A Pig and a Locust Get Into Serious Trouble With the Law: On Justice in Medieval Europe
Arran Lomas Details The Gruesome Methods of Proving Guilt or Innocence in the Middle Ages
Curiously trial by jury was voluntary in medieval England. However, if you did refuse to stand trial, the authorities would crush you between two heavy stones until you either acquiesced or died. In despotic feudal kingdoms “voluntary” was often about as voluntary as Janice from work’s wedding invitation, whom ironically you also wish you could crush between two heavy stones. More serious crimes such as murder, assault and treason were dealt with in the king’s court. If you ended up here and were found guilty, you could be sure of severe punishment. Murderers were hanged or beheaded. Those convicted of treason were hung, drawn and quartered.
So you don’t lose sleep over it, I should explain that being ‘hanged’ stipulated until dead, whereas to be “hung” meant you would be let down before death. As in “I hanged my cat; now it’s dead” compared to “I hung my cat on the wall, then fed it dinner.” However, being hung was usually far worse than a quick hanging, because the executioner would have a delightful basket of torture lined up for you. Starting with the next step, being “drawn.”
Up until the mid-thirteenth century, you would be fortunate if you were to be tried by a jury of your peers in the king’s court.
Drawn, unfortunately for the accused, did not mean “like one of your French girls”; it was a ghastlier affair, to put it gently. Although it was at least as comparable to naked French girls in levels of titillation for the bloodthirsty and voyeuristic medieval crowds. A good old Sunday morning execution was, after all, the primary source of entertainment in most towns. The drawn part of the ordeal involved slicing open the belly to allow the perpetrator’s guts to spill out; sometimes they were pulled or ‘drawn’ out of the body.
Gruesomely, it is believed the person would often still be conscious during this. The genitals would also be cut off and burnt in full view of the crowds and the victim. Talk about adding insult to injury. Only once the final stage was reached would the poor soul succumb to death, since before quartering he was usually beheaded. If you were wondering, “quartering” quite literally meant chopping the torso into four parts, generally with a huge axe. As this punishment was enacted less often than its more genteel counterparts, it would attract particularly large crowds. The image of a man’s limbs being yanked in all directions by four horses, which your rather sick mind may be presenting you with at this very moment, was rarely practiced in England. That was how the French liked to do it—those kinky bastards.
Up until the mid-thirteenth century, you would be fortunate if you were to be tried by a jury of your peers in the king’s court. Throughout the early Middle Ages, this particular court preferred trial by ordeal. The idea was that God favored the innocent, so the defendant would be put through an ordeal in which God would either help him prove his innocence or clarify his guilt. Commonly used methods were trial by cold water, in which the accused would have his hands and feet bound and be thrown into a body of water; if he floated, he was innocent, but if he sank, he was assumed guilty.
There was ordeal by hot iron or stone, in which the defendant was made to hold a lump of hot iron or plunge his hand into a pot of boiling water to fetch a stone. If his hand completely healed within three days, then, naturally, God had intervened, demonstrating his innocence. If scars still showed, he could expect a swift execution.
Especially during the early Norman period, ordeal by combat or “battle” was an authentic method of enacting justice used by some English courts. In England, any man could accuse another man of a crime and request trial by combat. However, Englishmen were not permitted to enter trial by combat against a woman. This was not the case in Germany, though—in the Germanic regions, a man could enter into trial by combat against a woman, but only if he was handicapped to make the battle fairer. How? Obviously by sticking the man in a hole, so only his head and arms were above ground. He could attempt to swing at the woman with a club from his hole while she enjoyed free movement and could literally run circles around the poor sod.
Back in England, you may imagine trial by combat to be an almost romantic medieval affair: noble knights, meeting at the break of dawn to exchange sword blows, defending their honor and innocence. I encourage you to swiftly remove this scene from your mind and instead replace it with a couple of peasants squabbling, biting, jabbing and tearing limbs from sockets in a quagmire of mud and pig shit. Because this scene was quite often the more accurate one.
Take the documented case of accused thief Thomas Whytehorne and plaintiff James Fyscher. Trial by combat was the prescribed method of judicial resolution in this instance. But the men were dressed only in rags and leather armor. The only weapon they were given was a ram’s horn each. The combatants initially attempted to beat the peasant blood out of one another with the horns, but these soon broke into pieces. They proceeded to fight tooth and nail in the dirt, throwing punches and biting each other, each in an attempt to inflict a fatal wound. Eventually, Whytehorne managed to pin down Fyscher and, as the contemporary accounts state, he “bit him by the member,” causing Fyscher to scream with pain. But Fyscher gathered his wits and managed to jab his finger into Whytehorne’s eye socket. Whytehorne surrendered and confessed everything. He was hanged.
A medieval person’s moral and world views were so intensely bound up with those of the Church that he would have had no doubt that these trials by ordeal were entirely genuine.
