A blog about the British Renaissance and modern Renaissance Faires.
In all societies, those who go against the established norms are typically punished in some way. In many animal societies, this often happens when a younger male challenges an older male for dominance in the group. The losing male is then driven away and banned. In human societies, norms and punishments for breaking norms have varied throughout time and societies. In this post, I will focus on The Criminal Underground, Minor Offenses and Punishments and Major Offenses and Punishments during the Elizabethan Renaissance and finish with the far more lighthearted approach to these topics as seen in Renaissance Faires.
The Criminal Underground
The Criminal Underground was pervasive in most communities. Con men, whipjacks, people of means posing as beggars, pick pockets and sneak thieves roamed the streets looking for easy targets. Such criminals could be found operating during church services and even at courts of law, where unsophisticated folk, intent on following the various requirements of the law, were not always intent on watching their belongings.
And just like in the story Oliver Twist, by Charles Dickens, artful dodgers had their own “unions” that would train them in picking pockets and what to do if the target realized what was happening. One tactic such unions would employ would be to set up one thief as an entertainer. As crowds would gather to watch, the “entertainer” would point out that there were known to be thieves in the area and everyone should be mindful of their purses. Typically, people in the crowd would then reach for their purses to check that they were there. The entertainer’s accomplices would note where people had placed their purses and relieve them of their monies at the first opportunity.
Minor Offenses and Punishments
Many offenses were considered minor and included, but were not limited to, indecency according to the current standards, prostitution and the using of young girls for prostitution, incest, making a scene during a church service, drunkenness, theft of clothes from hedges (i.e., stealing drying laundry), pickpockets, cut purses and arranging contract killings. A more serious minor offense was forging a Noble’s signature.
Punishment for minor offenses was determined by justices. Punishment for offenses against the current standard of decency often involved public shaming. Guilty parties would be forced to ride in a cart or sit backwards on horses while wearing signs detailing their offenses for everyone to see.
For non-decency related minor crimes, pillorying was common. The pillory was a devise made of a metal or wooden framework set on a post with holes for securing the head and hands. The persons being punished would be forced to stand with their heads and hands locked in the pillory for several hours.
Alternatively,people may have been locked in stocks. With stocks, guilty people usually sat with their feet locked in the wooden frame, although occasionally stocks would also have holes for hands and heads.
The primary goal of pillorying was humiliation. Typically, a sign was hung stating the guilty ones’ crimes.
Pillorying was a cause of excitement and entertainment for those not locked in it. Crowds would gather to jeer the prisoners. Typically, crowds would increase the“entertainment and humiliation factor” by throwing rotten food, mud, filth, offal and dead animals at the prisoners. However, occasionally prisoners were seriously injured or killed because crowds would become too violent and throw stones, bricks and other dangerous objects. On occasion, there were additional punishments imposed, such as whipping or having an ear removed.
Other forms of punishment for minor offenses included fines or imprisonment in a workhouse, where one would be expected to engage in physical labor, such as grinding corn or untwisting old ropes into fiber for use in caulking ships.
Major Offenses and Their Punishments
Buggery, murder, treason, suicide, rape, stealing hawks, witchcraft, military desertion and highway robbery were some of the major offenses. These crimes were typically met with capital punishment. In the case of suicide, since the person was already dead, the corpse might be beaten or kicked and have a stake driven through the body. Hanging was the most common form of execution. However, more gruesome forms of execution were also used, such as beheading, burning at the stake, boiling to death and being drawn and quartered.
However, not everyone found guilty of a major crime was killed. A woman could “plead her belly,” that is, claim she was pregnant. Since her unborn child was innocent, punishment would be deferred until after she had given birth. Often, such a woman would disappear before the punishment was enacted.
A man might claim “benefit of clergy.” The only requirement for this escape from punishment was the ability to read a passage from the Bible. Such a person would be handed over to the Church for punishment, where a lesser punishment, such as branding on the hand, was common.
At a Renaissance Faire, a more light-hearted approach is taken to “criminal activity and their punishments.” At the Virginia Renaissance Faire, family members can have fun “locking” each other in the pillory. Visitors may be asked to serve as justices for the public trial of a woman who has been accused of witchcraft. Nobles, commoners and visitors can also “settle old scores” at the Court of Common Pleas and the Court of Love. The Court of Common Pleas addresses requests for redress of legal issues. The Court of Love addresses requests for redress of matters of the heart. Often there is overlap or continuation from one Court to the next.
In one case brought before the Court of Common Pleas, the shire’s Sheriff was caught trying to keep for himself tax monies that had been collected for the Queen. He was forced to wear a sign stating his crime and was locked in the pillory. (Or so we were led to believe.)
Townsfolk will often bring charges against each other. Townsfolk with rival businesses will sue each other for loss of business. Shire bakers will sue each other for stealing recipes.
One case that spanned both the Court of Common Pleas and The Court of Love was over a breach of contract. A Noble had proposed marriage to Queen Elizabeth while the two were traveling. The Queen had given a verbal contract to provide an answer before arriving at the next shire. When the answer was not forthcoming, the Noble sued the Queen for Breach of Contract. Of course, the Queen would never debase herself to appear at a Common court, so a proxy for the Queen was picked from those witnessing the trial, and the case proceeded.
In another case, a mother asked the Court of Love to find a suitable mate for her unwed daughter. The Court presented several eligible males, though these males were typically much too young or too old. Finally, a visiting commoner stepped forth and said he would be willing to woo the daughter. Three years later,members of the Virginia Renaissance Faire celebrated their marriage!
Finally, one of the Faire’s shopkeepers (me!) sued her assistant, her son, for failing to show her proper respect. During the Renaissance, children were expected to begin their days by kneeling before their parents and asking for their blessings. My son refused to do so, so I sued him at the Court of Love. Upon questioning, the Court learned that he was 21 years old and still living with his parents. They demanded that he marry immediately!
A suitable marriage was arraigned, but the marriage did not last. Over the next four weeks he was married an additional six times and left me to tend the shop by myself. Finally, I decided to sue my son again for breaking many hearts, mine and his many ex-spouses, by abandoning us. At the Court of Love I asked everyone who had had their heart broken by my son to please stand and join me. Over twenty young women and three young men stood! The Court was quite concerned about the number of hearts broken by my son. But then they asked my son what his occupation was and he answered truthfully, “Musician.” As we all know, it is the job of poets and musicians to break hearts, and when my son sang for the Court, they fell in love with him, too! What’s a mother to do?
To learn more about the Virginia Renaissance Faire, please go to: www.VaRF.org. The Virginia Renaissance Faire runs for five weekends from Mother’s Day weekend through early June. I hope to see you there!
The information for this blog was drawn from Wikipedia, Elizabeth’s London: Everyday Life in Elizabethan London, by Liza Picard, (London, Weidenfeld & Nicolson, 2003), Shakespeare’s England: Life in Elizabethan & Jacobean Times, Edited by R.E. Pritchard, (Gloucestershire, The History Press, 1999.) and conversations with members of the Virginia Renaissance Faire.