#2. Riding the Rail
You've almost certainly heard the expression "ridden out of town on a rail" and probably even have a pretty good idea what it implies. It means getting kick out of town, right? On the next train, it sounds like.
Robert Clay/iStock/Getty Images
"Calling at GTFO and all points between."
But it turns out that the expression predates trains by quite a margin and seems to originate in colonial times. Back then, if a town wanted to be rid of someone but didn't want to go to all the trouble of arranging a murder pact, they would just take the troublemaker, make him straddle a fence rail, and then carry him ceremonially to the edge of town.
"Man, I wish trains had been invented by now."
This combines public humiliation (so everyone knows not to let this clown back in town) with exile, which might be humanity's oldest punishment. Exile is one of those things that don't sound so harsh to us now; you're probably imagining dusting yourself off at the edge of town, shaking your fist, and vowing to start your own, better town somewhere else.
"One that celebrates public animal-assisted self-pleasure, not persecutes it!"
But in a pre-modern society, exile was pretty close to being a death sentence -- casting someone out, away from the fire and the leopard protection perimeter.
Chad Baker/Photodisc/Getty Images
"Hello? Who is it? Mr. Leopard? You're not here to assist with my self-pleasure, are you?"
Can We Bring It Back?
There are quite a few problems with exile, aside from all those pesky rights that we realized everyone has. The biggest problem is that there's really no "away" for us anymore. We can't just cast people into the wilderness, because there's no wilderness left.
More fundamentally, kicking someone out of town just turns them into some other town's problem, with little to stop that other town from kicking them back. We'd have massive populations of awful, objectionable people roaming from town to town, and holy shit do you think that's what's happening with all those RVs in Walmart parking lots? IS IT ALREADY HAPPENING?
"Retired? We wish. No, we've just made enemies in many, many places."
#1. Buttock Mail
I came across this one during one of my regular trips through the dictionary looking up naughty words. I discovered that in Scotland up until the 19th century or so, the church used to impose a punishment called "buttock mail" on people. And if that isn't the raddest thing you've heard today, what cool-ass websites do you hang out at, man?
Buttock mail! I mean, honestly!
I've got bad news if you envisioned receiving an envelope with all that ass hanging out: buttock mail doesn't quite mean that. In the old, probably unintelligible Scottish tongue, "mail" used to mean "payment" (as in blackmail). And "buttock" is an old slang term that meant "prostitute." So buttock mail meant, quite literally, a fine paid for extramarital sex.
This would have been funnier. Way to drop the ball, Scotland.
Buttock mail was apparently the preferred punishment for well-off people to avoid having to sit on the Stool of Repentance, which is just one of the ways the wealthy have gotten off from their crimes lightly. Consider the old German word "wergild," which was a fine levied on a person after they murdered someone.
"Oh, come on. Get up. Fine. Horst, fetch my checkbook."
Can We Bring It Back?
Well, if we're being cynical, the wealthy already do have access to far better lawyers than the poor, and can come very, very close to buying themselves more favorable justice. That's not quite the same as an official murder fine, but it's something.
"Plus, I won't even have to admit to being guilty!"
The fines for adulterous behavior seem a little outdated after society realized all the fantastic premarital sex it could be having. We should absolutely find some other use for the phrase "buttock mail," however, and for now, I'd like to propose that the punishment be repurposed to battle spammers, and that it involve something humiliating being done to their asses.
"I sentence you to no less than seven years of buttock mail. May God have mercy on your hole."