The Commonly Uncommon Medieval Execution

Right. What’s going on with burning Agnes at the stake? Is it just a medieval form of eye-for-an-eye? You burn down your neighbour’s house, we’ll burn down the bodily house in which your soul resides. You blaspheme against God, we’ll rip out your tongue. You steal a loaf of bread, we’ll steal your appendix. You forge letters, we’ll use your bones to heat the forges making…umm…paper?

I think things have rather quickly gone off the rails.

Maybe it’s not so simple as eye-for-an-eye, in that case.

First, let’s put aside one common misconception about the Middle Ages: punishment was not always and everywhere tortuous and deadly. As an illustrative example, here’s the cover of a book by John D. Bessler, associate professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law.

Cover of John D. Bessler’s The Death Penalty as Torture: From the Dark Ages to Abolition. Carolina Academic Press, 2017.

Before I tear this cover to shreds, allow me to acknowledge that Bessler probably didn’t choose this cover. I also have some fellow-feeling for Bessler as a fellow-Minnesotan (he even did his law degree at Hamline, where my father taught and where my mother got her JD). Now that those biases have been set forth, let’s look at the bias set out here. Then I’ll get to the question of burning at the stake directly.

Here’s an excerpt of the book blurb (I’ve only omitted the bits having to do with the modern world):

During the Dark Ages and the Renaissance, Europe’s monarchs often resorted to torture and executions. The pain inflicted by instruments of torture from the thumbscrew and the rack to the Inquisition’s tools of torment was eclipsed only by horrific methods of execution, from breaking on the wheel and crucifixion to drawing and quartering and burning at the stake. The English Bloody Code made more than 200 crimes punishable by death, and judicial torture expressly authorized by law and used to extract confessions permeated continental European legal systems. Judges regularly imposed death sentences and other harsh corporal punishments, from the stocks and the pillory, to branding and ear cropping, to lashes at public whipping posts. In the Enlightenment, jurists and writers questioned the efficacy of torture and capital punishment…In The Death Penalty as Torture, Prof. John Bessler argues that death sentences and executions are medieval relics…

Were there executions during the Middle Ages? Yes!

Was there torture? Yes!

Does it really get my goat when someone calls the entire 1,000 year expanse of time (not to mention geography) that encompasses the Middle Ages the “Dark Ages”? Oh, you have no idea… I have lost so many goats…

I haven’t read the book, I will admit, but the blurb and the cover do a lot of work to play on stereotypes we have about the Middle Ages. Did those horrific executions described in the blurb exist? Yes. Were they the most common forms of execution? Not hardly. Hanging was the most common, followed by simple decapitation. Torture was also used, and it was bad, no question about it, but even it had rules. Those who broke those rules could be and were brought up on charges over it.

And I’m just going to set the Inquisition to one side, because it’s really not the same kettle of fish as the rest of the daily business of justice Bessler lumps it in with.

Back to the summary: Did a lot of executions take place. Sure. When you’re talking about 1,000 years and a geography that spans all of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East (and I’d argue even more than that, but I strongly doubt Bessler has such an expansive, global view of the Middle Ages), the numbers swiftly add up. Here’s the thing though, most crimes did NOT end with an execution. Even when the statute books said that that was the only punishment available.

In other words, if you judge only by the law books, medieval Europe (again, limiting to be fair to Bessler’s scope) looks a lot more bloody than it was in reality. How do I know this? Well, we have records. We also have a lot of not-records.

Allow me to explain.

There are numerous cases of a person committing, say, treason against the king. Pretty clear case that it’s a capital crime. Same with murder. Definitely a capital crime, especially once we’re into the late Middle Ages (meaning ~1250-1500). Yet, when you read the trial documents, many many people (sometimes a majority, depending on when and where you’re looking) get off with a fine or a bit of public humiliation. As for the “not-records,” that comes from the fact that often times people took themselves into self-imposed exile. Or we have a record where the trial was begun, but we never see its conclusion. We cannot, based on what I wrote above regarding fines, then assume that the trial ended with an execution. Sometimes we can even be positive that it didn’t because the accused crops up later on in another record.

We can’t even be certain they were tortured, as many times the existing records don’t specify that they were.

Shouldn’t we assume it anyway?

No. Consider my area of expertise, France. Torture was more often used post conviction. So if we don’t have a conviction, we can’t be sure someone was tortured. Add to that the fact that simply being left alone in the room to contemplate the instruments of torture, before they’re ever used on your body, was counted by some courts as a round of torture in itself. How do we, in 2020, tally that up? Torture or not torture?

Now for the book cover.

Cover of John D. Bessler’s The Death Penalty as Torture: From the Dark Ages to Abolition. Carolina Academic Press, 2017.

We have the stocks up at the top. Also known as the pillory, this was definitely a humiliating and painful punishment, but it wasn’t execution. In fact, it was often used instead of capital punishment.

How about hanging, of which there are three woodcuts on this cover (unless the top right is meant to be the ladder)? Well, it could be pretty bad. And there’s no question it was a method of execution. But while the corpse was often left suspended from the gibbet for days, the death itself was often quick. Medieval executioners knew their craft and typically the knot was tied in such a way as to break the condemned’s neck at the initial drop.

Look, I’m not advocating for any of this. I personally am opposed to both the death penalty and incarceration. What I am advocating for is a better, more nuanced understanding of the history, even its most salacious bits.

Now we come to burning at the stake. Absolutely, this was a horrible way to go. Most people who were burned alive died of smoke inhalation long before the fire itself consumed their bodies. Again, there were ways to ensure this, based on the type of wood and kindling placed upon the fire. And in many cases in the historical record, the condemned would be strangled at the post before the flames were ever lit, a final act of mercy.

Before I began my Ph.D. work, I assumed that burning at the stake was reserved for witches. After all, that’s how it was always depicted in film and story and my history textbooks from grade school. Certainly, the witch burnings are a dramatic and tragic example of what burning at the stake can be like. But it wasn’t exclusively meant for witches, or women.

So what was burning at the stake used for?

It was the most common means of capital punishment for women in medieval France (though this is not exclusive and changes with time — by the 17th century, the notorious poisoner Madame de Brinvilliers was beheaded and women who’d committed bestiality were buried alive with their animal of choice).

It was also the execution method of choice for heretics, dating back to 1022, the first recorded incidence of it since the end of the western Roman Empire.

In sum, Agnes died at the stake not because she was a witch, or to cosmically balance the scales of justice in light of her arson (har har), but because she was a woman who had committed felony treason.

She was burned because that’s how women were executed in 14th-century France.

She was executed because a woman committing lese-majesty was an abomination in the eyes of the French state.

She deserved it, said her judges, because her crime and being was disruptive to the good of the whole and could not be tolerated within the society.

We lock people away for an eternity because they stole a pair of hedge clippers. s infuriating. And is this story just one instance? Sure. But so is the case of Agnes. So maybe we shouldn’t judge an entire millennium on the basis of one person.

However, I’ll very happily judge the Louisiana Supreme Court on the basis of Fair Wayne Bryant.

5 Ways to Commit Medieval Treason without Knowing It

Medieval treason, usually called lèse-majesté in the French criminal records, was a catch-all term in the 14th century. Just about anything could be treason. There’s your obvious stuff: trying to kill the king, allying with the enemy during a time of war, trying to overthrow the king. Then there’s the less obvious, such as theft and rape and things that seem to have nothing to do with the king or the realm.

Here are five ways people in medieval France found to commit treason without even realizing they were doing it.

‘Treason!’ says the king to the cat on the throne.

1. Burn down your neighbour’s house

As Agnes Poulain discovered in 1390, arson, especially when it could threaten an entire village, was not taken lightly by the Crown. Her fire-starting habits were a threat to the king’s ability to protect his subjects, as well as being bloody stupid.

2. Burn down a post

It helps if that post is currently displaying the royal safeguard, the sign of the king’s special protection over an area or a person. In one case, in 1348, a knight attacked a town that had been placed under the king’s protection. The court is very clear that what makes all the raping and pillaging particularly egregious, and so high treason, is the incineration of the safeguard. Sure, killing the friars in the priory isn’t great, says the court, but what really gets our goat is thumbing your nose at the king’s authority. Typical bureaucrats.

3. Steal letters of commission

In 1349, the bishop of Luçon and his accomplices attacked the nephew of the archdeacon, taking royal letters granting the nephew an official office. The act of stealing royal documents, even ones as routine as an appointment to a regional post, was ruled an act of high treason. Put simply, it interfered with the king’s ability to run his kingdom as he wanted.

4. Rape your son’s fiancée

When the lord of Biron got it into his head in the 1340s to rape his son’s betrothed, he probably didn’t expect the Crown prosecutor to charge him with high treason. This one’s trickier to suss out why it’s treason. The short of it is that treason was as much about protecting the king and his rights as it was about articulating social expectations. Yes, even in the Middle Ages, society expected you not to rape your son’s wife-to-be. Also, don’t violate a marriage contract. I’ll leave it to you to decide which violation mattered more.

5. Sell some apples

Jean Maillet made the mistake of selling some apples and other foods to the English and Flemings in 1340, during the Hundred Years War. That’s provisioning the enemy, that is! He should know better! Except, Jean pointed out, he did so during a time of truce. Tricky situation!

What was medieval treason?

If these five examples are any guide, medieval treason was anything the court needed it to be in the moment. But maybe there’s more to the story? In the coming weeks, I’ll revisit these cases to look at what’s going on in more depth.

I wrote a whole Ph.D. dissertation on the topic. I’ve spent far too many years thinking about medieval treason. And still I can’t shake the nagging feeling that treason was like cooked spaghetti.

You throw it at the wall and see if it sticks.