Gallows were a familiar sight in the landscape of fifteenth-century Frisia. I am not thinking here primarily of temporary installations erected for executions in the town square to be dismantled afterwards, but rather of permanent constructions of wood or iron upon which the corpses of miscreants were exhibited after the execution, until they decomposed. For this purpose, wagon-wheels were attached onto poles nearby the gallows to serve as platforms upon which the beheaded and broken bodies of criminals were laid. [ Berents 1991, 1984; Van Caenegem 1954 ]
Frisia between the Vlie and the Lauwers, the area on which my research is focussed in particular, counted at least forty such gallows-and-wheel constructions prior to 1515. Set high upon natural elevations, beside busy thoroughfares and waterways or beyond the dyke, these structures stood out conspicuously in the landscape and were intended to be seen from afar.
Despite their emphatic position in public spaces and the significance which they thus acquired for the general public, little attention has been paid to the history of the gallows, neither in the Low Countries nor elsewhere in Western Europe. General histories of crime and criminal law devote only marginal attention to this phenomenon; studies of state building entirely pass it by. This neglect has nothing to do with the morbid nature of the subject.
After all, there is plenty of literature on the hangman and his job  . The most likely reason for this dearth of studies would seem to be a lack of source material regarding the construction, distribution and function of the gallows in the Middle Ages. Localisable illustrations on maps, prints and paintings begin to appear only in the sixteenth century; few reports and administrative documents are extant which predate 1500, and the gallows themselves have perished. Hardly any foundations survive of even the sturdiest structures from early modern times. At most, archaeologists may now and then come across a skull and some bones of the hanged, self-buried as it were at the place of execution.
Gallows are often memorialised in the names of fields, water courses and other landscape features, such as in:
Such names have retained their gallows component after the eponymous construction had fallen into disuse and had subsequently decayed or been demolished. These names can be inventoried and localised, after which it can be concluded whether they indeed refer to the former presence of a gallows.
Such names represent the primary material for this essay. I have assembled them with the help of the huge collection of names of fields and water bodies  put together at the Frisian Academy in the 1940s and 1950s. Important in this connection is the institute's historical Geographic Information System (GIS), because it allows us not only to locate the physical position of gallows but also their owners, thereby giving some indication of who may have been involved in the setting up and maintenance of the gallows.
The number, distribution and function of gallows in Frisia are particularly worthy of study in relation to the extraordinary social and political developments of this region in the Middle Ages. It is known that gallows were built not only to instil fear and trembling and to act as a deterrent; they also served as a reminder of a ruler's power and authority. In this way the holder of high jurisdiction, i.e. he who held the right to condemn to death, made it clear to his own subjects and to visitors alike that they found themselves in an independent jurisdiction. The object, then, of my essay is to establish how the application of the death penalty, the erection of such penal sites and the exhibition of punished miscreants relates to the decentralised communal government as found everywhere in Frisia between the Vlie and the Lauwers during the late Middle Ages.
Given these circumstances, the question arises as to why the (possible) application of the death penalty by using gallows-and-wheel constructions ever found favour amongst these independent mini-territories, and what purpose they served.
Click om image for larger version with details.
The question is the more pressing in regard to the Frisian lands precisely because the Frisians are known to have clung so tenaciously to the Germanic system of compensation. Many crimes, including manslaughter, which elsewhere had long become liable to the death penalty, were dealt with in Frisia by paying compensation.
This custom does not imply that Old Frisian law texts fail to mention hanging or beheading. They certainly do. But these texts emphatically radiate the sense that the legal order, once violated, may be restored through pecuniary reparation. I have chosen the year 1515 for the end date of my investigation. This is the year in which Duke George of Saxony passed his authority over the Frisian lands to the west of the Lauwers to Charles V of Habsburg. 
Eloquent and programmatic for the strongly compensation-based character of the medieval Frisian judicial system is found in the Seventeen Statutes , which contains a collection of legal regulations possibly dating back to the twelfth century and in force for all of Frisia, from the Vlie in the west to the Weser in the east. The sixteenth statute states in so many words 'that all Frisians may compensate their (violation of the) peace with their money and goods'.
