What was the real key purpose of women’s execution in Middle Ages?
In the Middle Ages, women’s executions were used as a medium to maintain the established social order which gave primacy to men, with a particular emphasis on men in the upper class. As such, public punishments in the Middle Ages were used as a forum to strategically enforce justice. However, the execution of women was unique as it typically occurred due to a “moral” offence such as lesbianism or infanticide, or often unsupported accusations of moral offences, for example, of witchcraft or heresy. With the public spectacle of execution, the woman who had upset the social order was removed, and an example was made of her, discouraging other women from conducting themselves similarly.
Crime in the Middle Ages was both considered to be a menace to society, and an insult to the divine (Huizinga, 1996). In a time when the Church and State did not exist as separate entities, the inverse was also true, and being accused of heresy, such as in the case of Joan of Arc, was a grave crime warranting execution (ibid). Similarly, actions of women that were considered a moral affront such as lesbianism (Murray, 1996), or infanticide, even when it occurred for socio-economic reasons (Obladen, 2016), resulted in public executions.
Ultimately, the judicial cruelty towards women in the Middle Ages stemmed from a perceived need of control. An expression of power was sought that could support the social order and as a result those women who were executed were chosen for such a punishment because their heretical actions undermined the established system.
Huizinga, J. (1996). The autumn of the Middle Ages. Chicago, IL: University of Chicago Press.
Murray, J. (1996). Twice Marginal and Twice Invisible: Lesbians in the Middle Ages. The Handbook of Medieval Sexuality, 191-202.
Obladen, M. (2016). From Sin to Crime: Laws on Infanticide in the Middle Ages. Neonatology, 109(2): 85-90.
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