In older times, a naughty child would be taught a lesson through bottom-slapping and ear-pulling, nowadays it’s mostly being left without dessert, cartoons, or outing and/or locked in one’s room. Similar means are employed by the society to punish an adult: curtailment of freedom and various constraints. In our humane time, it’s hard to remember that only a couple of centuries ago the primary forms of punishment consisted of torture and execution. But they are still practiced in some places of the world.
His Majesty the Pain
A human body is an astonishingly delicate and fine-tuned mechanism in which different systems work conjointly. Many of its functions, subtleties, and capabilities escape our notice altogether, unless something goes out of order and the body notifies us with a most efficient signal – pain. A simple reflex makes us jerk a scolded hand back from the source of heat, more complex reflexes tell us to refrain from coarse food in case of throes or grippings in our belly, to pull out decayed teeth, to stanch a bleeding wound with tight bandages…
Our organism is so constructed that we would do everything possible to stop our suffering. Surely, pain and disease are primarily the domain of medicine, which since times immemorial has been working on the same task: to maintain human body in the ideal condition for as long as possible.
Secondarily, pain became the principal instrument of justice, as the simplest and most effective language, intelligible to anyone.
The fear of pain
Causing bodily suffering serves a two-fold function: punishment and admonition. A criminal gets their just punishment, while others get to see what happens to those who fail to observe the laws of God and men. Punishment must be public – let those who conceive any wrongdoing know that the same fate awaits them.
Thus emerges the practice of gruesome punishments, mind-blowingly brutal and oftentimes lethal.
Most popular methods of execution in Medieval Europe
Most commonly practiced were the well-known hanging and beheading. Both methods of capital punishment have their peculiarities.
Those who have played the demo version of “The Executioner” already know that hanging can be performed in two ways. Log drop hanging is more merciful – the condemned falls down from an elevation (e.g., into a sprung trap door) and their neck is fractured by abruptly taut rope. With the short drop method, the victim dies slowly and painfully of strangulation – such execution could sometimes last for over half an hour!
As far as beheading is concerned, the distinction was made between commoners and those of noble blood. The latter were put to justice with a sword, others with an axe. When guillotine was invented on the eve of the French revolution, this social inequality disappeared
Besides these relatively simple ways of putting to death, also common were the following:
quartering – in other words, dismemberment. There were several variations of this method of capital punishment. In France, for example, horses were used: a person’s hands and feet would be tied to four horses that then would be forced to pull in different directions, tearing the victim’s body apart. In fact, experienced executioners used a knife to cut the victim’s sinews beforehand, otherwise the torturous procedure could take hours. The disjointed remains usually were subsequently burned.
burning at stake – hardly the most widespread but evidently the most notorious method of execution. Fire was usually reserved for “wicked” criminals, those guilty of witchcraft, heresy, or sodomy. Especially ferocious was the Inquisition (yes, the one that nobody expects).
hanging by the ribs – a type of hanging in which the condemned was suspended on a special iron hook forced beneath the ribs, thus left to die slowly and painfully. Since vital organs were usually not damaged, the agony lasted long and death were often caused by thirst. This method of capital punishment was especially common in the Russian Empire, as well as among SS troops during WWII.
impaling – again, there existed many variations, but they all had a common core. A tapered stake or pole was installed vertically, and the victim would impale itself on it, dying either quickly due to tissue tear and intense hemorrhage, or slowly and painfully of peritonitis, i.e. infection of damaged innards.
Modern methods of capital punishment
The XXth century with its devastating world wars has added certain diversity to the standard repertoire of “classic” execution methods. Besides hanging and beheading, shooting was widely used during WWII (and is still used now), as were mass executions in gas chambers (through inhalation of poisonous or asphyxiant gas). Some nations still practice electric chair and lethal injection. Stoning to death also enjoys much popularity in some Muslim countries.
Enough for today. Thursday we’ll talk about some of the most exotic ways of capital punishment in human history; in the meanwhile, recover yourselves after the atrocities described above.
Now, a simple question for you to think about: try to guess approximately how much a modern state pays for one execution?