Crime and Punishment in Medieval Europe: Exploring the Dark Side

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Crime and punishment

Throughout the medieval period, people committed numerous crimes varying from theft, treason, rape, and highway robbery. These few crimes largely show that the main cause of common crime was connected to poverty. Medieval life was characterized by poverty for the vast majority of the population. Poverty was usually caused by the regular occurrence of famine and disease, taxation, or warfare. Due to such causes of poverty, crime tempted by many. In order to prevent crimes, it was believed that punishments were to be feared. The strict punishments were influenced and ordered by the church.

During medieval Europe, there were no founded police forces. Instead of police, local militia, state soldiers, mercenaries, and more private and state-funded armed forces were commonly used. To keep people from committing crimes, there were severely strict punishments such as fines, shaming, cutting of various body parts, and death. Of course, this depended on the crime committed. Mentioned below are torturing devices and punishments commonly used in this era, which were harmful to the victim of crime.


Stocks were a public torture device that immobilized the feet of the person who is to receive the punishment. Often, it was placed in a square or marketplace, enabling people to throw rotten food or other objects at the suffering person, while also being allowed to kick, spit and insult. The stocks were made up of two large hinged wooden boards in which the feet of the victim were locked in. Occasionally, the victim would be bare, increasing the humiliation as well as exposing the victim to the elements for days.

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Wooden horse:

The wooden horse was a painful torture device and was also commonly known as the Cavaletto or Squarciapalle (depending on the country where it was used). This inflicted pain using the victim's own weight while spreading his or her legs. This punishment was more commonly used on women however, there are accounts that it was also used on men. It contained a triangular-shaped piece of wood with sharp edges. This was then placed over a sawhorse with an edge of the triangle pointing upward toward the victim, who was ordered and forced to straddle the “horse”.

Iron Maiden:

The Iron Maiden was a horrible medieval torture device. It was a casket containing spikes on the inside, which would slowly be closed, impaling the living person inside.


Similar to stocks mentioned above, the pillory was a torture device humiliating the victim as it was placed in either marketplaces, crossroads or other public places where they were exposed to public abuse. This was a commonly used punishment method used in various countries. The pillory contained two hinged wooden boards with three holes, one for the head and the other two for the limbs.

Death by sawing:

Death by sawing is a pretty self-explanatory method, used to execute a victim of crime. A saw was used to execute the victim in half either transversally or sagittal. According to detailed accounts, the person would be hung down and sawn vertically however, before this gruesome act, the person was fastened to a board.


To conclude, the few punishments previously mentioned were commonly used in medieval Europe. Some had an outcome of minor injuries whilst others were dead. Obviously, the crime committed determined the punishment however, all punishments were severely painful and gruesome. The church came up with the majority of punishments and thought an efficient way of reducing crime is to make people fear the punishments.

In medieval Europe, torture was not just a form of punishment or a deterrent for serious crimes like treason, sexual violence, homicide, and arson, but also a sanguinary, collective experience: ordinary people would gather together in order to witness the torments inflicted upon the criminal. The delinquent’s abdomen could be sawed when s/he was still alive, the body could be dismembered, eyes excavated, the agonizing body stabbed with incandescent pokers. A thrilled public would take part to this physical and psychological humiliation by insulting the condemned or cheering at the violence… a form of attraction for a society whose social life was based on mainly feudal and religious duties and where entertainment mainly occurred during restricted periods (e.g. festivals). The impact of religious change on crime The increase in crimes associated with religion shows how changing government policy can influence crime rates. Different types of punishments were awarded for different types of crimes. For theft, the punishment was extra work and fines or the hands of the guilty were cut off. Murderers were given the death penalty by hanging or beheading. Flogging was the punishment for people not working hard enough whereas the people accused of cheating and drunkenness were put in the stocks or pillory.  

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