There are some movies from the late 1980s that have stood the test of time. They are watched by new generations and quotes from these movies are part of our culture. I mean, who doesn’t know Inigo Montoya’s grievance and proposed action? (If you don’t know, my apologies for my presumption. Please stop reading and go watch The Princess Bride.)

Willow, The Princess Bride, Ladyhawke. These are all fantasy movies with a historical vibe, they all revolve around a quest, their heroic success depends on friendship and teamwork, and (spoiler alert!) the villains are destroyed in the end.

Although these movies feel medieval, they were not, and never claimed to be, historically accurate. However, there are some aspects that are true.

In Willow, our eponymous hero comes to a crossroads in the course of his quest and finds Madmartigan in one of several hanging iron cages. He’d been left there to die for some crime.

Ortenburg ( Lower Bavaria ). Castle museum – Show room for historical justice: Hanging cage. Photo by Wolfgang Sauber via Wikimedia Commons

The hanging metal cage, otherwise known as a gibbet, was historically a device of punishment and/or torture. Because they were also meant as a warning to the living to avoid a life of crime, they were often found at crossroads or other places that would guarantee the widest viewing audience. Being public was the whole point.

Hanging of William Kidd from The Pirates Own Book, by Charles Ellms 1837. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Sometimes the punished were placed in the gibbets while alive so that they would die a slow death from thirst or exposure. Sometimes the dead bodies of executed criminals were placed in them to slowly rot away as a deterrent to crime. Some of these were left hanging long after there was nothing left but bones.

I’m not sure of the deterrent value, but there were often complaints from the law-abiding citizens. Besides the visual assault, the smell must have been horrific, and there were health concerns with decomposing bodies. Maybe that’s one of the reasons this particular punishment was not used all that often.

Sketch of John Breeds’s (or Breads’s) gibbet irons, preserved in Rye Town Hall, East Sussex. From the Gutenberg Project edition via Wikimedia Commons

The use of gibbets was not limited geographically. There are records of its use in Europe, the Middle East, and the Americas. And it was used for centuries, so it’s not necessarily associated with a particular era.

So now you probably want to check out Willow again, or for the first time. If so, my work here is done.