...How to avoid execution for any crime in the Middle Ages
The system of justice in the Middle Ages was rather complicated. If you committed a crime there were an array of ways in which justice could be dealt to you. If your crime was minor (a trespass as it was then known), such as not paying rent or petty theft, you would find yourself in a local manorial court run by the local lord. For more serious crimes such as murder, serious theft and burglary of goods over 12 pence(!) you were more likely to face the King’s justice, which could be rather severe; all of these crimes were capital offences if committed by any over the age of 10, and those found guilty would be hanged.
There was one sure-fire way to avoid this fate however; alongside this manorial and royal systems of justice ran the Church courts. If you were a member of the clergy, you escaped the King’s justice and would be tried by your fellow churchmen. Here punishments tended to focus more on penance. Though standing in the village square in nothing but your smallclothes sounds far from pleasant, it certainly sounds preferable to hanging.
Surely this was only open to real members of the clergy though?
Wrong. ANYONE could claim benefit of the clergy. The ‘proof’ if one can call it that was merely the ability to read a passage in latin. Still think that sounds tough as you had to learn latin? Wrong again. There was a set passage, which became known as the ‘neck verse’ that was used to test this. Hence, even if you could not speak latin, you could learn psalm 51 (below) by heart and then simply recount it when the bible was placed in front of you to test whether you were indeed clergy.
Miserere mei, Deus, secundum magnam misericordiam tuam;
et secundum multitudinem miserationum tuarum, dele iniquitatem meam.
Amplius lava me ab iniquitate mea, et a peccato meo munda me.
Quoniam iniquitatem meam ego cognosco, et peccatum meum contra me est semper.
So there you have it, the simple route to avoid execution even if you commit murder in the Middle Ages. I hope you never need it.
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