From the days of Charlemagne (800-814), Christendom meant the unity of Faith and political loyalty throughout Europe. All citizens of whatever political allegiance firmly believed that any deviation from the common Faith posed a threat to the unity and stability of the political and social fabric. Hence both Church and State had their own legislation regarding heresy. Multiple prescriptions of the Roman Code attest to a like attitude on the part of the Roman Empire at an earlier date, such crimes being regarded as most serious. The Church as spiritual vicar acted first. The Inquisitor tried to explain the true doctrine and to correct erring members. If, however, an individual refused after having relapsed to repent, the church, recognizing its failure, declared him a heretic, withdrew its support and “abandoned” him to the secular authority, which proceeded to apply its own law. The fact that this procedure was not always followed – that enraged mobs seized suspects and summarily burned them – demonstrates the popular feeling towards such crimes and also the tenuous nature of the feudal governments of that age.

Such was the milieu within which one must view the ultimate penalty which society then exacted for what Romans before them and the Tudors afterwards termed treason. As for the Church, the various penances given to heretics and their adherents have been enumerated: pilgrimages, wearing yellow crosses, ritual flagellations, fines, confiscation, destruction of houses, and imprisonment – all of which were meant to be medicinal, intended to give the heretic time to repent and return to the true Faith. But the secular authority had other laws, including the death penalty, which seems to have been the only punishment envisaged for capital crimes, with the possible exception of mutilation. A rough age, but so it was.

“The worst cruelties,” Maitland, however, states, “belong to a politer time.” Renaissance Germany’s code hardly erred on the side of softness. Capital punishments there included hanging in chains, beheading, burning to death, stoning, throwing from a cliff to the rocks below, drowning, the smashing of limbs and tying to a wheel to die in agony. reason was thought to merit being hanged, drawn and quartered – a refinement favored by the English Tudors. Less serious crimes drew flogging; loss of ears, nose, upper lip, hands and feet; cutting out of the tongue, and castration. Imprisonment was not favored.

Albert Shannon, The Medieval Inquisition (1991)


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