Friday, August 5, 2016

Crime and Punishment the Medieval Way

by Jeri Westerson

Fourteenth century London wasn’t any more dangerous than life on the streets today. Oh, the weapons might be different, but the people who were “dead of a death other than their rightful death” were much the same as in the twenty-first century. You likely knew your killer, and that’s because you lived in such close proximity, worshipping in the same parish church (of which there were many), fetched water from the same cisterns, shopped at the same shops, and generally knew one another intimately. There were over thirty churches in London and the city was divided into these parishes or neighborhoods. It took a village, and these parishes did serve as little villages in the vastness of London. The city was a pretty big place, by medieval standards. The second largest city in the medieval world, with Paris being first. These parishes were strung together into larger districts called wards, twenty-five of them. This division made it easier for the justice system to take care of business when there was a death.

So just what did happen when a body was found?

This unlucky person is called the “First Finder.” It’s up to him to call the “hue and cry”, literally crying out to the parish. He gets neighbors to help him investigate. Now, if you are the First Finder and you don’t do these things, you can be fined pretty stiffly. So as you can imagine, many a First Finder simply backed carefully out of the room and left it all for the next poor schlub.

But let us suppose that the nosy neighbors turned up a likely suspect—and in many cases this happens because Man “A” was heard arguing with Man “B” the night before, and if Man “B” suddenly turns up dead, then you’d naturally go to Man “A”…and you’d most likely be right. Same as today.

Anyway, you’ve got a suspect. He is arrested and indicted by judges. Depending on his status in society he might very well languish in prison until it comes to trial and that could be a year or more. In the meantime a jury is chosen from the people in the parish who knew the suspect and from the ward in which the crime was committed—which might be the same area--and they investigate it, talking to witnesses.

Finally it comes to trial, but it’s mostly decided before the trial begins.

In a medieval courtroom there is the bar that the prisoner stands against facing the judge or judges on a bench. You’ve heard these terms before. A lawyer arguing before the bar. The judge serving on the bench. These terms that we still use today are very old and came from these literal sources. The bar—originally from the architectural structure of inns in which the law was taught—came to mean the law itself, a tribunal, the physical place in the court. It was the actual barrier or wooden rail marking off the judge's seat—a bench—the place at which prisoners stand for arraignment, trial, or sentence.

The lawyer, if you can afford one, comes with you to your trial. However, it isn’t the lawyer who speaks for the prisoner. He isn’t allowed to. The prisoner must speak and defend himself. Silence is construed as guilt.

And by the way, neither the prisoner nor the witnesses are sworn in as we do today, because it is assumed that they might lie and the state didn’t want to be responsible for their blaspheming.

As for a jury, King Henry II in the twelfth century brought us this unique judicial system. This isn’t the kind of jury we know. This jury knows you. Today the lawyers try to make certain that no one on the jury knows you and can influence the trial, but in medieval times it was important that they did know you and could influence the trial. And it made sense. Remember the parishes that people lived in, in close proximity? That guaranteed that nothing could be devious and in secret. If everyone knows each other’s business then it’s easy to point a finger and say, “He did it!”

Choosing a jury was important because it is essentially this jury—made up of at least nine to twelve and sometimes more men—would do the lion share of investigating. They would talk to witnesses, they would examine evidence. It was pretty much a done deal when you got to trial—in a year or two—what the verdict would be.

Now the prisoner and the lawyer may question witnesses brought forth and, of course, the lawyer can advise his client and file writs, but that’s all he can do.

In terms of a murder trial, there were two kinds of murder in the beginning: Murdrum—the slaying in secret, what we might call murder in the first degree today. This is murder that is planned, carried out, and hidden.

Then there was Simplex Homicedrum—unplanned, or murder in self-defense, or accidental. Later was added Manslaughter, the slaying in “hot blood” as in a duel or if you caught your wife in bed with another man. Usually that counted when you slew the man, but sometimes it counted, too, when you murdered your wife.

The degree of murder then, as it does now, depends on intention. Here’s a quote from Henry de Bracton a thirteenth century jurist who wrote about the law and how to interpret it. Here he’s talking about “homicide through misadventure”:

“…as with where one intending to cast a spear at a wild beast or does something of the sort, as where playing with a companion he has struck him in thoughtless jest, or when he stood far off when he drew his bow or threw a stone--he has struck a man he did not see, or where playing with a ball it has struck the hand of a barber he did not see so that he has cut another’s throat, and thus has killed a man, not however with the INTENTION of killing him; he ought to be absolved, because a crime is not committed unless the INTENTION to injure exists…” (my emphasis.)

Was the justice system fair? Well, in 200 cases of homicide between 1281 and 1290 brought up from Newgate prison in London, only 21% were found guilty. This is either the result of some good detective work…or the meting out of excellent bribes. You decide.

For further reading (and I warn you, most of it is pretty dry), try The Criminal Trial in Later Medieval England by J. G. Bellamy, Public Order and Law Enforcement: The Local Administration of Criminal Justice, 1294-1350 by Anthony Musson, Crime and Conflict in English Communities, 1300-1348 by Barbara A. Hanawalt, Crime and Public Order in England in the Later Middle Ages by John Bellamy, and Verdict According to Conscience: Perspectives on the English Criminal Trial Jury, 1200-1800 by Thomas Andrew Green.


Jeri Westerson writes the Crispin Guest Medieval Noir Mysteries. The series has been nominated for twelve national awards from the Agatha to the Shamus. Her ninth book, A MAIDEN WEEPING —dealing with a medieval murder trial — was released August 1, 2016. See Jeri’s website for book discussion guides, her character’s blog, excerpts, maps, and many other fascinating things.


  1. Interesting. What about benefit of clergy in this time period?

  2. What a neat article! Thanks for sharing!

  3. Hi Regenctresearcher: "Benefit of clergy" was just that, a benefit. It was not only for a priest but anyone in the clerical level, meaning clerks, those who could read and write and did so for a living. They were often tonsured like a monk or priest and could plead that they were a special class and entitled to be given a pass as far as crimes committed.

  4. Thanks, Elizabeth and Wendy. The more you discover while researching the more it seems to inform your characters and their thought processes and behaviors. It's all good.

  5. Thank you. That's very interesting and the 'reading list' is very helpful.

  6. I hope this isn't a silly question but did the women on trial also speak for themselves?

  7. Aprilmunday, you're gonna need a lot of time for those. Settle in... with a drink. :)

  8. Crystal, yes, anyone on trail--no matter age or gender--had better speak up!


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