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  • Writer's picturejulesfrusher

Crime and Punishment

Forget This Myth!

The history books tell us that deep, bottle-shaped shafts in castles were ‘oubliettes’ (from the French for ‘to forget’) where prisoners would be thrown and left to starve among the rotting corpses of their predecessors. However, this now seems to have been an invention from the imaginations of writers of Victorian Gothic. Recent investigations have shown that these shafts were most likely strongrooms built to hold valuable documents and possessions.

I Never Did it, M'Lud. Honest!

Up until the thirteenth century, certain crimes could still be punished by the removal of some part of the body, be it a hand, an eye or a whole limb. Thus the offender would always carry the mark of his crime. However, this was a bit of a problem for those who had been mutilated by accident as they were regarded with great suspicion. To allay this, they could get paperwork to prove that they were innocent. Take this writ for example: ‘Mar 30 1324 Notification, lest sinister suspicion should arise hereafter, that the defect which William Sampson suffers in his right ear arose from the stroke of a tun of wine as he was walking amongst the tuns on board a ship to see that no harm came to them, as the king is informed on sufficient evidence.’


In England, an outlaw was often also known as a wolfshead. This is because the price on his head was the same as that on a wolf. In the reign of Richard II, this amounted to five shillings.

A Bit One-Sided, But Never Mind

In general, women were not permitted to resolve a dispute by trial by combat. However, in some parts of Germany it was allowed but only under the following conditions: The man was to be armed with three clubs, have one arm tied behind his back, and be placed into a hole up to his middle. The woman, in contrast, was free to move where she wanted and was armed with three rocks (weighing between one and five pounds), which were wrapped up in pieces of cloth. The rules were that they would try and strike each other. However, if the man touched the ground with his arm or hand he forfeited a club. Likewise, if the woman struck the man with a rock when he was unarmed, she had to forfeit that rock. Whoever lost the fight was executed, the woman by being buried alive.

Vagrancy Crimes

Lack of employment was very much frowned upon in Richard I’s time, although you need to understand that most people had some kind of work, either as free-men or women, or as serfs, under a lord’s control. ‘Vagrancy’ as it was known, was not tolerated. For instance, a statute was passed decreeing that any pilgrims who didn’t possess the correct paperwork, or who were otherwise unable to work because of age, infirmity or illness, were to be arrested. Good job that law can’t be enforced today!

Pilgrims Should be Peaceful!

A statute of Richard I (1157-1199) stated that if any pilgrim killed another at sea, he should be tied to the body of his victim and cast overboard If he drew blood from another pilgrim, his hand was to be cut off, and if he struck another pilgrim with his hand (as long as no blood was drawn), he was to be plunged into the sea three times.

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