Crime & Punishment in Medieval Times
What better way to learn about how people were tried and punished in medieval times than by undergoing the trials and punishments yourself! We look at the various trials by ordeal, and some of the punishments such as branding. We also look at crimes which are no longer crimes such as heresy and scolding your husband. We also long at some of the rather more bizarre animal trials which happened.
Display time: 45 minutes to 1 hour
Max number of students: 30 (or one class)
Number of displays per school day: Usually 4
Minimum number of teachers required: One
Display area: Large classroom.
We choose students to become different medieval characters and talk about the crimes that they are about to stand trial for (e.g. stealing deer from the kings land, murder etc). We talk about the kinds of crimes that were committed in medieval times, some of which are no longer crimes and the similarities and dissimilarities with modern crimes.
Once introduced our characters will be put on trial; as our jury members (the rest of the class), can never seem to decide whether the characters are guilty of their crimes, they will undergo various trials by ordeal and some of the milder punishments such as stocks and pillories. Eleanor is an ale wife, she has allowed her hens to roost above her ale mash and many people have been made sick. She will have to undergo trial by hot iron to decide her guilt or innocence! Her punishment will be decided by the Shire-Reeve (Sheriff).
After the trials by ordeal we move on to a much more serious crime, the trial and execution of Sir John Oldcastle (Lord Cobham). Sir John was at odds with the established religion of the time (Catholicism) and believed that the bible should be in English, that the bread and wine of the sacrament did not turn into the body and blood of Christ (it was purely symbolic), amongst many other beliefs. He followed the teachings of John Wycliffe and was an early Protestant of sorts. Sir John was a great friend of the King which protected him to an extent but in the end, with a reward of ?666 (an appropriate amount?) on his head and a promise of no tax for the Kings life, he was caught, tried and hung by chains over a fire until he burnt to death. Medievals loved the punishment to fit the crime and his fiery death was symbolic of how he would burn in the fires of hell. Also being burnt he would have no body left come the final judgement day.
Punishments would often fit the crime, a punishment for stealing could mean being branded with an F for Felon (so whenever he handed money over it would be visible unless wearing gloves) or worse still have his hand cut off. A baker who sold underweight bread would be dragged round the town on a sled with a loaf of bread about his neck.
Another fitting punishment, was the scolds bridal. From the late fifteenth/early sixteenth century onwards a scold or woman who nagged her husband was a 'scold' and it was her husbands right to lead her round the town in a scolds bridal attached to a rope. The bridal is extremely uncomfortable and presses down on ones tongue and would have cut into it after a while. It was certainly difficult to nag with one on.
There were also some more unusual trials in medieval times, the trial of animals. Many animals were tried in medieval times but particularly pigs (they lived in such close proximity to us) and pigs are omnivorous and will eat anything. Many pigs were put on trial for attacking or murdering small children. The punishments were varied but included one case where the pig was dressed in clothes then burnt at the stake. Sometimes equivalent flesh would be taken from the pig which it had taken from the child. Animals could be put in trial by combat situations too. Some of the most bizarre cases of animals being put on trial involved a plague of rats or insects such as weevils. Animals would be given the same rights as humans. But it was not the animal on trial as animals were said to have no soul but the devil within which had possessed the animal.
This display is based on the books they study and is designed to act either as an aid to revision or as an introduction to the subject and we can vary the content based on their age and ability level.