A fresh look at torture in the Middle Ages

From Spiegel:

A German researcher has studied medieval criminal law and found that our image of the sadistic treatment of criminals in the Dark Ages is only partly true. Torture and gruesome executions were designed in part to ensure the salvation of the convicted person’s soul.

Peter Nirsch would have been seen as a monster at any time in history. While traveling south through Germany, he had a penchant for cutting open pregnant women and removing their unborn babies. Nirsch butchered more than 500 people before he was captured near Nuremberg in September 1581.

The courts were not squeamish in their treatment of the serial killer. First he was tortured, and then hot oil was poured into his wounds. Then the culprit was tied to the rack, where his arms and legs were broken. In the end, he was quartered.

Anyone who, like Nirsch, was convicted of serious crimes in medieval Germany was subjected to similarly resolute forms of punishment.

The enforcers of the law tormented suspects with red-hot iron bars or boiled them alive in water. “The carrying out of inhuman sentences was part of everyday life,” concludes Wolfgang Schild, a legal scholar from the western German city of Bielefeld.

Nevertheless, in his newly published book Schild recommends a reappraisal of the administration of justice in the supposedly Dark Ages. “All brutality aside, the criminal law of the day was also concerned with the salvation of the convicted criminal.”

New access to existing sources, such as law books and pamphlets, has enabled Schild to soften the prevailing view of the past. Many descriptions from centuries past were “distorted and exaggerated to make the past seem particularly dark and the present more radiant,” says Schild.

The Renaissance poet Petrarch, for example, carried this sort of fiction to extremes. He dreamed up the “brazen bull,” a hollow object made of metal that was placed over a fire while the condemned criminals inside were cooked alive.

But the executioners of the Middle Ages were not driven by such sadistic impulses. Instead, for the general good, they sought to pacify the “offended God.” “The Christian authorities also subjected wrongdoers to gruesome punishments so that they could attain eternal life,” says Schild. The prevailing view at the time was only when the refractory body had been softened up would the soul be liberated and ready for God.

The firm belief in the purifying power of physical pain was widespread. A number of condemned criminals even martyred themselves voluntarily to prove their integrity or secure their place in the afterlife. However, they were not to be blindly beaten and crushed. Under the so-called Peinliche Halsgerichtsordnung (Criminal Law) of Charles V of 1532, the use of torture was to be subject to the “discretion of a good and reasonable judge.”

The executioner, who today is seen as the epitome of the sadistic vicarious agent, was in fact expected to exercise moderation and sound judgment. A guilty verdict required “strict rules of evidence,” says Schild. According to the Klagspiegel, Germany’s oldest code of law, written in 1436 by the town of clerk of Schwäbisch Hall, Conrad Heyden, any doubts as to the guilt of the accused had to be “overcome with evidence as clear as day.”

For the medieval enforcers of the law, a verdict based on circumstantial evidential would not have been sufficient. However, the incontrovertible truth was extracted from the accused with every means possible, which included tying him to the so-called dry rack and painfully stretching his body.

The superstitious investigators of the day also used psychological tricks to extract information. One was the use of the so-called Bahrprobe, in which a suspected murderer was forced to kiss the wounds of the murder victim, and “God willing, the murderer would be revealed.” The culprits were to be confronted with the consequences of their disgraceful deed — and would then hopefully break down and confess.

The citizens of the Middle Ages, fixated on the afterlife as they were, were not as deeply agitated over a death sentence as one might expect. “In general, there are many indications that the people living at the time did not perceive the brutality of execution in the same way we would perceive it today, because they were filled with a deep sense of sin and thus were open to torture,” says Schild.

The people attending the executions, which were always public events, reacted angrily to an executioner not performing his job properly and allowing the condemned criminal to suffer unduly. In 1575, the inebriated executioner of Chur in the Swiss canton of Graubünden was stoned to death by an audience disgusted with his lurching attempts to behead three criminals.

In some cases, benevolent executioners faked the gruesome death of a convict. For example, when the condemned criminal was to be burned at the stake, the executioners would set moist straw on fire to produce a smoke screen. Then, unnoticed by the public, the condemned criminal was strangled to death behind the thick clouds of smoke.

Schild’s book includes a number of medieval depictions of elaborately staged executions. Nevertheless, says the author, the work can certainly be enjoyed “with a glass of wine in the evening.”

