Black Death In Medieval Europe And The Khmer Empire

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Being two different civilisations, Medieval Europe and the Khmer Empire had obvious differences, however they also had similarities. There will always be people who break the law, and both the Khmer Empire and Medieval Europe had similar ideas of what was right and wrong. Both empires dealt with crimes with methods of punishment and torture. Disease is inevitable within massive populations, and both realms felt the impact that sickness has. Obviously, humans need food to live, and being in two different parts of the world, the diet was different for the population of Khmer versus Medieval Europe.

Theft. Adultery. Murder. Simply put, bad things. There were five major crimes typically committed in the Khmer Empire. According to Sanskrit inscriptions, they were; murder of a priest, theft, drunkenness, adultery or knowing of, or helping someone else commit one of these. Medieval Europe also looked down upon those who stole or committed adultery, but one of the worst things you could do was the crime of practising witchcraft. As declared by Heinrich Kramer in Malleus Maleficarum (1486-1487), ‘and I speak of women who have been convicted and burned at the stake and who were compelled to wreak vengeance and evil and damage if they wished to escape punishments and blows inflicted by the devil.’ Even with consequences publicly flaunted, many people would still stray from the law but those that were caught were punished horribly.

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Punishment is serious, and the Khmer Empire and Medieval Europe had some similar and different ideas for punishment. Bodily mutilation was a common punishment for moderate offences like stealing (Medieval) and breaking religious laws (Khmer). There were also harsher punishments, the best known for Medieval being hanging but some of the punishments were more creative. Angelo da Clareno wrote about a form of torture in his writing An Inquisitorial Torture Session in 1304. He stated that ‘The inquisitor ordered that, dressed in a short tunic, the prisoner be put first in a bath of hot water, then of cold. Then, with a stone tied to his feet, he was raised up again, kept there for a while, and dropped again, and his shins were poked with reeds as sharp as swords’. In the Khmer Empire, they would punish smaller crimes with something as simple as punches to the face to something as horrific as amputation of the hands and lips. Flogging and squeezing the feet and head in a vice were also common. An inscription from the 11th century states that one person had both his hands and his feet amputated. When Medieval Europe and the Khmer Empire reigned, both societies had a different range of similar punishments for those who went against the law.

Whilst the two civilisations were thousands of kilometres apart, they faced similar diseases. Both the Khmer Empire and Medieval Europe had problems with the bubonic plague and leprosy. An example of how bad the plague became in Medieval Europe is seen in an excerpt from The Decameron written by Boccaccio in 1348. ‘Many would meet their end in the public streets, both day and night, and many others, who met their ends in their own houses, would first come to the attention of their neighbours because of the stench of their rotting corpse, more than anything else; and with these and others all dying, their corpses everywhere.’ Zhou Daguan states in The Customs of Cambodia that even though leprosy makes certain people look different, they are treated no different in the Khmer society, especially as one of the kings suffered from this disease. ‘Nevertheless, the traveller meets many lepers along the way. Even when these unfortunates sleep and eat among their fellow countrymen, no protest is made. Even one of the sovereigns fell victim to the disease, and so the people do not look on it as a disgrace.’ As shown by these two sources, the Khmer Empire and Medieval Europe both suffered from similar diseases which affected their people.

Crops can only be grown and harvested at different times of the year, and both the Khmer Empire and Medieval Europe farmers (peasants) knew this. Sometimes, however, there were floods or droughts and people would have to move houses and limited food would grow. The staple food for the Khmer Empire was rice, which takes 4-5 months to grow, meaning it could be harvested a few times a year. Zhou Daguan comments, in The Customs of Cambodia, ‘In general crops can be harvested three or four times a year… For six months the land had no rain at all… The high water mark the Freshwater Seas can reach is some 70 or 80 feet, completely submerging even the very tall trees except the tips. Families living by the shore all move to the far side of the hills.’ Similarly, the Chronicle of Bury St. Edmunds in 1258 states ‘There was a great shortage of everything because of the floods of the previous year, and corn, which was very scarce, cost from 15 shillings to as much as 20 shillings a quarter. Famine resulted so that the poor had to eat horse-meat, the bark of trees and even more unpleasant things. Many died of hunger.’ This shows that food could be hard to find. Food is a necessity to survive, however when there are problems with farming, like floods and rising water levels at certain times of the year, growing enough food for an entire population can be hard. Both empires struggled with growing enough food, but Medieval Europe lost lives because they couldn’t provide enough resources for their people.

As shown above, the Khmer Empire and Medieval Europe had a few differences but mainly similarities in the topics chosen. These similarities range from the crimes that people committed, to the punishments that were used to discipline fugitives. There were also resemblances between the diseases that both societies had to work through and the hardships that were faced for providing food for the different diets of the Khmer Empire and Medieval Europe.


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