How bad were the Medieval Stocks?

The Medieval stocks punished so many brewers, bakers, butchers, and cooks that one wit suggested they should locate their gilds underneath the local pillories.

John Stow described how Medieval stocks in London was for “punishment of bakers offending in the assize of bread; for millers stealing of corn at the mill; for bawds, scolds, and other offenders”.

On 1 July, 1552, a man and a woman were held on the stocks in Cheapside. The man sold pots of strawberries, which were actually half filled with fern.

Two persons were set on the pillory, a man and a woman, on 30th May, 1554, . The unfortunate woman had her ears nailed to the pillory for speaking lies and spreading  false rumors.

The man was punished for seditious and slanderous words.

Small time crimes, surely. Though watch out if you offended the great and mighty.

In 1621, Edward Floyd was convicted of  having used slighting expressions concerning the king’s son-in-law, the Elector Palatine, and his wife. The sentence was:

  1. Not to bear arms as a gentleman, nor be a competent witness in any court of justice.
  2. To ride with his face to a horses tail, to stand in the pillory and have his ears nailed etc
  3. To be whipped at the carts tail
  4. To be fined £5,000
  5. To be perpetually imprisoned in Newgate

Since Floyd was a gentleman, it was doubtful whether he should  be both whipped and have his ears nailed. The majority agreed that he should be subject to the former but not the latter. He stood two hours in the pillory and had his forehead branded.

Free entertainment

It was a custom to put persons in the pillory during the time of  a public market. Free entertainment!

In fact, if local authorities failed to have the stocks ready if needed, they risked losing the license to hold a market.

In addition to being jeered and mocked, those in the pillory might be pelted with rotten food, mud, offal, dead animals, and animal excrement.

Dover’s customal specifically mentions that cutpurses should be exhibited in the pillory, where anyone who wishes to could “do hym vylonye”.

Sometimes people were killed or maimed in the pillory because crowds could get too violent and pelt the offender with stones, bricks and other dangerous objects.

In 1731, a professional witness (a paid liar) was sentenced to the pillory of Seven Dials, where he was pelted to death.

On the other hand, Daniel Defoe was subjected to a hail of flowers from the mob when he was in the pillory in 1703 for Seditious libel.

The Manchester pillory was rather jocularly called the “tea table”,and was used as a whipping place also. (Different strokes…)

Blasphemy in the Medieval Stocks

The French king Charles VI (1368-1422) decreed penalties for blasphemy against the Virgin Mary and the saints:

First offense: confinement in the pillory between the hours of prime (morning) to none (mid-aft) Passersby allowed to throw mud and refuse at the eyes of the guilty person, but not stones or other objects that might wound him. Afterward, he shall spend a month in prison, living only on bread and water

2nd: Put in the pillory on a market or holy day and upper lip split open by a hot iron.

3rd: The lower lip split open

4th: Both lips severed

5th: Tongue shall be cut out entirely.

An Englishman who was tried and convicted for pretending to be a hermit and a pilgrim was sentenced to the pillory in the marketplace for three market days, there to remain for an hour a day and he was in the meantime to have whetstone hung around his neck.

Sue me!

There’s a funny story about a man being condemned to the stocks  in or around Elizabeth’s time:

“The footboard on which he was placed proved to be rotten, and down it fell, leaving him hanging by the neck, in danger of his life. On being liberated, he brought an action against the town for the insufficiency of its pillory, and recovered damages.”

The last person to be pilloried in England was Peter James Bossy, who was convicted of “wilful and corrupt perjury” in 1830.

He was offered the choice of seven years’ penal transportation or one hour in the pillory. He took his chances with the latter.

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