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  • Adrian J. Boas

On Making the Punishment Fit the Crime


Mons Suspensorum (Tel Akko)

In an indirect way I suppose that for the extreme good fortune of having grown up in Australia I owe a debt of gratitude to the appalling brutality of the nineteenth century British penal system – to that, and to the remarkable folly of two of my ancestors who in 1816 broke into a farmhouse, stole some items of clothing and then sold them, apparently at some location near enough to the place of theft for the owner to come by, recognise his stolen possessions and have the fifteen and sixteen year old brothers arrested. They were found guilty of theft, but fortunately not of breaking and entering which was a capital offence, and were sentenced to transportation for seven years. My ancestors did fairly well out of the deal. After a few early slips they appear to have mended their ways, and eventually became solid members of their community. But the cruel system that had disposed of them could and frequently did sentence children to death by hanging for what would today be regarded as minor misdemeanours.


At what serves today as the entrance to the citadel of Akko, a staircase leads down to a subterranean, groin-vaulted hall. Without the modern lighting this not very large chamber would be dark and dismal. Around its walls are sets of holes drilled into the sandstone at about shoulder height. It has been assumed that they remain from attachments of chains that once held manacled prisoners. On the innermost wall of the chamber there is a window opening from a small guard room beyond. It is from these two features that the original function of this chamber was identified as the dungeon that served the palace and convent of the Knights of the Hospital of St John.


In the Latin East incarceration was frequently accompanied by chaining and fettering. Prisoners of war taken near Beirut were imprisoned by Baldwin I in Jerusalem`s Tower of David where they were held in handcuffs and chains (manicis et catenis). The Templar brother, Jacques de Ravane, commander of the palace at Acre, was put in irons for making an unauthorised raid on Casal Robert, a Hospitaller possession between Château Pèlerin (‘Atlit) and Nazareth. A Templar knight, called Raymond mentioned at the Trial of the Templars in the early fourteenth century that the punishment in the order for homosexual acts was a life sentence in iron neck chains. Offenders would generally be sent to serve their time at the Templar prison at Château Pèlerin. Statute 554 in the Rule of the Temple refers three brothers of the order who, having killed Christian merchants were expelled from the order, flogged and put in prison in Château Pèlerin, where they remained until they died. So did a brother who left the convent in Acre and deserted to the enemy.*


Often during imprisonment various forms of torture were applied, either in order to extract the truth during an investigation, or as a form of punishment after a conviction. Serious crimes might be punished by mutilation. William of Tyre describes this as the punishment inflicted upon the man who stabbed Hugh of Jaffa in Jerusalem while the count was awaiting exile after having rebelled against the king. William notes that King Fulk gave an order not to remove the assassin’s tongue so that it would not be said that he had made his attack on the request of Fulk and that the king had attempted to cover it up by silencing him.** Rhinotomy, that is, amputation of the nose, was the punishment for certain sexual transgressions, castration was the punishment for rape, and blinding for various crimes, sometimes including murder. For theft, a hand or foot might be cut off, or an eye removed, or if the property stolen was of low value the thief might merely be branded on the face and publicly whipped. Flogging was punishment for adultery and other crimes as well.


In some cases of repetitive theft, the thief could be put to death. In cases of sodomy, one or both parties were to be burned at the stake. A man accused of consciously giving biased judgement in the Cour des Bourgeois which cast doubts on the honour of the court and its members, could be beheaded, unless the lord of the city commuted his sentence to having his tongue severed. Royal regulations included the possible penalty of hanging for various crimes such as murder and bribing officials in order to avoid payment of taxes, and it was also a punishment for treason. King Amalric had the commander of a castle in the territory of Sidon executed by hanging because he surrendered his castle, and a Templar garrison was executed in the same manner for surrendering another castle in Oultrejourdain to the Muslims before the Crusader troops could come to its relief.

Fulcher of Chartres records a castle built by Baldwin II called Mons Glavianus in the mountains six miles from Beirut where those who were condemned to death in the city were sent to be beheaded.*** At Acre, capital punishments were carried out in a place called Mons Suspensorum, apparently the name given to the ancient tel, Tall al-Fukhkhār. At Castellum Regis in the western Galilee there was a Turonum Suspensorum and there may have been another place used for hanging just 1.5 kilometres to the south-west, adjacent to the road to Acre where there is a hill called by the locals Tall al-Mashnaqa, the meaning of which is Hill of the Gallows. The name may possibly preserve the function of this hill in Frankish times, as may another, Khirbat Tall al-Mashnaqa located near Gaza.


Not unlike Australia in its early days, the Latin East became the destination of criminals, though, unlike the former, these were not sent there in order to remove a blight on society back home, but chose themselves to escape to less threatening surroundings. This is what Burchard of Mount Sion had to say on these immigrants:


..when any man has been a malefactor, as for example a homicide, a robber, a thief or an adulterer, he crosses the sea as a penitent, or else because he fears for his skin and therefore dares not stay at home. Wherefore men come hither [to Acre] from all parts - from Germany, Italy, France, England, Spain, Hungary, and all other parts of the world, yet they change their climate, nor their mind.****


So, it would seem, the prisons, torture chambers and hanging hills of the crusader states had no shortage of clientele.




*J.M. Upton-Ward, The Rule of the Temple, Woodbridge, 2002, pp. 144.155-56. ** William of Tyre, A History of Deeds Done Beyond the Sea, trans., E.A. Babcock and A.C. Krey, New York, 1943, 14.18, vol. 2, p. 75. ***Fulcher of Chartres, A History of the Expedition to Jerusalem, 1095-1127, trans. F.R. Ryan, ed. H.S. Fink, New York, 1969, 3.45, p. 282. ****Burchard of Mount Sion, Palestine Pilgrims' Text Society, trans. A. Stewart, London, 1896, p. 102.

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