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The Medieval Blood Sanction and the Divine Beneficence of Pain: 1100-1450

Published online by Cambridge University Press:  24 April 2015


Here the worldling now all bound in fetters lies

starts to fear his God, his tears flow from his eyes

Justice comes along, with gallows, wheel and sword:

God tells the pious man to enter Heaven's door.

Across medieval Western Europe, those who committed serious wrongs, such as homicide, arson, treason, and rape were subject to a wide range of capital punishments that were seemingly brutal, frequently bloody, and at times spectacular. Grisly images of an executioner dismembering a condemned's limbs from his torso, smashing his chest cavity, gouging his eyes, or piercing his body with hot pokers are the common stuff of scaffold art in the high Middle Ages. Such images attest to the critical role of pain in medieval capital punishment. Whereas in our day all attempts are made to render penal death painless, in the high and late Middle Ages, the tie between pain and death is not only tolerated but, at times, purposefully exacerbated.

Copyright © Center for the Study of Law and Religion at Emory University 2006

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140. Examples are abundant. The Man of Sorrows, ca. 1430, by Meister Francke, now in Hamburg, is a startling beautiful image of the suffering Christ, who appears as judge, lover, and sacrificial victim. Hamburger, Jeffrey, The Visual and the Visionary: Art and Female Spirituality in Late Medieval Germany 375 (N.Y. 1998)Google Scholar. On the extent to which Passion narratives, which informed painting, reached a large lay audience, see Bestul, Thomas, Texts of the Passion: Latin Devotional Literature and Medieval Society 710 (Phila. 1996)Google Scholar.

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142. Gougaud, id. at 82-83.

143. Bynum, supra n. 16, at 246. Recently historians and theologians have turned to biology and neurology to explain (and make sense of) the heightened spiritual condition and visions of saints and mystics who inflicted severe pain upon their bodies. See e.g. Glucklich, supra n. 5; Kroll, Jerome & Bachrach, Bernard, The Mystic Mind (Routledge 2005)CrossRefGoogle Scholar. Others explain the act of sel immolation in terms of various sub-conscious motives such as the internalization of social repressions of the body. Yet to wash any religious or cultural history with the water of the subconscious is to distort the meaning of conduct that is given to it by the particular ethos and array of beliefs of the culture in which the conduct occurs. The same can be said of explaining religious raptures by recourse to the mechanistic operations of the nervous system.

144. Id. at 251.

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146. Bynum, supra n. 16, at 246.

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152. Id. at 14.

153. Id. at A. 3, Response, 28-30.

154. Id. at A. 1, Response 6; Reply 20, p. 10.

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156. ST, supra n. 106, at 1a, q. 5, a. 48, 3.

157. Anselm of Canterbury, supra n. 151, ch. IX, 69.

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159. Id. at 7-8.

160. Id. at 10-15.

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163. Short Text, supra n. 162, at 23; LT, supra n. 145, ch. 3, 11.197-198.

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166. Id.

167. ST, supra n. 106, at 1a2a, q., 35, art. 6, Reply.

168. LT, supra n. 145, at ch. 14, 53.

169. Aquinas, supra n. 152, at A. 2, Response 15.

170. LT, supra n. 145, at ch. 14, 63.

171. ST, supra n. 106, at 2a2ae, q. 87, a. 6, ad. 3.

172. LT, supra n. 145, at ch. 14, 51.

173. ST, supra n. 106, at 1a2ae, q. 35, Reply.

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175. Id.

176. LT, supra n. 145, at ch. 13, 39.

177. Id.

178. Id. at ch. 14, 61.

179. Id. at ch. 13, 27.

180. Aquinas, supra n. 152, at q. I, a. I, ad I.

181. ST, supra n. 106, at 2a2ae q. 43, a, 7, ad. 1; Aquinas, supra n. 104, at Bk III, c. 144, n. 9.

182. Aquinas, id. at Bk III, c. 144, n. 9.

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187. ST, supra n. 106, at 1a2ae, q. 64, a. 2, ad. 3.

