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The Bizarre Importance of Bleeding Bodies in Medieval Trials

The Bizarre Importance of Bleeding Bodies in Medieval Trials

The history of criminal justice and forensic science is really interesting because of all the absurd rituals and superstitions courts relied on to determine guilt or innocence right up until the 19th century. Before the advent of blood tests, fingerprint analysis, and DNA testing, many cultures used various trials by ordeal to help decide a suspect’s guilt. To prove a murderer was guilty, for example, many European courts relied on a type of trial by ordeal that involved a “bleeding” corpse.

A trial by ordeal is an ancient method of ascertaining guilt or innocence and can be found in cultures all over the world (Roth 2010 and Primm 2013). Societies that used a trial by ordeal believed that a god or gods would protect the innocent from harm and punish the guilty. They were used for crimes like murder, heresy, and witchcraft (Roth 2010).

There were various kinds of ordeals that a court could use to test the innocence of a suspect. During a trial by fire, the accused had to walk across hot coals or pick an object out of a fire. If he or she did not emerge unscathed they were found guilty. In a trial by water, a suspect was bound then submerged in water. If they were innocent, they would sink; if guilty, they would float (Roth 2010).

One ordeal, dating to the end of the Roman Empire, was reserved for accused murderers (Brittain 1965). The bier-right, or cruentation, was based on the belief that the body is still able to hear and act a short time after death, so that if a murderer approached or touched the corpse of their victim then the corpse would bleed or froth at the mouth (Roth 2010 and Brittain 1965). Bier-right got its name from the stand or barrow, called a bier, which held or carried a corpse or coffin. Cruentation comes from the Latin word cruentatio meaning staining of blood or cruentare meaning to make bloody (Brittain 1965).

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Funeral bier in St.Helen's church, Brant Broughton, Lincolnshire, Great Britain. ( CC BY SA 2.0 )

In Cruentation: In Legal Medicine and Literature (1965), Brittain discusses how a cruentation was performed.

“…the suspect was placed at a certain distance from the victim who had been laid naked on his back. He approached the body, repeatedly calling on it by name, then walked around it two or three times. He next lightly stroked the wounds with his hand. If during this time fresh bleeding occurred, or if the body moved, or if foam appeared at the mouth, the suspect was considered to be guilty of murder.”

The substance that these people were likely seeing was purge fluid, or decomposition fluid. Purge fluid, which drains from the mouth, nose, and other orifices during putrefaction, looks a lot like blood and is often mistaken for it (DiMaio & DiMaio 2001).

The bier-right was so well-known that the ritual made its way into poetry and plays. The best example is probably in Shakespeare’s Richard III, in Act I, Scene II (Fitzharris 2011). During the funeral of King Henry VI, Lady Anne confronts Gloucester, the man who murdered Henry:

“Foul devil, for God’s sake hence, and trouble us not;
For thou hast made the happy earth thy hell,
Fill’d it with cursing cries and deep exclaims.
If thou delight to view thy heinous deeds,
Behold this pattern of thy butcheries.
O! gentlemen; see, see! dead Henry’s wounds
Open their congeal’d mouths and bleed afresh.
Blush, blush, thou lump of foul deformity,
For ’tis thy presence that exhales this blood
From cold and empty veins, where no blood dwells:
Thy deed, inhuman and unnatural,
Provokes this deluge most unnatural.
O God! which this blood mad’st, revenge his death;
O earth! which this blood drink’st, revenge his death;
Either heaven with lightning strike the murderer dead,
Or earth, gape open wide, and eat him quick,
As thou dost swallow up this good king’s blood,
Which his hell-govern’d arm hath butchered!”

David Garrick as Richard III. (c. 1745) By William Hogarth.

England stopped using the bier-right at the end of the 17 th century, and German courts abandoned the cruentation at the end of the 18 th century (Fitzharris 2011 and Brittain 1965). But there are still records of courts in the U.S. using it until 1869 (Lea 1878).

