Gapestokk Although the concept of public punishment may now seem strange, even barbaric, it was the accepted norm until the 19th century. It is only in recent times that prison has been used as a punishment. Before the 19th century, jails were usually only places to hold people prior to their trial or punishment.

Public humiliation was a major part of punishment in stocks and pillories. These would always be sited in the most public place available, for example the market square or village green. In small communities, those being punished would be well known to everyone else, thereby increasing their shame.

Audience participation was a key element. The helpless victim would usually be subjected to a barrage of mockery and abuse, and pelted with any missiles which came to hand. These could range from rotten fruit and vegetables, mud, excrement, dead rats, even stones. This was most effective in the pillory, where the occupant was unable to move his or her head.

The physical discomfort of being confined for long periods in stocks or pillories should not be discounted. People could be left in the stocks for days, even weeks, in all weather. Being stuck in the same position would become very uncomfortable after only a few hours.

ears The pillory tended to be a shorter term punishment, a few hours, not usually more than a day. But the victim’s position, bent over and unable to move his or her head, was considerably more uncomfortable than the stocks.

As an additional punishment, people in the pillory sometimes had their ears nailed to the boards. Not only was this painful in itself, but the victim’s head was rendered completely immobile. Ears could be torn off by the victim’s futile efforts to dodge missiles hurled by the crowd. If the victim’s ears were still attached to his or her head on completion of the sentence, they would be cut off before the pillory was opened.

As an alternative (or in addition to) ear cropping, people in the pillory could be branded on the face. The nose could also be slit, or the tongue bored through with a red hot iron.

Prynne Bastwick Burton in the pillory.jpg In 1633, the author William Prynne was sentenced to life imprisonment and to stand in the pillory for publishing a pamphlet which had libelled the Queen. While in the pillory Prynne had his ears cut off, his nose slit, and his books were burned in front of him. A bystander later noted that they burned huge volumes under Prynne’s nose, which almost suffocated him. Prynne subsequently had his ears sewed back on, a most unusual occurrence.

While in prison, Prynne published another pamphlet in 1637 which displeased the authorities. Back in the pillory, the unfortunate Prynne had the initials S.L. (Seditious Libel) branded on both his cheeks. He also lost his ears again, this time permanently.

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Last modified 4 July 2015.
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