On account of this statute, allegedly granted by Charlemagne, the Frisians remained exempt from imprisonment, rod, fetters and other painful punishments not only in their own lands but also throughout the Saxon duchy. This right immediately makes clear that the Frisian system had resisted the application of corporal punishment long after its neighbouring regions had accepted it. This is not to say that Old Frisian Law is lacking in clauses that allow for the death penalty for serious misdeeds. In short, murder for robbery, theft and nightly arson were capital since the twelfth century capital offences under Old Frisian law; a perpetrator could no longer compensate these crimes with money and goods.
Thet is thiu sextende kest, thet alle Fresa hira frethe mith fia bete. Thruch thet skelen hia wesa a Sixina merkum uter stoc and uter stupa, uter besma and uter skera and uter alle pinum.
This it the sixteenth statute, that all Frisians may compensate their (violations of) peace with money. Through that they shall be exempt of imprisonment, rod, fetters and other painful punishments in Saxonian territory.
(2nd Hunsingoër Codex, Tresoar, Leeuwarden)
This send tha keran thera ebbetena and Thera wisesta fo Hunesgena londe 1. Hwasa enne mon felle, thet hine gelde mithe sextene merkum hwittes selueres.
These are the statutes of the abbots and wisest men from the land of Hunsingo 1. Wenn someone kills a man, he has to pay a fine of sixteen marks in white silver.
(2nd Hunsingoër Codex, Tresoar, Leeuwarden)
The execution did not end with the hanging, beheading or breaking on the wheel. The corpse had to be exhibited, partly as an additional punishment or revenge on behalf of the community and partly as a deterrent. In other words, were the gallows-and-wheel used in Frisia for both execution and exhibition or were they constructions that served first the one and then the other purpose?
From the judicial-historical literature it appears that almost all the large towns of the Middle Ages and Early Modern era in fact had a separate exhibition gallows which were situated on a clearly visible spot beyond the city wall, embankment or moat. Such exhibition structures are often referred to in Dutch sources as the gerecht ( justice , compare German Hochgericht ).
Thither the criminals' corpses were brought after execution, usually in a ritual and humiliating manner, to be hung up or otherwise exposed, prey to rats and ravens until they had decomposed.
Frisian, like Dutch and German, has just one technical term for both structures: galge (gallows). In French and English the two may be discriminated through the use of two separate terms:
The three pillars of the originally four pillar gibbet of Nimes, broken down in 1959, here shown on a postcard from the early 20th century.
Some of the seventeenth-century city gibbets in the Netherlands are well known. That of Utrecht, for instance, was situated on the Vaartse Rijn, a good distance south of the city moat. Still better known, thanks to drawings made by Rembrandt, Reinier Vinkeles and others, is the Amsterdam gerecht, located in the Volewijk on the north bank of the river IJ. [Jelgersma 1978]
As for the north of the Netherlands, the Groningen exhibition gallows, situated on the south-side of the town during the sixteenth century, certainly deserves to be mentioned. 
By implication, and in contrast to urban gallows, the rural constructions also served as a place of execution. Separation of function was not only unnecessary but also too costly for the often much less prosperous country districts.  Consequently, when drawing up an inventory of gallows in medieval Frisia, we can take it for granted that, some town gallows excluded, by far the majority was intended for execution and exhibition alike.
Care must be taken when tracking down gallows through toponyms. Not every name with galg(e) need point to a former place of execution or exhibition. It may occasionally concern a nick-name or some memorial event, as is the case with Galgenhuis (Gallows House) in the village of Stiens, where around 1870 someone was said to have hanged himself.
More often, however, the galg- element in a placename appears to derive not from the penal apparatus but rather from Dutch gagel 'gale, bog-myrtle' (Myrica gale), an aromatic plant in great demand in the Middle Ages for making gruit (or grut ), a herb mixture used for bittering and flavouring beer.
When identifying sites, it is important therefore constantly to check whether the toponym under review might refer to a site that might have been a habitat of this plant. In view of the damp habitat of the plant, such a confusion is less likely in toponyms compounded with wier 'clay mound', berg 'hill', and words indicating 'high'.
Taking into account these and other uncertainties, I have been able to compile a file of about thirty 'gallows' place-names for the present-day Dutch province of Fryslân.  The list may be split into various categories, of which the two that are devoted to towns and to grietenien, respectively, are the most significant.
In addition to these two is a category covering the remainder of the 'other high seignories' that includes not only the islands of Terschelling and Ameland, but also the parish of Burum near the river Lauwers that enjoyed judicial exemption since all the landed property within its borders belonged to Cistercian Jerusalem Abbey, also know as Gerkesklooster.
