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Enforcing the Law in Medieval Europe

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher who writes about various subjects, including education and creative writing.

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The Law, Medieval Style

Law enforcement in Medieval Europe can be describe as a mess. The governments that existed varied from kingdoms, city-states, empires, and principalities loosely affiliated to the Vatican or Islamic empires.

On top of that, law enforcement differed drastically in each society as did the emperors, kings, Caliphs or popes who ruled throughout this era.

Yet, throughout this mess, the seeds of modern law were planted. They were rough and draconian at times, but the importance of law enforcement to protect individual rights and property, as well as to ensure laws were enforced were paramount during these times.

from the 16th century.

from the 16th century.

Certain laws and regulations emerged during this era. England’s Magna Carta in 1215, helped to establish a better governing system in which laws could be debated, passed, and enforced. In many respects it became the framework for future countries such as the United States.

At the same time, citizens combated crime by taking matters into their own hands. They formed vigilantes that would sometimes dispense justice or create new problems. This was a strong indication that more had to be done when it came to crime-fighting.

Thus, the numerous kingdoms of Europe knew that they couldn't ignore the domestic problems. They had to come up with something.

A Dark Time for Europe

The Middle Ages in Europe is often referred to as the dark ages. It was an era in which the mighty grasp of the Roman Empire loosened. The vacuum it created led to the emergence of smaller nations. Today, this time in history is perceived as a time of lawlessness, diseases, and bloody feuds between kingdoms.

In truth, it was a time of transition. And that complex transition involved:

  • the growing power and fraction of Christianity in the west;
  • Islamic kingdoms becoming world powers in the east;
  • Nationalistic fervor among societies and cultures once ruled by Rome; and
  • Pandemics.

In many respects, progress in all areas of society was hampered -- but not eliminated -- by these incidents.

In addition, medieval Europe was plagued by countless wars, ethnic/religious strife, and invasions and raids from the Vikings to the north, the Moors from Africa, and the Ottoman Turks from central Asia.

During the 12th century, these all-volunteer units formed protective municipalities throughout Castile and other parts of Spain. They were formed to fight against bandits and other rural criminals.

Some kingdoms held on to power, precariously. They relied on the following:

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  • Old Roman laws and practices.
  • Age-old practice of using guards or soldiers as policemen.
  • Using soldiers to keep Christian law and order (as many popes did).

Crimes such as murder and theft were rarely a concern for these armies. These became the concern of the citizens, and most often, they policed themselves within their own communities. However, vigilante has a dark price; often the wrong person got accused and mob rule enforced it.

Eventually, these volunteers culminated into watchmen and volunteer police forces, which was an improvement over ordinary citizens taking the law into their hand. But it was barely an improvement.

The Hermandades (brotherhood)

Many scholars point to Spain as the birthplace of the police force in Europe. The Hermandades was a peacekeeping association of armed individuals. During the 12th century, these all-volunteer units formed protective municipalities throughout Castile and other parts of Spain. They were formed to fight against bandits and other rural criminals.

Although they were volunteers dedicated to fighting crime, they were also a politically motivated group. The Hermandades went after nobles they felt were corrupt, and supported those they felt were more fitting for the country’s crown.

They performed other duties, which included:

  • Protecting pilgrims on a road to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia;
  • guarding commonly used roads throughout the countryside; and
  • extending their powers to the political arena.

In addition, certain leagues became very powerful - such as those within the North Castilian and Basque ports.

Eventually, after Spain regained territory from the Moors, King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella created the Santa Hermanded (Holy Brotherhood) as a national police force. This group inherited the power to deal with capital cases throughout the country.

Hermandades lasted a long time. They policed the nation until 1835 when the Spanish government disbanded them.

The French Gendarmerie and Its Origins

France saw a need for law enforcement. In the Middle Ages, two groups within the Grand Officers of the Kingdom of France were formed. They were the Marshal of France and the Constable of France.

Military matters were often controlled by the Marshal and the Marshalcy he controlled. The constabulary (under the command of the Constable of France) also became a military body in 1337.

Eventually, the two entities would merge under King Francis I (1515-1547) and renamed the Marechaussee.

The role of constable was so great that it became a royal title

Throughout the middle ages this military police unit was the closest thing to a professional police force the country had. It wouldn’t be until the reign of LouiXIV in 1667 that the first modern police force would be organized in Paris.

The Marechaussee would continue to be an important agency until the French Revolution when it was renamed the Gendarmerie as a way to disassociate itself from its royal past.

