Tuesday, April 21, 2009

Question from Rae - Mental affects of punishments

I'm a year 13 student (17 years old) doing an assignment on crime and punishment in Elizabeth 1 reign. One of my focusing questions is:
How did these severe methods of punishments affect the mentality of individuals in the Tudor-Stuart period?
I've read heaps about this topic in general but im struggling a bit with putting good detail into this question.
Is this question any good? Do you have any suggestions of websites or books or an opinion of what i could write for it?
Thanx =]


  1. An interesting question, Rae, but I am afraid it would be rather difficult to answer it. Mental status and the causes for changes in that status were very poorly understood in the 16th century. Melancholia (depression), chronic anxiety, and many other emotional states were thought by people of that period to be caused by imbalances in the internal bodily "humors," or fluids, rather than by external events. It would have been very difficult for a person in the Tudor era to relate a punishment to some subsequent emotional state.
    And there is so little evidence available that speaks to how individual people "felt," emotionally, about many things, including crime and punishment.

    So from my perspective, I have the general sense that your question, intriguing as it is to modern minds, is pretty much a non-starter in Tudor terms.

    Perhaps you could reframe the question and ask how Tudor society as a whole viewed, in general, punishment for crimes. You could look, for example, at the laws that were passed in the period and see what punishments were assigned to which crimes. Do those punishments seem appropriate to us today? Were they thought appropriate in the Tudor period? That is, did any well-known people write pamphlets or books arguing for or against the kinds of punishments being used? If no one was bothered enough to argue for or against, we can assume that most people agreed with the punishments, correct?
    And you might also look at the role that religion played in punishment for crimes. The Old Testament, for example, had very harsh punishments ... often death ... for many kinds of crimes that would today go unpunished. But were the punishments of the Tudor period similar to or different from those in the Old Testament? If they were similar, might the severe methods of punishment be considered appropriate because it was "ordained by God"?

    Hope this helps. Good luck!

  2. One possible lead is to look at the importance of obedience in 16th-century society. It is pretty much the cardinal virtue for everybody; a subject must be obedient to the king, an apprentice must be obedient to his master, a wife must be obedient to her husband, a monk must be obedient to his superior, a soldier must be obedient to his commander, a child must be obedient to her parents, etc. Even the king must be obedient to God, but he has a bit more freedom to interpret the nature of that obedience.

    Society as a whole had a real hatred of disobedience, a pervasive fear of its consequences and an intense desire to punish it. It might be interesting to explore the reasons for this and how these attitudes generated and condoned the frightful punishments exacted and how the punishments then acted to enforce the importance of obedience as a social value and internalized control.

    It is instructive to go through Letters & Papers for Henry VIII's reign, available at British History Online (look under Sources). Do some searches with "punishment," "wickedness," "sin," "offender," etc., and you will get some interesting anecdotal information on how people viewed issues of justice, punishment and crime. Sir John Russell and Gregory Casale, reporting to Wolsey on the initial stages of the sack of Rome, said, "...if God does not punish such cruelty and wickedness, we shall infer that he does not trouble himself about the affairs of this world." Replace "God" with "the king" and "this world" with England, and you have the basic mental outlook for what people expected of their monarch and his judicial representatives.


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