A conversation I've been having a lot lately with other DMs is what you do when your PCs break the law. So in that spirit, I'm sharing the notes on medieval courts I used when building my own world. Most people run a simplified version of what we're familiar with today: an organized city watch acting as a police force arrests the players, there will be an investigation and charges, and a judge hears the case. (Of course in practice, the PCs usually break out of jail before this happens.) But in medieval times, things weren't this neat and tidy. You'd be hard pressed to satisfy our modern notions of justice in a feudal court.
In medieval England, justice was a patchwork system of overlapping jurisdictions all of which could change based on the social class of the person who committed the crime and the type of offense committed. The right to dispense justice within their domain was one of the primary rights of the lord (or lady if she held the title in her own right), so medieval "courts" were quite literally courts of law. A lord would be occupied for much of their time by hearing the pleas and complaints of their subjects and settling their cases.
So Many Courts
The Court Customary
Each individual fief is supported by serfs who are bound to that land, and they are the ones who are most subject to the whims of their lord. If your campaign landscape is dotted with tiny farming hamlets with a keep at the center, these farmers are most likely serfs and the land they are farming legally belongs to their lord. The manorial laws governing how resources were used, as well as the list of tenants and their feudal obligations were compiled into a document called a custumel. It would be the right of the lord to administer the “custom of the manor” by settling their serf's disputes. This typically covered tort law, local contracts, unpaid debts, and land tenure. There may also be freeholders on this land who are still peasants, but not serfs, who may come and go as they please. For free tenants, legal matters fall to a higher court: the Court Baron.
The Court Baron
Only a noble could dispense justice between free peasants, merchants, knights, etc, and so it was to the Baron's court that these individuals would go to make their pleas or be brought to face justice. Historically, the Court Baron was held every three weeks, but became less frequent over time as the King asserted more direct control over the legal system. In certain regions, the Court Customary and Court Baron would sometimes be held together. The type of cases plead in both of these courts were the same however, as a lord of the manor or Baron would only have civil jurisdiction. Criminal matters were tried in yet another court: the Court of the Honor (also called Duke's Court or Soldier's Court).
There is a jurisdiction called the "view of frankenpledge" where a frankenpledge is basically the feudal obligations the people in a local area have to the lord and amongst one another. More on this later. If a court had the right to hear cases on feudal obligations and failure to fulfill them, that made it a court leet, as the Courts Baron and Customary were. Note that unless your PCs are in their hometown, or have sworn an oath of fealty to the local lord, they are probably not under the jurisdiction of these courts.
The Court of the Honor
If your PCs are murder hobos, this is probably where they'll end up. This was the medieval criminal court and its jurisdiction spanned a whole shire (or county). Theft, murder, arson, counterfeiting, forgery, perjury, libel, being out after night's curfew, and public drunkenness were some of the cases heard by the court. Because this court had authority over all the manors in the shire, the Earl (or the steward appointed to act on the lord's behalf) would travel a circuit visiting each vassal lord's estate and holding court there. The term "circuit court" is one we still use today. This is also the court where nobles would have their cases heard, whether criminal or civil, and it would also function as a court of appeal for the lower manorial courts.
The Ecclesiastical Court
If you were a priest, nun, student, or other member of the Church in some formal capacity, you fell under the jurisdiction of the Ecclesiastical Court. Here, you would be tried under church law in a court overseen by the local priest, the bishop, or in extreme matters (like Henry VIII's divorce) by a papal legate. While these courts earned an extremely harsh reputation when dealing with heresy and people of other faiths, the average believer accused of some wrong typically preferred to be subject to the Ecclesiastical court as enforcement was more lax.
The Court of Assize
As time went on, the King would occasionally try to update and standardize the criminal justice system. Courts of Assize would be created and gradually take jurisdiction away from local barons (look up the Assize of Clarendon and Assize of Northampton for details). This would standardize trials, the common law, and the penalties for violating it. These courts would be presided over by appointed judges: Circuit Judges in the case of towns, and Justices in Eyre for cases involving forest law (the king usually claimed most forests for himself, so crimes there were under a different jurisdiction too). Eventually, a unified High Court for civil cases and a Crown Court for criminal cases would arise.
There were no police or full time guards of any kind in the typical hamlet or village. Under the "frankenpledge" system, all the peasants in a locale were organized into groups of ten people called tithings who were responsible for the behavior of each of their members. One among them would be the chief tithingman who was responsible for producing any of their members who were accused of a crime. Failure to do so would mean the whole tithing being fined. Ten tithings were grouped into Hundreds with the top tithingman serving as constable.
