Crime and Punishment (Paul Bahn)

NOTE: The following article is taken from Disgraceful Archaeology, Or Things You Shouldn’t Know About the History of Mankind, pp. 43-47, 66:

Diodorus, a historian of the first century BC, says that if a man violated a married woman, he was emasculated; if it was adultery with consent, the man got a thousand blows with a rod, and the woman had her nose cut off [Note: Book IV, Title 3, of Armenopoulos further says that those who fornicate with nuns, and also the nuns themselves, are to have their noses cut off. The Orthodox Church no longer cuts off the noses of nuns who fall into fornication; Exomologetarion, p. 282].


An eighth-century Irish ‘Table of Commutations’ says of sinners who need to hold prayer vigils that they should, in order to stay awake, lie down not only in water, on nettles or on nutshells, but also sometimes with a corpse in the grave.

Among the monks of the early Christian church, homosexuality was euphemistically called a ‘special friendship’. Each monastery had its own rules to control the behaviour of the monks, and these featured a variety of physical punishments to deter homosexual activity. Usually, any outward display of affection of one man for another was disciplined as severely as the sexual act itself. Even such innocent practices as tucking a tunic around the thighs while laundering clothes was forbidden as a possible source of temptation for another. Nocturnal emissions were also a source of great concern for the monks.

To explain the uncontrollable dreams that brought such intense pleasure, they invented the succubus, a beautiful female demon who tempted men in their sleep. To ward against her attentions, monks would tie a metal crucifix to their genitals before retiring for the night.

This custom actually originated in the Roman arena, where gladiators tied bits of cold metal to their testicles on the night before a combat — they believed that the metal’s chill would prevent them having an involuntary nocturnal ejaculation that would sap their strength.

And there is much more from the early Celtic church: for example, Cunmean’s Penitential was composed in the seventh century AD and devoted particular attention to homosexual activities between men. It catalogued virtually every potential sexual variation, and the degree of punishment demanded depended on the extent of homosexual contact: passionate kissing earned eight fasts, but a simple kiss only six. Mutual masturbation and interfemoral stimulation received several years of reduced rations. Cunmean reserved the most severe punishment of seven years atonement for anal intercourse.

Penitential of Cummean (c. 650)
Penitential of Cummean (c. 650)

However, standards seem to have been slightly different for the ladies. As early Irish Christian nuns, the virgins of Kildare shared with their Roman Christian sisters a loathing for sexual relationships with men. But they may not have been completely celibate. Brigid herself (the Abbess of Kildare) shared her bed with Darlughdacha ..…on one occasion, Darlughdacha looked lustfully at a passing warrior. To punish and purify her, Brigid made her walk in shoes filled with hot coals. Presumably, Brigid took Darlughdacha back into her bed when she felt the woman had suffered enough for this heterosexual flirtation.

Sts. Brigid and Darlughdach of Kildare
Sts. Brigid and Darlughdach of Kildare

In ancient Greece, a male adulterer could be punished by having a large radish stuck up his rectum, doubtless symbolizing the penis of the injured husband. As a further insult, the adulterer was subject to having his pubic hair singed off, whereby he was made to look like a woman.

In the recently excavated Augustinian Friary of Kingston-upon-Hull, in northern England, some coffin burials of 1340–1360, the time of the Black Death, contained monks accompanied by what seem to be flagellation sticks — they are a metre long, and made of willow or hazel to be extra whippy.

In the Brehon law of Celtic society, if a man forcibly shaved the pubic hair of an unwilling woman, he was liable for her full honour-price and a ‘dire’ (punitive fine). On the other hand, a woman could divorce her husband if he were clearly barren, impotent or very fat. ‘The Celts believed that extreme male obesity was a barrier to efficient lovemaking and placed an intolerable burden on the female partner.’ Moreover, if a husband revealed his wife’s intimate secrets to another, or displayed such sexual desire for other men or boys that his wife was deprived of his conjugal services, she could divorce him.

Painting of one of the Brehons recording ancient Irish law
Painting of one of the Brehons recording ancient Irish law

In medieval London, if butchers were caught selling bad meats (‘putrid, rotten, stinking, and abominable to the human race’), the culprits were punished by being placed in the pillory and having the putrid matter burnt beneath their noses.

Pre-Christian sexual attitudes persisted in the early Church. Male bishops and abbots practised the custom of cupping their genitals with their hand to affirm an oath. They swore by the sacred seed within them that their words were true and correct.

Celtic saints were often born from unusual sexual circumstances. Creda was the mother of St Báithín, the second abbot of Iona. She was a good and holy woman who frequently washed her hands and face in a small pool outside a church. One day, a thief hid in a tree over her head. Overcome by her fair face and shapely form, he secretly masturbated, allowing his semen to fall onto a bed of watercress. Perhaps intentionally, perhaps accidentally, Creda ate the watercress and miraculously gave birth to Báithin. This allowed Creda to remain technically virginal while granting Christian sanction to the Celtic belief in orally induced reproduction under wondrous circumstances.

Also see, The Penitentials as Sources for Mediaeval History: