A subject that keeps surfacing is why there was so much violence in Europe’s past – like torture, burning at the stake, which is completely at odds with the notions of both Christianity and civilisation.
I am currently reading a wonderful book, ‘The Faithful Executioner, Life and Death, Honour and Shame in the Turbulent Sixteenth century’ by Joel F. Harrington, which explains much about this confusing and disturbing topic.
The simple explanation is a typically English one – it was due to the weather. Many people died from infections, spectacularly from the Black Death, but there were regular outbreaks of many diseases. But also:
“Floods, crop failures and famines also struck at frequent – though rarely predictable – intervals. …. the worst years of the period known to us as the Little Ice Age (c.1400-1700) when a global drop in year-round temperatures resulted in longer, harsher winters, and cooler, wetter summers, particularly in Northern Europe. During Frantz Scmidt’s lifetime, his native Franconia saw more snow and rain than in previous years, resulting in flooded fields and crops left rotting in place. In some years there were not enough warm months for grapes to ripen, thus yielding only sour wine. Harvests produced desperately little, and the resulting famine left humans and their livestock prey to disease and starvation. Even wildlife populations shrank dramatically, with starving wolf packs increasingly turning their attention to human prey. the scarcity of all foodstuffs sent inflation soaring and, faced with starvation, many formerly law-abiding citizens turned to poaching and other stealing to feed themselves and their families.
Pummelled by natural forces beyond their control, the people … also had to contend with the violence of other humans, particularly the seemingly ubiquitous bandits, soldiers, and assorted lawless men who roamed the land freely. Most territorial states … mainly consisted of virgin forests and open meadows, dotted with tiny villages, a few towns of one or two thousand inhabitants, and one relatively large metropolis. Without the protection of a city walls or concerned neighbours, an isolated farmhouse or mill lay at the mercy of just a few strong men with modest weapons. Well-travelled paths and country lanes often lay far from help as well..”
Harrington describes how over time the noble families were consolidating and expanding their possessions, and employing growing numbers of landsknecht, or mercenary, who terrorised locals whilst in employment, but when there was peace,
“some of these groups of mostly young men roved about the countryside in search of food, drink, and women… Frequently joined by runaway servants and apprentices (known in England as “ronnegates”) as well as by debt-laden wife deserters, banished criminals, and other vagrants, these “sturdy beggars” survived mainly by begging and petty theft. Some became more aggressive, terrorising farmers, villagers, and travellers …”
He continues to talk about arson, and how the threat of it was often used to extort money from people. :
“…the mere threat of burning down someone’s house or barn … was considered tantamount to the deed itself and thus subject to the same prescribed punishment: being burned alive at the stake.
People lived in an age of constant fear: of violence, illness, arson, and there was no solution to most of them. As we now know, living with such stress causes severe mental illness, so it is no wonder that much of what we know of this age seems completely mad, not least their solutions:
“The people [of this age] feared yet another, unseen, lurking threat: the bewildering array of ghosts, fairies, werewolves, demons, and other supernatural attackers traditionally believed to inhabit field and forest, road and hearth. Clerical reformers of all religious denominations attempted in vain to quash such ancient beliefs, while at the same time generating even more widespread anxiety by trumpeting what they believed to be the greater supernatural threat of a genuine satanic conspiracy at work in their time. . The spectre of witchcraft hovered menacingly … often leading to the tragic real-world consequences we know today as the European witch craze of 1550-1650, during which at least sixty thousand people were executed for the crime. “