Capital punishment is not a forgein concept for most individuals, but the methods of criminal execution have changed over the course of history. The Middle Ages are often considered to be among the most violent time periods when it comes to torture and execution, and this consideration is well within reason. With a diverse array of methods and practices, executions in the Middle Ages are notoriously violent and often cruel. At the time, however, these methods of public torture and execution were not taboo, and instead were socially acceptable.
Determining the method of execution tended to be dependent on the crime as well as the status of the criminal to be punished. Individuals of certain classes and genders were often punished differently than their peers, for example. Most of the following methods of execution are no longer in practice, but there are some that persisted for centuries until the modern era. In general, executions served to strike fear and loyalty in the public, which is also why a majority of executions in the Middle Ages were public.
One of the most recognizable methods of public execution, hanging was a common practice, and it could be used for practically anyone regardless of class or wealth. With a trap door, individuals who were hanged might die immediately if their necks snapped, but in some cases, individuals would not die until they suffocated or choked to death. Because this practice was something of a public spectacle and it was easy to arrange, it persisted as a common method of execution until the 19th century. Even now, in the United States, some states still feature hanging as a method of execution, and the most recent execution by hanging in the United States occurred in the mid 1990s in Delaware.
Another common method of execution, being burned at the stake was popular for heretics as well as those accused of being witches. This was a painful method of execution that required the condemned individual to be strapped to a sturdy stake at the center of a pile of flammable sticks. In order to ensure their containment, chains were commonly used to secure the guilty party. The sticks at their feet were ignited, and the individual was burned to death. Like hanging, burning was a method of execution that was popular as a public spectacle.
Considered to be a particularly painful and cruel method of execution, death by impalement entailed impaling an individual on a pole or metal spear and leaving them to die. Most individuals who were sentenced to death by impaling were child molestors, women guilty of infanticide, or accused witches. Only those whose actions were deemed unforgivable or heinous would be executed in this way.
Regarded as one of the most noble and humane methods of execution, beheading was often reserved for nobility and royalty. In most cases, an axe was used; if the blade was sharp enough, the beheading could be completed in a single blow, but the task sometimes required additional strikes. Had some mercy been granted, a sword might be used in place of the axe, resulting in a smoother, less painful decapitation.
Individuals who were boiled alive were commonly found guilty of counterfeiting documents, forging coins, or poisoning others. A cauldron of boiling water or oil would be prepared, and the guilty individual would then be tossed into the liquid to slowly be scalded until they died. This method was not particularly common.
Hung, Drawn, and Quartered
This method may be the most horrific execution style of the Middle Ages, and it was typically reserved for individuals who were found guilty of high treason. Condemned individuals would be hanged until they were half-dead. Once they reached this point, they would be taken down only to have their limbs tied to four different horses. These horses would then be stirred to action, and when they all took off in different directions, the body would be torn apart; this practice, known as quartering, served as its own execution method, as well. However, the punishment did not end there. The body would then be disemboweled, and if the guilty individual was still alive, the executioner would deliver the final blow and behead them. It is believed that the disemboweled organs were fed to a fire before the eyes of the individual, and the severed limbs might be sent to different parts of the city or region to dissuade anyone from committing the same crimes.
All forms of public execution served to demonstrate the power of the governing authority and deter criminals from breaking the law. Many of the methods used for execution in the Middle Ages were designed to be painful and cruel because of this reason. Though many of these execution methods have been abandoned in favor of more humane methods, execution as capital punishment is still a practice that occurs today.
Jorge J. Perez is an attorney in South Florida. He is passionate about history, particularly that which predates the 20th century.