One of the reasons why penalities for crimes were so harsh, was the long-held belief that poverty was a result of your own making, and when a man stole a sheep and slaughtered it to feed his family, the general concensus was that he'd brought that poverty upon himself. The belief that poverty was a crime was held fast throughout the Mediaeval period and then on into the years which followed...the Victorians disliked the poor and penalised those who were at the bottom of the social scale both by class and by how much they earned.

Another reason for the large scale number of hangings and transportations was the simple fact your defence counsel wasn't allowed to address the jury to give an explanation of why you'd committed the crime...and you, as the accused, could not take the stand to say anything in your own defence. During the 1600's and 1700's there was a frantic attempt to prevent crime by whatever means possible...we know it didn't work simply because huge numbers of miscreants were transported during the 1700's and the penalities in the 1600's were appalling to our modern minds...people still kept poaching and stealing and committing murder though.

The established Church was also involved...stealing, murder, adultery etc etc were all thought to be heinous crimes against the word of the Bible...there was no leeway allowed towards the circumstances which led to the crime being committed in the first place.

I did come across some interesting records of Clandistine Marriages...they were those marriages between people who were not members of the Church of England...Roman Catholics, Jews, Non-Conformists etc married when and as they could...the interesting part is they were very often married by Church of England priests who had been sentenced to a prison term for wrong-doing. They were allowed...upon payment of a small fee....to live outside the prison walls. Providing you had a small amount of cash to bribe them with, they'd marry you even if you were well under age and didn't have your parents consent...and they didn't much care if you were Jewish or Catholic. This is where the records of twelve year old girls marrying a boy of fourteen originate...from the Clandistine Marriages which were carried out in the late 1600's through to the middle of the 1700's.

Apparently the dodgy Vicars and priests would be virtually queuing up to marry couples...you could go into the prison itself for the ceremony but most chose a Vicar who'd bribed his way onto the outside of the prison...

The prisons of the Medaeival times tended to be the dungeons of the local castle...there were no prisons as such. And you were chained to a wall and quite literally fed on bread and water and left there until such time you died...it wasn't really until the 19th century that prisons were purpose built with cells and landings and recreational areas...much like the prisons of today. But you'd have worked hard all the day breaking rocks to be used as foundations for roads...on a treadmill grinding grain...sewing shrouds for the dead... and your food would have been a staple, and poor diet, of vegetable soups and bread. And the inevitable pottage.

Prison reform came slowly...the systems by which people were tried were slow to alter...but it was eventually changed and the accused could employ a person to speak on their behalf and mitigation was taken into account...

We look back in horror at the records of people sentenced to death for stealing a sheep or for housebreaking...we veer towards a feeling of pity for the small boy who snatched a loaf of bread from the bakers display or the servant girl who stole a pretty lace hankie from her employer when we find they were sentenced to hang or to be transported for the rest of their lives...

But we sentence people to prison for a thousand years...and we still don't much care for the poor...we mutter about teenage Mothers given a free flat in a high-rise block...carefully forgetting she'll be surrounded by the desperate and the drug users and dealers and won't be able to use the lifts for fear of being attacked, and will have to lug her baby up ten flights of urine stinking stairs past empty syringes and piles of shit in the corners...

I've written before about the need to rid ourselves of our modern mind-set when we go back in time...it's easy to be shocked and horrified about a real live person being subjected to hanging, drawing and quartering...but we have drones to bomb people from other lands...there are totally appalling camps in North Korea where people are murdered on a whim by a guard...the vast Siberian tundra is still 'home' to thousands of dissidents of the former Soviet Republic...some States in America still put mentally challenged people to death by lethal injection.

Under age marriage is alive and well in some countries...enforced female genital mutilation is almost thought normal...being unable to follow the religion of your choice is nothing new either. There is a saying in England...'The law is an ass' and all too often we raise our hands in shock at an apparently lenient sentence handed down by the courts...we still don't have it quite right you see. So, who are we to judge the standards set down by those who lived in the 1600's...if we can kill a man who is functioning well below acceptable levels of normality...and allow little girls to have their vagina's stitched up tight so their future husbands need to cut them open with a knife on their wedding night...if we stand back and watch un-manned drones bomb towns in far off lands...if we accept that far too many people are still going hungry every day...if we know for certain people are hounded and worked to death and killed for pleasure in North Korea...

We are no better than those who lived four hundred years ago.