R. Matthew Poteat: Long Road to Freedom

Roundup: Historians' Take

[R. Matthew Poteat is an Assistant Professor of History in the Virginia Community College System.]

Condemned criminals of low birth were often hanged with a short rope and their bodies left to rot in a gibbet: an iron cage hung from gallows-type structure. Those of more fortunate social standing had their head chopped off by a large axe. Heretics and blasphemers were burned alive at the stake.

Traitors were "hanged, drawn and quartered," meaning they were strangled to the point of near death, emasculated, disemboweled, and cut into four pieces. The head was stuck on a pole and displayed in a conspicuous place.

The legal code favored the upper classes, religious clerics, and men. Nobles could strike a serf, and serfs possessed few legal rights their lord was bound to respect. Speaking out against the government or the church could land you in jail and in front of a cruel inquisitor. Hearsay was often evidence enough for the state or the church to confiscate one's property....

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