Law and Order of the middle ages

Posted: August 8, 2013 in Historic Interest
Tags: , , , , , , ,

Keeping order during the Middle Ages was especially difficult. Peasants, who were oppressed by the feudal system, frequently revolted; there were numerous spies and assassins working to wreak havoc in another kingdom, some killed their neighbours to steal their possessions, economical problem opened the way for thieves and there were numerous blasphemers who had to be taken care of. Keeping law and order in the Middle Ages was not so easy as today, because there was no democracy and therefore the law was biased. In a village, they chose a man who kept law and order: The constable.

If it wasn’t for the harsh laws that existed during the Middle Ages, chaos would have prevailed throughout the epoch. Most criminals were subject to a trial which was nothing like the ones we know of today. Each accused person was subject to an ordeal – there were dozens of different ordeals:

Ordeal by Combat

Banishment was a very common variant of the ordeal by combat described below. Sometimes the victims mother or father (if they were still alive) were forced to fight for the accused or against the accused.

Possibly the most common ordeal was by combat. The accused was forced to fight a very strong opponent both with full armour. The idea was that if the accused was innocent, God would grant him miraculous strength and he could easily defeat his opponent. It was common for the fight to last two hours or more since the weapons used could not penetrate the given armour. Therefore, bones were broken and he who had a better physical strength frequently prevailed.

ordeal_by_fire_01

Ordeal by Fire

The accused was forced to hold a red-hot metallic piece for a few seconds. The wound was covered and in three days, if the wound healed, the accused was helped by God and therefore he was innocent. On the other hand, if the wound began to fester, God did not help him and he was guilty.

Ordeal by Bread

Usually reserved for the nobility, the ordeal by bread consisted in forcing the accused to eat a full slice of bread without chewing. If the accused choked, he was guilty. If he didn’t, God helped him and therefore he was innocent.

ordeal by water

Ordeal by Cold Water

In the ordeal by cold water, a barrel was filled with cold water. If the accused sank, he was innocent. The idea was that water being such a pure substance repelled the guilty and sank the innocent.

In other regions – or when the crime was very severe, there was actually a trial that analyzed the evidence and decided whether someone was guilty or not, just like we do today.

Whether by an ordeal or a formal trial, when the accused was found guilty he could be burned, hanged or tortured. It was common for executions to take place in a busy plaza as fear proved to be a fair weapon against criminals.

Sometimes, the punishment depended entirely on the crime. Thieves had their hands cut off, spies had their eyes removed, people who illegally hunted in a royal park had their ears cut off, etc.

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