Since most wrongs could be atoned for by the payment of a fine, the conduct of justice on a large fief produced a considerable income. The nobles, accordingly, regarded their judicial rights as a valuable property, which they were loath to surrender to the state.
Feudal Justice - Judicial Administration
The law followed in a feudal court was largely based on old Germanic customs. The court did not act in the public interest, as with us, but waited until the plaintiff requested service. Moreover, until the case had been decided, the accuser and the accused received the same treatment. Both were imprisoned; and the plaintiff who lost his case suffered the same penalty which the defendant, had he been found guilty, would have undergone.
Feudal Justice - The Oath
Unlike a modern court the feudal court did not require the accuser to prove his case by calling witnesses and having them give testimony. The burden of proof lay on the accused, who had to clear himself of the charge, if he could do so. In one form of trial it was enough for him to declare his innocence under oath, and then to bring in several "oath- helpers," sometimes relatives, but more often neighbors, who swore that they believed him to be telling the truth. The number of these "oath- helpers" varied according to the seriousness of the crime and the rank of the accused. This method was hardly as unsatisfactory as it seems to be, for a person of evil reputation might not be able to secure the required number of friends who would commit perjury on his behalf. To take an oath was a very solemn proceeding; it was an appeal to God, by which a man called down on himself divine punishment if he swore falsely.
Feudal Justice - The Ordeals
The consequences of a false oath were not apparent at once. Ordeals, however, formed a method of appealing to God, the results of which could be immediately observed. A common form of ordeal was by fire. The accused walked barefoot over live brands, or stuck his hand into a flame, or carried a piece of red-hot iron for a certain distance. In the ordeal by hot water he plunged his arm into boiling water. A man established his innocence through one of these tests, if the wound healed properly after three days. The ordeal by cold water rested on the belief that pure water would reject the criminal. Hence the accused was thrown bound into a stream: if he floated he was guilty; if he sank he was innocent and had to be rescued. Though a crude method of securing justice, ordeals were doubtless useful in many instances. The real culprit would often prefer to confess, rather than incur the anger of God by submitting to the test and ordeals.
Feudal Justice - The Judicial Duel
A form of trial which especially appealed to the warlike nobles was the judicial duel - a trial by combat. The accuser and the accused fought with each other; and the conqueror won the case. God, it was believed, would give victory to the innocent party, because he had right on his side. When one of the adversaries could not fight, he secured a champion to take his place. Though the judicial duel finally went out of use in the law courts, it still continued to be employed privately, as a means of settling disputes which involved a man's honor.