Crime Medieval Punishment

Medieval common law imposed punishments for felons including exclusion from community processes, executions on sight, and even exclusion from certain types of court cases.

These laws were sometimes accompanied by restrictions, such as monetary amounts, that limited the severity of punishment. Some communities also imposed fines on convicted felons or their families.

Historical Background

In the ancient world, exclusion laws were much broader and more severe than modern practices. In ancient Rome, a convicted felon was barred from holding public office, owning a business, voting, teaching, writing or speaking in public, and serving as a gladiator or Olympic athlete; he was often killed.

In ancient Greece, a convicted felon was barred from holding public office and from almost all forms of business. In Egypt, a law from as early as 2350 BC banned all felons from holding public office and holding any civil office.

Early medieval European history often shows laws similar to ancient examples, but they still retained a certain flexibility. For example, the medieval English Laws of Edward II allowed a man convicted of felony to remain free if he promised to pay a fine of 100 shillings (£11 in 2011 currency) per year for the rest of his natural life.

The offender could be imprisoned for the remainder of his life if he failed to pay the fine. In addition, the English laws of Henry II permitted felons to remain free if they promised to pay a “peaceable fine” of 200 shillings per year.

The medieval Spanish Escudo (1198), which enumerated crimes which could be punished with death, prohibited felons from inheriting estates, holding public office or engaging in trade.

Exclusion laws varied across Europe. In the Frankish Empire in the 9th century, a convicted felon was barred from holding any office, but he could inherit his father’s estate or marry his father’s widow.

In England, however, the 12th century passage known as Bracton’s Laws treated inheritance of property by felons as a felony itself and punished such inheritance with death by hanging.

The laws in England limited punishment to hanging, but excluded felons from succession to English thrones; this exclusion existed until 1603 when the first of the Stuart monarchs was crowned.

In the 13th century, the Teutonic Knights began a program of putting proven criminals to death for their crimes. In some areas, the Knights also imposed fines on convicted felons. For example, in Pomerania in 1288, the Knights were authorized to set “peaceable fines” of 2–5 marks (2–5 shillings in modern currency).

In medieval Germany, the secular justice of burghers could impose fines of 2–4 marks (2–4 shillings in modern currency) on convicted felons. In 1350, the town council of Würzburg was abolished after 2,000 people refused to pay the “peaceable fines” imposed on them by the burghers of the Imperial city of Würzburg.


The residents of medieval society had one overarching goal – keeping everyone safe. They made attempts to achieve this by imposing punishments on people who were committing crimes, the more intense the violation, the harsher the punishment.

Related Post