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Enforcing the Law in Medieval Europe

Updated on October 6, 2017
Dean Traylor profile image

Dean Traylor is a freelance writer and teacher. He is a former journalist who has worked on various community and college publications.

The cross served as a "badge" for many during Medieval times.
The cross served as a "badge" for many during Medieval times.

One word can easily describe law enforcement in Medieval Europe: it was a mess. With a hodge-podge of kingdoms, city-states, empires, and principalities loosely affiliated to the Vatican or to large Christian or Islamic empires, law enforcement differed drastically as did the emperors, kings, Caliphs or popes who ruled throughout these bleak years.

Yet, through this long dark period in European history, certain laws and regulations would emerge to battle the lawlessness and anarchy. Some of these laws, such as England’s Magna Carta in 1215, helped to establish a better governing system in which laws could be debated, passed, and enforced.

Also, citizens began to do something about crime. They’d form vigilantes that would sometimes dispense justice or create new problems. And, eventually, the various governments began to focus more on domestic issues and create agencies to battle the crime rate.

from the 16th century.
from the 16th century. | Source

A Dark Time for Europe

The Middle Ages are often called the Dark Ages for a good reason. This was an era in which the mighty Roman Empire lost its grip on Europe. A combination of barbarian invasions, weakness in the Roman military juggernaut, inept and corrupt emperors, and the division of the empire into two parts – the western and eastern Roman Empire (Byzantine) led to its disintegration.

By the late 400s, the western half of the empire – the one that once controlled most, if not all, of Western Europe, fell after the invasion of Rome. Along with the fall of the Western Roman Empire, a vacuum on the rest of the continent was formed. Throughout the years, countries struggled to establish themselves. However, they were plagued by countless wars, ethnic strife, and invasions and raids from the Vikings to the north, Islamic groups such as the Moors from Africa, and the Ottoman Turks from central Asia.

To top all of that, the Black Plague swept through the fractured European nations, decimating the population and adding more instability to an already unstable situation.

Some kingdoms held on to power, precariously. They relied on old Roman laws and practices. Some resorted to the age-old practice of using guards or soldiers as policemen. Even the popes used soldiers to keep Christian law and order.

Crimes, such as murder and theft, were rarely a concern for these armies. These became the concern of the citizens, and most often they were forced to police themselves within their towns, villages, or city community. This need would eventually lead to the culmination of watchmen and volunteer police forces.

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.

The Hermandades (brotherhood)

Many scholars point to the development of a police force in Europe to Spain. 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 a volunteer group 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. They protected pilgrims on a road to Santiago de Compostela in Galicia, guarded commonly used roads throughout the countryside, and extended their powers to the political arena. Also, 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 was given large powers to deal with capital cases throughout the country.

Hermandades would last a long time. They would eventually be disbanded or suppressed from power in 1835.

The Gendarmerie

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.

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 also brought the constables who were responsible for 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.

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).

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 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.

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 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).

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.

The Middle Ages may not be seen as an age of established law enforcement; however, some innovation during this era helped set the framework for today’s system.

Medieval Watchmen
Medieval Watchmen

Side Note: An Unlikely "Hero" of Medieval Law and Order

Law and Order in Medieval Europe had a dark side. Sometimes, the leaders that espoused strong law enforcements were some of the worst offenders. Of all these leaders, one person stood out: Vlad Dracul -- the inspiration for Dracula. While many historians will view him as a sadist, some people within his home country (now located in Romania) claimed he was the greatest leader of all time. To them, his ruthlessness and adherent to enforcing rules was admirable and made his kingdom safe.

Even in his time, other kings and religious leaders (such as the Pope) made him out as a "warrior for God" for battling against the Islamic Ottomans.

Eventually, his crimes against his own people and to those in neighboring kingdoms in Eastern Europe couldn't be ignored for long. He'd later be killed. Still, it took hundred of thousands of people to be impaled (his favorite form of execution), before Europe turned against him.

History of Medieval Europe

© 2015 Dean Traylor

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    • Jodah profile image

      John Hansen 2 years ago from Queensland Australia

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