The death penalty in fifteenth-century Europe

death-penalty-100x128“By the mid-fifteenth century crimes subject to the death penalty … included the following: rebellion, fraud, bigamy, incest, arson, theft, adultery, carrying off a woman against her will, blasphemy, moving signs of property boundaries, attacking someone, high treason, child murder, using dishonest weights and measures, murder, counterfeiting, rape, attempted suicide, striking someone to death, converting to Judaism, treason, having sex with animals, and sorcery.”

That’s quite a list. It comes from pp. 4-5 of Richard Marius’s Martin Luther: The Christian between God and Death (Harvard University Press, 1999). And note the threat of the death penalty for attempted suicide: hmmm ….

The list is in striking contrast to mid-20th century data about the United States, by which time the death penalty was applied almost exclusively to murderers and even then to fewer and fewer of them. Here is Justice William Brennan commenting in the landmark Supreme Court case, Furman v. Georgia from 1972:

“There has been a steady decline in the infliction of this punishment in every decade since the 1930’s, the earliest period for which accurate statistics are available. In the 1930’s, executions averaged 167 per year; in the 1940’s, the average was 128; in the 1950’s, it was 72; and in the years 1960-1962, it was 48. There have been a total of 46 executions since then, 36 of them in 1963-1964. Yet our population and the number of capital crimes committed have increased greatly over the past four decades. The contemporary rarity of the infliction of this punishment is thus the end result of a long-continued decline. That rarity is plainly revealed by an examination of the years 1961-1970, the last 10-year period for which statistics are available. During that time, an average of 106 death sentences was imposed each year. …”

(All of which seems a healthy development — except for that part about letting sorcerers off the hook.)

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