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.

Voice in a Medieval Arson Trial

I absolutely love the story of Agnes. There’s something about her deposition, her trial voice, that comes alive for me every time I read it. It’s like I can hear her voice in my head: a little petulant, very bossy, and overwhelmingly tiresome.

I have a feeling she’d identify with the Demi Lovato song “Sorry Not Sorry.”

Was Agnes actually petulant, bossy, and tireseome? Who knows! That’s the thing about these medieval cases, whether for arson or any other crime. What we have is, at best, a true-to-sense relaying of what the accused said. But then, medieval scribes aren’t known for their accuracy in transcribing the accused’s voice at trial.

The Châtelet of Paris, especially after about 1380, had become notorious as the royal prison and embodiment of judicial power in the Paris region. When a prisoner was called up to speak before the tribunal, they were questioned typically without a lawyer present (something that was more common in the Parlement of Paris). In Agnes’s case, we know that she was examined at least twice, “without force or constraint.”

That’s code for “not under torture.”

Does that mean she wasn’t tortured? Good question!

The short answer is no, it doesn’t.

Here’s how it often worked. A confession gained “without force or constraint” meant that it had been at least 24 hours since the last torture session (and there were only supposed to be three of these, max). The confession made is therefore not during torture. If it’s confirmed (that is, a court official reads back to the accused their confession, asks if it’s been correctly recorded, and receives an affirmative), then the confession is established as true.

Now, none of this is to say that Agnes was tortured. It’s hard to read through the medieval terms of art to see what actually happened. However, these particular records from which I took Agnes case tend to be unabashed about using torture. They’ll even go so far as to tell you what kind of torture.

The same goes for being sure that what’s recorded is what Agnes said. Agnes would have spoken a dialect of French. Coming from Brittany north of Rennes, she may have grown up speaking Dolois, the regional patios (a mix of French and Breton). Once near Paris, she likely spoke the Middle French dialect of that zone.

Undoubtedly her French, even if the same dialect as that spoken at court, would have had a different vocabulary and register than what the educated judges and scribes spoke. That in itself presents a challenge in trusting that what we have of Agnes’s words is true to her voice. Thankfully, the criminal registers by the 14th century were no longer being preserved in Latin (which was the case only a hundred years earlier, and meant that a scribe was translating from the vernacular, creating yet another layer of distance between the modern reader and the medieval speaker).

So, we don’t have to contend with Latin, but how about the way she describes the events? Can we be sure any of it is in her voice?

On the one hand, the story feels like it’s leaving something out, doesn’t it? Her neighbour won’t say hi and basically says he never wants to speak to her again, and her response is to burn down his house.

I mean really, WTF?!

Fire’s dangerous! And it’s your neighbour! Your house is going to be next if the thatch roof catches!

So surely there must be more context that we’re not getting, right?

Maybe. On the other hand, perhaps she was just that unhinged. People are weird. Ever hear of Florida Man?

To the question of whether this is a medieval thing, that the idea that not saying hello to a neighbour is some unforgivable insult, I can’t find any indication that that’s true. Rude, sure. But not “I’m going to burn your house down and maybe our whole village and everyone will think I’m totally justified” level rude.

And we do have some indications that these are her words, at least in broad strokes. The scribe includes Agnes saying that she’d been “tempted by the Devil.” In my AITA rendering, I translated that has “I must have had a devil on my shoulder.” The idea is largely the same, just more idiomatic in my translation.

Over the course of the later Middle Ages, in French materials at least, there’s an increase in attempts to blame a crime on the devil’s temptation. If you’re interested, I’ve written an article on this. What it boils down to here is that Agnes is trying to claim that her decision to burn down Miserelle’s house was a temporary one. More than that, it was aberrant. She’s not really like that, you see, it was just the Devil who, for one moment in the heat of her anger, succeeded in getting her to act so sinfully and criminally.

As we saw, that tactic of blaming the Devil didn’t work. But, the fact that the attempt was there suggests that Agnes did have at least some of her perspective or interpretation of events recorded.

Not that it did her any good.

There’s more to say about this case, but I’ll stop here for now. Agnes has put me in a musical state of mind, so let’s end with Billy Talent’s “Devil on My Shoulder.” Fitting, neketa?