Constable

Constables were used throughout the Middle Ages in various countries. The name derived from the Byzantine Empire in the 5th century AD. Originally, it was known as the Count of the Stable, a person who was responsible for keeping horses in the imperial court.

The title and purpose of the constable evolved. Charlemagne, ruler of the Holy Roman Empire, adopted this name for a position he created. A constable in the Holy Roman Empire had similar duties to a marshal, and was often a high-ranking officer of the army who was responsible for the overseeing of martial laws.

Later, England would have its own. The Norman Conquest of 1066 replaced the laws of the Anglo-Saxons. They installed constables. Their original duty was the maintenance of the king’s armaments.

Once in England, however, they received another duty. They were in charge of maintaining arms within a village and protecting its citizens.

Watchmen were volunteers. They operated in big cities such as London or on the countryside. They patrolled the streets during the hours of the night. The problem, however, is that they weren’t too concerned with real crimes

The role of constable was so great that it became a royal title. The office of Lord High Constable started under King Stephen (1135-1154) of England and King David (1124-1154) of Scotland. Constables under these kings were responsible for the command of the army.

The title was also used in the country’s feudal system. A constable at this level was an officer appointed by the land owners (paid or not paid) to police the peasants working on their land.

The constables under the feudal system were akin to private security. That would change. Under the Assize of Arms of 1252, constables were to be appointed and given the task to organize men in villages to take arm, quell “breaches of the peace” and deliver offenders to a sheriff or reeve. Now, the constable, along with sheriffs and reeves were a part of a law enforcement agency.

The evolution continued. In 1285 King Edward I of England passed a law, Statute of Winchester, which stationed two constables per one-hundred citizens to prevent “defaults in towns and highways.” Their presences were increased throughout the land.

Still, this was not enough to curb the tide of crime. By the 1500s, there were more robbers, thieves and prostitutes in England than anywhere else in Europe (RealPolice.net, 2012).

The Watchmen

Despite the formation of professional law enforcement agencies such as the marshals, sheriffs, and constables, crime was still out of control in many European countries.

Even the creation of an investigative unit in England called juries (the forerunner to today’s jury system) was not enough.

Absolute rulers had their powers curtailed, leading to more democratic governments that were equipped to handle rising crime rates.

Watchmen were volunteers. They operated in big cities such as London or on the countryside. They patrolled the streets during the hours of the night. The problem, however, is that they weren’t too concerned with real crimes.

Instead, as the defunct site, RealPolice.net points out, their “predominant function of policing became class control.” They weren’t looking for robbers, prostitutes, or murderers; they were keeping an eye on vagrants, vagabonds, immigrants, gypsies, tramps, thieves, and outsiders (RealPolice.net, 2012).

Part of the Progression

Eventually, Europe, as well as law enforcement, emerged from the Middle Ages. Absolute rulers had their powers curtailed, leading to more democratic governments that were equipped to handle rising crime rates.

First, the Renaissance, and then the Age of Enlightenment, changed many things, including the establishment of stronger judicial laws and individual rights.

Still, in this process, law enforcement didn't follow a straight path toward being a more equable and fair system. There were times in the history of Europe that it reversed itself and became a tool during various authoritarian regimes. In additions, questions about shoddy forensics, race relations, and class struggles were never widely resolved in the centuries that followed.

Still, policing had come a long way from what it was in medieval times. And, in many respects, modern law enforcement had its roots in this era.

To protect and to serve has always been a mantra since the start of civilization. The law and justice in middle ages were merely part of that evolution that set up today's framework.

Medieval Watchmen

Medieval Watchmen

Work Cited

  • Assize of Arms - Oxford Reference
    Henry II made an Assize of Arms in 1181. It bound all freemen of England to swear on oath that they would possess and bear arms in the service of king and realm.
  • hermandad | Encyclopedia.com
    a peacekeeping association of armed individuals, a characteristic of municipal life in medieval Spain, especially in Castile.
  • hermandad | Spanish organization | Britannica
    hermandad, (Spanish: “brotherhood”), in medieval Castile, any of a number of unions of municipalities organized for specific ends—normally for police purposes or for defense against the aggressions of magnates. They emerged in the 12th century as tem
  • Statute of Winchester 1285 – The History of England
    The Statute of Winchester was part of the legal reforms of Robert Burnell and Edward I, that basically came to an end with Robert’s death.

This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.

© 2015 Dean Traylor

Comments

John Hansen from Gondwana Land on July 22, 2015:

This was an engrossing topic and a very interesting history lesson, Dean. Great hub. Voted up.

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