Medieval justice (law and order)

How was the common law introduced?

You may be thinking “how was common law introduced?” It started in 1154 when numerous amounts of people were trialled to prove their innocence. This led to blistered skin or damaged bodies.

The ruler of this kingdom (King Henry II) decided to allow average community people to be a part of what was called the Royal Court. Citizens promised to be trusted and properly investigate and accuse only people for a legitimate reason. The group then reaches a verdict and decides whether or not the defendant is innocent or guilty. This is what we now call a “jury” and like every court-house the judge gets to make the final decision.

After the common law was introduced, King Henry II decided to decree that once in a while, all the judges of courts would come together in London to talk about the previous cases that they came across. This is just a rough idea of the introduction of the common law.

The justice system in the Middle Ages was the core of our justice system in Australia and England. The only difference between our justice system and theirs is that the medieval period had more gruelling punishment than ours here today.

What was witchcraft in the Middle Ages?

Witches in the middle ages were people who were thought to be followers of the devil.

Most of the people in the Medieval period greatly feared these people as they thought they were the cause of thing such as: accidents, bad luck, illness and death. All these things are associated as being black magic. Because of this phobia fear, towns people were randomly accusing people of being a witch. Even the sweetest old women can be accused of being a witch just because the towns people found her creepy in some way.

There has said to be over 110,000 witch trials during 1450-1750 AD and 25,000 of them were men. If you don’t know the ratio of this, it means for everyone five men that were accused, eleven women were trialled, also, out of all these people, half were found guilty and were killed. This means that 52,000 were dead all because of the towns people finding them creepy in some way.. Some of those people were not even witches. The justice system they had against witches were very pointless. most of the trials included torture and always ended up with a damaged body.

The people who hated witches the most were mainly church people. If you’ve learnt about the feudalism levels of importance, you will see that the church and the pope was the most important level of  medieval society. The influence the church brought to the witch hunt was massive. The whole town was turning against each other just because the church was afraid of a demon possessed person.

If it wasn’t for the church and their theory on witches, much more people would still be living in this world today because the search for witches would have been less serious and innocent lives would have been spared.

How bad was the punishment in the Middle ages?

When a person was found guilty of a certain crime, the person would be punished by experiencing torture. Torture in the middle ages was the penalty for a breaking medieval justice.

There were many different kinds of torture that provided a serious amount of pain, agony and humiliation. These range from small amounts of pain to death. The main point of torture was to scare and intimidate citizens into not breaking the law. It was also used for revenge and punishment. These treatments were designed to enforce their rules or to get the truth out of someone.

If you were wondering how bad the torture was, the truth is that the torture was inhumane and deadly in the Middle Ages. An example of this is the Iron Maiden. The victim is placed inside a coffin that is filled with sharp metal spikes that are designed to thrust in the person’s body and will miss the vital organs to prolonging the pain and agony of the victim. This is just one example of the heartless torture medieval folk would experience if they broke the law.

Compared to most civilizations during this time period, It was obvious to see that the punishment system that the medieval period had offered were very disgusting.

Medieval torture stopped in 1640, hundreds of years after two speeches from the pope complaining about the devilish ways the citizens used to get people to confess about the truth.

What were some of the laws in the middle ages?

The Medieval law was based around the rules in the bible. The church believed that the Lord was the governor of mankind and that all the rules he set out should be followed. The problem was that they took the laws of the bible and made it more serious than it should be.

       The main law in the middle ages was all the Ten Commandments whih are shown in the picture to the left. Any breach in these laws would have resulted in cruel torture that I’ve mentioned earlier in the previous questions. Other crimes consist of theft, witchcraft, murder, treason, working on Sundays and much more.

 The laws in our siciety today are much similar to the Middle ages but the only difference is that we don’t have all ten commandments as a law compared to the Medieval times when the ten commandments were the core of their justice system.

What were the worst tortures in Medieval history?

There are two tortures in the middle ages that were very dreaded and very humiliating. These tortures are called “the rack” and “the quartering horses”.

