Library Dissertation Showcase

Punishment in Seventh-Century Iberia: its scale, visibility and limits

  • Year of Publication:
  • 2016

ʿIf any freeborn girl or woman should publicly practice fornication, be known as a harlot, and be shamelessly given to soliciting men; after having been arrested by the governor of the city, she shall receive in public two hundred lashes, and shall be sent away, under the condition that she shall not, afterwards, be guilty of similar conduct, or ever again enter the city. And if she should ever return, she shall be sentenced by the governor to receive three hundred hashes more, and shall be given as a slave to some pauper and never be permitted to go freely about the city again. And if she should admit that she has pursued her evil life with the knowledge of her father and mother, and thus should seem to have acquired her degradation through association with her parents, and her father and mother should be convicted of having had such guilty knowledge; each of them shall receive a hundred lashes.ʾ

This dissertation will examine how punishment was articulated and implemented in seventh-century Iberia, focussing on three key aspects: scale, visibility and limitations. The above extract from book three of the Visigothic Code (VC) touches on each of these themes and therefore provides a helpful introduction to the topic. The crime of prostitution was a serious moral offence. To deter others, a public and violent punishment is used. The offender is then isolated from the community so they no longer pose a threat to societal norms and the good behaviour of others. If the offender defies this punishment and returns, they receive an even harsher punishment and this time they are humiliatingly enslaved to someone of low status and kept under closer watch. The girl or woman’s behaviour reflects badly on her family who have a duty to monitor her behaviour and punish as required, before the state became involved. The parents therefore also face punishment if it is found that they knew of her actions and did not do their duty. This example therefore illustrates the importance of the duty of punishment at all levels of society; the use of public punishment to act as a deterrent and the attempts under royal law to isolate those who did not conform to society’s norms.

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