This is just one of countless articles/stories I've read over the years about how some crazy folks in Europe burned other, equally crazy folks at the stake -- that is, burned alive, which must be one of the worst tortures one could be put through, and also unspeakably horrific to witness -- for trying to spread their branch/slight modification of the same basic religion.

Somehow, this doesn't seem to add up.

I know that many human beings of all races are vile creatures from an objective point of view, and that some kings have probably had people killed for literally looking at them the wrong way (perceived or real), but still, I just have to assume that there is more to it than what's summarized in these articles and retold as stories.

If you could actually be burned at the stake back in the day at any given moment, just because somebody starts a false rumor or doesn't like you or what you say, that must have severely affected the mental health of anyone living in those kingdoms/cities/villages. Especially in the case of people who tried to spread some slight variation of Christianity (still sticking to the overall idea), it seems bizarre to me that the ones in charge would feel the need to burn them at the stake.

Isn't it likely that this kind of extreme sentence was only given "after some time of trouble", perhaps months or years, and only after numerous increasingly stern warnings? Surely you insinuate or threaten somebody with this horrible torture in the hope that they will stop out of fear, rather than going from nothing to burning them at the stake?

After all, it wasn't like they tried to spread something very different, such as Islam/Judaism/Buddhism/etc. It was Christianity, but with "some slight variation". Was that really bad enough to have them burned alive? I can't shake that horrible mental image of somebody tied to a pole and being burned alive for such a stupid thing.

At least, if given many warnings and they still keep it up, it would be understandable in some sense. It'd be like: "Okay, so they prefer to burn alive over giving up their new religion branch. Fair enough. I guess it must happen."

Somehow, I doubt that people were so blood-thirsty that they constantly demanded new "entertainment", knowing that they could be next.

  • 7
    You should limitate the scope of the question, both in time and in location. It would have been quite different a process from the Inquisition (which was quite legalistic) than an histerical mob claiming that some old woman was a which and burning her immediately.
    – SJuan76
    Apr 29, 2020 at 21:03
  • 5
    It's easy to find numbers. For instance, Queen Mary had over 300 people burned at the stake in a five year period. But beyond that, historically speaking, life was very cheap. Dan Carlin has a Hardcore History Episode on the topic of how people in the past viewed the execution of their fellows you might find enlightening. Apr 29, 2020 at 22:03
  • 2
    Questions should be supported by research,and should be framed as history, not just doubt. if you doubt the existing narrative, the burden of proof is on you to provide some solid reason why. This appears to be a request for discussion, not an actual historical enquiry. Please consult help center to learn to ask questions that are more properly in scope.
    – MCW
    Apr 29, 2020 at 22:57
  • To be hanged, drawn and quartered was the actual honest-to-goodness punishment for treason in England in the 1300's.... look it up and tell us how burning at the stake is any better or worse.
    – CGCampbell
    Apr 29, 2020 at 23:18
  • Somehow, I doubt that people were so blood-thirsty that they constantly demanded new "entertainment", knowing that they could be next. - Gladiator games in ancient Roman amphitheaters ? Extermination of Christians in the arena ?
    – Lucian
    Aug 27, 2021 at 13:50

1 Answer 1


The body of the question seems to be very different from the headline. You do not seem to be raising any substantive doubts about any particular historical account. The article you link to about the Almarician's states that 10 people were burned at the stake in Paris c. 1210. I see no specific reason to doubt that this occurred. The Wikipedia article "Death By Burning" shows that this was a widespread practice within and outside of Europe over many centuries.

What you seem to be asking is something more like, "how could people be so cruel and sadistic?" That is a very different question, very open-ended, but I'll point you toward a few books that deal with this question in different ways.

In this excerpt from Discipline and Punish, Michel Foucault draws an interesting contrast between two moments. In 1757, a convict was publicly tortured and dismembered in Paris. Less than a century later, we had prisons that ran like factories. It's well worth reading that excerpt as well as the book, but I'll draw your attention to the last few sentences.

Punishment of a less immediately physical kind, a certain discretion in the art of inflicting pain, a combination of more subtle, more subdued sufferings, deprived of their visible display, should not all this be treated as a special case, an incidental effect of deeper changes? And yet the fact remains that a few decades saw the disappearance of the tortured, dismembered, amputated body, symbolically branded on face or shoulder, exposed alive or dead to public view. The body as the major target of penal repression disappeared.

In other words, cruel and public capital punishment is a common occurrence in many societies. It is only in the nineteenth century that more modern modes of punishment started to take hold.

Foucault analyses modern modes of punishment as a panopticon. We police our own behvaior to a great extent because we are certain that if we break certain laws, there is a high chance we will be punished. If punishment is more certain, it need not be so cruel. But in medieval Europe, there were no police keeping watch on the population. Punishment was uncertain, so it had to be cruel in order to be effective. The Church needed people to fear that God was watching them and would punish their sins. Burning at the stake was a visual reminder of what awaited sinners in Hell.

Another book that puts these kinds of changes into an even larger context is Better Angels of our Nature by Steven Pinker. Pinker is a cognitive scientist, not a historian, but he does look at a lot of historical data to show that violence in general has declined over time. The most relevant point he discusses is how state authority became more centralized in what is known as "the Civilizing Process". Homicide in general and cruel capital punishment in particular both declined as states consolidated their power over society and developed the capacity to maintain order through other means.

I've focused on the idea of punishment, but there are other ways to approach this. I might come back and expand on these a bit if I have time. One is the question of religious violence. It is relatively easy to convert from one religion to another (easier even then learning another language) and so religious identities are arguably the most easily threatened. This may encourage violence. The other angle we could expand on is cycles of violence fueled by materialistic opportunism. Some have argued that in specific times and places where witch hunts and the like took hold, people were in part motivated by opportunities to acquire other people's property by getting them executed. This clearly wouldn't apply in all historical cases but it may be important in some of the worst cases.

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