by Wanderer Werewolf
©2008 Wanderer Werewolf

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   Welcome once again to a look at the Real Middle Ages, and how it relates to your favorite Medieval Fantasy RPG. As promised, this time out we’re looking at the legal codes of the day.
   (Those who want something a bit more fur-friendly needn’t worry; this will be the last in my medieval series, heralding a return to studies of anthopomorphic animal characters.)
   When we think of medieval law, we’re put in mind of trials by combat and trials by ordeal, both of which have been immortalized in histories and plays from the Renaissance forward. Yet many such presentations falter on the historical details. For instance…

Trial by Combat

   Many films enjoy showing a full-blown, armored swordfight when it comes to a Trial by Combat (also called a judicial duel or, in typical English understatement, a ‘wager of battle’). The champions appear in full plate, with sword and shield, armed to the teeth, battling to the death!
   Of course, laws aren’t generally made to cause death; the truth is a little more prosaic.
   The first step, when common folk were involved, was the presentation of the case to a judge, normally the local sheriff or nobleman (the nobility could duel without going to court first). Assuming trial by combat was demanded by one party and approved by the judge, matters could go forward… with certain provisions.
   (It is worth noting here that anyone could bring a case, as long as it involved real injury to them; thus, anyone could demand a trial by combat. Existing woodcuts show women fighting men, while surviving court records show commoners fighting nobility. Trial by combat was apparently quite popular. Moreover, special accomodations were made in some cases; in one of the aforementioned woodcuts, the man is standing in a hole, severely limiting his combat options.)
   To begin with, each side would choose a second (or squire); the seconds would then arrange the time and place of the duel, and assist the side they were there for—but not to the point of combat unless their side was injured and required to fight on. Over time, the discussions between seconds would eventually replace the combat altogether—which, for better or worse, was the birth of the lawyer.
   Next, arms were chosen. Armor, as such, was forbidden, to avoid any direct advantage by way of the coin purse: Each combatant could wear nothing heavier than leather, and was forbidden to wear gauntlets (though light gloves were acceptable) or boots, either of which could be weighted to provide advantage or inflict injury. Beyond this, only a shield made of stiff leather was allowed.
   The choice of weapon varied by region: While common folk almost universally employed a cudgel or quarterstaff in their duels, English noblemen preferred the sword. In Germany, the homeland of the practice, it depended on whether you were in Swabia, where the sword was used, or Franconia, where they preferred the mace. All of this became moot under the Carolingian emperors; they required all duels to be fought with clubs, thus reducing the number of fatalities.
   Finally, the scheduled duel would take place… or not. If one party failed to appear, the other would win by forfeit. Even assuming the duel took place, it could be called off by either the accused (who would thus confess to his crime) or the accuser (who would thus retract the charge).
   Of course, trial by combat suffers from one judicial weakness: The chance that the person in the right doesn’t happen to be a very good fighter. While champions were allowed if one side were unable to fight, the tendency for the verdict to go against justice caused trial by combat to be outlawed by the time of the Renaissance. Which isn’t to say that duels didn’t still happen—they just didn’t involve the courts. The right of a nobleman to duel another nobleman, after all, had nothing to do with justice.
   An important note for fantasy campaigns: Magical assistance in any trial by combat is strictly against the rules. In most cases, combatants were required to swear that they had no magic aiding them. As for witches and wizards interfering with a judicial duel… well, we’ll get there.
   Rarer was the group trial by combat, when an entire clan would fight an entire other clan. These suffered from even more problems than the usual combat trial; after all, in any battle, the number of things that can go wrong increases exponentially with the number of combatants. (An example may be seen in the two sixty-man teams that warred to see if the MacPhersons or the Davidsons would hold Robert III’s right flank in the battle against the Camerons. The MacPhersons won, but had only twelve men left.)

Trial by Ordeal

   As famous for its parodies as for its existence, the trial by ordeal exists in any number of cultures. The most common versions are as follows:

Ordeal of Fire

   No, not under fire, so you can put away the guns. Most common in cases with noble defendants, this typically involved a test against fire itself, usually by walking nine feet across red-hot ploughshares or the same distance carrying a red-hot iron. Although some miracles were recorded in which people escaped without injury, the more common result was burns: If the burns hadn’t healed after three days, the accused was considered guilty. A similar yardstick was used in the alternate form, wherein the accused had to remove a stone from a pot of boiling water, oil or lead. Since water boils at 212° Fahrenheit (100° Celsius), vegetable oils around 500° Fahrenheit (260° Celsius), and lead at 3,164° Fahrenheit (1,740° Celsius), some of these would leave pretty extensive burns.

Ordeal of Water

   Yes, it’s that grand old witch-trial favorite: “Throw them in and see if they sink!” If they do sink, they’re guilty… unless you’re using the 16th-Century version, in which case they’re guilty if they float. Apparently, this was every bit as confusing then as it sounds now. Not restricted to witches, this was actually a general-purpose test for guilt.
   There was more than one trial by water, however. The Ordeal of Hot Water was a close relative of the Ordeal of Fire: The accused had to place his hand in boiling water, and if the resulting scald hadn’t healed in three days, they were guilty. The mind boggles at the number of people that perished because their bodies were slow to recover…

Trial of Ingestion

   This one ran the gamut (and the gag reflex) from consuming sacred or consecrated food (which would make you choke or turn ill if you were guilty), to ingesting mild poisons (which, in theory, would only kill you if you were guilty; innocent people vomited). These could be particularly risky, since they were often administered without judicial overview. Your players’ thief had better hope he doesn’t have to drink something nasty later—and hope even more that it’s not too poisonous!

Trial of the Cross

   This one is actually obscure, and was invented as an alternative to trials by combat. The two litigants would stand on either side of the cross and stretch their arms out horizontally; the one who endured longest was the winner. (This was not only unpopular for being boring, but for potentially inviting mockery of Jesus; it didn’t even last a century.)


   I’ve saved the least dramatic for last. Compurgation, the ‘wager of law’, allowed the accused to be declared innocent by swearing an oath and getting twelve people to sign a petition declaring that they believed his oath. As you can imagine, this was quickly disallowed on felony charges.

Magic Under Law

   An important distinction for fantasy campaigns is that in the medieval era, the law regarded magic as a tool, rather than a crime (a state of affairs that lasted until the European witch trials of the Seventeenth Century). Thus, casting a spell to make your horse move faster, or start a campfire, or protect yourself carried no charges. However, the same could not be said if you cast a spell to take someone else’s horse (theft), burn down a house (arson), or control someone’s mind (assault). Far worse was the penalty for using magic to interfere in the due process: Such interference invariably carried the death penalty.
   The implications for a typical campaign should be obvious. Whether it’s a trial by combat against the man who swears you robbed him (or against the barmaid you goosed last night… how humiliating…), or a trial by ingestion for your rogue (and he’d better not have any enemies in the area), or a trial by fire for your wizard (who swears he did not cast a mind-control spell on that woman!), city adventures are rife with opportunities for legalized brawls and drama. Even more interesting is the potential for various monster races to turn the tables on the heroes; do they really want to face a bugbear wielding nothing but a club and wearing only leather armor? When it’s either that or pay his entire clan reparations for invading their home (since he denies stealing your friend’s sword), you’d better!
   Besides, I can’t help but imagine a rogue trying desperately to find twelve people that are willing to vouch for his good character…

   Well, thanks for reading this medieval series. Next time, we turn our attention to anthropomorphic animal characters: Their origins and their legal status.

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