OCR Crime and Punishment - The Early Middle Ages: 400AD-1100AD

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There was no police force payed for by the king. This meantthere was no garuntee the criminal would come to court. 

The victims of crime were expected to find the criminal themselves, calling out to fellow villiagers to chase criminals. This was called the Hue and Cry.

Adult men were grouped into tens called tithings. If one of them broke the law, the others had to bring him to court. If they failed to do so, all members had to pay compensation and the criminal would be outlawed and would bare "the wolf's head" (meaning if they came back, they could be killed on site) If someone brought them back, they would recive a reward.

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Laws were made by the king after consulting nobles and bishops on a wide range of issues. However different kingdoms had different laws. Laws weren't used throughout the country until England was a whole country. A kings most important task was to ensure his rules were obeyed. 

The Normans kept the old Saxon laws, but added new laws, e.g. forest laws. They enforced the laws more harshly than the saxons to prevent or punish rebellions. 

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Most crime was theft of money, food, and belongings, usually of low value. Violent crimes were only a minority of crimes. 

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Juries of local people decided whether the accused was innocent or guilty. If they could not decide, then the accused underwent trial by ordeal where they believed God decided whether the accused where innocent or not. By 1100 a series of courts developed.


  • Royal Courts - The king decided cases involving his lords and other serious crimes (e.g. land, murder)
  • Shire Courts - Were held in every shire or county and met twice a year to deal with serious cases (e.g. murder) that manor courts couldn't handle. All landowners and a representative from each village had to attend the shire courts. Local noblemen acted as judges.
  • Manor/Hundred courts - Held outside or in manor hall, all freemen had to attend these local courts held every month. Here they joined tithings and swore to keep the peace. These courts dealt with small crimes committed within the village.
  • The Folkmoot/Private court - Held in open air, the eldest male in each family had to attend (unless under the age of 12/13, then they were excused). They listened to the evidence and collectively decided whether the accused was guilty, acting as the jury. Punishments were dealt with immediately. These courts dealt with people who had broken local rules (e.g. workers who hadn't done enough work, or run-away slaves)
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Trial by Ordeal:

Trial by ordeals were last resorts when juries couldn't agree - so they let God decide. 

A religious ritual was followed beforehand: A person must fast for 3 days, and hear mass in the church. All ordeals (apart from trial by cold water was done inside the church)

  • Trial by hot water: Usually taklen by women, the accused had to carry a peice of red-hot iron for 3 meters. Her hand was then bandaged in unsanitary bandgaes, and unwrapped 3 days later. If the wound had healed cleanly without festering, she was innocent, otherwise she was guilty.
  • Trial by hot water: Usually taken by men, the accused would have to put his hand in boiling water to pick up an object and lift it out. Then the arm was bandaged and 3 days later taken off. Like before, if it had healed well, they were innocent, otherwise guilty.
  • Trial by cold water: Usually taken by men, people believed water was pure and would tell the truth. The accused was lowered into the water near the church on the end of a rope. The rope was knotted above the waist. If the person sank (and drown) they were innocent as the water had been willing to accept them beneath its surface. If he and the knot floated, he was guilty as the water had rejected him. 
  • Trial by consecrated bread: Taken by priests, the priest had to pray first, asking tht he be choked if he lied. Then he had to eat a piece of consecrated bread. If he chocked he was guilty, because God would not let a sinner eat consecreated bread.
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Criminals paid compensation known as Wergild to their victims - the blood price. (By 1100 executions and other physical punishments ordered by the government were more common.)

  • If the victim was murdered, the wergild was payed to their family.
  • If there was no family left, the king had the money. 

Serious crimes were punished by death, and frequent re-offenders were mutilated or excecuted. 

Anyone who refused to attend court was outlawed

Norman kings believed that any crime was an insult to the king's peace. Therefore, the system of wergirl ended in 1100AD and replaced by punishments that were designed to emphasise the power of the king, rather than give compensation to the victim. The Norman's executed rebels, and destroyed crops, animals and villiages to prevent rebellion. 

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