding irons. In 1547 the Statute of Vagabonds ruled that vagabonds, gipsies and brawlers were ordered to be branded, the first two with a large V on the breast. the last with F for fighter (brawler). Slaves too who ran away were branded with S on cheek or forehead.

Judas Cradle
-The victim's feet were tied to each other in a way that moving one leg would force the other to move as well, increasing the pain. The triangular-shaped end of the judas cradle was inserted in the victim's anus or vagina. This torture could last anywhere from a few hours to complete days.

-The person in question would be placed in a seated position on a large bench, and well-built, narrow, wooden boards were attached on both the inside and the outside of their legs. The boards were fixed to the legs with sturdy rope.It was quite common that during brodequin torture, the bones of the victim's legs burst

The Rack
-The rack was a machine based on a rectangular wooden frame. The wooden frame had a roller at each end. The victim's feet were manacled to one roller, and the wrists were manacled to the other. A handle and ratchet were attached to the top roller and were turned very gradually stepwise to increase the tension on the chains.The victim was tied across a board by his ankles and wrists. The rollers at either end of the board were turned, pulling the body in opposite directions. The victims body was initially stretched on the rack. However, limbs would be dislocated and prolonged use would end with limbs being completely torn from their sockets inducing the most excruciating pain.

-The thumbscrew was a simple device designed to crush whatever was inserted. Typically thumbs, but even fingers or toes, were placed in the vice and slowly crushed. The crushing process was achieved by varying degrees of the screws which were applied and its toothed iron bars. The force of Medieval Thumbscrews was such that they bone could be crushed and broken. The Medieval Thumbscrews were useful to interrogators as they were a portable means of torture and not restricted to the confines of the torture chamber.

The Wheel
-The victim would be tied to the wheel, and then swung across some undesirable thing below -- fire was always a good choice, but dragging the victim's flesh across metal spikes also worked well. The wheel itself could also have spikes mounted on it, so the pain came from all directions.

Water Torture
-A person undergoing it was tied to a board which was supported horizontally on two trestles. By means of a horn, acting as a funnel, and whilst his nose was being pinched, so as to force him to swallow, they slowly poured four coquemars (about nine pints) of water into his mouth; this was for the ordinary torture. For the extraordinary, double that quantity was poured in . When the torture was ended, the victim was untied, "and taken to be warmed in the kitchen," says the old text.

Drunkard's Cloak
-If putting the offender in the pillory or stocks failed to induce sobriety, they had their law officers take a cask, remove one end, cut a hole in the other end for the head and two in the sides for the hands and force the convicted drunk to parade around town wearing this heavy garment for a set period.

The Maiden
-The device consisted of double doors on the front with upright sarcophagus and spikes on the inner side.

-It was an iron collar fastened by a short chain to a wall, often of the parish church, or to a tree. The collar was placed round the offender's neck and fastened by a padlock.

The Scavenger's Daughter
-he device consisted of one single iron bar that connected iron shackles closing round the victim's hands, feet and neck. This rack positioned the head to the knees of the victim in a sitting position. It compressed the body as to force the blood from the nose and ears.

Scold's Bridle

-The device was a locking iron muzzle, metal mask or cage which encased the head. There was an iron curb projecting into the mouth which rested on the top of the tongue. This device prevented the shrew from speaking. In some instances the iron curb was studded with spikes which inflicted pain if the victim spoke. Some Scold's Bridals had a bell built in which drew attention to the scold as she walked through the streets. The woman would be humiliated by the jeering and comments from other people.

- The culprit sat on a wooden bench with his ankles, and sometimes his wrists or even neck, thrust through holes in movable boards. Punishment in the stocks generally lasted for at least several hours. During this time passers-by would throw all forms of disgusting waste at the hapless culprit.
Ducking Stools

-The Ducking Stool was specifically used as a torture method for women. The device was a chair which was hung from the end of a free-moving arm. The woman was strapped into the chair which was situated by the side of a river. The device would then be swung over the river by the use of the free-moving arm. The woman would then be ducked into the freezing cold water. The length of immersion into the water was decided by the operator and the crime of which the woman was accused. It could last for just a few seconds but in some circumstances this punishment process could be continuously repeated over the course of a day

Injuries Inflicted by Medieval Torture Devices

Ripping out teeth/nails



Flagellation: whipping/beating



Genital Mutilation

Limb/Finger Removal


Tongue Removal

Bone Breaking

Branding and Burning