188. Id.

189. Id. at 1a2ae, q. 87, a. 7, Reply.

190. Id. at 2a2ae, q. 25, a. 6, ad. 1.

191. Id. at la2ae, q. 87, a. 8, ad. 2.

192. Id. at la2ae, q. 87, a. 1, ad2.

193. Aquinas, supra n. 152, at A. 5, Response 36 (“nothing should have that of which it is undeserving.”).

194. ST, supra n. 106, at 1a, q. 21, a. 4.

195. Id. at 1a2ae, q. 87, a. 6.

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198. Id.

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215. Purg. Canto X, ll. 127-130, Par. Canto IX, ll 10-12.

216. ST, supra n. 106, at 1a2ae, q. 87, a. 4, Reply.

217. Smith, supra n. 201, at 573.

218. Id. at 564.

219. Id.

220. Purg. Canto 11, ll. 58-60.

221. Par. Canto VII, l. 139.

222. Latham, supra n. 199, at 202.

223. Indeed, the execution, rural and urban, occurred within communities familiar with the thought that suffering aided the soul in its realization of the Good. See e.g. Ross, Ellen M., The Grief of God: Images of the Suffering Jesus in Late Medieval England 125 (Oxford U. Press 1997)Google Scholar and her discussion of English sermon literature in the late Middle Ages. In Whanne hic se on rode the poet writes:

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225. For a somewhat like view of the execution in a little later period, see Bee, supra n. 15.

226. Groebner, supra n. 98, at 68-73.

227. Friedberg, Emil Albert & Richter, Aemilius Ludwig, Corpus Iuris Canonici (Bernhardi Tauchnitz 1879), 1, dist. 49, c. 1Google Scholar. On the extraordinarily permeable and fluid boundary that existed between bodily disease and spiritual corruption in this period, see Park, Katharine, Doctors and Medicine in Early Renaissance Florence 5052 (Princeton U. Press 1985)Google Scholar. One of the most well-known examples, perhaps, is leprosy which in the late Middle Ages is increasingly associated with uncleanliness which in turn is assumed to be a manifestation of inner corruption. Moore, R.I., The Formation of a Persecuting Society: Power and Deviance in Western Europe, 950-1250, at 4565 (Blackwell 1987)Google Scholar.

228. For examples of attaint, see Calendar of Patent Rolls, 1452, at 514; id. at 1451, at 508 (1446-1452) (HMSO 1906). On the law of treason in England, see Bellamy, J.G., The Law of Treason in England in the Later Middle Ages 191195 (Cambridge U. Press 1970)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Lander, J.R., Attainder and Forfeiture, 1453 to 1509, 4 Hist. J. 119 (1961)CrossRefGoogle Scholar; Cuttler, supra n. 72, at 120-133.

229. Though the ritual of auto de fe (public penance) during the Spanish Inquisition, first recorded in 1481, indicates the complexity of the available theological teachings on the link between blood-letting and salvation, the formal Church's insistence that the religious not directly shed blood would seem to undermine the argument that the execution represented a salvific drama. Because the auto de fe has its heyday a bit after our period, it has not been discussed. Discussion of heresy too has been avoided, for the focus here has been primarily upon the secular jurisdiction. For a general history of the auto de fe, see Lea, Henry Charles, A History of the Inquisition of Spain (4 vols., Macmillan 19061907)Google Scholar.

230. Merback, supra n. 15, at 137.

231. Beaumanoir, supra n. 26, § 883, ch. 1, 446; Calisse, Carlo, A History of Italian Law 175 (Rothman Reprints 1969)Google Scholar.

232. Chronicle, supra n. 23, at 517.

233. For example, in 1470 Amiens, the following sentence was handed down against a man and a mare who had engaged in an unnatural act:

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238. Chronique parisienne anonyme 50-53.

