A German by the name of Wolfgang Schild has published a book about medieval criminal law. Some gruesome stories about torture at the hands of officials were completely made up but others were well documented and done for a very specific purpose: salvation.
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.