Medieval Justice Not So Medieval

Medieval Justice Not So Medieval

Labeling idleness a crime may have been a bit strict, but the justice system in medieval England should never be considered backwards.

Punishments for offenses in those days were perhaps even more sensible and humane than they are now, say some historians. [Medieval Torture's 10 Biggest Myths]

"The common view of the medieval justice system as cruel and based around torture and execution is often unfair and inaccurate," said University of Cambridge historian Helen Mary Carrel. Most criminals received gentle sentences merely meant to shame them, Carrel said, with the punishments often carried out in the open so townspeople could bring them charity.

Carrel presented her views recently during the International Medieval Congress, hosted by the University of Leeds.

Open-door policy

The notion that our system is better because law and order happens behind closed doors especially needs to be challenged, Carrel said.

"There is a real downside to keeping those who are punished out of the public eye—we often have no idea how they are being treated," Carrel told LiveScience.

With most medieval communities lacking any proper policing, crime prevention was trusted in the hands of the village common-folk. There was no reason—or means—for punishment to be any different, say experts.

"Punishments therefore had to be simple and generally seen to be fair," according to the online exhibitions of the United Kingdom's National Archives. "Fierce, physical mutilation (cutting off part of the offender's body), common in earlier periods, was now rarely used."

Though murderers were often executed, the majority of lesser medieval offenses were punished by shaming the criminal publicly, according to Carrel. Fastening the offender into stocks wasn't considered barbaric, she said, and was seen as a much better alternative to spending the time in jail.

"Medieval town inhabitants would probably have a much clearer idea of how criminals were treated—and may well have had much more contact with the incarcerated—than most people do today," Carrel said.

Criminal charity

Even medieval jail wasn't a closed-off affair. Prisoners were often let out to beg and could make money behind bars as long as they shared their take with the jailers.

"Charity towards criminals was much more acceptable and much more common in the Middle Ages," Carrel said. "Many people left bequests to help prisoners in their wills, for example." Town officials looking for good press would also leave baskets of food or ale for the jailed, Carrel said.

Medieval authorities were lacking the funds to construct and upkeep jail systems as we know them today. In special cases when long-term incarceration was required, or to hold a prisoner awaiting trial, castle dungeons would have been used, according to the National Archives.

Twelve shillings for a maid

But cash payment was sufficient enough punishment for minor crimes—today's misdemeanors—and was mostly intended to keep everyone involved happy and out of trouble, say historians.

"The Anglo-Saxon system of criminal justice was mainly concerned to prevent feuds provoked by violent or serious crime," according to medieval historians Andrew Barrett and Christopher Harrison. "The system was designed to force the victim or, if he was dead or incapacitated, his family to accept compensation rather than turn to violence."

The common toll for sleeping with a nobleman's serving maid in early medieval times was twelve shillings, Barrett and Harrison give as an example in their book "Crime and Punishment in England" (Routledge, 2001).

The lack of police patrols and maximum-security penitentiaries didn't translate into a lawless society, however. Murder rates per capita in 14th-century England were a fifth that of Washington D.C. in the 1990s, according to estimates by the British government.

Heather Whipps
Heather Whipps writes about history, anthropology and health for Live Science. She received her Diploma of College Studies in Social Sciences from John Abbott College and a Bachelor of Arts in Anthropology from McGill University, both in Quebec. She has hiked with mountain gorillas in Rwanda, and is an avid athlete and watcher of sports, particularly her favorite ice hockey team, the Montreal Canadiens. Oh yeah, she hates papaya.