Crime and Punishment in the England of Shakespeare

The Scarlet Letter,
page 5 of 5

He pleaded guilty, and was bound to the Maypole in the Fort with rods tied round his neck, and wearing a paper labelled with his offense, and there to stand till the end of the sermon.

This custom of labelling a criminal with words or initials expositive of his crime or his political or religious offense, is neither American nor Puritan in invention and operation, but is so ancient that the knowledge of its beginning is lost. It was certainly in full force in the twelfth century in England. In 1364 one John de Hakford, for stating to a friend that there were ten thousand rebels ready to rise in London, was placed in the pillory four times a year “without hood or girdle, barefoot and unshod, with a whetstone hung by a chain from his neck, and lying on his breast, it being marked with the words A False Liar, and there shall be a pair of trumpets trumpeting before him on his way.” Many other cases are known of hanging an inscribed whetstone round the neck of the condemned one. For three centuries men were thus labelled, and with sound of trumpets borne to the pillory or scaffold. As few of the spectators of that day could read the printed letters, the whetstone and trumpets were quite as significant as the labels. In the first year of the reign of Henry VIII, Fabian says that three men, rebels, and of good birth, died of shame for being thus punished. They rode about the city of London with their faces to their horses’ tails, and bore marked papers on their heads, and were set on the pillory at Cornhill and again at Newgate. In Canterbury, in 1524, a man was pilloried, and wore a paper inscribed: “This is a false perjured and for-sworn man.” In the corporation accounts of the town of Newcastle-on-Tyne are many items of the expenses for punishing criminals. One of the date 1594 reads: “Paide for 4 papers for 4 folkes which was sett on the pillorie, 16d.”

Writing was not an every-day accomplishment in those times, else fourpence for writing a “paper” would seem rather a high-priced service.


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