From among their number, the peasants would also elect a Reeve who was responsible for ensuring everyone did the job they were obligated to do and enforcing the decisions of the courts. The Reeve was more of a farm/civil manager however, not a police position. If a crime was committed, any witnesses were to raise the "hue and cry" which made everyone nearby a posse that was obligated to apprehend the accused criminal. Thus, most of society was self-policed on an ad-hoc basis like a neighborhood watch today. At most, there would be formal guards only at night in larger villages where travelers and outsiders occasionally passed through.
If a person could not be caught and continued to evade justice, they could be declared an outlaw. This exempted them from the protection of the law and mob justice. Anyone was permitted to kill an outlaw on sight, and helping one was committing the crime of aiding and abetting. Whatever the offense, a case would only be taken to court if a plaintiff requested it of the bailiff.
Let's say your PCs are apprehended by a mob of angry peasants after the hue and cry has been raised. Are they outsiders to this town or do they belong to a tithing? Are they nobles? Did they destroy property? Steal? Kill someone? Blaspheme? Are there any witnesses? The answers to these questions determine what happens next. If there's no witnesses to a crime, there wouldn't really be an investigation with evidence being collected or people being questioned. Everyone in a tithing knows each other's business and would have their usual suspects or outright know who did it. Being an outsider immediately makes you a suspect for any crimes that happen while you're in town. There's no presumption of innocence or burden of proof. If you were brought to court, your case could be judged in a few different ways.
Trial by Ordeal: Without a witness, only the gods know what happened and of course they'll protect the righteous person. Therefore, you may be subjected to some kind of ordeal such as having to plunge your hand in boiling water to retrieve a stone, run through a fire, or be tied to a chair and repeatedly dunked into water. If you are unharmed or heal without infection, you are obviously innocent.
Trial by Combat: Similarly, no knight who is impure may triumph in combat over one who is pure of heart. Therefore, you may have to face a righteous champion in single combat. You are clearly innocent if you're victorious.
Trial by Divination: Historically this used to be any number of things from casting lots to seances. In D&D however, it involves a cleric casting Speak with Dead or Zone of Truth which could actually result in a just outcome.
Compurgation: Under penalty of perjury, other residents of the village who are known to be of good character can vouch for your character as well and then you're clearly innocent because other people we like say so.
Trial by Jury: This was introduced in England by the Normans, who replaced Ordeal and Compurgation with a panel of 12 free men who would hear and decide local civil cases. Lawyers didn't exist at this time, so interestingly, each case would be presented to the court by one of the jurors.
Doomsmen: Before the jury trial was introduced, a panel of the largest local landholders would be assembled to assist the lord (or the reeve acting on his behalf) in coming to a verdict. No matter what you actually choose, I recommend you tell the PCs their case is going to be decided by people called "Doomsmen" for effect.
It's interesting to note that even in the cases where you were found innocent by one of these methods, you would still probably be punished with banishment! When the jurors, tithingman, or bailiff decide to hand you over to the court, you are going to be punished for *something* it's just a question of how severely.
Why did nobles want the right to enforce justice in their domains? Because many punishments included fines (called amercements), and the fines were not paid to the person wronged, but to the lord, making courts a source of income.
The punishment for theft depended on the value of what was stolen. "Pilfering" was the theft of a low-value, common item, and punished by a fine. Theft of more expensive items or specialized tools would include flogging on top of the fine. Stealing something like a horse or highly valuable item was called "Full Thievery" and could carry a death sentence. In each of these cases, the item would be returned to its rightful owner if possible, and a fine of around 40 to 80 times the value of the stolen item would be assessed and paid to the lord.
Punishments for disturbing the peace, public drunkenness, or shouting at a noble or their official would result in an hour or two in the pillory or stocks.
Blasphemy was actually a common crime, as most people were unable to read the scriptures and church services were conducted in a language most didn't understand. Even just offending the bishop in some way could result in charges of blasphemy. Punishments included cutting out the tongue, or in more severe cases, banishment if the person repented, or burning at the stake if they did not. Poaching was another crime that carried a death sentence. If your PCs are are hunting, they'd better be sure those woods are not owned by a noble and there's no warden around.
