The Vehmic Courts, aka The Punishment Tribunals of Medieval Germany

Posted on January 13, 2013

source: The History Of Medieval Europe (1917), written by Lynn Thorndike, pages 534-535 (574-575 of the pdf). Download is from the Internet Archive, and Google books also has it archived.

In October 2011 I did a video titled The Vehmic Courts - A System That Worked, it is attached at the end of this post. You can jump ahead by clicking here.

The following text is reprinted verbatim from the book, except that I broke it up into shorter paragraphs and added some highlighting:


   In medieval European times, Germany came to be composed of two or three hundred little states.

There were ecclesiastical principalities ruled by archbishops, bishops, and abbots; there were dukes and counts and margraves and landgraves. There were simple knights with perhaps a solitary castle and not enough lands and subjects to support them, so that some resorted to plunder and private warfare and were hence known as "robber knights". But even such nobles often claimed to be independent sovereigns. Then there were the free or imperial cities which also undertook to govern themselves and recognized only the vague authority of the emperor over them.

The territories of these lords and states, great and small, wound in and out among one another, and their jurisdictions overlapped and conflicted in a way to make the preservation of peace and order practically impossible, and feud and neighborhood war practically certain. And it was easy for criminals and outlaws and fugitive serfs to escape across the frontier of one petty state into the territory of another.

   This defect was to some extent remedied by an organization whose members in the fourteenth century existed in all parts of Germany and which is known as the the Vehm, or Fehm.

This society had grown out of earlier local courts among the people in Westphalia. Some of its meetings were open to the general public, but others were secret, especially those concerned with criminal justice and with witchcraft or heresy.

It was these secret tribunals that were of the most importance in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries. The penalty for any outsider who intruded at one of these secret sessions was death.

Any freeman, however, who was of honest birth and character was qualified to apply for membership and be initiated into the mysteries of the organization. Such an initiate took a solemn oath to assist his associates in serving summonses on accused persons and in executing the sentences of the Vehmic courts, and was then informed of the passwords and secret signs by which the Wissendi of the Vehm recognized one another.

  The only penalty of these criminal courts was death.

If three or more members of the Vehm caught a criminal redhanded in the act, they killed him on the spot without further trial. Otherwise crimes were investigated by the method of sworn inquest, every member of the Vehm being pledged to tell what he could of crimes in his neighborhood. Having thus determined whom they should accuse and bring to trial, the next step was to summon the accused before the Vehm. This was done mysteriously by nailing a notice on a tree or leaving it in some other spot where the accused would be sure to see it, but would not know who had posted it.

At the trial, if the accused appeared and were himself a member of the Vehm, he could usually clear himself of the charges against him by his solitary oath. If not himself a member, he would have to produce more oath-helpers who were members to swear on his behalf than had already taken oath against him. If, however, as many as twenty-one initiates gave their oaths in his favor, he was acquitted anyway. If condemned and present, he was executed without delay.

Otherwise it was the duty of the first member of the Vehm who met him to hang him to the nearest tree, leaving by his side a knife marked with the cryptic symbols, "S.S.G.G.", to show that the Vehm had done its work.

This impressive method of intimidating the criminal classes, which reminds us of lynchings and vigilance committees, but whose self-help and summary procedure were to a large extent a survival of primitive German custom, was favorably received by the society of the time, as the Vehm proved more efficacious than any other court.

Only at a later date did the secret character of the organization breed abuses and call forth complaints and lead finally to its suppression. In the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries it was joined by entire cities, by bishops and great lords, and finally by the emperor himself, who encouraged this rough and ready way of dealing with offenders against justice because he had nothing better to offer, indeed, he had no imperial system of justice at all.


Vehmic Court Seal:

Vehmic Court Seal thumbnail

Vehmic Court Oath Skull animation:

Vehmic Court Oath Skull

The Vehmic Courts - A System That Worked

 

God 426 x 320 pixels

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