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In New Jersey in 1767, a bier-right was used to discover the murderer of Nicholas Tuers, despite the fact that the coroner thought the whole thing was ridiculous.

“In 1767, the coroner’s jury of Bergen County, NJ, was summoned to view the body of one Nicholas Tuers, whose murder was suspected. The attestation of Joannes Demarest, the coroner, stated that he had no belief in the bier-right, and paid no attention to the experiment, when one of the jury touched the body without result. At length Harry, a slave, who had been suspected without proof, was brought up for the same purpose, when he heard the exclamation ‘He is the man,” and was told that Tuers had bled at being touched by Harry. He then ordered the slave to place his hand on the face of the corpse, when about a tablespoonful of blood immediately flowed from each nostril, and Harry confessed the murder in all particulars (Lea 1878).”

In Philadelphia in 1860, a body was actually exhumed for a bier-right after being buried for weeks.

“In 1860, the Philadelphia journals mention a case in which the relatives of a deceased person, suspecting foul play, vainly importuned the coroner, some weeks after the internment, to have the body exhumed, in order that it might be touched by a person whom they regarded as concerned in his death (Lea 1878).”

‘Bier-Right’ (1879) by Jenő Gyárfás.

Last, but not least, probably the largest bier-right ever performed happened in 1869 in Lebanon, IL.

“…in 1869 at Lebanon, IL, the bodies of two murdered persons were dug up, and two hundred of the neighbors were marched past them, each of whom was made to touch them in the hope of finding the criminals.”

Featured image: Detail from a n illustration of a body in its coffin that starts to bleed in the presence of the murderer during a cruentation 1497. Source:

The above article, originally titled ‘ The ordeal of the bleeding corpse by Dolly Stolze was originally published on her blog ‘ Strange Remains ‘ and has been republished under a Creative Commons License.


    7 Bizarre Witch Trial Tests

    As part of the infamous “swimming test,” accused witches were dragged to the nearest body of water, stripped to their undergarments, bound and then tossed in to to see if they would sink or float. Since witches were believed to have spurned the sacrament of baptism, it was thought that the water would reject their body and prevent them from submerging. According to this logic, an innocent person would sink like a stone, but a witch would simply bob on the surface. The victim typically had a rope tied around their waist so they could be pulled from the water if they sank, but it wasn’t unusual for accidental drowning deaths to occur.

    Witch swimming derived from the “trial by water,” an ancient practice where suspected criminals and sorcerers were thrown into rushing rivers to allow a higher power to decide their fate. This custom was banned in many European counties in the Middle Ages, only to reemerge in the 17th century as a witch experiment, and it persisted in some locales well into the 18th century. For example, in 1710, the swimming test was used as evidence against a Hungarian woman named Dorko Boda, who was later beaten and burned at the stake as a witch.


    Kill or cure? 10 medieval medical practices and their effectiveness

    Would these 10 medieval medical practices have given you a new lease of life, or sent you to an early grave?

    This competition is now closed

    Published: August 10, 2018 at 10:30 am

    Bloodletting

    Phlebotomy aimed to maintain or restore the humoral balance in the body by removing a moderate amount of blood. We know today that losing a small quantity of blood is usually not harmful, but nor is it beneficial. In the Middle Ages it was recognised that it was dangerous to draw blood from the elderly or the very sick, and that excessive bleeding, through injury or another cause, needed to be staunched.

    COULD IT HAVE WORKED? NO

    Charms

    These magical remedies were not without benefit, since they sometimes incorporated medicinal plants and other therapeutic substances – and they could serve to reassure the patient. Nonetheless, the treatments usually contained fewer beneficial components than comparable non-magical recipes.

    COULD IT HAVE WORKED? NO

    This article was first published in the September 2018 issue of BBC History Magazine. To read the full feature by Elma Brenner, click here, or to read more from the issue, click here

    Family planning

    Herbal treatments based on plants such as sage, rue and pennyroyal were administered to women seeking to induce an abortion, often in the form of a drink. Several of the plants in question are known today to act as stimulants, and to promote menstruation. It is known that a high dosage of pennyroyal can bring about an abortion.