Before 1515, then, every (sub-)grietenie very probably possessed its own gallows. Or should we say that, apart from the towns, every rural district in any case had the right to set up its own gallows, and to use and maintain it? Only the administration of rural judicial districts in the person of the grietman was eligible to take the initiative of setting up a gallows.
That rural judicial districts and towns alike had the right to erect a gallows will not be self-evident to every reader. After all, the original holder of the hagista riocht ('highest right') in free Frisia after the demise of feudal rule was the land (terra) which may be seen as a communally governed continuation of the districts previously ruled by a count.
Problematic is the time when the grietman and his co-judges took control of capital punishments and why they thought it necessary to exercise this right in actuality and demonstrate it in public by exhibiting the bodies of executed criminals. In order to arrive at an answer, it is useful first to review the location of the various gallows places.
In Frisia west of the river Lauwers there were three such 'counties' during the High Middle Ages: Westergo, Oostergo and Zuidergo, of which the last one had merged with Westergo in the thirteenth century. Still later, in reclaimed regions to the east and south of Westergo and Oostergo a number of small additional lands, such as Opsterland, emerged which succeeded in claiming autonomy for themselves.
Through the absence of a count, these terrae granted permission for the founding of towns and gave them the right to exercise capital punishment. Their grietmannen were entitled to deal with non-capital offences. They were also involved in the exercise of high justice, but only at a central level, as members of the governing body of the terra.
It appears that the scaffold-builders selected a combination of good visibility within a spacious expanse and a spot on the outermost edge of the district, in addition to exhibition on a relatively busy route for through traffic, or even a crossroads.
This was obviously done to demonstrate justice. All the other gallows-places that I have been able to localise score equally well for visibility along major thoroughfares. However, they do not appear in the margin but precisely in the middle of the district.
For anyone who approached or left the towns it was simply impossible to miss the gallows. It is remarkable that not only in Workum but also in Bolswerd, IJlst and Hindelopen the gallows were less than a hundred metres from the town centre, again beside the main road, whether by land or water. Apparently, the intention was that the citizens in particular should be confronted daily with the stringency of the law.
See details of the location of some more gallows on an interactive map .
Who were the owners and hence also the probable builders of the gallows? It would seem obvious to point to the administrators of towns and gritenien. The grietman was responsible for the construction of the gallows, while the grietenie defrayed the costs. In the Ommelanden, where the rural courts held on to the right to exercise capital punishment until 1795, the land upon which the scaffold stood was also bought by the districts. It is hard to establish whether both the gallows and the land upon which it stood were in the possession of the Frisian grietenien prior to 1515. As for the gallows situated beyond the dyke, it is known that the open land of the mud flats beyond the dyke belonged of old to the one whose farm bordered on the inside of the dyke. His was the right, so to speak, of reclamation and expansion into the newly accreted land.
However, this right did not go entirely undisputed. It was overturned when The Bildt was enclosed by dykes around 1500, and the new landlord, Duke Albert of Saxony, claimed this land. But the majority of newly cultivated polders along the Frisian sea coast would seem to have ended up belonging to the owners of land immediately behind the dyke. In other words, potential gallows-land originally lay in private hands. One may imagine, however, that so long as the salt marshes remained unsuitable for arable land and fit only for grazing sheep, the councils of lands or grietenien would have had no objection to a piece of it being used for the general public weal.
On land within the dykes we find two types of owner. Around 1500, the majority of gallows-plots of which the owners can be traced were in the possession of either church funds, or of descendants of chieftains (haedlingen) or rich freeholding peasants who at some time had possibly participated in administrating the district. Freeholders and chieftains in their office of grietman had to provide the means of execution and demonstration in order to support their authority. What would have been simpler for them but to build these constructions on their own property? From circa 1500 onwards, as I have briefly remarked, gallows-land may also be found in the possession of church funds.
In the period when counts still reigned over Frisia, exercise of the death penalty lay in the hands of the count who, as a servant of the king, practised this right with the help of prominent judicial officials recruited from within his region.
