Famous Medieval Trials (897-1386)

The year is 897, and Pope Stephen VI has ordered the eight-month-old corpse of his predecessor removed from its vault at St. Peter’s. The former, and very dead, pope is clad in his old pontifical vestments, placed on a throne in a Roman basilica, and put on trial. A few decades later, at least if you believe the Annals of Winchester, King Edward the Confessor accuses his mother of adultery. But Edward’s mother proves her innocence by walking barefoot and unharmed over red-hot ploughshares. Fast forward to 1386, in Paris, where the King and Parliament decide to resolve charges of rape and defamation by having the accused and his accuser mount horses for a jousting battle. The two men will go at it until one or the other is dead. Whoever wins the battle, all agree, will be vindicated as a matter of law.

Strange doings. Medieval trials seem very curious to the modern mind. In this account, we survey several of these peculiar trials, spanning almost a half millennium. Our goal is to make sense--if sense can be made--of the unusual means for resolving conflicts and punishing bad actors in The Middle Ages. What were these people thinking? How did it come to this? Ancient Greece and Ancient Rome each had pragmatic and evidence-driven methods for resolving disputes and criminal charges. What happened?

What happened, in the first half of the sixth century, was that a curtain fell on the ancient world. In the 530s, the Black Death swept through much of Europe. Soon marauding barbarians entered the continent. They killed, conquered, and converted. And, in the process, the invaders transformed Europe’s systems of justice. The relatively sensible approach to crime found in Ancient Rome gave way to something much different.... Continued