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What crimes were there in the Middle Ages?


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Answered 2011-08-15 09:19:33
1st AnswerPunishment was given for crimes committed such as
  • ===working on Sundays===
2nd AnswerThis is a really fascinating area to research, and the answer is very different from what one might expect. For example, Lombard law had a provision making execution of a witch illegal unless is was possible to prove that the witch had actually killed someone with a curse. Carolingian law made it illegal to believe inwitchcraft, presumable to protect innocent old women with warts and dispositions rumored to be bad.

In the early middle ages, there was a concept of weregeld, which provided a fine for killing someone, without distinction as to intent. The fine was relative to that person's social rank; killing a landless peasant cost 60 solidi, possibly two year's wages for the peasant; killing a priest was 300, unless he was saying mass at the time, in which case he cost 400; and up the fines went until you got to the king, for whose death the fine was 15,000 solidi paid to his family and another 15,000 paid to the state for the loss of his services. Imagine that: At least one time and place of the Middle Ages had a fine prescribed for killing a king.

The Lex Alamanorum provided a fine for rape of a married woman, and a slightly lower fine for rape of single woman. Exposing a part of a woman's body was also met with a fine, which varied according to the part: lifting her hat to expose her head cost 6 solidi, which was a lot of money in those days, and since the solidus was 12 denarii, this was the equivalent of about two month's wages for the average laborer. The various legal codes also protected women from physical abuse in various ways, and it was a bad idea for men to abuse their wives in most places.

There were a number of very surprising provisions. For example the Lex Frisionum made it not a criminal act for a mother to kill her newborn child. Whether this was related to an early perception of post-partum depression or not is unknown, but it certainly illustrates the fact that medieval law was not all derived from The Bible.

There certainly were severe legal codes and severe punishments in some places. The Saxon legal code made it a capital offense to eat meat during Lent. The Plantagenet Kings and others were renowned for use of torture. So I can hardly characterize the Middle Ages as easy or soft on criminals. Indeed, I think they can only be characterized as highly varied.

Punishments and legal proceedings were also varied. There were ecclesiastical courts for clerics, and anyone who was a cleric could ask to be tried by the Church instead of civil authorities. It was fairly difficult to identify just who a cleric was, so eventually, the legal question was became whether the the person be able to read and write. For this purpose, the person was asked to read the 51st Psalm. As far as I know, no one tested to see if the person had memorized the 51st Psalm. Ecclesiastical courts were more merciful than civil, the food was better in prisons run by the Church, and one of the popes banned clergy from participating in torture, so ecclesiastical courts did not use it. (I can just picture criminals teaching each other how to read so they can get a break in court.)

It was possible in some places to defend a person by having that person take an oath asserting innocence, and have twelve people swear that they believed the oath was valid. And in much of medieval Europe, a fugitive could take refuge in a church or monastery for whatever crime, and no one, including agents of the king, could remove or harm that person.

I think this question deserves a lot of research and attention. The ignorance we show of the Middle Ages seems often to be greater than the ignorance of which we accuse the time. A link below is to a Wikipedia article on Germanic Law, which has many links to medieval legal codes.

Another answer:rebellion, treason, heresy, witchcraft, vagrancy, smuggling, robbers, kind napping, working on Sundays, stealing, receiving stolen goods, murder, disobeying a king, not cooking bread to the right height and dressing like a noble if you are not one! just to name a few.
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