239. Although occurring a little after our period, the accounts of the crowd's insatiable rage at Ravaillac, (who had murdered Henry IV of France) and its treatment of the corpse of Concino Concini, (who was accused in the great public Declaration et Proestation of 1617 of “usurping] in the name of the king … an absolute authority in the realm” and whom Louis XIII thus felt compelled to assassinate) vividly illustrate the popular view of such men as unredeemable demons whose bodies must be annihilated in order to free the community from their pollution. Mousnier, Roland, L'assassinat d'Henri IV: 14 Mai 1610, 32 (Gallimard 1964)Google Scholar; Lindsay, Robert O. & Neu, John, French Political Pamphlets, 1547-1648: A Catalog of Major Collections in American Libraries 239 (U. Wis. Press 1969)Google Scholar (Pamphlet No. 3858: L'enterrement, obsequies et funerailles de Conchine, mareschal d'Ancre); Ranum, Orest, The French Ritual of Tyrannicide in the Late Sixteenth Century, 11 Sixteenth Cent. J. 63, 71 (1980)Google Scholar.

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242. As a caveat, there is of course the argument that the discourses and practices discussed here were mere pretext that obscured darker and less spiritual attitudes or motivations on the part of the condemned, the spectators, or the judicial authority. Yet, the fact that an actor has a motive never tells us anything about the coherence, cogency, or intelligibility of the belief system he espouses. Moreover, an actor's choice of specific sets of practices and discourse as pretext tells us something about what the actor's community thinks is good, true, and legitimate. On these issues generally, see Jenkins, Keith, Introduction: On Being Open About Our Closures, in The Postmodern History Reader 1 (Jenkins, Keith ed., Routledge 1997)Google Scholar.

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244. The thinker who best clarifies the way in which deterrence and redemptive punishment depended upon a radically different understanding of the constitutive nature of man is the early nineteenth-century thinker, Friedrich Hegel. He writes that to base punishment upon the idea of threat “presupposes that a man is not free, and its aim is to coerce him by the idea of an evil.”Hegel's Philosophy of Right n. 62, 246 (Knox, T.M. trans., Oxford U. Press 1967)Google Scholar. He continues, “To base a justification of punishment on threat is to liken it to the act of a man who lifts his stick to a dog. It is 0 treat a man like a dog instead of with the freedom and respect due to him as a man.” Id.

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247. Edgerton, supra n. 15, at 139.

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267. de Roye, supra n. 253, at vol. 2, 349, 358-361; Basin, supra n. 256, at vol. 2, 377.

268. Edgerton, supra n. 15, at 141.

269. Id. at 194.

270. Cohen, supra n. 256, at 198-201.

271. Though the giving of the sacrament was never popular in France, quasi-sacramental ceremonies occurred. For example, the constable of St. Pol was permitted to hear Mass and to consume blessed water and bread before his death, de Roye, supra n. 253, at vol. 2, 358.

272. The more institutionalized “dying speech” is associated by historians with the early modern period. Spierenburg, Pieter, The Spectacle of Suffering: Executions and the Evolution of Repression: From a Preindustrial Metropolis to the European Experience 63 (Cambridge U. Press 1984)Google Scholar. However, the difference in quantity in the sources between the two periods is, at least in part, due to the advent of printing. What can be said with certainty is that the chronicles reveal that the condemned and spectators engaged in a dialogue, however informal, that foreshadowed the meaning to be given to his experience of pain and death.

273. Id. at 53 (who dismisses its spiritual significance). Both Richard Evans and Richard van Dülmen see this ritual as tied to the ars moriendi. Evans, supra n. 1, at 83; van Dülmen, Richard. Theatre of Horror: Crime and Punishment in Early Modern Germany 99124 (Neu, Elisabeth trans., Polity Press 1990)Google Scholar.