From Spiegel.


The Black Death came from China

From NYTimes:

The great waves of plague that twice devastated Europe and changed the course of history had their origins in China, a team of medical geneticists reported Sunday, as did a third plague outbreak that struck less harmfully in the 19th century.

And in separate research, a team of biologists reported conclusively this month that the causative agent of the most deadly plague, the Black Death, was the bacterium known as Yersinia pestis. This agent had always been the favored cause, but a vigorous minority of biologists and historians have argued the Black Death differed from modern cases of plague studied in India, and therefore must have had a different cause.


Triumph of death by Peter Breughel

The Black Death began in Europe in 1347 and carried off an estimated 30 percent or more of the population of Europe. For centuries the epidemic continued to strike every 10 years or so, its last major outbreak being the Great Plague of London from 1665 to 1666. The disease is spread by rats and transmitted to people by fleas or, in some cases, directly by breathing.

One team of biologists, led by Barbara Bramanti of the Institut Pasteur in Paris and Stephanie Haensch of Johannes Gutenberg University in Germany, analyzed ancient DNA and proteins from plague pits, the mass burial grounds across Europe in which the dead were interred. Writing in the journal PLoS Pathogens this month, they say their findings put beyond doubt that the Black Death was brought about by Yersinia pestis.

Dr. Bramanti’s team was able to distinguish two strains of the Black Death plague bacterium, which differ both from each other and from the three principal strains in the world today. They infer that medieval Europe must have been invaded by two different sources of Yersinia pestis. One strain reached the port of Marseilles on France’s southern coast in 1347, spread rapidly across France and by 1349 had reached Hereford, a busy English market town and pilgrimage center near the Welsh border.


Dance of Death by Michael Wolgemut (1493)

The strain of bacterium analyzed from the bones and teeth of a Hereford plague pit dug in 1349 is identical to that from a plague pit of 1348 in southern France, suggesting a direct route of travel. But a plague pit in the Dutch town of Bergen op Zoom has bacteria of a different strain, which the researchers infer arrived from Norway.

The Black Death is the middle of three great waves of plague that have hit in historical times. The first appeared in the 6th century during the reign of the Byzantine emperor Justinian, reaching his capital, Constantinople, on grain ships from Egypt. The Justinian plague, as historians call it, is thought to have killed perhaps half the population of Europe and to have eased the Arab takeover of Byzantine provinces in the Near East and Africa.

The third great wave of plague began in China’s Yunnan province in 1894, emerged in Hong Kong and then spread via shipping routes throughout the world. It reached the United States through a plague ship from Hong Kong that docked at Hawaii, where plague broke out in December 1899, and then San Francisco, whose plague epidemic began in March 1900.

The three plague waves have now been tied together in common family tree by a team of medical geneticists led by Mark Achtman of University College Cork in Ireland. By looking at genetic variations in living strains of Yersinia pestis, Dr. Achtman’s team has reconstructed a family tree of the bacterium. By counting the number of genetic changes, which clock up at a generally steady rate, they have dated the branch points of the tree, which enables the major branches to be correlated with historical events.

In the issue of Nature Genetics published online Sunday, they conclude that all three of the great waves of plague originated from China, where the root of their tree is situated. Plague would have reached Europe across the Silk Road, they say. An epidemic of plague that reached East Africa was probably spread by the voyages of the Chinese admiral Zheng He who led a fleet of 300 ships to Africa in 1409.

“What’s exciting is that we are able to reconstruct the historical routes of bacterial disease over centuries,” Dr. Achtman said.

Lester K. Little, an expert on the Justinian plague at Smith College, said in an interview from Bergamo, Italy, that the epidemic was first reported by the Byzantine historian Procopius in 541 A.D. from the ancient port of Pelusium, near Suez in Egypt. Historians had assumed it arrived there from the Red Sea or Africa, but the Chinese origin now suggested by the geneticists is possible, Dr. Little said.

The geneticists’ work is “immensely impressive,” Dr. Little said, and adds a third leg to the studies of plague by historians and by archaeologists.

The likely origin of the plague in China has nothing to do with its people or crowded cities, Dr. Achtman said. The bacterium has no interest in people, whom it slaughters by accident. Its natural hosts are various species of rodent such as marmots and voles, which are found throughout China.

From NYTimes.