Monday, January 24, 2011

Fantasy Legal Systems: Some Basic Notes...

Good Afternoon, All:

Thus far, my research into legal systems in a pseudo-medieval fantasy environment has yielded some interesting results. I'll probably write up a short synopsis of my findings and include it in the MyD20 Lite Referee's Guide.

Legal Systems
There appear to be two primary court systems inspired by the medieval period: common law courts and divine law courts. Common law courts represent the law of the land, and are presided over by an official appointed by the noble who reigns over the jurisdiction of the court. Within a township, that would likely be the sheriff, lord-mayor or equivalent. For a barony, it would be the landed baron of the realm, and so forth. Nobles and other members of the gentry may petition the Royal Court of the land, that of the supreme sovereign of the kingdom, to hear their case, but the average adventure does not usually have such recourse. Divine law courts represent the law of a given religion, and are often headed by the religious leader who holds responsibility for the spiritual enlightenment and religious organization within the region in question. Only those who are obviously servants of the church, such as clerics or paladins, may appeal to the court of divine law.

Court of Common Law
Judges, appointed by a region's landed nobility, preside over Courts of Common Law. Dukes and those of higher social status also possess this power, called "High Justice", and their appointed officials are called "Advocates." Lesser courts may assign punishments for lesser crimes, but never greater than maiming or blinding.

Children, women and members of unrecognized religions may never testify before a judge. Confessions may be coerced by threat of punishment, but torture was rarely used other than under the permission of a cruel and sadistic sovereign.

While death was rarely within the power of a judge to give, anyone found guilty of horse theft, stealing from a merchant's coffers, forging coins or assaulting a member of the town watch were promptly sentenced to be hung and their possession forfeit to the local liege. (They have to sweat it out in a dungeon cell until someone with the power of High Justice signs their death sentence personally.)

Otherwise, punishments usually fit the crime. Flogging and public humiliation in the stocks were common for petty offenses. Cheats had to pay fines. Criminals were often branded and expelled. Adulterers were whipped in the genitals and paraded around town on a mattress for all to see. Thieves often had a hand cut off or an eye gouged out. Usury was forbidden in medieval times, although transactions and loans could be performed with a 10% fee. Violations often led to fines and public humiliation.

In some lands, slavery was also used as a form of punishment for major crimes against the state. The criminal would either perform work for the sovereign or he would be sold in the slave markets and the funds paid for him would be placed in the liege's coffers.

Court cases could be appealed to a higher court, if such existed. However, the petition for such had to be approved, and being heard was sometimes difficult. Depending on the realm, defendants may either represent themselves or hire an advocate for their cause, known as a barrister. In some lands, defendants could even request a trial by combat to resolve an issue between two opposing sides.

Court of Divine Law
Courts of Divine Law controlled matters that involved oaths and sacraments, such as testaments, marriage and divorce, as well as all matters of heresy and cases involving clergy. In many regards, however, these courts functioned similarly to Courts of Common Law. Punishments were often penance, humiliation, maiming, excommunication, interdiction, trial by ordeal, and similar fates.

Some churches sold indulgences, which were full or partial remission of temporal punishment due for specific sins. For example, a Court of Divine Law may hold murder to be a sin, and so a person desiring to commit murder would pay the court for an indulgence ahead of time, allowing him to commit the crime and not have to risk any further legal punishments for that act.

Lesser Known Courts
Some guilds often use an internal court-like structure to handle disputes and issues within their organizations. Depending on the region, these "Guild Courts" and their jurisdiction may or may not be recognized by the local nobility and royalty.

In regions where arcane magic is respected and held in high esteem, fear or social status, Courts of Arcane Law, resembling in many ways Courts of Divine Law, may exist. In lands where they do, Courts of Arcane Law reserve the most severe of arcane punishments for the greatest violators of regional Arcane Law: a rite that removes an arcanist's ability to work magic, either temporarily or permanently.

Of course, I have yet to compile an appropriate list of crimes and suitable punishments for my campaign, much less distill the above into the kind of background I want to use. However, I am getting closer. I am also reviewing a number of resources pointed out in the comments of my initial post on this subject, in regards to the game mechanics behind how I want to handle the legal system in my fantasy games. I greatly appreciate everyone's posts and comments on the subject, and I look forward to sharing what I come up with, in the hopes that you all might have input that improves the final system before I introduce it to my players.

Please feel free to comment on the information gathered above, and share what you liked and disliked with approaches used at your gaming tables in the past.

With Regards,


Anonymous said...

A paper on courts with competing jurisdictions in medieval England:

You're on the same general track already, but I saw this a while ago and thought it was interesting. I'm used to the modern idea of courts as being part of a cohesive whole, but there's nothing inevitable about that in a feudal-type society.

Anonymous said...

Late to the party so forgive me if you've already looked at this but as I recall Dragon issue 62 had an article by Ed Greenwood on legal systems (notable also for being one of the only references to Bruce Galloway's Fantasy Wargaming in the pages of Dragon). So that article may be worth looking at.