Mediæval Law

Civil and Canonical Authorities

Judges are appointed by either lawyers (in the case of free towns), or the leige of the town, and have juridsiction over all inhabitants and visitors of the town. Dukes, margraves, and kings also possess this power, called high justice, or bestow this jurisdiction upon powerful judges they appoint called 'Advocates'. Members of the Church are naturally exempted from this authority, and may only be judged by an Ecclesiastical court. Ministeriales (landed knights) and Barons are able to assign punishments for lesser crimes but this can never be greater than cutting off the trespasser's hands, ears, or blinding them.

Rules of the Court

Jews, children, or women (without the consent and cooperation of their husband), may never testify before a judge or cleric. Confessions are often coerced by threat of punishment, though more rarely teeth are pulled, fingers crushed or roasted in an effort to get to the truth. By 1230 with the rise of the Inquisition, these methods become more commonplace and inventive.


Death is rarely within the power of the judge or clergyman to give. However, anyone found guilty of horse theft, stealing from a merchant's coffer, forging coins, or (in towns) assaulting a member of the watch, is promptly hanged, and their property is turned over to the local leige or town. They are first placed in a dungeon until the duke, margrave, advocate, or king signs their death personally (since they alone may pass this sentence).

Other punishments usually fit the crime. Petty offences often result in floggings, or perhaps public humiliation in the stocks. Cheats are always fined, and criminals may be branded and expelled. Adulterers are whipped in the genitals and paraded on a mattress through the town. Thieves will often have their hand cut off, or eye gouged out.

Usury is forbidden, though with the steady rise in commerce, banks are beginning to arise in large towns. They do charge a fee for transactions and loans (which may be construed as usury), but in most regions the local clergy has established a percentage acceptable to God (usually no higher than 10%). Punishment for those convicted of usury is often a fine and perhaps one of the above physical torments (particularly public humiliation). Since Jews are not under the jurisdiction of Christian law in this manner, they alone may practice this without penalty, and act as money lenders and coin changers (usually charging between 1/20 and 1/10 for changing a currency).

This page last modified 9/14/97.

Comments to

Return to the Rabenstein home page