The rack is a torture device that is designed to dislocate every bone in your body. This machine works by placing the victim tied both ends of the rack and stretching the person until they hear a large crack from every ligament in their body.  The person who was giving the torture would have been standing next to a crank, which would allow him to turn it causing the stretching. Later in the middle ages, they decided to add in spikes so that the victim will be forced to lay on the table due to the penetration of the back by the strain of the spikes.

The other torture,”the quartering horses ” is very similar to the rack except for that each arm and leg is tied to a different horse. This torture was for the more serious crimes like trying to kill a noble. The horse riders then whip the horses making them gallop at totally different directions, stretching the bodym, trying to make every limb collapse. This torture was one of the most favoured out of all of the tortures.

Their are even worse tortures that were in the Middle Ages but they consist of nudity and cutting off parts of the anal region. So these were the worst crimes that consisted of none of those things.

What my diorama represents.

I have created a diorama representing some of the things that were in the Middle ages. There are four scenes in my diorama, each featuring something to do with Medieval justice.


 The first picture below is about a man in a boat accusing a woman of being a witch. This shows how many people got accused of being a witch because the person was either creepy in some way or seemed like they were practicing black magic. Trying to find witches all over town was known as the ‘Witch hunt.”

 Secondly, Below is a picture of another Medieval torture which consist of  square-shaped boulders being piled on a women until she dies. This is an example of some of the tortures that are extremely fatal, more examples include: Burning at stake, hanging and worst of all, the rack. These were the kind of torture that the town’s people feared the most. Tortures like these were the punishments were usually for the people who broke the most important laws like theft.


Thirdly, at the bottom is a picture of a woman experiencing something known in the Middle Ages as a “ducking-stool” Also known as the “chucking stool”, this device was used for multiple purposes such as punishment and used for trial of ordeal. This machine was specially made for women to punish the victim for either being a witch or any sexual beach in law. Victims were tied to this ducking-stool connected to a handle that the person giving the torture.  This was intended so that the person can be dunked in water as long as the torturer wanted.


Lastly is a picture of a man receiving another punishment called “the head crusher.” This device had a very strong reputation in the Middle Ages as it was made to crush the skull until the victim died. This is why it was also called “death by head.”Even today this machine is used in some Europe countries as punishment.

All these things that I have created were a joy to make and I hope that you’ve enjoyed looking at it.


Author unknown,, “Middle Ages torture” Unknown date of publishment.

Smith.R, Young.D. “Humanities Alive History 1”, Wiley(2006)

Lyn,N, “Medieval law”,Unknown date of publishment

Author unknown,”witchcraft in the middle ages”,

Unknown author,, “Description and History of the common law”, unknown date of publishment.

unknown author,”ten comandments” (June 18 2011)

Author unknown, (2008), “Most painful 20 tortures in history”

Unknown publisher, “Medieval Ducking Stool”, unknown date,


Medieval Assignment: Medieval Justice-Amanda Tan

1.       The Medieval Courts:

Types of Courts:

  • Church Courts-

Only church courts could judge bishops, deacons, priests, clerks, monks and nuns, the church gave out lighter sentences than royal courts and they could not sentence death. All members of the clergy could read and write, therefore a literacy test sometimes used to prove that a person worked for the church, and should be tried in the more lenient (mild, merciful) church court.

  • Manor Courts-

Many of the disputes in the manor courts had to do with farming and property(using too much manure, ploughing another person’s land). Manor courts dealt with charges of assault, petty theft, public drunkenness and other small crimes, this court would even allow serfs to sue if they felt it was unfair.

Manor courts were like a village meeting, most of the villagers would attend, witnesses were very important. Heavy fines were enforced for lying in the court; villagers decided who won the case.

Representatives of the lord, called stewards, acted as judges deciding the sentence of the court (which was usually a fine).

  • Royal Courts-

Royal Courts took care of serious crimes such as murder, treason, rape, burglary, poaching game from royal forests, cutting trees or even taking deadwood for fuel from royal forests. Royal courts used the ‘common law’, it was called common law because it was the same for the whole kingdom, royal courts could order the execution of murderers and thieves. After the execution of a criminal the court would take away all of his or her property.

