How did medieval law work

Law in the Middle Ages

Blood judges, cold-blooded executioners and torture: the judiciary in the Middle Ages is full of myths and gruesome stories. But contrary to the popular opinion of the "dark Middle Ages", this time period was not a legal vacuum. Both ecclesiastical and secular standards were decisive in the case law.

Tradition and Customs Law

Although it was clearly regulated what is right and what is wrong, until the 13th century jurisprudence was largely based on traditional customary law: that is, as it had been done by the ancestors, it was still kept. Traditions have been handed down, as have the procedures in the event of damage. For example, it was not until the 13th century that the Sachsenspiegelcomposed, the law fixed in writing and binding in northern Germany as well as becoming a role model.

High and Low Jurisdiction

Since the 12th century, a distinction has also been made between high and low jurisdiction. The high judiciary ruled over serious cases such as insidious murder, the production of counterfeit money, high treason, etc. A blood judge was appointed here to rule over life or death or torture. According to the medieval worldview, things like witchcraft, blasphemy and adultery were also punishable. The counts usually held high jurisdiction. The landlords, in turn, were masters of the lower jurisdiction. Property crimes, inheritance disputes, bodily harm, insults, etc., fell within their territory.

Law and everyday life

But what exactly did law look like in everyday medieval life? Since there was no public prosecutor's office to secure the facts, court hearings were mostly based on testimony and other "evidence". Was in a little man's life it is quite likely that he came up short against a socially superior person in court or that the judge did not want to hear the case in the first place.

Torture and divine judgment were practiced throughout the Middle Ages to determine guilt or innocence or to demand atonement. A questionable logic that almost always led to the result that the torturers wanted.

Torture in the Middle Ages

Torture to force a confession or torture as a punishment: many methods were known in the Middle Ages. The dark executioner or the cruel torturers without mercy: Some of these stories are likely to be figments of the imagination to make the "dark Middle Ages" even more cruel. But some torture methods have been documented: handcuffing the arms behind the back, tying a rope and then pulling the victim up: a procedure that has been used often. It is also proven that all conceivable clamps (neck, stomach, legs) that were equipped with iron thorns and pierced the flesh of the victim were known. More on this...

Divine judgments

The judgments of God pursued a particularly perfidious logic: knights could demand them for insulting, for example. An example: the accused was tied up and thrown into the water. If the victim was innocent, it perished. It could happen that the test person was not pulled ashore in time and had to drown. If the victim reappeared on the surface of the water, then it was guilty and therefore to be punished. More on this...


Penalties for violating applicable laws could be quite draconian in the Middle Ages. The main punishments were honor sentences, imprisonment sentences, fines, mutilation sentences and death sentences. Criminal activities on the part of members of medieval society were rigorously prosecuted. Finding the truth was, on the one hand, a matter for the courts, but other people who were not professional judges also spoke right over their contemporaries, such as the landlords who sat in court in disputes about the tenants of their land. More on this...