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Medieval World: Crime and Punishment - including witchcraft

Resources to support the Year 8 Humanities Unit: Medieval world - The Middle Ages

Crime and punishment links

Medieval Law and Order

Citation: C N Trueman "Medieval Law And Order" The History Learning Site, 5 Mar 2015. 20 May 2019.

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 in England 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.

Source: Citation: C N Trueman "Medieval Law And Order" The History Learning Site, 5 Mar 2015. 20 May 2019.

Medieval Mayhem


Medieval Age: Crime and Punishment

ABC Splash Rough Justice video

Witchcraft - click on the Blue Links for further reading

A brief history of Medieval Magic and witchcraft

Between 1482 and 1782, thousands of people across Europe – most of them women – were accused of witchcraft and subsequently executed. But why were so many innocent people suspected of such a crime? How many were killed, and were 'witches' really burned at the stake?

Witches and witchcraft in Medieval times

The Inquisition, which was a movement by the Roman Catholic Church to seek out and expunge heretics, began in 1230.  Many were executed for accusations of witchcraft.  However, it was not until the Early Modern Period, the period after the end of the Middle Ages, that witch hunts and witch trials became more prevalent.


Witchcraft in the Middle Ages was feared throughout Europe.  Magic was believed to be a creation of the devil and associated with devil worship.  Two “types” of magic were said to be practiced during the Middle Ages.

-Black Magic

Black Magic was the “bad” type of magic.  Black Magic had more of an association with the devil and satanic worship.  If someone fell ill of unknown causes, this was often said to be caused by witches who practiced black magic.  Other harms caused to society, such as accidents, deaths, or bad luck, were also said to be caused by Black Magic.

-White Magic

The basis of White Magic was in Christian symbolism, and it focused on nature and herbs.  It was the “good” type of magic.  White Magic was used for good luck, love spells, wealth and spells for good health.  Astrology was another major part of White Magic.  Alchemy, which is the practice of making potions, was a part of White Magic as well.

Heresy and Punishment

Being accused of witchcraft in the Middle Ages meant being labeled as a heretic.  If accused of witchcraft, the accused was forced to confess, even if he was innocent, through brutal torture.  Then he was hanged or burnt alive for his crimes.  Laws against witchcraft were further tightened when they began to be used for personal vendettas against the accused or in order to gain property of the accused. 

The accusations were arranged by influential persons in society or the clergy who would bring about the suspicions against those they wanted to target.  They then arrested their victims, made them confess, and executed them.  Almost 80% of those accused of witchcraft were women.

In some cases, the clergy were genuinely concerned about the souls of those they were executing.  As such, they chose to burn the so-called “witches” alive in order to save them.


When we talk about Witches and Witchcraft in the Middle Ages we must know that Witches were often portrayed as old, ugly and bedraggled women.  This is because the church wanted them to be targets of dislike and hatred.  Of course, those who practiced witchcraft (and those who were falsely accused) had a wide range of appearances.


Witches in the Medieval times used spells, animal parts, and a variety of herbs to make potions, cure various diseases, and heal wounds.  Though the potions were regarded as superstitious, they were often quite effective in healing.  The potions were brewed in large cauldrons in order to ensure that they were combined properly.  The cauldrons were usually made out of wood or stones.


Source: Witches and Witchcraft in the Middle Ages - The Finer Times