10 Facts About Medieval Law

Much of the laws of Medieval Europe were carried over from Roman Law (secular law) or the codes of the Byzantine Empire, depending on the territory. There were also plenty of regional variations and local quirks.

The Church’s legal role (canon law) increased significantly during this era.

Here are 10 facts relating to law in medieval times.

1. England’s worst king passed England’s best law

A page from the Magna Carta taken from the British Library.

A page from the Magna Carta taken from the British Library.

Bad King John was hated during his life and reviled after his death, but he did inadvertently sign that Magna Carta, which would be a defining moment in our journey to democracy. True, he might have been forced to sign it by rebelling barons and he might have gone back on his word – but his name is there all the same.

2. Peasants had quite a bit of control

Peasants knew a great deal about the law. This knowledge was key when they rose up in the Peasants Revolt.

Peasants knew a great deal about the law. This knowledge was key when they rose up in the Peasants Revolt.

Power over minor local issues were devolved to a council of peasants who would decide small details such as land disputes. This gave peasants a grounding in law which occasionally backfired against land owners.

3. Peasants could twist the law to their own ends

Their legal knowledge went a long way. For instance in 1200 King John decided to visit Nottingham. However, his route took him through the small village of Gotham. The locals realised that if he did their main road would become a Kings Road, which would make it subject to new taxes. They therefore decided to pretend to be insane. The King fell for it and found a detour.

4. Richard III was not a tyrant

King_Richard_IIIThe last King of the Middle Ages has also been seen as one of the worst. Richard III is remembered as the man who killed his nephews and stole the Crown. However, he was thought of as being a generally good King who brought in many reforms which extended access to the legal system for even the poorest people.

5. Poll taxes were as unpopular then as now

To pay for wars in France the Barons introduced a poll tax which was wildly unpopular as it meant everyone had to pay the same. Just as Maggie Thatcher found out hundreds of years later the peasants didn’t like it. They rose up, marched on London and tore the city to shreds.

6. Classes had uniforms

After the Great Plague peasants had more power and began pushing their rights. They started being paid in cash and some even got hold of their own land. What angered the aristocracy most, though, was that some of them began spending money on fashion. They introduced a law saying that certain clothes could only be worn by certain classes.

7. Trial by ordeal was possible

Trial by Ordeal was an option if you were accused of a crime.

Trial by Ordeal was an option if you were accused of a crime.

When accused of a crime you could choose to be tried by ordeal. This would involve an extremely painful task. If you survived or the wounds healed swiftly enough people would say that God had intervened.

8. Bad breath could cause divorce

There are stories of peasant women in some parts of the country being allowed to divorce their husbands because of bad breath.

9. Henry II gave us law

The tomb of Henry II at Fontevraud Abbey in France.

The tomb of Henry II at Fontevraud Abbey in France.

Henry II was one of the most influential Kings of our time. He put in place many of the fundamental principles of English law which would survive for centuries.

10. William I gave us feudalism

A painting of William the Conqueror from the 16th century.

A painting of William the Conqueror from the 16th century.

To govern his new country William the Conqueror divided the land into regions controlled by barons. These barons would be required to raised taxes from their peasants when necessary and supply fighting men when needed.

Tom is a freelance journalist who studied history at Essex University. His work can be found in many different publications focusing on business and politics.