Law in the Middle Ages

After the collapse of Western Modern Empire, it became very difficult to manage the law and order situations in the smaller kingdoms initiated by the Barbarians. Evolution and spread of religious movements of Christianity and Islamism further complicated the situations. In order to ascertain security of their kingdoms, kings preferred to transfer power to knights and barons. Ordinary people, peasants and serfs accepted their rule to attain protection against invaders and rival kingdoms. This situation gave way to the rise of feudalistic law and justice system.

Feudalism; thus, wasn’t only a system to maintain power to rule, rather it was also a good means to serve local justice to local people which included peasants, carpenters, blacksmiths, weavers, bakers, and merchants and dealers. Under the feudal system, kings offered power to barons to control large pieces of land in their kingdom. Thus, the right to jurisdiction was under the knights, barons and dukes who controlled over local peasants and serfs.

Judicial Administration in The Middle Ages:

The law in The Middle Ages was based on old Germanic ideas and customs but it was also influenced by the ancient Roman law system. Knights, barons, and dukes had their separate courtrooms where they used to offer judicial services for people living in their manor. Kings had their personal court rooms which were considered above all. Cases in particular manor were listened in the courtroom of the baron or knight controlling that manor.

There were vassals who were appointed to help the barons, knights and dukes. These courts were not known to act in public interest; rather, they used to wait until the plaintiff asked for justice. The system was harsh and until a particular case has been solved, both the plaintiff and the alleged criminal were treated similarly.

Types of Courts under law in The Middle Ages

The society of The Middle Ages was largely divided in three parts, the priests, the member of nobility, and the serfs. The judicial system offered three types of courts to solve various problems. In order to take decision about a case involving bishops, deacons, priests, clerks, monks, nuns and other clergy men, there were special Church courts. No other courts had a right over matters of Church and clergy.

Cases of ordinary people and serfs were often considered in manor courts where knights and barons were used to offer their justice either through the means of ‘the oath,’ or by means of ‘the ordeals.’ Manor courts were often used to solve out cases of assault, petty theft, drunkenness, and other petty crimes.

Serious cases were often considered under the royal courts where the kings used the common law to offer justice. These courts were preferred for cases of murder, burglary, treason, rape, cutting trees and poaching animals from royal forests and other charges which were considered to be serious. While the law in The Middle Ages was mainly influenced by the Church, it was significantly influenced by the ancient Roman culture and the Germanic culture.

Ways to prove innocence under law in The Middle Ages:

The Oath

Feudal courts weren’t based on the modern ideal of considering an accused ‘innocent until proven guilty,’ as there was no concept of presumption of innocence. Rather, it was the duty of the accused to prove his innocence.

One could do so by taking an oath of innocence and there was system of “oath-helpers,” according to which, the accused was required to bring helpers, often neighbors or relatives, who swore that they believe that the accused is telling the truth about his innocence. Right to jurisdiction was one of the ways for barons, knights, dukes and other fiefs to earn income as they often preferred to atone most of the wrongs for monetary punishment or fine.

The oath system may seem to be unsatisfactory and insufficient, but it was largely workable because it was hard for an evil person or accused to bring enough ‘oath-helpers’ to support him. On the other hand, a really innocent person, if accused, had proper chances to gain support of enough “oath helpers.”

The Ordeal

In absence of oath-helpers, the accused often was provided another chance to prove his innocence by means of the process of ‘the ordeal.’

Ordeal by Battles

In certain cases involving two nobles, trials were often decided through battles. The winner of these battles was considered to be innocent because it was believed that God would protect the innocent. However, it was not necessary for a person of nobility to fight for himself as he could choose any experienced fighter to fight for justice on his behalf.

Ordeal by Bread

This was another method to prove innocence of an accused if he belonged to the nobility. Under this ordeal, the accused was forced to eat full bread without chewing it. If the accused succeeded in eating the slice of bread without chewing it, he was considered innocent. On the other hand, if he choked, he was considered guilty. It was believed that God would help an innocent to eat the bread without chewing it.

Ordeal by fire

Law in The Middle Ages was influenced by superstitions and beliefs. In cases involving common men, the accused was forced to hold a hot metallic rod in his hands for a small period of time. The wound caused through it was covered properly and in three days, if this wound was healed, the person was considered innocent. On the other hand, if the wound initiated to fester, the accused was considered guilty. Once again, it was believed that God will heal the wound of innocent. Obviously, innocent or guilty, any accused was forced to suffer the fire.

Ordeal by cold water

In certain cases, the accused was thrown in a barrel full of cold water. If the accused drowned, he was considered guilty. On the other hand, if the accused swam and saved his life, he was considered to be innocent. Water was considered to be a pure substance and it was believed that God would not drown the innocent.

As we saw, law in The Middle Ages was based on superstitions and the feudalistic judicial system further made it more difficult.

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