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279. Id. at 315. For another similar account of Brembre's execution, see Howell, Thomas Bayly, Howell, Thomas Jones, Cobbett, William & Jardine, David, Cobbett's Complete Collection of State Trials and Proceedings for High Treason and Other Crimes and Misdemeanors from the Earliest Period [1163] to the Present Time [1820] vol. 1, cols. 118-119 (R. Bagshaw 1809)Google Scholar. The Westminster Chronicle offers a similar account of Thomas Usk's execution in 1388, writing that he “met his death with great contriteness of heart and supreme penitence, reciting with the upmost piety, as he was drawn to the gallows, the Placebo and Dirige ….” Chronicle, supra n. 23, at 315.

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311. Annales Ricardi Secundi, supra n. 307, at 328.

312. Merback, supra n. 15, at 153.

313. Gauvard, C., Pendre et dependre a la fin du Moyen Age: les exigences d'un rituel judiciaire, in Riti e rituali nelle società medievali 204205 (Chiffoleau, J. ed., Spoleto 1994)Google Scholar.

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315. Cohen, supra n. 256, at 187; Pastoureau, Michel, Les couleurs medievales: Systemes de valeurs et modes de sensibilite, in Figures et couleurs: Études sur la symbolique et la sensibilité médiévales 3549 (Léopard d'or 1986)Google Scholar.

316. Catherine of Siena, The Letters of Catherine of Siena vol. 1, 86 (Noffke, Suzane trans., Ariz. Ctr. Medieval & Renaissance Stud. 2000)Google Scholar.

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318. Catherine of Siena, supra n. 316, at 88 (footnote omitted).

319. Id. How deep was the idea of the atonement as a show of love rather than as an act of satisfaction in medieval Christendom is hinted at by Clutterbuck's, Charlotte recent Encounters with God in Medieval and Early Modern English Poetry (Ashgate Pub. Co. 2005)Google Scholar. She argues that the English anonymous Crucifixion lyrics tacitly adopted Abelard's exemplarist theory of the Atonement which sees the Redemption as depending solely on Christ's example of love which evokes man's love in return rather than upon Augustine's juridical understanding of God tricking the Devil into a loss of his rights or of Anselm's understanding of satisfaction. Id. at 32-33. Within this understanding then, human punishment, as an imitation of Divine justice, is something other than a simple reflection of retribution.

320. Catherine of Siena, supra n. 316, at 88.

321. Id. at n. 31.

322. Paglia, Vincenzo, La morte confortata: Riti della paura e mentalità religiosa a Roma nell'età moderna 84 (Edizioni di Storia e Letteratura 1982)Google Scholar.

323. Lea, Henry C., Superstition and Force: Essay on the Wager of Law—The Wager of Battle—The Ordeal—Torture 284 (1866)Google Scholar.

324. For artistic expression of the same idea in the fifteenth century, see Tenenti, Alberto, La vie et la mort à travers l'art du XVe siècle 3048 (Colin, A. 1952)Google Scholar; Gerson, Jean, Six sermons français inédits: Étude doctrinale et littéraire suivie de l'édition critique et de remarques linguistiques 81, 446, 462 (Mourin, Louis ed., J. Vrin 1946)Google Scholar (imagery of sinners as false traitors, cut throats; hell is a gibbet and the devil its hangman); pp. 219-244 (sermon equating purgatory as prison and hell as death sentence).

325. Though the idea of the body as providing a locus of opportunity to encounter the Divine is most obvious in the practices of the fourteenth-century mystics and saints, the same idea hovers in the work of scholastic theologians such as Aquinas, who affirms the idea that the soul cannot understand anything without assistance from the body. Aquinas, Thomas, Questiones de Anima Q. 15Google Scholar. Though he confirmed that by virtue of being attached to a body, the human soul is not gifted with immediate understanding of the sacred, the soul is still able to acquire partial understanding of universal truth through the aid of the senses. S.T., supra n. 106, at 1a, q. 76, art. 5. See also Flynn, Maureen, The Spiritual Uses of Pain in Spanish Mysticism, 64 J. Am. Acad. Religion 257, 264265 (1996)Google Scholar.