    COULD IT HAVE WORKED? YES

    Couching for cataracts

    Medieval surgeons treated cataracts by using a needle to dislodge the cloudy lens from its position in front of the pupil of the eye. People recognised that the procedure could be dangerous, and that specialist skills were required for it to work. Today, couching is seen as an ineffective method of treating cataracts that often results in blindness.

    COULD IT HAVE WORKED? NO

    Pharmacy

    Apothecaries compounded medicines using a wide array of substances. While some materials were probably ineffective or even dangerous, others, such as ginger and senna, are used today for their medicinal properties. The pages of medieval pharmaceutical manuscripts may in fact contain remedies of which the benefits are asyet unknown to modern medicine.

    COULD IT HAVE WORKED? YES

    Counterfeit cures

    Rogue practitioners sometimes marketed counterfeit medical remedies, especially during times of heightened anxiety about plague. These treatments prevented sick people from seeking more beneficial advice, and could prove dangerous, especially if a poisonous substance was sold to a patient.

    COULD IT HAVE WORKED? NO

    Astrology

    Doctors paid attention to the movements of the planets and the signs of the zodiac to determine the appropriate time to treat specific ailments. The Zodiac Man image (shown above left), widely copied in medieval manuscripts, shows the signs of the zodiac associated with particular parts of the body. Ideas still exist today about the influence of celestial bodies, especially the Moon, on menstruation and other aspects of health. However, scientific research seems to have disproven such ideas.

    COULD IT HAVE WORKED? NO

    Hospital care

    Although medieval hospital patients were unlikely to be treated by a physician or surgeon, they benefited from the expertise of nursing staff, who were often women. Hospitals offered basic bodily care, in the form of food, drink and shelter. While this care did not encompass specialised treatments, it enabled the sick to regain strength towards their recovery.

    COULD IT HAVE WORKED? YES

    Theriac

    This remedy, in which plant extracts were ground up with the flesh of vipers and other substances, was held as a powerful antidote to poisons, and believed to have many other healing properties. However, although theriac was expensive and highly sought-after, it is difficult to discern how this medicine would have proved effective or beneficial.

    COULD IT HAVE WORKED? NO

    Uroscopy

    Examining urine was one of the only ways in which the medieval doctor could assess the internal state of the body. The urine was collected in a flask, and its colour, smell and consistency were assessed. Medieval medical manuscripts often contain diagrams showing the different qualities of urine and how these related to diseases and states of health. Urine samples are still analysed by doctors today.


    9 weird medieval medicines

    Just as we do today, people in the medieval period worried about their health and what they might do to ward off sickness, or alleviate symptoms if they did fall ill. Here, historian Toni Mount reveals some of the most unusual remedies commonly used&hellip

    This competition is now closed

    Published: April 20, 2015 at 11:55 am

    Medicines in the medieval period were sometimes homemade, if they weren’t too complicated. Simple medicines consisted of a single ingredient – usually a herb – but if they required numerous ingredients or preparation in advance, they could be purchased from an apothecary, rather like a modern pharmacist.

    Although some medical remedies were quite sensible, others were extraordinarily weird. They all now come with a health warning, so it’s probably best not to try these at home…

    St Paul’s Potion for epilepsy, catalepsy and stomach problems

    Supposedly invented by St Paul, this potion was to be drunk. The extensive list of ingredients included liquorice, sage, willow, roses, fennel, cinnamon, ginger, cloves, cormorant blood, mandrake, dragon’s blood and three kinds of pepper.

    Although this sounds like a real witch’s brew, most of the ingredients do have some medicinal value: liquorice is good for the chest – it was and continues to be used to treat coughs and bronchitis sage is thought to improve blood flow to the brain and help one’s memory, and willow contains salicylic acid, a component of aspirin. Fennel, cinnamon and ginger are all carminatives (which relieve gas in the intestines), and would relieve a colicky stomach.