In the course of the thirteenth century the count’s rule was set aside in Frisia and responsibility was assumed collectively by the administrations of county districts, now independent. These districts called themselves universitates terrae ('land communities'), of which Westergo and Oostergo were the most important. Since they had no overlord anymore, it was up to their governing boards to exercise capital punishment. But they gradually transferred the right to pronounce sentences on 'neck and head' to the towns and sub-districts that came into being within their lands
It is not easy to establish in what period these transfers took place. We cannot take as a starting point the data when cities obtained their municipal rights, because for many a Frisian town it is unclear when they acquired their independent status. I am inclined - leaving aside the two oldest Frisian cities Staveren and Leeuwarden - to date the building of gallows in or near the Frisian towns not earlier than the second quarter of the fifteenth century. As for the sub-districts, they seem to have begun to erect gallows in the following decades.
The process of transferring high judicial power and other rights from the overarching level of lands to towns and districts points to nothing more than a fragmentation and erosion of the power of the lands and their councils. This process indisputably led to a weakening in the structure of communal administration, which in turn resulted in instability.
The gallows, then, are also indicators of a self-timing political and judicial fragmentation process whereby both grietenie and town, whether or not under the leadership of dominant chieftains, demanded their self-evident autonomy.
There is, finally, another indication that signalling of autonomy was as much, or even more so, the purpose of these instruments than deterrence, containment and prevention of crime. This indication lies in the relatively high number of gallows in proportion to the number of wrongdoers actually sentenced to death and the size of the population. It is useful in this connection to know that after 1515 only one gallows was available for the whole of Frisia (the one to the south-west of Leeuwarden).
During the sixteenth century no more than four or five people were executed for the entire province, and not even every one of these was exhibited after the execution. There is no reason to assume that in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries more people were hanged, beheaded or broken on the wheel than during the sixteenth century. On the contrary, research into the frequency of death sentencing in Europe in this period teaches us that strict punishment came into its own only after 1500. There are, it is true, few statistics available, but what figures we have confirm the trend sketched above. Things will not have been much different in many other grietenien and towns.
What is the result of my inquiry into the function, number and distribution of exhibition scaffolds in Frisia west of the Lauwers?
First of all, I have made clear that the death sentence was indeed carried out in this part of late-medieval Frisia despite the fundamental principle of traditional Frisian Law that the Free Frisian had the right to compensate with money even the gravest misdeeds, including manslaughter.
It is impossible to say how often death sentences were executed. There must have been practical procedures and supporting actions for which the lands were the responsible authority charged with the execution.
Secondly, my investigation has shown that by the end of the fifteenth century pretty well every town and grietenie had its own gallows-and-wheel. The gallows stood without fail in a prominent, eye-catching position; for the towns this would be near the outer town wall or moat, beside a thoroughfare; for the grietenien in the middle or precisely on the edge of the judicial area, but always visible from afar.
It is difficult to date the erection of gallows in the individual towns and grietenien detached from the interrelation between the lands and their earliest sub-districts. This can be characterised as the transference of an extraordinarily essential right from overarching to regional and even to local level, it seems that we are dealing with a process of communal decentralisation.
The available data suggests to me that the majority of Frisian towns were unable to exercise capital punishment and consequently build gallows much before the second quarter of the fifteenth century. It may be taken that the grietenien were not lagging far behind in acquiring this right. The implication of this late date is that the gallows identified in my paper were in actual use for only a relatively short period of time.
As far as their general function is concerned, in Frisia as in other towns and rural districts throughout the Europe of those days the gallows served both as a deterrent for the prevention of crime and as a demonstration to subjects and strangers alike that the town or the grietenie was completely independent in judicial matters.
In this respect, Frisia west of the Lauwers is exceptional for its large number of gallows. If we may assume that no more criminals were sentenced to death on average in Frisia than elsewhere during the fifteenth century, then given the size of population we have reason enough to infer that corpses hung relatively infrequently upon the Frisian gallows-and-wheels.
Therefore, in as far as both functions may be separated, their symbolic function in spreading an aura of judicial and political independence was more important than their warning function.
The sparse number of datable facts, however, forces us to be circumspect. Further research into the distribution and chronology of gallows in the Frisian lands east of the Lauwers, especially in the Ommelanden and Ostfriesland, may offer some clarification here.
For a complete literature reference, see PDF-file
Berents, D. A., Misdaad in de Middeleeuwen, 2nd ed. (Utrecht, 1984).
Berents, D. A., Het werk van de vos. Samenleving en criminaliteit in de late middeleeuwen (Zutphen, 1985).
