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Unexplained / Anthropology / Legal Murder / Degrading Punishments / 


Degrading Punishments

The crime or offence committed was formerly easily identified by the characteristic matching punishment. Especially the degrading punishments intended to lower a person in the eyes of his fellow-men and make him ridiculous were very imaginative and there was hardly any limit to human inventivness. The instruments of punishment used were as numerous and varied as the offences. There were masks of shame in the most bizarre designs. The "dragon" was a mask of shame for gossiping, quarrelsome shrews: big ears = they heard everything, spectacles = they saw everything, big nose = they stuck their nose into other people's business, big mouth and long tongue = everything they got to know was maliciously told to others. Such masks also bore inscriptions, e.g. "The shrew who cannot hold her tongue has put this muzzle on " or "Punishment of dishonorable and wicked tongues".

All masks of shame had a common feature, they characterized the wearer's offence and made it plainly visible to the observer. For instance, a man who had behaved like a swine was forced to wear a mask in the shape of a boar's head. There were also masks of shame for scamping, botching craftsmen. Many of them covered the face completely. this might give the present-day observer the impression that despite the public nature of the punishment the miscreant remained largely anonymous. It must be taken into account, however , that towns at that time were very small. In Germany there were only about 50 towns with more than 5,000 inhabitants, and every inhabitant knew all the others. The condemned person never remained unrecognized. The great rush of onlookers at such events is explained by the fact that in those days there were few opportunities for amusement and entertainment, and advantage was taken of every diversion from the wearisome monotony of everyday life.

The musician who played badly had a "shame flute" hung and locked round his neck. Wicked women and girls were locked in the "neck-violin" and had to stand on the market place near the pillory for some time. Two women who continually quarrelled in public were locked in the double neck-violin until they promised to keep the peace in future. When married couples quarrelled, the neighbors put a beetle ( a heavy piece of wood) in front of the house door and it could only be removed after they had buried the hatchet.

Attendance at church services was obligatory. Absence without an excuse, which was easy to establish, because every one had his regular seat, was sentanced to a church punishment, e.g. the rosary, and the same applied to those who fell asleep during the service. The enormous rosary of large wooden beads ( about a meter long and weighing 15 pounds) was placed round his neck, and wearing it he had to stand before the church door on Sundays before the service started and below the pulpit during the sermon.

Persons who had to stand in the pillory had "shame-boards" placed round their neck, which bore their name and the nature of their offence. Loafers and idlers had to wear a fool's cap. Those who cheated at cards or dice went to the pillory and were decorated with the cheaters chain. The slander-stone also belongs in this context. If, as an act of grace, banishment was not enforced, the condemned person had to carry a "slander-stick" in public. It was a sort of beggar's staff of barkless wood branded with the town's coat of arms. though the modern observer may be amused at some of the seemingly comical humiliatingdevices, there was nothing amusing about them for those on whom they were inflicted. Although they very rarely caused physical pain, they pointed out clearly the negative traits of the affected person and his misdeed, and aroused in his fellowmen what is probably the lowest most reprehensible form of pleasure, pleasure in the misery of others.



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