    Cormorant blood – or that of any other warm-blooded creature – would add iron for anaemia mandrake, although poisonous, is a good sleeping draught if used in small doses, and, finally, dragon’s blood. This isn’t blood at all, and certainly not from a mythical beast! It is the bright red resin of the tree Dracaena draco – a species native to Morocco, Cape Verde and the Canary Islands. Modern research has shown that it has antiseptic, antibiotic, anti-viral and wound-healing properties, and it is still used in some parts of the world to treat dysentery – but I’m not sure it could have done anything for epileptics or cataleptics.

    A good medicine for sciatica [pain caused by irritation or compression of the sciatic nerve, which runs from the back of your pelvis, all the way down both legs]

    A number of medieval remedies suggested variations of the following: “Take a spoonful of the gall of a red ox and two spoonfuls of water-pepper and four of the patient’s urine, and as much cumin as half a French nut and as much suet as a small nut and break and bruise your cumin.

    Then boil these together till they be like gruel then let him lay his haunch bone [hip] against the fire as hot as he may bear it and anoint him with the same ointment for a quarter of an hour or half a quarter, and then clap on a hot cloth folded five or six times and at night lay a hot sheet folded many times to the spot and let him lie still two or three days and he shall not feel pain but be well.”

    Perhaps it was the bed rest and heat treatments that did the trick, because I can’t see the ingredients of the ointment doing much good otherwise!

    For burns and scalds

    “Take a live snail and rub its slime against the burn and it will heal”

    A nice, simple DIY remedy – and yes, it would help reduce blistering and ease the pain! Recent research has shown that snail slime contains antioxidants, antiseptic, anaesthetic, anti-irritant, anti-inflammatory, antibiotic and antiviral properties, as well as collagen and elastin, vital for skin repair.

    Modern science now utilises snail slime, under the heading ‘Snail Gel’, as skin preparations and for treating minor injuries, such as cuts, burns and scalds. It seems that medieval medicine got this one right.

    For a stye on the eye

    “Take equal amounts of onion/leek [there is still debate about whether ‘cropleek’, as stated in the original recipe, in Bald’s Leechbook, is equivalent to an onion or leek today] and garlic, and pound them well together. Take equal amounts of wine and bull’s gall and mix them with the onion and garlic. Put the mixture in a brass bowl and let it stand for nine nights, then strain it through a cloth. Then, about night-time, apply it to the eye with a feather.”

    Would this Anglo-Saxon recipe have done any good? The onion, garlic and bull’s gall all have antibiotic properties that would have helped a stye – an infection at the root of an eyelash.

    The wine contains acetic acid which, over the nine days, would react with the copper in the brass bowl to form copper salts, which are bactericidal. Recently, students at Nottingham University made up and tested this remedy: at first, the mixture made the lab smell like a cook shop, with garlic, onions and wine, but over the nine days the mixture developed into a stinking, gloopy goo. Despite its unpromising odour and appearance, the students tested it for any antibiotic properties and discovered that it is excellent. The recipe is now being further investigated as a treatment against the antibiotic-resistant MRSA bug, and it looks hopeful.

    The ancient apothecary was right about this remedy, but it was one that needed to be prepared in advance for sale over the counter.

    For gout

    “Take an owl and pluck it clean and open it, clean and salt it. Put it in a new pot and cover it with a stone and put it in an oven and let it stand till it be burnt. And then stamp [pound] it with boar’s grease and anoint the gout therewith.”

    Poor owl! I can’t think that this would have helped the patient very much either…

    For migraines

    “Take half a dish of barley, one handful each of betony, vervain and other herbs that are good for the head and when they be well boiled together, take them up and wrap them in a cloth and lay them to the sick head and it shall be whole. I proved.”

