How to Get Out of a Conviction in the Middle Ages

How to Get Out of a Conviction in the Middle Ages

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By Danièle Cybulskie

Medieval justice was a slow and, for the most part, careful process, much different from the horrors we see on television in which being charged with a crime was tantamount to being slated for the chopping block. That said, the justice system did have holes. Whether you’re guilty or innocent, here are five handy tips to help you avoid getting convicted in a medieval court.

1. Be a Priest

Although being a priest couldn’t save you all of the time, it certainly did help things. Called the “benefit of clergy”, priestly legal status meant a man would be tried for his crimes in the ecclesiastical courts where punishment was less harsh (i.e. penance instead of corporal punishment). It was partially for this reason that England’s Henry II wanted priests to be accountable to secular courts first, something that Thomas Becket, Archbishop of Canterbury, opposed. (Henry lost that battle; Becket lost his life.) Because everyone knew priests could escape the harsher punishments of secular law, wily criminals memorized Latin prayers and verses to pass themselves off as priests if they got caught. I’m guessing the shire reeves who took criminals into custody got to be pretty good at distinguishing Latin from pig Latin over the course of their careers.

2. Get a Lawyer

If you had the money or the connections, you could get yourself legal representation, which was enormously helpful. In the case of Giovanni versus Lusanna in Florence – she said they were married, he said they weren’t – both parties’ lawyers went to tremendous lengths to find witnesses, make good arguments, and dig up previous legal cases to besmirch each other and the judge (ah, lawyers). While having annoying lawyers may have something to do with how Giovanni lost his case at first (the judge actually got so irritated one day that he went home), they proved their worth by getting the verdict overturned on appeal. Knowing the finer points of the vast medieval legal system was something beyond the reach of most people, so if people could afford a lawyer to help them navigate it, it was well worth the money spent.

3. Grease Some Palms and Crack Some Skulls

A little bribery and a few threats could sometimes go a long way in the medieval court system, especially, it seems, in late medieval Italy. The Borgias were particularly adept at mixing money and death threats, allowing them to reach the papacy and to defeat all comers, even when the evidence (like a hugely pregnant belly) was against them. While most of the people in the legal system seemed to genuinely want it to be just, not everyone was so scrupulous. It’s no coincidence that Niccolo Machiavelli wrote The Prince after watching the Borgias finesse crimes from bribery to murder.

4. Get a Forensic Expert

Believe it or not, forensics did exist in the Middle Ages. Cause of death was something that needed to be determined in murder cases, so expert testimony was relied upon to determine the guilt of the accused. In the case of Margarida de Portu, charged with poisoning her husband, the court records contain a detailed examination of the corpse by the local doctor, Vivas Josep. Josep’s examination included everything from a visual inspection, to hair and skin samples. He even hoped to inspect the vomit of the deceased (to his disappointment, no one had saved it). Josep determined by these methods that Margarida’s husband was not poisoned (p.42-43), a conclusion that went a long way to exculpating her. I’m sure Margarida would have appreciated it if Josep hadn’t gone on to suggest that her husband had had a heart attack because she wouldn’t have sex with him (p.47), but it’s hard to complain when you’re exonerated.

5. Be Nice to Your Neighbours

Without the handy devices of the digital age (like security cameras and DNA testing), most crimes went unwitnessed and were very difficult to prove. In the absence of hard evidence, courts were forced to rely on circumstantial evidence and the word of the people. Witness testimony was crucial in determining things like intent: people who were shown to be mentally ill, for example, would not be punished, so it was critical for judges to hear about the accused’s mental state and competence, as well as whether or not anyone thought it was likely that he or she had committed the crime. A person who had good connections in the community and a reputation for being honest and trustworthy, therefore, had a much better chance of getting away with a crime than a person who isolated himself or annoyed the neighbours. In Florence, Giovanni called on more than seventeen of Lusanna’s neighbours to testify in his case against her (Brucker, p.54), many of whom were (predictably) hostile. When it came to medieval justice, the safest course was to follow the golden rule: testify unto others as you would have them testify unto you.

For more on Giovanni and Lusanna’s marital woes and litigation, check out Giovanni and Lusanna: Love and Marriage in Renaissance Florence by Gene Brucker. To find out more about Margarida de Portu’s murder trial, read A Poisoned Past: The Life and Times of Margarida de Portu, a Fourteenth-Century Accused Poisoner by Steven Bednarski, and for some up-to-date information on the mentally ill and the legal system, check out Leigh Ann Craig and Wendy Turner’s work.

You can follow Danièle Cybulskie on Twitter @5MinMedievalist

Top Image: Two men in prison Ms. Ludwig XIV 6, fol. 255v – Digital image courtesy of the Getty’s Open Content Program

Watch the video: Crime u0026 Punishments in Medieval England (May 2022).