Journal of Archaeology in the Low Countries 2-2 (November 2010)Lucas Meurkens: The late medieval/Early Modern reuse of prehistoric barrows as execution sites in the southern part of the Netherlands

2 Rationality vs. symbolism in the display of executed criminals

Until the late 18th century it was customary across northwestern Europe to publicly display the bodies of executed individuals. In large towns the execution itself would usually take place in the town centre, attended by large crowds. The body would then be taken to the site where it was to be displayed – the gallows hill or gallows field – outside the town, where it would be hung from the gallows or attached to a wheel and left there until it was reduced to a skeleton. The remains were then buried at the site, “dumped in a pit like a dead dog”, as we read in some old texts (Jelgersma 1978, 15). Only large towns had separate execution and gallows sites. In rural areas the two were usually combined (Jelgersma 1978, 17; Spierenburg 1984, 57).

On the one hand, there was a very rational reason behind the custom of displaying the corpses of executed convicts: to deter future potential criminals. The corpses displayed on a gallows hill or gallows field were intended “as deterrents and examples” or “for instruction and entertainment”, as judges often described the practice from the 16th until the end of the 18th century. The site of the gallows hill or gallows field was specifically chosen to maximise this deterrent effect – usually along arterial roads and so that it was visible from a great distance. It was even forbidden to plant trees on such sites, as trees could obscure the view of the gallows (Jelgersma 1978, 15). The practice of erecting the gallows on an elevation must have been intended to create the greatest possible visual impact. Moreover, many gallows hills lay at the boundaries of territories. This would make it clear to people passing by that the law was strictly upheld in the territory concerned and that it was to be respected by everyone (Spierenburg 1984, 57). Amsterdam’s gallows field, for example, lay on Volewijck, a peninsula on the north side of the river IJ that was clearly visible from the town itself and also from all the ships that sailed into Amsterdam (fig. 2).


Figure 2 Fun on the ice at Amsterdam’s gallows hill on Volewijck. Besides boys on skates and stalls selling hot drinks we see several corpses hanging from the triangular gallows and a corpse in a state of decomposition on a wheel. Drawing by Reinier Vinkeles, c. 1770-1790 (© Stadsarchief Amsterdam).

However the display of executed convicts also had a very symbolic character, based on the concept that it was possible to punish “beyond the boundaries of death” (Jelgersma 1978, 11). It was considered an aggravation of the punishment because the gallows hills or gallows fields lay outside the town. This meant that the executed individuals were denied a formal Christian burial in the hallowed ground of a churchyard, to which great importance was attached until well into the 18th century (Spierenburg 1984, 57). In this way the convicts were forever banished from the community and the absence of a Christian burial would preclude the resurrection of the body on Judgment Day. That the convicts were thus sentenced not only to death but to complete annihilation is evident from various German sentence formulas, such as ‘Speyer’s Formula’:

... that he never be committed to the earth, that the wind will blow him apart and the crows, ravens and other birds will tear him up and consume him.[1]

Apart from this Christian symbolism, various strange elements of the execution ritual probably have their origins in ancient Germanic culture. In the late Middle Ages and the Early Modern period those elements were however most probably no longer recognised as relics from a distant past. In the 12th and 13th centuries, important developments took place in criminal law all over northwestern Europe. In the southern part of the Netherlands this period saw an expansion of the central authority of the Duke of Brabant. The collapse of the Carolingian Empire at the end of the 10th century and the subsequent disappearance of the central authority that this implied had led to centuries of anarchy and violence in this region. There were many autonomous areas where judicial power was in the hands of the local lord. Needless to say, this fragmentation of authority led to rather arbitrary jurisdiction that was strongly dependent on the whims of the local ruler. All this changed with the expansion of the central authority of the Duke of Brabant in the 12th and 13th centuries (Vanhemelryck 1987). Local sheriffs’ courts were introduced in many parts of the Duchy to promote good legal practice (Van Asseldonk 2002, 476). Furthermore, the increase in the number of court cases, partly as a result of the constantly growing population, led to the formulation of written laws for towns and villages. Those laws were based on ancient Germanic popular law and Carolingian laws, an important aspect of which was the concept of retaliation. The new legislation included this concept. Crimes against persons, property and public order were to be severely and publicly punished which would hopefully enforce respect for persons and property (Vanhemelryck 1987, 149-151).

Various elements of the execution ritual in these areas clearly have Germanic antecedents. For example, the medieval custom of using different execution methods for different crimes was already described by Tacitus in his Germania. Other aspects, such as displaying the corpse by leaving it hanging on the gallows or placing it on a wheel, may be based on the Germanic belief that criminals had to be sacrificed to the gods because in Germanic society crimes were seen as insults to the gods (Vanhemelryck 1987, 152-155). By means of hanging, a criminal was sacrificed to the god Odin, who is in Scandinavian mythology was also known as ‘Lord of the Hanged’ and ‘Lord of the Gallows’. Odin consumes the people sacrificed to him via his ravens. This may explain the stereotype way in which many sentences refer to the “birds of heaven”, as for example in the aforementioned ‘Speyer’s Formula’ (Ström 1942, 134; Jelgersma 1984, 16).

The custom of displaying the corpses of executed convicts was only abolished in many European countries as late as 1800, when it came to be regarded as “a relic of the barbarism of bygone days” (Spierenburg 1984, 190). In the Netherlands it was abolished in 1795 when the Batavian Republic was established. That was the only major change in criminal justice at that time (Jelgersma 1978, 22-23).