A German researcher has studied medieval criminal law and found that our image of the sadistic treatment of criminals in the Dark Ages is only partly true. Torture and gruesome executions were designed in part to ensure the salvation of the convicted person's soul.
Peter Nirsch would have been seen as a monster at any time in history. While traveling south through Germany, he had a penchant for cutting open pregnant women and removing their unborn babies. Nirsch butchered more than 500 people before he was captured near Nuremberg in September 1581.
The courts were not squeamish in their treatment of the serial killer. First he was tortured, and then hot oil was poured into his wounds. Then the culprit was tied to the rack, where his arms and legs were broken. In the end, he was quartered. Anyone who, like Nirsch, was convicted of serious crimes in medieval Germany was subjected to similarly resolute forms of punishment.
The enforcers of the law tormented suspects with red-hot iron bars or boiled them alive in water. "The carrying out of inhuman sentences was part of everyday life," concludes Wolfgang Schild, a legal scholar from the western German city of Bielefeld.
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