The term “gibbet” is used both to refer to an executional device, and to a hanging cage used to display the remains of executed prisoners; when someone is thusly displayed, it is known as “gibbeting.” Gibbeting in the sense of a public display of remains was last documented in the early 1800s, and it is often condemned as a particularly gruesome and unpleasant practice.
In the sense of a device used for execution, most people use “gibbet” to refer specifically to the gallows, although the term is also sometimes used in discussions of guillotines. Sentences to death by hanging are not as common as they once were, with many nations preferring methods of execution which are perceived as more humane. Several examples of historic gibbets can be seen on display in regions where such artifacts are preserved.
When prisoners were subjected to gibbeting, after they were hanged at the gallows, their remains were displayed in cages which were designed to keep the body parts together as the body slowly decomposed; sometimes the body would be treated with tar to prolong the process. Such gibbets would be hung on walls and from trees to serve as a grim warning, and they would be taken down once the body had finally deteriorated. In some cases, the body was drawn and quartered first, with different body parts being gibbeted in various locations.
Gibbeting cages were also used as a punishment for pirates and other maritime offenders, who would be chained in such cages at the tide line to drown. Often, the gibbeted prisoner would be left in the gibbet after death to confront passing mariners, at least until the gibbet was needed again.
While gibbeting seems merely macabre to most modern people, in the era when it was used as a punishment, it was especially horrific. Many Europeans believed in literal resurrection on Judgment Day, and they believed that without complete bodies, they would not be allowed to be resurrected. As a result, when a prisoner was subjected to gibbeting, especially after being drawn and quartered, it was viewed as a double punishment: in addition to being hanged to death, the prisoner would also be denied religious succor.
Historically, many people were disgusted and horrified by the practice of gibbeting, and, on occasion, a prisoner in the gibbet would be silently cut down and removed by people who would give the remains a decent burial. Gibbets also undoubtedly haunted the dreams (and noses) of many city-dwellers, who would have been confronted with an array of remains in varying degrees of decomposition on a daily basis.