Berents, D. A., 'Galg en rad: "wrede straffen" in laat-middeleeuws Utrecht', Misdaad, zoen en straf. Aspekten van demiddeleeuwse strafrechtsgeschiedenis in de Nederlanden, ed. H. A. Diederiks and H. W. Roodenburg (Hilversum, 1991), p. 85–101.
Caenegem, R. C. van, Geschiedenis van het strafrecht in Vlaanderen van de XIe tot de XIVe eeuw (Brussels, 1954).
Frima, J., Het strafproces in de Ommelanden tusschen Eems en Lauwers van 1602–1749 (Amersfoort, 1920).
Jelgersma, H. G., Galgebergen en galgevelden (Zutphen, 1978).
Theissen, J.S., Centraal gezag en Friesche vrijheid. Friesland onder Karel V (Groningen, 1907).
Vries, O., Het Heilige Roomse Rijk en de Friese vrijheid (Leeuwarden, 1986).
Below a screenshot of the home page of the GIS pilot developed by the Meertens Institute. The next slides show how to work up toponym data and old maps with two basic geo-tools: the georeferencer and geotagger. The georeferencer helps to assign real-world coordinates to the contents of an old map. In this case the related part of Google Maps is overlaid with a digital image of the map to be referenced, which is moved until an acceptable match is found.
Next, the digital copy can be annotated, using the second tool, the geotagger. Far before the digital age toponym data were recorded on paper cards, which now can be tranferred by tagging to the underlying geo-database.
* Continue with the tutorial or go to the GIS pilot website.
Find more gallows outside Frisia on basis of toponyms
Having selected the option GEOreferencer from the top menu, you must navigate to the collection containing the example of a gallows in the North-Holland village of Ursem. Choose now:
or go straightway to the
* Next step: when you are on that page, click on Reference in the lower right corner of the map.
On the next page of the GIS pilot website you can drag the overlaid map until the image matches the underlying Google map, or use the controls on the right (screenshot above). Go to this web page.
When the match of the map with the underlying layer is as good as possible, we are ready to annotate it using the information on the digital copies of the toponym cards. To go to the geotagger and the related collection, select:
Now you should see the page as displayed above. Go directly to this web page. Next we shall show how you can annotate.
The process of geotagging comprises the following steps:
This Rich Internet Application could be made thanks to the cooperation of the following persons and institutions:
Fondation Custodia, Paris
Fryske Akademy, Leeuwarden
- S. Strating
- prof. dr. A.P. Versloot
Fries Museum, Leeuwarden
Historisch Centrum, Leeuwarden
Koninklijke Bibliotheek, Brussel
Österreichische Nationalbibliothek, Wien
Ostfriesische Landschaft, Aurich
The copyright on most visual material is owned by the institutions and persons mentioned and cannot freely copied. Material from Wikipedia and Wikimedia Commons is used under the license agreement issued by these organizations. Reasonable effort has been made to obtain permission for use of images. In some cases this was not succesful because one or more entitled parties could not be traced or no reaction was received. Those who feel that their rights are not fully respected, should contact the authors. See contact page .
See also: Berents 1991
The collection contains both archival and 'living' toponyms. The former category refers to field names from various administrative sources and also, for example, from newspaper advertisements for the sale of land. Such names may be mapped by linking them with those appearing in the earliest land registers. The names in the latter category were orally collected from farmers, farm hands and others;
cf. J. J. Spahr van der Hoek, 'Stân fan saken oangeande de toponymesamlingen', Fryske Nammen 1 (1976), 111–13 (with map).
See: J.S. Theissen, Centraal gezag en Friesche vrijheid. Friesland onder Karel V, (Groningen, 1907), p. 40
The historiographer Sicke Benninge records its demolition by German troops on the occasion of the siege of Groningen by Albert, duke of Saxony, in 1500. It was reputed to have been an expensive construction of heavy iron beams on pillars of costly Bentheim stone.
See: Sicke Benninghe, Chronickel der Vriescher landen en der stadt Groningen, ed. M. Brouerius van Nidek, Analecta Medii Aevi (Amsterdam and Middelburg, 1725), p. 59–60.
See: J. Frima, Het strafproces in de Ommelanden tusschen Eems en Lauwers van 1602–1749 (Amersfoort, 1920), p. 390.
The internal inventory is available on www.hisgis.nl in a separate layer 'galgen'.