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What Is a Pillory?

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  • Written By: Mary McMahon
  • Edited By: Kristen Osborne
  • Last Modified Date: 29 September 2014
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The pillory is a device used historically for the control and punishment of prisoners. People placed in a pillory had their heads and hands locked into place and their bodies forced into a standing position. The pillory enjoyed a high popularity in the Middle Ages and was in use in some parts of the world through the 1800s. This device is similar in design to the stocks, although stocks were used for kneeling prisoners and were somewhat more comfortable.

Typically, the pillory was used for enforced public humiliation. People who committed certain kinds of crimes were stationed in the device in a highly trafficked area like a town square. Traditionally, a placard detailing the reasons the person was being pilloried would be placed nearby. People were welcome to shout insults and epithets at the prisoner and these were sometimes accompanied with missiles like rotting fruit or dung. At the end of a prescribed period of time, usually a few hours, the prisoner would be taken out and placed back in prison or released, if the punishment was considered over after a session in the pillory.

Use of the pillory could also be accompanied with other methods of punishment. While pulled into an upright position and unable to escape, the prisoner could be whipped or branded. Physical punishments like removing an ear or the tongue were also possible. The severity of punishment was determined by the degree of the crime and people were sometimes punished quite harshly for relatively minor transgressions.

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Physical restraint in the pillory could potentially be dangerous for the prisoner, by forcing the body into an awkward position for a sometimes extended period of time. Sometimes people were killed by members of the public who were too zealous to punish them, or as a result of deprivation of food and water, combined with stress. Medieval jurisprudence was much harsher than the modern legal system and these deaths were deemed an acceptable, if unfortunate, accident.

Today, the sense of a pillory as a form of public humiliation endures. People presented for mockery or punishment in the metaphorical sense, such as a politician heavily criticized in an opinion editorial, are said to be “pilloried.” Such individuals are not restrained and they are not physically injured, but they can experience psychological distress as a result of their public exposure and mockery.

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