Theft and punishment

Thieves have always existed in all cultures, and the penalties for stealing have always been harsh. Throughout history, property owners have tried to protect their possessions using guards or some kind of locking mechanisms. For a long time, locks and keys not only provided protection, but also served as invaluable symbols of status or power.


The prerequisite for theft, of course, is that someone owns something that is perceived as valuable to others as well. Ownership is defined as having permanent or legal right to exclusively control and use something for one’s own purposes, with few restrictions.

Throughout history, owners have tried to protect their possessions using guards or some kind of locking mechanisms. For a long time, locks and keys not only provided protection, but also served as invaluable symbols of status or power.

Morals, ethics, rules, and laws

The individual’s sense of duty determines the moral value of an act. Generally stealing is considered immoral. Morality is a definition of how the world ought to be and comes from the Latin moralis (custom), which refers to rules or laws for what is right or wrong – and man’s ability to follow them. Like a sense of justice, morality is a learned concept, rather than inborn.

The 14th-century law codex from Western Sweden, Västmannalagen, stated in its preamble that the country was to be built on law, and that the law existed to protect the poor, the peaceful, the wise, and the just.

The law is established and instituted to the guidance of all people, both rich and poor, in the distinction between right and wrong. The law shall be observed and kept to protect the poor, ensure peace to the peaceful, but to the violent bring chastisement and fear. The law shall honor the just and wise, but correct the unjust and unwise. Were all people just, then no law should be required. The country shall be built with law and not with acts of violence. For all shall be well with the country when the law is followed.

Laws are a part of a justice system in which all citizens are forced to learn to understand the difference between their own and others’ property. Thus, the rights of the people are a system of legal principles summarizing existing perceptions of what is correct and incorrect behavior in a given society, expressed in the form of laws and ordinances.


In modern legislation, theft is defined as taking something from someone unlawfully. The object of the theft is usually something with financial value, and the act benefits the perpetrator while being detrimental to the victim. A theft committed by violence or the threat of violence is called robbery.

The thief weighs the value of what he can get against the punishment he would receive if caught. Someone who aids and abets, by hiding the thief or the stolen goods, is considered an accessory to, meaning “involved in,” the crime.

Why do people steal?

As far back as the 4th century, Bishop and Doctor of the Church Augustine of Hippo (354–430) considered human beings as corrupt. He wrote that mankind is fallen by nature, and that there is little to be done about it, as long as he avoids committing great sins and lives in accordance with the civic order.

There are, however, rational explanations for why people steal. Perhaps the authorities, the government, or the justice system is weak, or society is in chaos due to war or famine. Such situations change our general perception of right and wrong, leading to the weakening of law and order.

In all ages, people have stolen out of hunger, desire, or curiosity. In the Nordic Middle Ages, outlaws stole to survive, or to avenge injustices. Many people, especially slaves, stole because they did not have a strong sense of right and wrong, or else they simply helped themselves because laws and rules were lacking in their society.

The responsibility of the Church and the King

One of the ten commandments of the Christian Church, number seven, is Thou shalt not steal. The catechism says that this means that we should fear and love God, so that we do not take money and property from others, or try to lure them with false goods and deceit, but that we shall contribute to protecting our neighbor’s goods and livelihood. From the Middle Ages and for several hundred years on, the Kings and the Church represented the public authorities. They were responsible for maintaining order in the country, and they tried to ensure that everyone lived honestly.

Laws, justice, fines, and punishment

Justice is generally served by the courts, following the norms established through legislation. The punishment scale for theft has varied over the ages and in different cultures. But have the penalties always been just? Were punishments based on the idea of theft as a crime against the rules of society? On the value of the stolen goods? Were women and men treated differently? Were there extenuating circumstances?

Laws and courts existed even in Ancient Egypt. Typical sentences were corporal punishment such as cutting off of hands, caning, physical labor, and death (impalement). In 5th-century BC Greece, thieves were called kleptai (the root of kleptomaniac), and in the worst case could be sentenced to death for their deeds. In the Roman Empire, too, stealing could be punishable by death, but if the thief was not killed when caught in the act, he could instead be sentenced to reimburse the victim, often four or five times the value of the stolen goods.