Poachers were typically hanged but may instead be maimed to serve as a warning to others. Murder was one crime where a payment would be paid to someone other than the lord. The murderer would owe a payment, called a weregild, to the victim's next of kin. The amount owed and whether the murderer would be maimed or executed themselves depended on the status of the victim.
Death sentences for any of the previously mentioned crimes would normally be hanging, unless the criminal was a noble or wealthy, in which case they'd be beheaded.
Finally, we have treason. There was "petty treason" where you were disloyal to your liege lord. This was simply a failure to fulfill your feudal obligation and was decided as a civil matter in a court leet. "High treason" on the other hand was a crime against the king and everyone in the kingdom, and this carried a death sentence in the worst way possible. Typically there would be torture before a final execution by being drawn and quartered.
The People Involved
The presiding judge would be the lord, unless they had delegated the responsibility to their steward. There would be a bailiff supporting the lord or steward who would see that the court was convened, that there were Afeerers appointed (people who would set the amount and collect any fines levied), and ensure that the judgements of the court were enforced. Attendance at a court leet was mandatory for both serfs and free peasants. The reeve would assure their attendance, as well as making sure each chief tithingman produced their accused for trial. The reeve would also be responsible for enforcement of the court's judgements. The roles of the bailiff and reeve are historically complex, so I'm not going to go into too much detail, but you can think of the bailiff as being responsible for the lord, and the reeve as being responsible for the peasants. During the court's session, constables would keep the peace, and the order of cases heard would be directed by an usher called a Bedel who would traditionally carry a large mace. A Chaplain would also be present to offer prayers, and a Crier would announce the court's decisions.
There would be a number of specialists in attendance as well to offer evidence or expert testimony. These included guild members of specialized trades and others whose responsibilities were ensuring quality standards (such as ale tasters), fair weights and measures (such as bread weighers), and those responsible for infrastructure like bridges and fences (such as the Hayward).
I hope you find these notes helpful in building a completely incomprehensible system of justice in your world. May your PCs be both terrified and bewildered if they find themselves on the wrong side of the law.
Bonus Material: A Couple of NPCs for your Courtly Needs
Here's a couple of NPCs you can throw into your game to help bring life to this ratatouille of justice, should you decide to use it in your world.
"Jellyroll" Paldo – Reeve of the barony. A Goliath known as much for his fairness as for his love of sweet pastries. He has mottled gray and white skin like andesite and is the type who speaks softly and carries a big stick. Lawful Good. As Reeve, Jellyroll has important relationships with pretty much everyone in town. He can get the PCs a discount at the inn, he's best friends with the local cleric, he trained with the captain of the lord's garrison, the head of the merchant's guild owes him a favor for life, and he knows about the steward's gambling debts. He is honorable and takes his word and his work seriously. He's vexed by his appetites however, and can spend too much time eating for free at the bakery or accepting gifts that some might construe as bribes, even though he doesn't realize that's what they are. Jellyroll could be a good guide or mentor NPC, showing players the ropes, helping them keep out of trouble, or being just really disappointed if they wind up on the wrong side of the law.
Dobun Bukataijin – Steward to the local lord. An old human man with a round belly, bald head and big bushy white eyebrows. He wears outdated clothing and carries a chain of spruce wood prayer beads or small holy symbol as appropriate to the dominant local religion. He always sounds a bit sleepy when he talks. Lawful Neutral. Dobun comes from a wealthy family and was an accomplished rider in his youth. He commands a lot of respect from the more powerful families in the area. Dobun was once diligent and with a strong interest in the details, but in his later years has be. He is rational and just, but more callous than compassionate. If the PCs are brought before a court where he's serving as judge, he will enforce the letter of the law without nuance or leniency. If the PCs are outsiders to this region, he will assume they are guilty, because that's what he's usually seen from outsiders time and time again. As steward, Dobun knows the financial situation of his lord and of every taxpaying business and family in town. He might serve as a quest giver, hiring the PCs to help track down some thieves or got some scofflaws to pay the fines or taxes they owe.
- Kingdom Building: Who are all these nobles?
- Crime and Drone Deviancy
- are there any “crime sim” games (player is a criminal) where forensics and trace evidence, rather than simply eye-witnesses, are mechanical considerations
More about Dungeons & Dragons OnlinePost: "Kingdom Building: Crime and Courts" specifically for the game Dungeons & Dragons Online. Other useful information about this game:
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