    Betony [a grassland herb] was used by the medieval and Tudor apothecary as an ingredient in remedies to be taken internally for all kinds of ailments, as well as in poultices for external use, as in this case. Modern medicine still makes use of the alkaloid drugs found in betony for treating severe headaches and migraine.

    Vervain’s glycoside [a class of molecules in which, a sugar molecule is bonded to a ‘non-sugar’ molecule] derivatives too are used in modern treatments for migraine, depression and anxiety, so once again the apothecary knew what he was doing with this recipe!

    For him that has quinsy [a severe throat infection]

    “Take a fat cat and flay it well, clean and draw out the guts. Take the grease of a hedgehog and the fat of a bear and resins and fenugreek and sage and gum of honeysuckle and virgin wax. All this crumble small and stuff the cat within as you would a goose. Roast it all and gather the grease and anoint him [the patient] with it.”

    With treatments like this, is it any wonder that a friend wrote to Pope Clement VI when he was sick, c1350, to say: “I know that your bedside is besieged by doctors and naturally this fills me with fear… they learn their art at our cost and even our death brings them experience.”

    To treat a cough

    “Take the juice of horehound to be mixed with diapenidion and eaten”

    Horehound [a herb plant and member of the mint family] is good for treating coughs, and diapenidion is a confection made of barley water, sugar and whites of eggs, drawn out into threads – so perhaps a cross between candy floss and sugar strands. It would have tasted nice, and sugar is good for the chest – still available in an over-the-counter cough mixture as linctus simplex.

    For the stomach

    “To void wind that is the cause of colic, take cumin and anise, of each equally much, and lay it in white wine to steep, and cover it over with wine and let it stand still so three days and three nights. And then let it be taken out and laid upon an ash board for to dry nine days and be turned about. And at the nine days’ end, take and put it in an earthen pot and dry over the fire and then make powder thereof. And then eat it in pottage or drink it and it shall void the wind that is the cause of colic”

    Both anise and cumin are carminatives, so this medicine would do exactly what it said on the tin – or earthen pot. The herbs dill and fennel could be used instead to the same effect – 20th-century gripe water for colicky babies contained dill.

    This remedy would have taken almost two weeks to make, so patients would have bought it from the apothecary, as needed.

    Toni Mount is an author, historian and history teacher. She began her career working in the laboratories of the then-Wellcome pharmaceutical company [now GlaxoSmithKline], and gained her MA studying a 15th-century medical text at the Wellcome Library. She is also a member of the Research Committee of the Richard III Society.

    Her books, all published by Amberley, include Everyday Life in Medieval London: From the Anglo-Saxons to the Tudors The Medieval Housewife & Other Women of the Middle Ages and her latest book, Dragon’s Blood & Willow Bark: The Mysteries of Medieval Medicine, which is out now.


    Health and Medicine in Medieval England

    Health and medicine in Medieval England were very important aspects of life. For many peasants in Medieval England, disease and poor health were part of their daily life and medicines were both basic and often useless. Towns and cities were filthy and knowledge of hygiene was non-existent. The Black Death was to kill two thirds of England’s population between 1348 and 1350.

    In 1349, Edward III complained to the Lord Mayor of London that the streets of the city were filthy:

    “Cause the human faeces and other filth lying in the streets and lanes in the city to be removed with all speed to places far distant, so that no greater cause of mortality may arise from such smells.”

    No one knew what caused diseases then. There was no knowledge of germs. Medieval peasants had been taught by the church that any illness was a punishment from God for sinful behaviour. Therefore, any illness was self-imposed – the result of an individual’s behaviour.

    Other theories put forward for diseases included “humours”. It was believed that the body had four humours (fluids in our bodies) and if these became unbalanced you got ill. Doctors studied a patient’s urine to detect if there was any unbalance.

    Astronomers blamed the planets going out of line

    As important, no-one knew how diseases spread – the fact that people lived so close together in both villages and towns meant that contagious diseases could be rampant when they appeared as happened with the Black Death.

