It’s Always A Cozy When It’s Set In The Middle Ages
Still Solving Crimes! Only there are no professional investigators and everyone is a Rome fanboy.
Types of Trials
There was a bewildering array of ways to be tried in the Middle Ages, and what type of trial you got depended on the place and time. It also could depend on where you came from.
Right after Rome fell, you would have to specify where you came from so that a judge or notary could apply your ancestral law to you. If you were from a place that demanded two oath-takers, you had to summon two oath-takers, even if the contract or trial you were dealing with happened in a place that demanded trial by ordeal.
This got phased out within a century or two for the more common ‘rule of the land’ where you are tried by the customs of the court’s land.
Then you have trial by ordeal, which we covered. When that got phased out in the 1200’s, you had an amazing array of trials methods taking their place.
Two systems developed over time: the adversarial method and the inquisitorial method.
If you’re American or British, you’re familiar with the adversarial system. It involves two parties arguing their case before judge and juries.
The inquisitorial system kept investigation and sentencing to a judge and other authority figures, sometimes the king.
There was a lot of variety within these systems. In France, they had a ‘two-witness’ method, where two men could take a complaint to a judge. In Mallorca, they had a judge and a team of ‘prohombres’ hold inquests and pass sentence.
Nobles had the right to be judged by their peers and prove themselves through combat, a sort of ordeal through battle. When royals started trying nobles through inquests, the nobles got pissy that they were being tried the way peasants were and rebelled.
England sent royal judges on a circuit through the country to hear cases. Northern Italy had small-town judges sit on minor cases.
Who Collected the Evidence
Literally anyone in authority that happened to be near.
In at least one case, a judge told the neighbors of a murder victim to go solve the crime for him.
Early in the Middle Ages, almost all court cases started out with the plaintiff bringing a case to court and continued with an adversarial process, where defendant and plaintiff brought competing oath-bearers with them. The judge merely decided whether an ordeal or more oath-bearers were necessary before passing judgement.
Many trials were done by ‘compurgation.’ Basically, you got a bunch of your friends to show up and swear you were an upright citizen. Church trials for crimes such as adultery were frequently tried this way. One woman was accused of both having an affair and gossiping, and she rounded up 15 people to swear that while she had indeed banged a man not her husband, she was innocent of gossip. Queen Utta got 82 knights as compurgators when she was accused of adultery in 899.
Compurgation didn’t require evidence as we know it. You just swore that you were innocent, and your oath-bearers said whether the judge should believe you. Naturally, this meant that you had to select your ‘purgators’ carefully. They had to be ‘simil’ (the same class,) they had to know you, and they couldn’t benefit from the case.
As time passed and governments grew more centralized, a system of denunciation developed, where a plaintiff brought a case to the court and court officials investigated. It also became possible for officials to initiate their own investigations without anyone making an official complaint, especially in felonies such as treason or grand theft.
Whoever was appointed to look into the case (and, remember, that could often be anyone) generally called on witnesses, often relying on the Roman idea that having two witnesses as sufficient evidence. These sorts of courts relied heavily on testimony in general, which is why judges were as quick as they were to resort to torture.
Everyone’s Favorite: Punishment!
Yes! Whip out the grisly torture devices, baby!
Or don’t. Fine everybody their were geld and banish them from town for, like, a week.
Early in the Middle Ages, before the 1100’s, many places simply had you pay a set fine. This was called ‘composition.’ Composition became less popular as coinage became devalued, and authorities got more discretionary power to increase a fine if they felt it necessary.
The death penalty was available for treason. Way more common was banishment.
Church courts couldn’t draw blood, and clerics who crimed tended to be imprisoned, stripped of their offices, or fined. One French priest who murdered a parishioner was held prisoner in the bishop’s court for a few months after he was caught running away. The widow of the victim naturally felt he owed her a bit more and wrangled with the court until he was ordered to pay 10 livres and endow an annual mass for her husband.
Imprisonment became an option for secular courts in the later Middle Ages. It was more common in some places than others.
As you can see, this informal arrangement and variability gives a historically-minded murder mystery writer a lot of wiggle room. Cozies about the era abound, and they are great. I highly recommend them.
“Crime in Medieval Europe” by Trevor Dean
‘Trials In Medieval Boroughs of England’ Harvard Law Review on jstor.org
Law blog retrieved 4/6/22