I have been assigned the task of researching a topic from medieval Europe. The following paragraphs include law and court from the time 476 AD – 1492 (medieval) because in the class time we have had for history and I found the law and court that we did very interesting in how the justice system earlier on was carried out and where it began. I chose 5 inquiry questions, the last one including a conclusion and here are the answers I found for each.
What were the punishments for minor and serious crimes? In medieval Europe there were three types of court and each took care of different crimes. A village court had mostly minor crimes like a woman nagging her husband, punished by the woman wearing a scold’s bridle. Sometimes the husband even attached a bell and walked her through the centre of town to increase humiliation. Church courts dealt with serious crimes like heresy and witchcraft. Confessions for these crimes were punished with torture of thumbscrews or other devices. If found guilty, they were punished with being burned or skinned alive. The King's court dealt with charges of treason.
What trials were there in medieval Europe? There were three types of trials in medieval Europe. There was trial by ordeal by fire, water, trial by combat or trial by jury. Trial by ordeal by fire included the accused burning themselves by holding a hot iron bar, putting an arm in fire or walking across hot coals. If the burn had not healed in three days, they were punished as guilty. Trial by ordeal by water was when the accused placed an arm in boiling water with the same three day burn test. The other option was the accused being bound and tossed in a river. If they floated, they were guilty which was pointless because they would kill the guilty and drown the innocent in a trial. Trial by combat was mostly for people in the higher society. This was where the accused and accuser would fight to the death in combat. The winner was seen to be innocent because god had given them the strength to win and save his life. The manorial used trial by jury and dealt with all but the most serious crimes. It was held at various intervals during the year, and all villagers had to attend or pay a fine. All men were placed in groups of ten called a tithing. Each tithing had to make sure that no member of their group broke the law. If this happened, then the other members had to make sure that he went to court. The Lord’s steward oversaw the court. A jury of twelve men was chosen by the villagers. The jury had to collect evidence and decide whether the accused was guilty or not guilty and, if found guilty, what the punishment should be.
Who enforced the law? There were no police in medieval times before the 16th century. Therefore, it was up to the community to enforce the law. No proper police force existed before the 16th century. It was the responsibility of the victim and local community to find the criminal themselves. It was expected that communities would be responsible for policing and combatting crime. They did this by raising the hue and cry (basically, calling on fellow villagers to chase the criminal). If villagers failed to join, then the village could be fined. During the medieval period, there had been some developments in this system. County Coroners were appointed after 1190. They enquired into violent or suspicious deaths, with the support of a jury of local people. After 1250, villages started to appoint constables in each village to monitor law and order. These would be leading villagers who would take the role for one year. The role was unpaid, and the Constable would lead the hue and cry as well as have other responsibilities. County Sheriffs were appointed to oversee law and order in a county. They were appointed by the King and were the chief legal officer in the Middle Ages. If villagers failed to catch a criminal, the Sheriff would form a posse comitatus to continue to chase the criminal. All men over 15 could be forced to join a posse by the Sheriff. A posse would also deal with any local rioting and investigated major crimes, again with the help of a jury of local people who would swear an oath to say who they believed had committed the crime. The Sheriff would also hold a criminal after capture in the local gaol.
What were the significant people and places that changed the laws over time? One of the biggest changes in medieval laws was the magna carta which occurred in 1215. this made such a big impact because the magna carta was a contract that King John signed to ensure that there was no more trail by ordeal so people couldn’t be condemned, tortured or killed based on the grounds of rumour or suspicion. This happened because King John was not a very skilled king because of the wars he lost and him upsetting the pope. He was so angry that he banned religious services in England. In retaliation, the nobles conned King John into signing the contract and thus began the magna carta. Another significant change was in 1154, when King Henry II moved the kings court around the land and began to record every court case his men attended, he also began trial by jury which to this day is still used in law and court.
To conclude, was this justice system fair? The research I have conducted in this project has led me to believe that laws in medieval Europe were not fair in the slightest but over-time they have gradually improved. The laws like the scold's bridle are representations of how unfair laws could be in the past. To this day laws aren't perfect. We still deal with racism, sexism and more. But whilst we aren't perfect nothing ever is or will be, and we can only continue to improve our justice system whilst learning more about and honouring how far we have come. One thing that has continued from medieval to modern times is the trial by jury and their recordings. One big difference is the punishments for crimes, in modern times they are much less gory than consequences of minor crimes like stealing.
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