326. Rubin, supra n. 135, at 348.

327. Ranum, supra n. 239, at 72.

328. Prosperi, supra n. 15, at 965. For the persistence of this practice in the seventeenth century, see Evans, supra n. 1, at 95.

329. On the belief in the healing properties contained in the redeemed offender's body parts and fluids, see Camporesi, Piero, The Incorruptible Flesh: Bodily Mutation and Mortification in Religion and Folklore 19 (Cambridge U. Press 1988)Google Scholar; Heckscher, William S., Rembrandt's Anatomy of Dr. Nicolaos Tulp n. 180, 164 (N.Y. U. Press 1958)Google Scholar.

330. Prosperi, supra n. 15, at 994, n. 8.

331. On the belief that the penitent wrongdoer could attain heaven, rather than purgatory, as a result of his suffering, a representative example comes from a 1504 pamphlet by the Nuremberg poet Kunz Has. He writes of the execution of a baker's assistant who has brutally killed five people.

[A]fter having all ten fingers chopped off, the murderer, who had confessed to his crimes, was tortured with red-hot pincers … before finally being impaled. He had given the executioner precise instructions on how to treat him so that his torment (marter) might last as long as possible …. Thus the murderer had died among the entire crowd's tears and prayers of intercession. His head had inclined to the right side, a sign, the poet explained that he had been forgiven and accepted into Heaven.

Groebner, supra n. 98, at 103-104.

332. Catherine of Siena, supra n. 316, at 88. On reported miracles occurring at executions, see Walsingham, Thomas, Quondam Monachi S. Albani, Historia Anglicana 266, 270271, 31, 32 (Riley, Henry Thomas ed., Longman, Green, Longman, Roberts & Green 18631864)Google Scholar.

333. An excellent discussion of this painting occurs in Merback, supra n. 15, at 218-220.

334. Id. at 153.

335. Roberti, M., Il libro dei giustiziati di Ferrara a 1441-1557, 66 Atti del Reale Istituto Veneto di Scienze, Lettere ed Arti 834 n. 2, pp. 829840 (19061907)Google Scholar.

336. Id.

337. Edgerton, supra n. 15, at 57.

338. Puppi, L., Il mito e la trasgressione Liturgia urbana delle esecuzioni capitali a Venezia tra XIV e XVIII secolo, 15 Studi Veneziani 107130, 113, n. 11 (1989)Google Scholar; Prosperi, supra n. 15, at 962-963.

339. However this is not always the case. For example, in 1584, the assassin of William of Orange, Balthasar Gerard, suffered a most horrible death being tortured for over eighteen days. Finally, the prison Lieutenant was asked to finish him off by strangling him so that “his soul should not despair and be damned.” Brantôme, , Mémoires: La Vie des hommes illustres, II, 191192 (1722)Google Scholar.

340. Aquinas, supra n. 152, at A.2, Response 13; ST, supra n. 106, at 1a2a, q. 35, art. 6, Reply.

341. Inf. Canto 3, ll. 17-18.

342. Smith, supra n. 201, at 573.

343. Id.

344. Foucault, supra n. 6, at 46.

345. Bernard of Clairvaux, On Conversion, in Bernard of Clairvaux: Selected Works 65 (Evans, G.R. trans., Paulist Press 1987)Google Scholar.

346. de Cantimpré, Thomas, The Life of Christina of Saint Trond 28 (King, Margot H. trans., Peregrina Pubig. Co. 1986)Google Scholar; see also Bynum, Caroline Walker, The Power in the Blood: Sacrifice, Satisfaction, and Substitution in Late Medieval Soteriology, in The Redemption: An Interdisciplinary Symposium on Christ as Redeemer 177 (Davis, Stephen T., Kendall, Daniel & O'Collins, Gerald eds., Oxford U. Press 2004)Google Scholar.

347. Bynum, supra n. 346, at 177.