Crime and Punishment
Big Question Punishment before 1450 Main page

What were the purposes of punishments given by courts in the Middle Ages?

The BIG QUESTION in this Gallery is about the purposes of punishment. It is doubtful that those people who administered justice in the various courts of Medieval England thought very hard about the purposes of the punishments they handed down. Nevertheless, different ideas about punishment can clearly be seen in the different kinds of sentences people received.

As you can find out in Gallery 2, crime prevention was in the hands of the local community. Punishments therefore had to be simple and generally seen to be fair. It was also, as you can see in Gallery 1, a mainly law-abiding time, with a powerful Church which taught a duty to be merciful. Fierce, physical punishments like mutilation (cutting off part of the offender's body), common in earlier periods, were now rarely used. On the other hand, there was no police force, so serious offences had to be dealt with firmly and quickly. The death penalty was used quite often.
Those in authority who operated the system of justice did not expect to have to spend lots of money on it. Expensive punishments, like prison (gaol, as they called it) were not often used. There were gaols, often in the dungeons of castles, but criminals were not routinely sent there.
So what were the punishments given out by the courts of Medieval England? And what do you think was the point of each?
In the Case-studies of this Gallery you will find examples of several kinds of punishments. Use the Gallery Worksheet to analyse what was the purpose of each.

Two Case-Studies:
1. Medieval Punishments
2. Capital Punishment

How To Work
1. Work through each of these Case-Studies. Read and analyse the sources in each. There are HINTS in each to help you get the most out of the Sources.
2. At the end of the Case-Study, fill in some of the Gallery Worksheet.
3. Move on to the next Case-Study. You will only really be able to answer the Key Question when you have done both the Case-Studies. However, you could divide the job between two halves of the class, sharing their results.

Case Studies
Source 1 Source 2 Source 4 Source 3 Worksheet Game End To Punishment, 1450-1750 To Prevention, before 1450 Case Studies End Case Study 1, Medieval Punishments Case Study 2, Capital Punishment