5 Archaic Forms of Punishment We Should Reconsider
Punishment is pretty standardized these days. We've got fines, and community service, and sitting on the naughty step/jail, and that's about it. Oh sure, there are a few backward countries that still practice corporal punishment or conduct executions ...
"What? Who? Oh, I get it. Editorialization. Nice one, Cracked."
... but for the most part, punishment is pretty orderly these days, and even, gasp, respectful.
But holy shit did people from history have some different ideas for beating on miscreants. Below I've dug up five examples (and many more variations) of punishment civilization has left behind, which I encourage you to reflect on the next time you're feeling like you're about to be naughty.
(Also note that for the purpose of chuckle stimulation, I've opted to exclude punishments that are more accurately described as "torture." Although some of these are absolutely bonkers, there's only so many times you can look at images of mutilated genitals and still laugh. I've had too many columns killed by editorial for this reason to risk it again.)
The Mark of Shame
I'll start with the one most familiar to us thanks to its semi-regular use in various Looney Tunes cartoons: tarring and feathering. Even if you didn't know what that was, it barely needs a description; it's all there in the name. You dump tar on someone. Then you dump feathers on them. The feathers stick to the tar, and when you're done, you've created a sort of sticky monstrosity, the sad and unlikely result of man/chicken slash fiction.
"Hmm, if only I could think of something that rhymes with 'cluck.'"
The objective of this punishment is straightforward: to humiliate the punished and make them easily identifiable to anyone they encounter for the next few hours or days.
"No, no, I'm not a criminal. My mom was a bird and my dad was extremely sticky."
But really, tarring and feathering is just one example of the "mark of shame," something the punished is made to carry around to mark and humiliate them. Another example is the scarlet letter, as famously depicted in a book whose name I forget (Mary Poppins?), in which a woman accused of adultery is made to wear around a bright red "A" on her dress as a mark of how awesome she is. And of course there's the dunce cap we used to make stupid children wear, instead of the "teaching them better" technique we've adopted today. In postwar France, women suspected of collaborating with Nazis used to have their heads shaved. And during the Middle Ages, letters and other marks were burned into the flesh of a person for crimes like fighting or being homeless.
Today's homeless have it so easy.
My favorite of these are the dedicated masks that some communities knocked together for the same purpose, which were often forced onto the heads of people accused of committing minor social crimes. These include things like the branks or Scold's Bridle ...
... which were placed on women who were considered "scolds," which I think meant gossiping, or even just talking when there were men in the room. Here's a charming German variant of this called the Shrew's Fiddle:
And for the German town unfortunate enough to be beset by two troublesome women, they always had the option of making them resolve their differences.
... while wearing something that looks like a prop from American Gladiators.
Finally, we come to my personal favorite, which was applied to the face of terrible musicians, the Flute of Shame:
"Terrible's a bit harsh. It was mainly because I opened my set with some of my new material instead of my actual good songs."
Can We Bring It Back?
Well, tarring and feathering seems like the kind of thing that would cause a lot of lawsuits these days. One complaint of "It got in my eyes," or "I have a poultry allergy," or "You poured hot tar on me and I died" would ruin the fun for everyone really quick.
"Your honor, in my clients' defense, they thought it would be hilarious. That's a law, right?
Being funny is legal? I'm sure I've read that. Habeas ... Porcus?"
But that Flute of Shame thing. That looks like it has some potential. If you can't think of a musical artist deserving of wearing that around for a few hours, then you are a deaf saint. For the rest of you hearing non-saints, I invite you to fill the comment section below with suggestions for performers you think deserve a shame-fluting.
If we end up with anything less than 12,000 submissions for Pitbull, I will be shocked.
Women have, historically, not always been treated very fairly. Also presently, I guess. And likely for a while yet in the future. Sorry, women. We should really do something about that.
Every one of you go hug the nearest woman right now and whisper "We're sorry" into her ear. Doesn't matter if it's a stranger. Go on.
But it probably used to be worse, and if you were foolish enough to be a woman back in history times, you could have been subject to a whole bunch of unusual punishments if society determined you were behaving inappropriately. "Inappropriately" meaning "doing anything."
"And what evidence do you have?"
"I don't like her face!"
"She's a witch, next."
The ducking stool was one such punishment applied to women accused of having opinions, and was conceptually simple enough -- a chair to get strapped into, which was then repeatedly dunked into a body of water to both humiliate the offending woman and "cool down" her high spirits.
"No, fuck you, actually, this is definitely making me angrier. Fuck you fuck you fuck you fuck you
fBLUBLBLBLBBLBBUBuck you fuck you fuck you."
A variant of this was a cucking stool, which omits the dunking in favor of just being paraded around town or put in a public space while perched atop a chamber pot. A similar idea was the Stool of Repentance, which was a stool put in an elevated place in a church where people would be made to sit if they'd made God mad in some way.
Playing with someone else's pink bits was the main thing that made God mad in those days.
All of these are close cousins to the stocks and pillory, which you might be more familiar with, and the intent of these is obvious: to keep the punished person trapped in a public place to draw out their humiliation. By strapping them down in public, to be exposed to the three Fs of corrections, specifically fruit, furious insults, and feces, authorities could ensure that the punished knew they were very, very bad boys and girls.
Can We Bring It Back?
I would like to now take a bold stand and declare that it is a good thing that society has moved past dunking women for talking out of order. Even for more serious, actual crimes, the use of this type of public humiliation reeks of mob justice and exposes the punished to not just embarrassment, but actual harm from rowdy members of the public. And for the ducking stool itself, well, that's not a little bit dangerous, and oh, whoops, we've now murdered someone for their unpaid parking tickets.
-entire crowd winces and tugs their collars-
So no, we probably can't bring that one back either.
The charivari (sometimes called the shivaree or chivaree, depending on the location) is when a mob of people play loud music outside of someone's house, singing and banging on pots and pans and such.
"Guys, can we please do something other than cover songs?"
They do this to protest some social, often sexual sin they believe the occupants are committing. Unwed couple? Time for a charivari. A widow remarried someone too soon? Charivari her ass!
Poorly tended lawn? Charivari, bitches!
This is an old punishment that started in small European towns, although it eventually made its way over to North America (with all those Europeans, I guess). It still survives to this day in some places, although now it's mostly used as a celebration of a newlywed couple.
-lengthy pot-and-pan-heavy version of Boyz II Men song-
Another variant on this is the skimmington parade, in which the punished persons were rounded up and made to ride backward on a horse around town. Skimmington parades were apparently used to mock a husband either for having an unfaithful wife or for having a wife who routinely beat him.
The term "skimmington," no shit, comes from the traditional weapon women carry with them at all times.
Can We Bring It Back?
It's hard to get people motivated to form a mob these days for anything less than rock-bottom prices on brand name electronics. We very much mind our own business when it comes to other people's relationships and bedroom sports, and that's probably a good thing.
"WHAT ARE YOU DOING IN THERE? TELL US!"
Still, it is nice to see a form of mob justice that doesn't end up with someone dead, so I'd suggest we resurrect this tradition, only apply it to a new breed of social ills. Let's start harassing couples who wear matching clothes, or who share an email address, or who feed each other in public or anywhere else.
"STOP PUTTING YOUR HANDS IN EACH OTHER'S BACK POCKETS. THAT DOESN'T MAKE ANY SENSE."
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.
"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.
"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."
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."