Capital Crimes and Punishment – Medieval Execution Methods


Modern methods of execution have at times been referred to as “cruel and unusual punishment”. This article reviews ancient and medieval execution methods.

There has been a great deal of press coverage regarding the recent execution by firing squad in Utah recently. This brings to mind that in the United States “cruel and unusual punishment” is prohibited by law. What was the ways in which execution was handled for capital crimes in ancient times? Here is a brief summary of the ways in which society meted out in ancient times.

Stoning: World’s Oldest Method

Is probably the oldest form of execution. Biblical references confirm this was practiced at the time of Jesus Christ and scripture states that he prevented this happening by asking the crowd who would participate that the one without sin should cast the first stone. The person being stoned would be partially buried and stones would be thrown. The size of the each of the stones chosen was meant to inflict pain but not to immediately cause death. In this fashion the condemned would suffer a long and agonizing death.


In this method, the convict would be placed naked in a cauldron which contained water, oil, tar, or wax which had already reached the boiling point or was cold and heated by fire.

Burning at the Stake

Generally, the convict would be tied to a stake surround by wood mixed with highly and immediately flammable straw or hay. Other variants include one in which walls of flammable material would be built into walls surrounding the convict.


Another very ancient form of execution in which the convict would have his or her skin removed from their flesh. The object of the process was to try to keep the skin intact.

Being Buried Alive

In this method, the convict would be bound hand and foot and placed into a grave and covered.

Snake Pit

A pit of hungry and deadly snakes. The victim would die from the snake bites that they incurred.

Slow Slicing

A sharp cleaver or knife was used to make cuts into the body and to slowly remove body parts such as the hands and feet. The executioner’s objective was to prolong the convict’s agony before death. The final stages would either be cutting of the head of the convicted or stabbing in the heart.

Breaking Wheel

There were several variants of this method in practice in Medieval Europe. One method involved placing the condemned on a wheel with their arms and legs being stretched out along the wheel spokes. The wheel was then revolved slowly and a sledge, hammer, or iron bar was used to beat the arms and legs breaking the convict’s bones. Depending upon the blows delivered the condemned would expire reasonably quickly (if one could call this method reasonable) or could linger for hours or days.


A slow and painful deathwell know as the method of Jesus Christ’s execution. The condemned would be nailed to a pole or in the depiction of Christ a pole with a crossbeam. Most scholars believe that in general the nails were not placed in the hands as popularized in depictions of Christ on the Cross, as the flesh would tear away from the pole or cross, but were nailed into the arms just above the wrist. Death by this method would occur in hours but could last up to several days. The cross would be left standing as a warning to others to not commit crime.

Hanged, Drawn, and Quartered

In this form of execution, the condemned would be first drug to their place of execution by a horse or wagon. Then they would be hanged until they were nearly dead. The condemned would then be placed on a table. As this was a method of execution reserved form men, he would then be disemboweled and have his testicles and scrotum removed. At this point in time the victim would still be alive. The general practice was to burn these vital organs I n the site of the victim. Next would come death by beheading and the body would be cut into quarters.


In this method, the condemned would be hung upside down and literally sawed in half starting with the groin. In the fact that the victim was upside down enough blood would reach the brain so that the condemned would be alive until major blood vessels were severed.