Myths about Medieval Justice

I’m sure you have your own ideas about justice through the Dark Ages. Still, they may be false.

Street is crowded. It smells. Wherever you’d look, there be beggars. Stone walls, stalls made of wood, almost rotten food. Ground sticks on your feet every step you take. To your right, a child, he seems famished. You see his tiny hands rising from his green clothes, too large for him. Kid grabs an apple, tries to make a run for it.

Shoots, screams invade the fool air as the merchant closes on the thief. Maybe you’re acting like you never saw anything, because you fear for the boy’s life.

“So, you stealing from me?” asks the burly man.

All around people scream at the skinny child, hurl disgusting stuff towards his frailty. Spit. You know what happens to thieves, you’ve seen enough movies.

What if I were to tell you that movies probably lied to you? What if I were to tell you that someone who stole out of hunger in France circa 1200 had few chances to get condemned? See, contrary to our modern day societies, the Dark Ages legal process seemed to understand that one has to feed in order to survive which meant that such events were not particularly frowned upon as grand theft.

Even more surprising when you know that theft was considered THE major offense. But it was the act of stealing stuff you did not need (jewelry, money) that was a really serious offense. See, you have to place yourself in a world where religion is not a mere belief, but part of everyday life. Even though the Church, at the time, was becoming richer and richer, the institution was still preaching that the rich could not enter paradise. So, envy, as in the lust for material pleasure was considered serious stuff.

Because yeah, the Middle-Ages were violent. Like widespread violence. Mainly because the whole society revolved around words. Y’see when nowadays people hurl insults at one another in the streets? This would turn into a bloodbath in Ancient France. Because if you let someone insult you and didn’t respond, it meant it was true. Hence why, a court of law didn’t look only at the insult but at the presence of an audience. Saying a woman was a whore in those times, if no one answered meant society had every right to act as if said woman was a whore. This all led to people assaulting one another in order to restore honour.

If you take a close look at past litterature, it’s not uncommon to see writers talk about certain groupswho would get up in arms at the slightest bad words. I remember reading a book, in which the author pretended that people from the center of France would walk tens of kilometers solely to exact their revenge. Nowadays people would tell you Corsican do that. Or Texans. Mexicans. Hoodlums.

The world does not change all that much. Institutions do. Justice through the Middle-Age was centered around this idea that violence naturally flows and grows and one has to cut this circle short before it overtakes the whole town.

If you were to assault anyone, during those times, they’d end up dead. You would probably run to the nearest church or monastery. For the laïc institution, the timely power as they said, had not the rights to cease people who were under the Church protection. But this didn’t mean you fleeing stopped the whole process.

What would happen is, your case would still be presented to a judge (either elected or the local lord). With both parties involved trying to find an arrangement so that no more harm would come from this story. Oftentimes this was monetary. And this is really interesting to me. Because am French and laws really do not work this way in France. In here, once you commit a crime, the state starts a procedure, we don’t care if there’s no defendants, if there’s no victims involved. Of the five grand courts that exist, one of them is tied to you having wronged the state and it will never stop.

But justice through the Middle age was not about someone having wronged an immaterial entity. The sole way through which you would have wronged the states was by having wronged the King. And, sinceroyalty were of God ascend, it meant you just were dead. Like you’d been judged, but you’d been dead mainly because of blasphemy and treason. Other crimes were not seen as you wronging the state but you wronging another party. So a truce had to be found.

There existed two types of Court in those days. The one under the timely power, be it the King, your neighborhood knights, whoever had power upon the land at this particular times) or the Church justice under which you could befell if for instance, you stole something in the town of Reims which possessed no lords and was solely regented by the Church. An interesting fact to note is that the Church could not condemn you to death. Which made criminals sometimes walk over to another juridiction solely to be tried by the church.

Students from this time were considered as clerics, under this status, they could not be judged by lord or king or prefect. This meant whatever their crimes, they could not be condemned to death. The first strike you can find in the history of students going on strike was because they were trying to protect this particular status. So, yeah, student strikes existed even through the tenth century.

But what was Justice gon’ do to you? Well there is always this picture of people getting tortured in order to have them admit to a crime. This was true, sort of. Remember when Itold you earlier that words were the most important thing. Well, here you go, if you were to make a culprit confess, then it certainly meant it was true. Torture was the remnant of the Romans instituion which considered normal to try and extract a confession through suffering.

There existed rules about what people of the time called “the Question”. Such as pregnant women were not allowed to be submitted to it. Meaning there existed debate about whether certain females were fat or not when justice came upon them. Still, reading documents from the time, and since torture was such a precise process, it was not so common.

You’d find small villages asking for torturers because nobody knew how to deal with such a thing. Because yeah, the Question was to be doneby an appointed executioner. The judge had to be present, and a bailiff and witness. For torture shaouldnot leave the defendant armed.

There are stories of judges having lost their status because a criminal lost a leg through the ordeal. Torture was a serious business. And let’s be honest, when you’d stumble upon a chevalet, or when people would begin to attach stones to your feet, most people would simply confess.

But what could befell upon you if you were to be condemned? Contrary to popular belief, people mostly had to pay a fine. To the king, to the other party, because justice in the Middle-Ages was a matter of money. Hence why the church and the states and the lords fought so hard to have legal power over their serfs.

But you could also be condemned to death. Not by being beheaded this was reserved to nobles, nor burned at the stake which was solely for clerics and women. Mainly because fire cleanses stuff but not only that. Most popular method of execution was without surprise hanging, and if you’d hang a woman, you would see under her skirt and authorities could not let this happen.

One could also be condemned to make a pilgrimage and less frequently to jail. See, I told you earlier that justice was a matter of money, so the most common practice was to confiscate one’s belongings. Jail also existed. But it was mostly used before trials. Problem with jail was, most people tended to die there. As in some Third World Countries nowadays, your feeding resided solely on the willingness of your keepers, who were oftentimes mercenaries. This led to a few PO “forgetting” to feed the prisoners and through documents it’s not rare to have an inspector call for a jailed man only to discover said man has died in prison.

I hope this paper helped you shed some light on how our legal systems were slowly built as time passed. Hope you learn a thing or two. Sadly most of my sources are in French, but for those who speaks it, here are a few:

Violence et ordre public au Moyen-Age

Condamner à mort au temps du Moyen-Age

La torture au Moyen-Age

Violence et marginalité dans la ville medievale


Jews and crimes in Medieval Times



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Basile Lebret

Basile Lebret


I write about the history of artmaking, I don’t do reviews.