In Denmark under the reign of Fredrik II (the latter half of the 16th century), a woman entrusted with her master’s or mistress’s keys to the beer, food, clothing, money, or other valuables was considered an approved figure of authority. A crime against her was considered a crime against the family itself and the criminal would be hanged as a thief – because naturally the law assumed that he had stolen the woman’s keys and helped himself to the supplies.

Early Swedish criminal law

In the early days, Sweden was ruled by common law, which was stored in the memories of those well-versed in law. But as society rapidly developed, it became harder to keep track of all the old ordinances.

In the 13th century, provincial codes of law were committed to writing. These naturally included the punishment for theft. This early medieval legislation distinguishes generally between wrongs committed against the social order and those committed against individual interests. For example, outlawry was heavily punished; anyone had the right to put an outlaw to death.

Medieval fines and punishment

In the Middle Ages, fines were the most common punishment for theft, and one that was not considered dishonorable. More severe cases could be punishable by flogging, the cutting off of one or both ears or a hand, or death by hanging. Even the loss of an ear made the perpetrator’s shame permanently visible.

The thievery code in the Dalarna law called for a fine of three marks for pilfering one öre (a mark was worth eight öre). The fine applied whether or not legal action was taken. The fine for stealing a half mark was 40 marks.

Magnus Eriksson – called “Ladulås, or “Barnlock” (1316–1374) – was king of Sweden and Norway. In 1279, he established a new set of laws that applied in the whole country. One main goal of the law was to protect the property of farmers, and it remained in use until 1734. The penalties for theft, which were very harsh, were regulated by the Thievery Law.

“Full thievery” meant stealing something worth 1/2 mark or more, and was punished by hanging from a tree or a gallows, or by banishment from the city and its environs. If the goods were worth between three öre and 1/2 mark, it would cost the thief skin (through flogging) and one or both ears. For thefts of a lower value, fines were enough punishment. “Pilfering fines” were for goods worth a half öre or less.

Under the provincial laws, farmers were responsible for locked buildings on their property, but not those without locks. Each individual was responsible for buildings to which they had a key. This means that if stolen goods were found in a locked space, the owner of that space was demonstrably a party to the crime and therefore punishable. The law covered all the collected wealth of the farm: livestock, grain, hops, money, and jewelry of silver and gold.

Interest in stealing something increases with the difficulty of obtaining the prize. A lock can in fact inhibit and increase the risk of theft at the same time. People were aware that locked doors or chests often hid things of value. A broken lock was proof of illegal entry. So a lock may have had several functions: to raise the status of the owner (he has something worth stealing), to prevent others from accessing the desirable thing without a key, and to prove that someone had broken in, by the lock’s being broken.

Punishment was a necessary retribution for the crime, and to put criminals out of action.

Methods of punishment. Pictures from Nuremberg, 1517
Methods of punishment. Pictures from Nuremberg, 1517


Locked away on bread and water

In the Vasa Renaissance of the 16th century, the rule of Catholicism was abandoned for the Law of Moses in a return to “the pure and clear Word of God.” This had a great effect on the judicial process.

At the same time, new sentences were introduced: prison terms with bread and water and the commutation of the death penalty to fines (9–10 marks) or labor. If a person could not pay the fines, his sentence could be converted into labor. In some cases, banishment and deportation were used. The exception was stealing from churches, which always commanded the death penalty.

Punishment for theft remained more or less the same throughout the 17th century. The law of 1734 contains no fundamental changes, other than the elimination of bodily mutilation and the addition of a life sentence at hard labor in a fortress, for male thieves.

The death penalty for theft was not abolished in Sweden until 1855.


Kulturhistoriskt lexikon för nordisk medeltid. Malmö 1956–78.

Å. Holmbäck and E. Wessén, Svenska landskapslagar. Stockholm 1933–1946.

Kampen mot brottet, del I. En kulturhistorisk studie i brott och straff. Editor Leif Beckman. Malmö 1950.