Peine Forte et Dure

Also found in: Legal.

Peine Forte et Dure

(religion, spiritualism, and occult)

When a person was brought before the court in a witchcraft trial in America, he or she was first required to plead whether guilty or not guilty. No trial could proceed until the accused had so pleaded. By refusing to plead, the accused could prevent the trial altogether. To circumvent such an occurrence, the law provided a horrible punishment for anyone so obstinate. It was called peine forte et dure—"a penalty harsh and severe." It consisted of stretching the culprit out flat on his or her back, on the ground, with arms and feet extended to the utmost in all four directions. Heavy weights of iron and stone were then piled on the body until the accused either pleaded or was crushed to death. The common name for this was "pressing to death."

The only time in American history that this punishment was actually inflicted was during the witch trials of 1692 in Salem, Massachusetts. Giles Cory, accused in the hysteria of that time, knew that if he refused to plead, his trial would be balked and the authorities would be unable to confiscate his goods and estate, as they would be entitled to do if he were proven guilty. Giles therefore refused to plead and was subsequently put to the peine forte et dure. He died without speaking.

The Witch Book: The Encyclopedia of Witchcraft, Wicca, and Neo-paganism © 2002 Visible Ink Press®. All rights reserved.
References in periodicals archive ?
His discussion of poems such as |The Agonie' which depends for its effect on a knowledge of the practice of peine forte et dure (a defendant in court could refuse to plead in order to ensure that the estate would not pass to the crown but remain in the family; he or she would then be pressed to death) and |The Altar', which demands submission to God but relies upon a clear conception of human free will, results in a conception of God as fascinating as William Empson's vision of Milton's: |an omnipotent being whose power and love are to be feared and prized' (196).