    Physicians were seen as skilled people but their work was based on a very poor knowledge of the human anatomy. Experiments on dead bodies were unheard of in Medieval England and strictly forbidden. Physicians charged for their services and only the rich could afford them. Their cures could be bizarre though some cures, including bleeding and the use of herbs, had some logic to them even if it was very much a hit-or-miss approach. One of the most famous physicians was John Arderne who wrote “The Art of Medicine” and who treated royalty. He was considered a master in his field but his cure for kidney stones was a hot plaster smeared with honey and pigeon dung!

    Physicians would have had their own ideas as to what caused illnesses.

    Those who blamed bad smells developed a ‘cure’ to make the bad smells go away.

    Those who blamed bad luck would use prayers and superstitions.

    Those who blamed the body’s four humours used bleeding, sweating and vomiting to restore the balance of the four humours.

    When by some luck, a patient got better or simply improved, this was a sure sign that a cure worked. It also meant that the cure used would be used again. If it did not work on the next patient, this was the fault of the patient rather than of the cure.

    Operations were carried out by ‘surgeons’. In fact, these men were unskilled and had other jobs such as butchers and barbers. The traditional red and white pole outside of a barber’s shop today is a throwback to the days in Medieval England when barbers did operations. The red stood for blood and the white for the bandages used at the end of an operation.

    Operations could end in death as post-operative infections were common. Instruments used in an operation were not sterilised – as there was no knowledge of germs, there was no need to clean instruments used in operations. Patients might recover from small operations, such as a tooth extraction (though this could not be guaranteed), but operations that included a deep cut through the skin were very dangerous.

    Some monasteries had cottage hospitals attached to them. The monks who worked in these hospitals had basic medical knowledge but they were probably the best qualified people in the country to help the poor and those who could not afford their own physician. By 1200, there may have been as many as 400 hospitals in England.

    Cures from Medieval England :

    Take a candle and burn it close to the tooth. The worms that are gnawing the tooth will fall out into a cup of water held by the mouth.

    The cause of the Black Death according to Guy de Chauliac, a French doctor:

    Three great planets, Saturn, Jupiter and Mars, are all in close position. This took place in 1345. Such a coming together of planets is always a sign of wonderful, terrible or violent things to come.

    For evil spirits in the head:

    For this, surgeons used trepanning. This was where a surgeon cut a hole into the skull to release evil spirits trapped in the brain. The operation might also include cutting out the part of the brain that had been ‘infected’ with these evil spirits. Incredibly, people are known to have survived operations such as these as skulls have been found which show bone growth around the hole cut by a surgeon – a sign that someone did survive such an operation if only for awhile.

    For general illnesses:

    People were told that a pilgrimage to a holy shrine to show your love of God would cure them of illnesses especially if they had some holy water sold at the place of pilgrimage. After the death of Thomas Becket in 1170, Canterbury Cathedral became a place of pilgrimage which brought even more wealth to the city. However, more people coming to the city also increased the risk of disease being brought in.

    This was when blood was drained from a certain spot in your body. The idea behind this was similar to trepanning in that it released bad blood from your body. The use of leeches was common for this but dirty knives were also used which only increased the risk to the patient.

    Leeches used on royalty

    This was where a physician identified that a certain part of your body was ill and it was cured by having red hot pokers put on it.

    Astrology played an important part in many cures. For fever, one medicine book stated “A man suffering from fever should be bled immediately the moon passes through the middle of the sign of Gemini.”


    38. Bad Blood

    Bloodletting was a common medical practice in Middle Ages, which was meant to let ‘bad blood’ out of the body. Medieval Europeans were so into it, they had texts advising which saints’ days were best for bloodletting, and charts showing which parts of the body were best to bleed according to the zodiac.

    Wikimedia.Commons

    Medieval Law and Order

    Law and order was very harsh in Medieval England. Those in charge of law and order believed that people would only learn how to behave properly if they feared what would happen to them if they broke the law. Even the ‘smallest’ offences had serious punishments. The authorities feared the poor simply because there were many more poor than rich and any revolt could be potentially damaging – as the Peasants Revolt of 1381 proved.

