From the Ground Up – Laws


It’s been another long stretch, but I want to start getting back to writing about the small yet important things that people should pay attention to that make a dig difference in trying to take people to a different world. This time, I want to talk briefly on laws, punishment, crime, and the judicial system, because its a fascinating topic that I think can make a big difference in how players see breaking the law, and why their actions matter in a fantasy, middle ages world. 

Laws and punishment

Law and judgement are often the visible foundations on which an orderly and standard society is built. It might not be, and often isn’t, a set of fair and merciful laws, but it is this foundation that many people see the world as resting on. There are many different systems of laws, however, and the one most active in the middle ages is one that, while its name seems familiar and its tenants seem to be the same as our current ones, are not. 

Law in the Middle Ages is defined, for the most part, as Civil Law. In short terms, this means that the law is determined by a code, either written or practiced, and isn’t set by the judges. This is contrasting to the current american method that, while is separates criminal and civil offenses, is not Civil Law. The American Law system is called Common Law, and is based on the precedence of prior rulings by other judges. This may seem to be pedantic, but it changes the very core of our understanding of the system of law. 

What matters in a civil system is the law itself. If the law says that a man caught stealing bread has his hand removed, and 30 people see him stealing bread, and he is brought to the sheriff or magistrate of an area, his hand will be removed. There isn’t really a fact finding or deliberative body or some other sort of extenuating circumstances that can be consulted. The word of the law is clear. In our system, the Common Law system, there is plenty of precedence and leeway that can be granted by individual judges and those who are accused can plead a case. Civil law is not so lenient. 

building off of that, many countries in the middle ages have clear and codified sets of law, which allows summary judgement to be passed many times, and punishments to be levied rather quickly. These punishments were often swift and harsh, and commonly included fines, mutilation, and death. You’ll notice that prison time, even debtors prison, isn’t included in the list. This is because prisons were expensive to maintain, and few people wanted to spend money on clear criminals and miscreants. Instead, punishments were pretty public, fairly short, and sometimes permanent. Additionally, there was little desire to treat people who committed crimes, as they were considered ungodly and sinners. Prisons were used solely as a safe place to house criminals awaiting execution and were temporary at best. 

Some of the standard punishments seem pretty severe, but make sense when viewed in this light. The law was clear, the punishment was swift, and if enough people vouched for your criminality, it was already proven. There was little need for larger settlement of these obvious disputes. The common people, fearing a lawless society, and anxious about the consequences that unpunished crime would bring about, would call for harsher and harsher punishments. It was a given, in this time, that the fear of the sentence would deter a criminal. Little empirical evidence exists to back up that thought, even now. 

There were many punishments for your common crimes, and these should be impressed upon the players early. They should see ex-thieves missing hands, poachers missing ears, and vagabonds and vagrants branded with a V on their hand. Its a common enough sight in the middle ages that they should remember seeing criminals punished in this way. Gibbets, stockades and other forms of public humiliation should also be an early and strong site. 

One of the things that I find people have the hardest time accepting from punishment in the middle ages is its extreme severity. Someone who committed a crime wasn’t simply a one time criminal, but was clearly someone with poor moral fiber and a person you didn’t want to associate with in almost any form. It is a harsh world with a wide draconian streak, which goes for executions as well.

Executions were public spectacles, enforced by the crowd and played up with theatrics. This sounds weird to us these days, and we feel appalled when we see great crowds cheering on executions and punishments in our entertainment. Those days, though, fear was the currency strongest used as a deterrence, and they believed that that the more gruesome and horrible the execution, the greater the effect. breaking wheels, hanging, beheading, drawn and quarter, drowning, burning at the stake, crushing and all other manners of creative execution were used. They were not meant to be humane, but to be a brutal and effective message to those watching who would be considering committing crimes; This will be you. 


All the above pertains to specific crimes where the criminal is, according to the times, indisputable. With the punishment already written, judgement could be passed and the sentence passed. There would be, however, instances where the crime would have to be argued in front of a judge, where evidence would have to be gathered, positions presented and a judgement made on the best evidence available. These duties fell on the nobility. Any commoner, peasant or serf (with certain exceptions) were allowed to plead their case to the court, who would then pass judgement, and there were many courts. The first, and most often used, was that of the local lord. In their absence they could beseech the Steward, Castellan or Warden, who would then make the decisions. There was no appeal process, and the nobles word was final. Being able to present your case and bring forward witnesses to your moral character and your whereabouts were key in being able to prove your innocence and/or get a judgement in your favor. 

The last court of call was that of the King, which is the most interesting court. In our world, and even the world of the classics, there was a capital city that the nation was centered around. In the middle ages, the Monarch was the capital, and he travelled around to all his vassals castles, visiting their regions and imposing his royal court on them. With Taxes being what they were, most often in kind, the Court had to go and collect, and often consume, their due, Holding court also allowed them to have a good reason to camp for a certain length and then be on their way. 

Presenting your case to the king, if you decided to do so, was your right, but also risky. There is no higher power, there is no place to go with a grievance, and all judgments are final. If the King declares you are guilty and the punishment is death, that is all that there is to do. Be wary how powerful of a judge you plea to,.