Following the ordeal, Fyscher left town, exiling himself to become a hermit. Which may seem like an odd choice, considering he was the victor, but remember that he lived in a small medieval community where citizens placed vital importance on social status. It is then self-evident that having a thief sink his teeth into your genitals while lying in the mud, under the gaze of the entire townsfolk, is highly unconducive to upholding one’s social standing.
Not much has changed: in 2012 a sixty-year-old British man who was facing a £25 fine for a minor motoring offense tried to invoke his ancient right to trial by combat, saying he was “willing to fight a champion put up by the DVLA, but it would have been a fight to the death.” Unfortunately the courts refused, which is a shame because most British people long to see a clerk from the DVLA be bludgeoned to death with a ram’s horn.
Trials by ordeal may seem little more than an antiquated and wholly unfair system born out of a society that was devoid of logic and basic pragmatism. You may assume the correlation between those who were found guilty by these ordeals and their true guilt was non-existent. Well, not quite. What may surprise you is that trials by ordeal were a highly effective method of discerning guilt.
Do not forget that medieval England was one of the most devoutly Catholic nations in Europe and one should never underestimate the ability of the pertinaciously pious to behave irrationally. A medieval person’s moral and world views were so intensely bound up with those of the Church that he would have had no doubt that these trials by ordeal were entirely genuine. It would never have crossed the mind of most medieval citizens that being tied up and lobbed into the local lake was not an effective method of proving guilt; shockingly, fluid dynamics and gravity weren’t particularly common topics of study in the thirteenth century. A person’s logic was interchangeable with that of the Church or the ramblings of the one-eyed crackpot codger at the local tavern.
Thus, people did genuinely believe that if they endured trial by ordeal, God would reveal their true guilt by causing them to fail. This had the effect that the vast majority of the accused who were genuinely guilty would choose to confess their crimes to the authorities instead of being subjected to the selected ordeal. Most people would prefer a quick beheading than being drowned, unremittingly smashed in the skull with a ram’s horn by their neighbor in combat, or picking up a scalding hot iron then beheaded anyway. This was even truer when the chosen punishment for a guilty verdict was not execution but a fine. What will it be? Drowning or a fine? I think I’ll take the latter.
Therefore, the vast majority of people who went through with the trials were genuinely innocent, as they believed the trial would prove it. The curious point here is that historians today suspect that the Church and the authorities knew of this insight at the time. And so, the ordeals would often be rigged so that the defendant would pass. How, you ask? Water or iron would not be heated hot enough to cause burns, or in the case of drowning, the priest could choose not to bind the defendant so tightly. It is thought, then, that the whole premise of being offered a trial by ordeal was a mental trick to force the guilty to confess, and it worked.
It is thought, then, that the whole premise of being offered a trial by ordeal was a mental trick to force the guilty to confess, and it worked.
Sometimes animals were tried in human courts. This bizarre practice was carried out both in England and across the rest of Europe. Most of the animals put on trial had been accused of destroying a person’s property, most often consuming their crops. Locusts, weevils, rats, slugs and mice are all documented as having been put on trial in medieval manorial courts, but also in the ecclesiastical variety, for especially pious locusts. If the creatures could be physically transported to the courtroom for the hearing, then they usually were.
This may sound utterly insane to our modern minds, but this seemingly nonsensical custom actually served a fundamental purpose in the Middle Ages. All living things were considered to be God’s creatures, therefore the extermination of these animals, even if they were crop-devouring miscreants, would be downright sinful. Thus, by first trying them of an immoral act in a court of law, the landowner could mitigate his guilt for later exterminating them or, as was done in many cases, escorting them out of the city.
Precisely how one would escort a cornucopia of slugs out of town is beyond me. A dogmatic medieval society viewed killing a person as sinful until they had been proven guilty of committing a crime, even if it was as trivial as stealing a bushel of apples. Once a person had been convicted, though, publicly and often brutally executing that person was suddenly deemed marvelous in the eyes of God.
The most unfortunate creatures that fell victim to this strange tradition were pigs. Larger animals were just as often put on trial, but none more so than poor pigs. Swine found themselves at the behest of medieval law so often because they frequently killed humans. When livestock was brought to market, it would freely roam the busy streets. In smaller towns, where pastures were in close proximity to the town center, there would usually be a menagerie of farm animals freely roaming the same streets as humans every single day. As you might imagine, this frequently led to freak accidents, often involving small children. When pigs become hungry or agitated, they can fatally maul a child or weak adult.
Medieval archives are full of court cases where pigs stood trial for killing a human. Because they were considered God’s creatures, like humans, they would often be subjected to the same punishments as humans were. Murderous pigs were frequently burnt alive and even hanged. Whether the medieval mind was aware of how oblivious the animals were of their own criminal convictions is up for debate.
Excerpted from Stick a Flag in It: 1,000 Years of Bizarre History from Britain and Beyond by Arran Lomas. Copyright © 2022. Available from Unbound.