A Medieval Royal Court

2.       What were the Medieval Trials?.

Law and order was very harsh in Medieval England. Those in charge of law and order believed that people would only learn how to behave and act properly if they feared what would happen to them if they broke the law. Even the smallest offences had serious punishments. The authorities feared the poor simply because there were many more poor people than rich people, and any rebellion could be potentially damaging to the ‘richer’ or ‘wealthier’ people as the Peasants Revolt in 1381 proved.

By the time of Henry II, the system of law in England had been improved because Henry sent out his own judges from London to listen to cases throughout all England’s counties. Each accused person had to go through an ordeal.


3.       Types of Trials:

The types of ordeals were:

 –Ordeal by fire:

An accused person was to hold an iron bar or put his hand in boiling hot water, his hand was then bandaged and left for three days. If the wound had clear signs of healing after three days, you were innocent. If the wound had no clear signs of healing, you were guilty.

  • Ordeal by water:

An accused person was tied up unto a ducking stool. He was then dropped into the water, if he drowned then he was innocent, but if was guilty he would float to the top and then be later executed.

  • Ordeal by combat:

This was used by noblemen who had been accused of something. They would fight in combat with their accuser. Whoever won was right and whoever lost was usually dead at the end of the fight.

The accused holding a red hot poker

They practiced these ordeals because they believed that God would only protect the innocent!!

In 1215, the Pope decided that priests in England must not help with ordeals. As a result, ordeals were replaced by trials by juries. To start with, these were not popular with the people as they felt that their neighbors might have a grudge against them and use the opportunity of a trial to get their revenge. After 1275, a law was introduced which allowed people to be tortured if they refused to go to trial before a jury. If you were found guilty of a crime you would expect to face a severe punishment. Thieves had their hands cut off, women who committed murder were strangled and then burnt, people who illegally hunted in royal parks had their ears cut off and high treason was punished by being hung, drawn and quartered.

There were very few prisons as they cost money and local communities were not prepared to pay for their upkeep. It was cheaper to execute someone for their crimes.

Most towns had a gibbet just outside of it. People were hung on these and their bodies left to rot over the weeks as a warning to others. However, such violent punishments clearly did not put off people or stop them. In 1202, the city of Lincoln had around 114 murders, 89 violent robberies and 65 people were wounded in fights. Only 2 people were executed for these crimes.


4.       Court Leaders:

The court leaders of the medieval courts were the church. The church was more powerful than the king. If the pope disliked the king he could take him off the throne. The reason that the church/pope was so powerful was because he could interpretate the will of the Lord. And because people believed this their own fear they obeyed him and the church.

The church believed that being king or having the throne was merely a gift or a privilege from the Lord their God.

5.       How would God feel about the ordeals:

When the court trialled people by ordeal they were basically testing God. The Ten Commandments clearly states, “Do Not put the Lord your God to the test.” God does have sympathy for those who have been condemned or accused for wrong they have not committed, this does not mean that he is not a merciful God, it merely means he wants to take those condemned to a better place, his place…to be with him.


Author: Unknown Year: 2007

Author: Red Apple Education Year: 2012

Author: Unknown Date: Unknown

Author: Saldais.M, Wiley Year: 2006

Book: Humanities Alive History


My diorama displays the accused going through the medieval ‘trial by fire ordeal’ practise. In this diorama it shows a woman having to place her hand in boiling water for five seconds, it is then cleaned and dressed by the priest who spectates the whole ordeal. If the blisters hadn’t healed or hadn’t had any obvious signs of healing, the person was guilty. If the person was guilty for a serious crime, e.g. treason, witchcraft, stealing etc.  The person would have been tortured until death or executed. Another trial by ordeal which was displayed in this diorama was an accused person having to hold a red hot poker for five seconds, the priest once again dresses the wound/blister and if it hadn’t healed or hadn’t had any obvious signs of healing, he would be condemned as guilty.

My Diorama from the front view!!

The accused having their hand submerged in boiling hot water!!

The priest spectating the ordeals.

Another accused victim holding a red hot poker.

Amanda Tan 8B