On Medieval Law

I'm no medieval historian.

The idea of a town guard is a rather terrible case of presentism. The idea of a full time guard in towns, villages, and hamlets, much less jails is an anachronism. Yet medieval law can clearly be traced back to the Norman Conquest of 1066 CE. It would be the 1800's before the idea of a paid full-time security professional would have existed in the public's mind.

How did they keep order?

In the spring, with the chill of winter still in the area, the shire reeve had a duty to gather a group of men coming of age and bind them to a Tithing. All those such were bound to their brothers. If one committed a crime, the others would pay for it. This is not the entirety of it. Each is bound to give a hue and cry. If a crime is committed and the criminal escapes, where members of the tithing could have stopped them or given chase, they can be punished as if they had committed the crime themselves.

So what were punishments? How were the guilty tried?

Humanity during this time frequently engaged in debates as to the value or worth of a person and how laws should be enforced. This discussion is the body of work that produced the common law principals. Even though there were no guards or jails, it is this system of judges that is involved in a crime.

"Modern" investigative techniques such as bullet forensics and lie detectors are nearly pseudo-science, so you can imagine what detective techniques were like for the investigators in 400 CE. Many cases ended up with a local "judge" deciding on the trustworthiness of two individuals. This position is likely both more and less formal then you imagine, considering the records. These were often just men of good character acting in interest of their own peace. This is a good motivation for suspicion of strangers, as they have no bonds to keep them from committing a crime.

Most crimes were fights and thefts, not complex heists. Often there were assaults and murders. In the community, these "crimes" were conflicts that the judges attempted to balance. These crimes can include gossiping or malingering, but Their goal was to "make the crime right" by having the criminal balance the loss from the crime or damage. This was the method via which disagreements were settled. Gossiping wasn't a crime to do, but that d**k Rafold has been telling lies about you. Take him to court! It was a tool used to balance disagreements.

But real crimes? Anti-community crimes? Bandrity, treason, sedition, mass murder, repeated theft, the records include a variety of punishments, trials by fire, bread, combat and water. But these were extremely rare. After being found guilty by a judge, the guilty for these crimes were often burned, hanged, or tortured, depending on the crime. These categories are quite broad and often include punishments custom made to fit the crime.

Here are more of my population procedures.

Town Guards

Most town guards consist of locals who have a vested interest in keeping the peace. If they see a crime being committed, They will raise a hue and cry. This will cause all the innocent lawful locals to give chase and attempt to restrain the players. These are 0-level unarmored and unencumbered men and women. They are either unarmed, or carrying a small hand weapon (1d4). The hue and cry will draw 2d6 local militia within a turn. Local militia are 1st-level fighters equipped with chain saps, swords, and crossbows.

In a city or metropolis, there will be a watch. These volunteers are often subsidised by the local lord. They frequently consist of both local military and veteran soldiers. The hue and cry will draw 1d4 1st-level fighters within a single round, in addition to the 0-level people responding to the crime. At the end of a turn 2d6 local militia show up as above, except they are accompanied by a 3rd level sergeant.

Mages and clerics are much too important to be a part of the watch or guard.


If someone is caught for a crime, consider the judgment! The judge could be swayed to reduce your punishment by spending money on an attorney or a bribe. These usually run 100-400 gold pieces each. Your charisma also influences the crime roll. However, strong evidence, previous criminal behavior and character witnesses will provide penalties for the opposing sides. The DM will set the total bonus considering all applicable factors.

There are three categories of crime:
Minor. Disturbing the peace, public drunkenness, or trespassing
Major. Assault, battery, kidnapping, theft, and vandalism.
Severe. Arson, heresy, murder, rape, robbery, sedition, treason.

Roll for the result
2 Severe Punishment (includes mild and normal punishment)
3-5 Punishment (includes mild punishments)
6-8 Mild Punishment
9-12 Freed.

Each type of crime has different punishment types.
Minor crimes have a mild punishment of a fine, a punishment of being placed in the stocks and a fine, and a severe punishment of being placed in the stocks and whipped. Major crimes have a mild punishment of being branded, a punishment of being tortured, and a severe punishment of being maimed, losing a hand, ear or tongue. Severe crimes have a mild punishment of torture and exile, a punishment of murder, and a severe punishment of a excruciating extended drawn-out execution.


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  1. Say you're a typical band of adventurers, wandering around outside town looking for a tomb to loot or what have you. You run into some bandits who attack you. You defeat them all but one surrenders. Now what?

    Do you bring him back to town to face justice? Do you let him go because killing an unarmored man would be unfair? Do you assume he's an outlaw (literally outside the law) and execute him yourself for attempted murder?

    This sort of thing comes up all the time in my games...

    1. In a lot of cases, "bandits" were just the locals when they decided to put on hoods and prey on travelers. Players that kill a group of bandits and march into the nearest village to boast about it might not get the reception that they expect.

    2. "Do you assume he's an outlaw (literally outside the law) and execute him yourself for attempted murder?"

      Considering that fantasy games are based on Westerns at least as much as anything from the actual European Middle Ages, I'm guessing this will be the usual outcome.

    3. I'd say the party just found themselves a new hireling.

    4. Not the most trustworthy, tho...

  2. The Middle Ages covers a wide arc of time and space, and law and punishment can look very different depending on what historical model you want to look at. "Dark Age" Anglo Saxon areas had a tribal vibe, but things slowly codified over the centuries. In Byzantium, of course, there were reams of laws dating back to classical time.

    Yes, trial by combat was a real thing, and it persisted in some areas into the high middle ages. There are well known examples from Germany of husbands and wives resolving marital disputes by combat.

    If you want variety, you can look up a certain time and place and do just cursory research to add a little flavor.

  3. Also consider the presence of judges in terms of per capita; so you're likely to have one judge for every 1,000 persons. The numbers will vary with each game but the point is that some places won't have a judge in the immediate area and will have to hold criminals for a time. More densely populated areas will have judges close by but they may be busy for a time before they can address a specific case.

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  5. Another good example of presentism is the village inn. In a lot of areas that's a pretty new thing in historical terms. In a lot of places what you would do is stay as a guest in someone's house. That seems a lot more interesting than the standard stuff about ordering a few rounds and trying to strike up random conversation with the locals. Staying in someone's house gives you stuff like:
    -Being drawn into family and community drama.
    -The guest and host trying to impress each other gift giving etc.
    -The host expecting news of the outside world.
    -The host expecting that most travelers are merchants and expecting the first pick of whatever you're selling.

  6. “Many cases ended up with a local "judge" deciding on the trustworthiness of two individuals.“

    That’s still how most cases are decided today - where the “judge” is the judge they have to give reasons why they prefer Jim’s evidence over Jane’s (or the bullet forensics over the DNA evidence), where the “judge” is a jury they don’t have to give reasons (but they should have them).


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