MISCARRIAGES OF JUSTICE
Local justice is designed to find somebody guilty; it does not necessarily follow that that somebody is the person responsible for the crime in question. If you begin to look at those who are indicted* of serious crimes, it soon becomes apparent that many of them are strangers. In some places as many as thirty per cent of all suspected murderers and thieves are described as vagrants*. How guilty all these men are is a moot* point; many of them have probably been accused simply because the people who live in a village are cautious of strangers, and fearful of them, and thus very quick to point the finger at them when a crime is committed. There is a lot of false justice in the country. Just as some men are wrongly accused, others are wrongly acquitted*. You even have a few cases in which murderers can be arrested and get off scot-free*, having killed an innocent man to prove their own innocence. This sounds completely daft, but it happens. If one man is accused of a murder, and pleads not guilty but appeals* an 'accomplice' of involvement, he may end up fighting a judicial combat - trial by battle - with him to determine his guilt. If he defeats his opponent, he is deemed to be guiltless of the original offence, and may go free.
Bad justice sometimes arises from those who administer the law. There are 628 hundreds* in medieval England; but only 270 of them are in royal lordship. That leaves 358 in lords' hands . Many of these private hundreds allow the sheriff and his bailiffs access to their courts, so the sheriff can hold his tourns* in the same way as he would in a royal hundred. But some lords of private hundreds have the right to refuse the sheriff access. It is not quite accurate to say that in such places the king's writ* does not run, but it is the lord of the hundred who receives those writs, not the sheriff, and it is the lord who takes responsibility for enacting the king's orders. Such lords hold their own courts, hold their own equivalent of tourns, and sometimes even appoint their own coroners*. They often have the right to hang felons* as well. The bailiff* of such a hundred can hang those whom he chooses at will, provided the coroner is present. It is very unlikely that anyone will stop him.
There are very few checks or balances in this system. Hence there is a great deal of blatant* corruption. The sheriffs and those acting under their authority can easily abuse the system. It is by no means unknown for a sheriff to let an approver* appeal a dozen of his enemies of involvement in some crime or other, and, having hanged him, to extort a sum of money from each of the dozen accused people, to secure their bail*. They pay, of course, to avoid long stays in the county gaol*. Thus the sheriff does very nicely out of what is, in every respect, an injustice.
There are worse cases. Torture is supposed to be against the law in England, and so it is — apart from a brief period in 1311, when Edward II acquiesces* to the pope's request to torture the Knights Templar*. But the law means little to a powerful sheriff. In 1366 the sheriff of Yorkshire, Thomas Musgrave, is accused of malicious arrest, wrongful imprisonment, extortion, and the entrapment* of an innocent man through employment of a packed jury*. What he is up to is an old game played by sheriffs for centuries. He has seized one of his enemy's servants, tortured the man until he is almost dead, and forced him to confess to a series of felonies. He has then forced him to turn approver, appealing* his master of complicity in all his crimes, allowing the sheriff to proceed legally against the master, his enemy." This is hardly justice. Nor is it justice when a woman who is accused of murder has to hide from the law for fear of her gaoler. One poor woman hides when summoned because the sheriff's clerk in charge of Newcastle Gaol where she will be imprisoned has promised to rape her and pull out all her teeth when he has got her in his power. One cannot help but sympathise with women in such a position. If they are caught evading arrest, they may find themselves being outlawed in the county court. If they submit to the law, the indignities forced upon them might be greater than the crimes they have supposedly committed. Nor is it just women who are vulnerable to such humiliations. Sheriffs have been known to have men stripped naked and tied to a post in a miserable gaol pit*, and left there for days, freezing, in their own urine and excrement, in order to extort payments from them.
And so it goes down the social line. Beneath sheriffs, bailiffs of hundreds abuse their powers in similar ways, waking people up in the middle of the night and carrying away their goods and chattels* if they refuse to pay bribes*. Some bailiffs make themselves wealthy by ordering townships to have a jury empanelled*, and then charging the township for organising that empanelment. They then make even more money by accepting bribes from those who do not wish to serve. Constables* of townships might do the same — even tithing-men* accept bribes from their fellows for not reporting crimes or reporting false ones. Arguably the most corrupt of all the officers involved in local justice are those who act as gaolers. You can tell that things are fundamentally wrong when a statute has to be passed (in 1330) to stop gaolers refusing to accept certain prisoners. It seems they are refusing to imprison criminals who are not rich enough to bribe them.
Justice is a relative concept in all ages. The fourteenth century is no exception.
The Time Traveller's Guide to Medieval England by Ian Mortimer, Vintage Books, London 2009, pp. 223-225
* to be indicted of - angeklagt sein wegen
* vagrants - Landstreicher, Nichtsesshafte
* moot - irrelevant, strittig
* to acquit - freisprechen
* scot-free - unbehelligt, straffrei bleiben
* to appeal- here: beschuldigen
* hundred (court) - a hundred was the division of a shire for administrative, military and judicial purposes under the common law. The principal functions of the 'hundred' became the administration of law and the keeping of the peace. The main duties of the hundred court were the maintenance of the frankpledge system. Head of a hundred was the bailiff.
For especially serious crimes, the hundred was under the jurisdiction of the crown, the chief magistrate was a sheriff, and was called the sheriff's tourn. Many hundreds were in private hands, with the lordship of the hundred being attached to the principal manor of the area. Where a hundred was under a lord, a steward, the chief official of the Lord of the Manor and a judge, was appointed in place of a sheriff.
* tourn - the “sheriff's tourn” had its name originally from the sheriff making a turn or circuit about his shire, and holding this court in each respective hundred
* King's writ - (Anweisung, Gerichtsbefehl) In origin a writ was a letter, or command, from the King, usually written in Latin and sealed with the Great Seal. At a very early stage in the English common law, a writ became necessary, in most cases to have a case heard in one of the Royal Courts
* coroner - Untersuchungsrichter
* felons - Schwerverbrecher
* bailiff - head of a 'hundred', Gutsverwalter, Gerichtsvollzieher
* blatant - offensichtlich
* approver - Kronzeuge
* bail - Kaution, Bürgschaft
* gaol - Gefängnis
* to acquiesce - zustimmen, einwilligen
* Knights Templar - Templerritter
* entrapment - Verstrickung
* packed jury - a jury brought together unfairly or corruptly thereby making it partial
* to appeal- here: beschuldigen
* pit - Fallgrube
* chattels - Hab und Gut
* bribes - Bestechungsgelder
* to empanel - enter into a list of prospective jurors
* constables - Polizisten, Schutzmänner
* tithing man - A tithing or tything was an historic English legal, administrative or territorial unit, originally one tenth of a hundred, and later a subdivision of a manor or civil parish. The term implies a grouping of ten households (Scandinavian: ten = ti, assembly = thing). The tithing's leader or spokesman was known as a tithingman.
1. What is a major reason why people are accused of having committed a crime?
2. What does 'trial by battle' mean? Explain in your own words.
3. Describe by the example of Thomas Musgrave, the sheriff of Yorkshire, how corrupt the English courts were in the Middle Ages.
4. Bailiffs, constables, tithing men and goalers all make money by extorting bribes. How does extortion work?
5. The extent of injustice withing the medieval law system appears to be appalling, but even in our modern times justice has been or is being miscarried. Think of any three or four examples and comment on these.