    By the time of Henry II, the system of law in England had been improved because Henry sent out his own judges from London to listen to cases throughout all England’s counties. Each accused person had to go through an ordeal. There were three ordeals:

    Ordeal by fire. An accused person held a red hot iron bar and walked three paces. His hand was then bandaged and left for three days. If the wound was getting better after three days, you were innocent. If the wound had clearly not got any better, you were guilty. Ordeal by water. An accused person was tied up and thrown into water. If you floated you were guilty of the crime you were accused of. Ordeal by combat. This was used by noblemen who had been accused of something. They would fight in combat with their accuser. Whoever won was right. Whoever lost was usually dead at the end of the fight.

    In 1215, the Pope decided that priests in England must not help with ordeals. As a result, ordeals were replaced by trials by juries. To start with, these were not popular with the people as they felt that their neighbours might have a grudge against them and use the opportunity of a trial to get their revenge. After 1275, a law was introduced which allowed people to be tortured if they refused to go to trial before a jury.

    If you were found guilty of a crime you would expect to face a severe punishment. Thieves had their hands cut off. Women who committed murder were strangled and then burnt. People who illegally hunted in royal parks had their ears cut off and high treason was punishable by being hung, drawn and quartered. There were very few prisons as they cost money and local communities were not prepared to pay for their upkeep. It was cheaper to execute someone for bad crimes or mutilate them and then let them go.

    Most towns had a gibbet just outside of it. People were hung on these and their bodies left to rot over the weeks as a warning to others. However, such violent punishments clearly did not put off people. In 1202, the city of Lincoln had 114 murders, 89 violent robberies and 65 people were wounded in fights. Only 2 people were executed for these crimes and it can be concluded that many in Lincoln got away with their crime.


    The Manorial Court (Trial by Jury)

    The manorial court dealt with all but the most serious crimes. It was held at various intervals during the year, and all villagers had to attend or pay a fine. All men were placed in groups of ten called a tithing. Each tithing had to make sure that no member of their group broke the law. If a member of a tithing broke a law then the other members had to make sure that he went to court.

    The Lord’s steward was in charge of the court. A jury of twelve men was chosen by the villagers. The jury had to collect evidence and decide whether the accused was guilty or not guilty and, if found guilty, what the medieval punishment should be.


    The Bizarre Importance of Bleeding Bodies in Medieval Trials - History

    "Each had in his right hand a scourge with three tails."

    Although prevalent on the European continent, the Flagellants did not achieve popularity in England. However, a large contingent of the sect crossed the English Channel in 1349 and converged on London. The following description of the Flagellants comes to us from Sir Robert of Avesbury who witnessed their ritual:

    "In that same year of 1349, about Michaelmas (September, 29) over six hundred men came to London from Flanders, mostly of Zeeland and Holland origin. Sometimes at St Paul's and sometimes at other points in the city they made two daily public appearances wearing cloths from the thighs to the ankles, but otherwise stripped bare. Each wore a cap marked with a red cross in front and behind.

    A Contemporary View
    of the Flagellants, ca 1350

    Each had in his right hand a scourge with three tails. Each tail had a knot and through the middle of it there were sometimes sharp nails fixed. They marched naked in a file one behind the other and whipped themselves with these scourges on their naked and bleeding bodies.

    Four of them would chant in their native tongue and, another four would chant in response like a litany. Thrice they would all cast themselves on the ground in this sort of procession, stretching out their hands like the arms of a cross. The singing would go on and, the one who was in the rear of those thus prostrate acting first, each of them in turn would step over the others and give one stroke with his scourge to the man lying under him.

    This went on from the first to the last until each of them had observed the ritual to the full tale of those on the ground. Then each put on his customary garments and always wearing their caps and carrying their whips in their hands they retired to their lodgings. It is said that every night they performed the same penance."

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