Wednesday, August 29, 2018

Why Stabbing Random Townsfolk Has Less Repercussions Than You Think! On Justice In The Iron/Viking/Medieval Age

I don't know who made this

In modern society, you can commit a criminal action if you break a law set out by the state forbidding certain actions. This would be like tax fraud, possessing drugs, or murder. In the iron/viking/medieval age things were different as criminal law wasn't as well developed.

So we have mainly two types of law in our society. Tort and Criminal. Tort refers to actions which harm someone or deprive them of something. Criminal refers to actions which harm the state or deprive them of something. Many crimes one can commit are both. For example if you murder someone you both deprive them of life and also break the law of the state.

In the iron/viking/medieval age instead of a state or society you instead had a king or ruler and there was much less overlap between the two. So if you killed a random peasant you wouldn't necessarily harm the king but you would greatly harm their family. So the family would likely take revenge but the king would likely not take an action. Instead of the king's men investigating the murder, the family would take actions against you either in the form of more murder or payment.

So for people during the iron/viking/medieval age it’s essentially just paying damages to someone else or the king or you specifically do something banned by the king. It’s up to you and your clan to atone for actions or damages made by you.

Here is a collection of the actions which would carry repercussions in the iron/viking/medieval age and how they would be solved:

Crimes vs Man

Murder - Pay a weregild (man price) if their family doesn't try to kill you vengeance. Sometimes you'd also have to pay to the king as well.

Injury/Assault - So accidental injury wasn't a thing outside of Rome (I think), so you would have to pay a fine to the family or individual you harmed which would be proportional to the damage.

Larceny - You would have to either give the item back and may be assaulted from who you stole or pay a fine for what was stolen.

Crimes vs The King

Murder of a king's man - There is a much higher price here than a normal weregild. I'm sure he could also kill you for this but I don't know the specifics.

Crimes against the community - This is like arson, livestock mutilation, or disturbing the peace. Technically this is all the king's property and you're injuring him/stealing from him.

Forbidden action - If the king forbids something and you do it it won't end well.

On Crime Prevention

So a iron/viking/medieval age settlement wouldn't have police who would seek out crime and prevent it and solve it. You would have people who would patrol the town in order to keep order but it wouldn't be to prevent crime. If they came across a murdered body they wouldn't necessarily investigate but instead would maybe clean it out of the way. Further if someone had wronged you it was up to you to fix that wrong. You might petition your king for help but who knows what happen there? If someone stole from you you could possible get a thief-taker to track them down or you could possibly get someone to help your family gain vengeance. But most wealthy people would have guards walk the streets with them for protection instead of trusting the policing force to protect them.

Further if accused of a crime there wasn't much recourse for what you could do. In some soceities you simply needed witness to dispute it, in others you could try to have an ordeal to prove your innocence but the king would never have to prove your guilt. He's the king.

Other Stuff

So you have to pay taxes and may have to become part of an irregular militia in times of war. Certain things may be taxed more as well, but generally you pay with items not with wealth, like a baker may pay tax with bread instead of coin. Foreigners had less legal safety, but their hosts could grant them protection or an extension of their family. Also this could go for orphans or such as well.

Some places also have "outlawing" which is when legal protections don't apply to you anymore, but that does come later historically. However, a similar concept that someone could be killed like a dog with no repercussions wasn't unheard of.

Conclusion/In Practice

So in your games by altering such laws per kingdom you could add more verisimilitude or differentiate each area more. Further, the inclusion of the iron/viking/medieval age justice system could emphasize the nature of your setting.


  1. This is really useful. How did you learn about this stuff? I wonder how, say Renaissance or Early Modern justice would compare.

    1. I was talking to a friend (who is inlaw school) who was complaining about having to study tort law, I then asked him some questions and learned it was the earlier version of law and then did some personal research as to what that meant. In the renaissance you start having more centralization of power, so you’d have more prosecution of the state laws. Around early modern times you get your first investigators and detectives, like 1850’s (or earlier).

  2. It could be interesting to have different levels of development of law for different kingdoms or areas in your world. Ranging from medieval feudal justice as you discuss here to something more centralized and proactive in other places on the map. It might be ahistorical to have such a wide range of legal systems, but it would help differentiate regions.

    I personally like the concept of a more active government because it can be more responsive to player actions in the world. The reality in Medieval Europe was probably that even when limited communication methods made authorities aware of crimes, that they had few resources to enforce the law other than conscription. Most adventuring parties, however, could last a long time before authorities could bring sufficient resources to bear to force them from an area. (Peasant conscripts wouldn't be much of a threat to even low level 5e characters).

    Perhaps my problem is that I've been running 5e and not something more deadly, but when PCs become more powerful it seems you either need to amp up the societies they live in or let them become masters of it.

  3. I'm noodling an E6 setting where witches curses are a reasonable outcome.
    Something about an uneasy peace existing between the Kingdom and the self-proclaimed lords of the adjacent wilderness. No one wants open warfare (losing is bad, of course, but even winning would be costly) so the wilderness lords avoid openly murdering the king's subjects, and the kingdom doesn't send armies out to suppress the bandits.

    The campaign happens in the gray zone--adventurers are like land-based privateers, tolerated and supported by the kingdom, but not of the kingdom. If they ride off and kill the Ice Witch, or the Beastlord of Wolverton Mountain, that's life in the unsettled wilderness. Likewise, if they ride off and get killed by the Ice Witch, that's life in the unsettled wilderness.

    If a bandit-lord breaks the convention, then the kingdom will make war on him or her or it. If the kingdom breaks the convention, then the bandit-lords will put aside their squabbles and march on the kingdom.

    But usually, there is an uneasy semi-peace between the Kingdom and the Bandit Lords of the wilderness.

  4. Paolo from the Lost Pages blog has covered this and other issues of medievalism in his series Bugs & Bailiffs -