Death at the stake


November 27, 2021

Death at the stake is a form of capital punishment, used in past centuries all over the world and applied above all to those convicted of witchcraft, heresy and sodomy.

Effects of the stake

The condemned after torture was usually tied to a pole, under and around which abundant bundles of wood and straw were placed and set on fire. Death occurred, if the fire was rapid, due to very serious burns produced to the body and the subsequent blackening of the flesh (therefore due to hypovolemic shock due to bleeding, or damage to internal organs or cardiac collapse caused by intense pain), or due to asphyxia from the destruction of the lungs caused by the inhalation of the fire, which burned until the condemned man was reduced to ashes. If the fire was slow, on the other hand, before it could tear the meat apart, one could die from smoke asphyxiation or from cardio-circulatory arrest due to heat. Often, friends or relatives of the condemned man paid the executioner so that, in tying the condemned man to the stake, he might stun or strangle him. Sometimes strangulation was granted by the same authority.


It is likely that this form of death sentence was present in the most ancient cultures, in particular in those of Celtic origin, but the first evidence of condemnations to the stake are from Roman times and are provided to us by the Martyrologists and the Lives of the Saints, in which the tortures of the martyrs of Christianity are described. According to Christian legends, the condemnation to the stake of these by the Senate and the Roman emperors was not very frequent and always ended with the salvation of the Saint who, since the flames could not lick him, was taken off his head. In the early years of the Byzantine Empire the stake was used as a punishment for the Zoroastrians, as a retaliation penalty for their worship of the sacred fire. In the territories conquered by the Vandals in North Africa, death at the stake was dispensed with during the Kingdom of Hungary to many Catholic bishops who had refused to convert to Arianism. In the Bible, the punishment of fire (Serefa) did not refer to the stake as we understand it today: the condemned were made to ingest molten lead causing the instant death of the offender due to the destruction of the veins and arteries of the neck. The Serifa was one of the four death sentences prescribed by the sacred book and, like the remaining ones (stoning, beheading and hanging), it was rarely practiced by the Jews (see San Ciriaco). Outside the Mediterranean area, the stake was practiced by some pre-Columbian civilizations for sacrificial ceremonies and in India, where in the past, but in some regions the tradition still persists today, married women were sacrificed on the pyre where the bodies of their husbands burned. dead. The stake was also used by some American Indian tribes, as an alternative to piercing with arrows, to kill captured enemies. In the Christian world, the stake was used to punish heresy. Among the prominent personalities executed through this torture we can remember Jacques de Molay (1314), Jan Hus (1415), Giovanna D'Arco (1431) and Giordano Bruno (1600). After the affirmation of the Lutheran and Calvinist reforms, the death sentence by burning was applied by all religious currents. The last witchcraft fires in Europe took place between 1782 and 1793 in Switzerland and Poland. Since the Middle Ages, in Great Britain, the stake was the death penalty decreed for women convicted of treason (treason): this could be high treason when it came to crimes committed against sovereigns or petty treason for the killing of those who were superior by law to those who committed the crime, as in the case of the wife who killed her husband. In 1790, Sir Benjamin Hammett managed to pass a law in the English Parliament that put an end to the execution at the stake on the island.

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