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What is a Gibbet?

Mary McMahon
Updated May 23, 2024
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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.

Historical Index is dedicated to providing accurate and trustworthy information. We carefully select reputable sources and employ a rigorous fact-checking process to maintain the highest standards. To learn more about our commitment to accuracy, read our editorial process.
Mary McMahon
By Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a Historical Index researcher and writer. Mary has a liberal arts degree from Goddard College and spends her free time reading, cooking, and exploring the great outdoors.

Discussion Comments
By anon93006 — On Jul 01, 2010

Penny78: Good luck with your novel, though you should know that you may have inferred, but the writer can only imply. The speaker/writer implies, the listener/reader infers. A common mistake, but annoying to those who know the difference. --Old Salt

By penny78 — On Oct 15, 2008

This article was very interesting. I learned a few things I hadn't known. I'm writing novel based in Devonshire, England in the late 18th century. I have been toying with the idea of using the presence of a gibbet in my book. I knew about the tarring of the body but had not known why it was done. I also was aware that part of the punishment procedure was to cut the body into pieces and the innards removed, but I had not read that the body organs were put on display inside the gibbets, as well. I'm having trouble visualizing the gibbet hanging from a wall, though. I assume you are inferring that some of these cages were flat. If so, I'm getting some new stimulating ideas. The gibbets I've seen pictured are reasonably long, roundish and hanging from trees or tall poles. Did these bodies really remain, say in a public square, while maggots swarmed over the decayed flesh? Not to speak of the horrible odor.

Mary McMahon
Mary McMahon

Ever since she began contributing to the site several years ago, Mary has embraced the exciting challenge of being a...

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