Justice administration in the Middle Ages is widely believed as partial, blind, and retrograde. False accusations, fake trials, torture-motivated confessions (the list goes on and on) are said to have corrupted the medieval justice system. But is any of this true? Let’s investigate and take a seat at medieval trials.
Conventional wisdom considers the Middle Ages a period of unprecedented darkness — its narrow streets littered with trash and excrement, inhabited by boorish, hawkish god-botherers, with deadly epidemics such as the Black Death sweeping across the continent. However, looking through this veil of obscurity, evidence shows that this period also featured unprecedented progress: hygiene stepped forward, science prospered (most notably in Eastern countries) while arts were promoted and sponsored by powerful monarchs and patrons. What about medieval justice, then?
First things first: to get an idea of what Western medieval justice looked like, one should take a closer look at the geography. Territories did not, at the time, bear the shape they have now. Some were ruled by monarchs, other by lower, local authorities such as earls and dukes (or even heads of religious communities). Thus the charge of justice was decentralized and fell into the hands of a great many people.
Western feudalism (9th-15th century) featured three levels of judicial power: low justice handling midemeanors, middle justice taking care of brawls and thefts, and high justice punishing murders, rapes and crimes. Not every village or upholder of local authority could sentence to death: it needed to be granted high justice powers and have prisons, guards and places of execution (i.e. gibbets) at hand.
How much for that murder?
Still, high justice was inseparable from capital punishment. Justice used to be administered following the old principle ‘an eye for an eye’ (Lex talionis): blood was punished by blood. And every crime deserved its own retaliation. Thieves, above all repeat offenders, were hanged; counterfeiters were boiled alive; noblemen found guilty of high treason were beheaded; ‘witches’ were burnt at the stake or buried alive. But despite those general rules locally known as ‘Customs’, the system was far from standardized, only limited to a specific geography (such as Normandy).
Minor offences were also punished: although the sanction never went as far as the death penalty, it could involve corporal punishment (the ears or hands of thieves were severed), moral punishment (adulterous couples were stripped of their clothes and laughed at) or forced exile. Incarceration was still rare, usually saved for criminals on death row or suspects awaiting trial.
What’s more, as soon as the 4th century, the Franks introduced a system of financial compensation for every possible crime (kind of the medieval equivalent of bail) known as wergeld, old German for ‘man price’. How much for a murder, then? If the victim was a man, Franks demanded a 200 golden solidi-compensation (women were usually worth less money). If the victim had only lost a foot, an eye or his nose, 100 solidi were enough to call it a deal. Sparing a life was not the only goal of this set of measures; it also discouraged personal vendettas, which were a bane to public order. Meanwhile, Christianity flourished and instilled values of mercy and pity within the judicial system. Just about time.
« For the Lord is our Judge » (Isaiah 33:22)
Nevertheless, that Christianity-inspired leniency did not prevent wild verdicts. God had entered the courthouse, and wished to play a part. ‘Trials by ordeal’ were widely popular in Germanic medieval countries: they were basically challenges that suspects had to take so as to prove their innocence. Dive your arms into boiling water without getting hurt, and you’ll walk free! Other tests included walking onto fresh ashes, carrying a red-hot metal bar on a given distance, surviving while a load of Holy bread was forced down one’s throat…
Another practice, known as ‘cruentation’, was regularly performed at medieval trials: suspects were brought face to face with the dead body of their presumed victim, and it was believed that the cadaver would start to bleed when the murderer stood nearby. In this pious conception of justice, God had to sort out the blameless people from the culprits… Luckily, trials by ordeals faded away at the turn of the 13th century, when Pope Innocent III forbade them.
When pigs turn into serial killers
Animals themselves were not excluded from the judicial processes, and sometimes even got to sit in the dock! In 1386, a sow which had badly hurt a child (partially eating his face) was judged in Falaise (France) and hanged nine days later. The same fate awaited dozens of children-hungry pigs in the course of the century.
Insects were also pointed out, since they devastated crops and spread deadly diseases: in the early 12th century, a bunch of field mice and caterpillars was excommunicated in Laon (still France). Between the early Middle Ages and the late 18th-century, hundreds of animals were sentenced to death across European courthouses — mostly pigs and sows, but also a couple of bulls, donkeys and horses. Some even had lawyers pleading their cases!
Sure, medieval justice did not always feature progress and humanity… Along its bumpy history, it sentenced animals and innocent people to death, and turned a blind eye on murders in exchange for money. But it also introduced principles that were to become foundations of the modern judicial system: the neutral figure of the judge appeared at the Lateran council (1215), while feudal ‘committees’ that gathered vassals and lords turned into the first Parliaments. Contract-related laws were implemented, paving the way for insurance, refund and warranty clauses. Yet it took a lot of miscarriages of justice… Think about it next time you tick the ‘Terms & Conditions’ checkbox without reading them.
- Mark Jones, Peter Johnstone, History of Criminal Justice (2011), Routledge.
- Émile Agnel, Curiosités judiciaires et historiques du Moyen Âge (1858), Paris : Dumoulin.
- Jean-Pierre Poly, “La corde au cou. Les Francs, la France et la Loi salique”, Genèse de l’État moderne en Méditerranée. Approches historique et anthropologique des pratiques et des représentations. Actes des tables rondes internationales tenues à Paris (24-26 septembre 1987 et 18-19 mars 1988) Rome : École Française de Rome, 1993, pp. 287-320.
- Claude Gauvard, “La peine de mort en France à la fin du Moyen Âge : esquisse d’un bilan”, Le pouvoir au Moyen Âge: Idéologies, pratiques, représentations, Presses universitaires de Provence, 2007.
- Sarah Pruitt, “6 Reasons the Dark Ages Weren’t So Dark”, History.com, 31/05/2016.
- Nicole Gonthier, “Chapitre III. À tout crime, un châtiment”, Le châtiment du crime au Moyen Âge: xiie-xvie siècles, Presses universitaires de Rennes, 1998.
- Ça M’Intéresse Histoire n°55, « 53 Mystères de nos Régions », juillet-août 2019.
- Katherine Royer, “The Body in Parts: Reading the Execution Ritual in Late Medieval England”, Historical Reflections / Réflexions Historiques, vol. 29, no. 2, 2003, pp. 319–339. JSTOR.
- Hubert et Marie Deveaux, La Petite Histoire : 60 faits insolites de l’Histoire de France (2012), Librio/Tallandier.
- François L. Ganshof, Qu’est-ce-que la féodalité ? (1982, réed. 2015), coll. Texto.