The Middle Ages for Kids - Crime and Punishment Illustration

Crime and Punishment

For Kids: There were no police in the Middle Ages. When crimes occurred, villagers had to raise the "hue and cry". People had to stop what they were doing and chase after the culprit. If they caught the culprit, a trial would be held, with a jury and a judge. But, if they did not catch the culprit, he or she would not be tried. They would have escaped punishment, except for major crimes. Medieval villages also had a sheriff.  Major crimes were investigated by the sheriff.  For major crimes, you could be arrested at a later date, and a trial would be held then.

Sheriffs were not always honest. The Domesday book showed that some sheriffs used their power to steal from others. Villagers were not always honest. Villagers were grouped into "tithings" (10 households per tithing.) If anyone in their tithing committed a crime, the other members of that tithing were supposed to arrest them, but they did not always do so. So, justice was not always fair.

As the population grew, by 1285, it was obvious that the system of tithings was not going to work very well. There were too many people and too many groups. The unfairness of things was getting out of hand. To fix this, villagers got together and selected unpaid constables from their members who led the hue and cry for one year. Then a new constable had to be found. To help the constable(s), householders (men with houses) acted as parish watchmen who patrolled the neighborhood during the summer months.

After 1215, trial by ordeal was no longer used. It was all court cases. Juries were composed of twelve men who told the Justice (the judge) if they thought someone was guilty or not, after they had heard witnesses and the accused put on a defense. They also recommended punishment. The decision on actual punishment was up to the judge. If a child older than seven committed a crime, they were treated like adults and sent to court, and punished as severely as an adult. Kids age seven to twelve were not always punished - that was up to the judge - but their parents were often blamed for their child's poor behavior and could be punished instead. That too was up to the judge.

Punishment was very severe. People believed if criminals did not receive a very harsh punishment, they would commit crimes again, and others would follow. If a baker, for example, cheated a customer by selling goods that were not as heavy as they should be, and he was caught, and his guilt was proven to the satisfaction of the jury and judge, his hand was cut off. Children as young as seven were hanged for their crimes.

Medieval castles had a built in prison called a dungeon. The dungeon was only used for really serious crimes committed on the manor, like treason (working against the king.)  Abbeys had prisons for people who were part of the church. The priests, the monks, and the nuns, had an easier time in their court. Their punishments were not as terrible and the decision of their guilt or innocence was decided by the church. But most punishments were handled immediately.

Some people escaped justice by hiding in the forests before they could be arrested. They became outlaws because they had committed a serious crime or had piled up a great of debt that they could not repay. Some outlaws found each other, hiding in the forests. They joined forces and became gangs that robbed people traveling on the roads. A famous outlaw was Robin Hood, who legend says stole from the rich and gave to the poor. But mostly, forest gangs were just bad guys and thugs who had escaped their punishment, until they were caught.

Crime and Punishment in Anglo Saxon times (bbc, 410 CE to 1066 CE)

Medieval Crime and Punishment (grangeacademy, 1000 CE-1500 CE)

Crime and Punishment, the Middle Ages for Kids (revolting middle ages)

Crime and Punishment in the Middle Ages (the fabulous Reading Museum)

Robin Hood (video cartoon, a Morality story)

Courts and Justice - Woman is robbed of lands after the death of her husband in battle in the king's army, request of her lands to be returned, 1474 (primary document)

Development of law:

Interactive Quiz about the Middle Ages (with answers)