A Historical Look at Punishment

Imagine for a moment being Robert-Francois Damiens, who in 1757 was executed for the attempted murder of King Louis XV. Mostly likely one would expect to be put to death by a quick beheading through the use of a gelatin or by the swing of an executioner’s

sword. However, this was not the case. His sentencing required flesh from his body to be torn off by flamed pincers, having those wounds filled with molten sulfur, and to be quartered by four horses which involved the horses pulling in opposite directions until the body’s limbs were ripped off. In today’s American society one would find this sentencing to be under the Cruel and Unusual Punishment Act which does not allow for such a horrific torture to take place. We would, on the other hand, expect the punishment to be severe for such an elevated offense, but the punishment for an attempted murder of an official would more likely involve life in prison, with a possible chance of parole or less. This quick description of punishment in different eras shows a little bit of where we were with the treatment of criminals in the past, and where we are today. To fully understand how we have made such accomplishments and changes in controlling deviancy we must look to the very earliest of civilizations and through time to realize why the changes were made and what they were.

The Ancient Times were loaded with diverse punishment for criminals, and ways of deterring criminal acts to take place. Greece, for instance, heavily practiced execution, banishment, and exile. Execution consisted of crucifixion, stoning to death, and throwing from high cliffs. Many of the executed were left in public view while their body’s rotted away to deter others from committing the same crime. Israel followed the codes of the Bible, punishing criminals through exposure to wild animals, lashings, cursing, crucifixion, and casting down.

The punishment was to revenge what laws of the Bible they broke and to be equal to what they have done. Early Rome had The Twelve Tables, which were the earliest written laws and punishment were burning to equal the offense of arson, throwing from a cliff for perjury, clubbing to death for mocking a fellow citizen, hanging for stealing crops or other property, and a few other vicious punishments for higher offenses.

As society entered into the Middle Ages physical punishment followed in a similar fashion to ancient times through European countries and American colonies. The punishment involved five degrees of severity and were all held out in a public arena. The first degree was flogging and whipping, which was used mainly for control over prisoners. Used heavily throughout American colonies until the 20th century, the whipping allowed officials to forcefully control subjects and to deter others by the fear of harsh rules that follow imprisonment. The second level consisted of the burning of skin and flesh. As discussed in the case of Damiens, burning of the flesh was carried out as a deterrent and as a means of revenge. A third degree offense would have involved mutilation or an act that would have left the body permanently disfigured. These punishments were dealt to offenders as a deterrent to others and were designed to match the offense accordingly. For example, a thief would have their hands cut off, a liar would have their tongue ripped out, and a sexual offender would have their genitals removed. A fourth degree offense ended in instant death. Reserved mainly for royalty and nobles, the death was quick and virtually painless.

Decapitation in this manner was seen as an honorable death through the Middle Ages. Finally, the fifth and last level of severity led to a very torturous, painful, and agenizing death. This is exactly what Damiens would have been sentenced to for his murder attempt on the king.

It consisted of all the other punishment levels and a multitude of acts. Torture was used in the sentencing to gain confession of the criminal’s wrong doing and in efforts to free their souls from the evils which they committed. Also some societies practiced exile and transportation. The punishment sent criminals to foreign land or to newly discovered land as a way to remove them from society. Greek offenders were forced to Rome, who also practiced exiling any criminals to other countries. Amazingly, America was one of the newly discovered lands that Europe used as a transportation and exile area.

The big change in punishment came about in the 16th and 17th centuries throughout Europe and began to spread elsewhere. What began as workhouses for social deviants and minor criminals would eventually span out to become long term, up to two years, holding cells for all criminals and even those who actually haven’t broke any written laws, such as mentally ill. The motivation behind this switch was a change in attitude towards punishment and its physicality. Thought began to emerge of taking away personal freedom and to make the person’s soul and spirit suffer more harshly then the body. Another main factor that led to more modern day prison versions was the passing of laws to keep non-criminals out of prison. This meant that there would no longer be holdings of mentally ill, children, women, and a very large number of debtors who were originally placed together.

Reformers such as William Penn, John Howard, and Jeremy Bentham began studying prison systems to better the development and the purpose of prisons as institutions of rehabilitation. Penn shifted punishment by setting only one capitol punishment, being premeditated murder, and abolishing all former English capitol punishments.

This became known as the “Great Act” of 1682. Howard and Bentham stayed busy by writing books on reformation and rehabilitation of prisoners, and by developing new versions of prison architecture. Along with other reformers, these men were able to help swing society’s view of punishment and set up new deviance control methods that were more centered on criminals and teaching them ways to correct their criminal ways.

Obviously the harsh punishment in Ancient Times and through the Middle Ages wasn’t the most efficient manner to deter criminal acts because crime rates did not drop nor did criminals stop committing the same crimes. One of the problems revolved around the fact that many being punished were not offenders of serious crimes. Many were forced to thievery because of their social status and it was the only way for survival, while others were punished because they were in debt to a noble. The shift towards prison sentences established a well defined written law and also set punishment levels more accordingly to their offenses. Today’s prison, parole, and probation system allows use to hold prisoners in appropriate places. Our society has minimum to high security prison that have the ability to separate the serious and violent offenders from those who committed lesser acts. This keeps morale high for those who now the will be returned to society after a short sentence because they understand that the situation could be worse. Probation and parole allows the offender to slowly adjust to normal society through certain regulations, routine drug checks, and probation or parole meetings to affirm success or to catch another criminal act by the offender. This operates as a deterrent and as a guide to the offender, while at the same time creates a system of checks and balances that officials can follow to assure they are releasing a reformed person who is no longer a deviant of society.

However punishment is dealt, we will always have deviants in society, and it would be impossible to eliminate all criminal acts. I think we have come a long way in controlling deviancy and where we are at today has led to crime rate drops and will only continue to create new techniques in criminal deterrence, reformation and rehabilitation, and better programs to reintroduce criminals into society.