Medieval justice contained many familiar elements; judges, lawyers, trials and juries were all used. With the fall of Rome in the 5th century, justice was served for several centuries by a chaotic mixture of tribal custom and Roman remnants. As kingdoms became established, the kings were keen on extending their rule far and wide by controlling the judicial system. They did this by replacing local legal customs with their own. With their well educated clerical advisors, the kings judges adapted the ancient Roman legal system to local customs. The nobles were not happy about this, but most everyone else was. Without the kings judges, local courts were dominated, and often personally presided over, by the local feudal lord. The kings courts were less liable to interference and tended to be more even handed and consistant. Roman law survives to this day, being the backbone, if not the bulk, of most nations legal systems.

Local laws and legal customs vaired widely then, as they do now . One curious custom that was fairly common was group responsibility. If someone from a village was convicted of a crime, the punishment was a fine and it was assessed against the entire village. At a time when there were no police to keep the peace, this form of group punishment encouraged people to keep their neighbors in line. This sometimes led to vigilantie action, but even this was often overlooked if no one complained to the authorities (who often lived miles away.)

But there were some parts of the Medieval justice system that were unique to the period. The most startling Medieval item was known as the "ordeal of arms". This was, quite simply, trial by combat. Two sides fought it out with weapons and the winner was declared in the right. Many Midieval chroniclers pointed to the Bible stories of Cain and Able, or David and Goliath, as justification of the use of Gods judgement through combat. But for the most part it was simply an ancient custom that lingered into, and died out during, the Medieval period.

While some German tribes had a tradition of trial by combat, many did not. For example, it was not the Germans who introduced this custom into England, but the Vikings, who used it extensivly. Norse tradition used trial by combat to settle land claims. Anyone wishing a better piece of land went to the current owner, challenged him and took possesion if he won. These combats were generally called Holm-gangs since many were fought on small islets called holmes. The one catch with this ploy was that the person challanged could call on another to fight for him, thus providing for more of a challange than the man seeking trial by combat bargained for.

Trial by combat was an custom with many Germanic tribes and in the chaotic period between the fall of Rome (5th century) and the establishment of formal courts (11th century) using Roman law, trial by combat was used as an effective means of settling disputes between the many well armed, and highly opinionated warriors that ruled Europe. Even as courts came into use, trial by combat was still invoked to test the honesty of witnesses. In many areas, anyone invloved in a courtroom trial could accuse witnesses of perjury and challenge him to a duel to settle the matter. The case was immediatley adjourned until the combat completed (and often the whole case was won or lost). In some areas (Barvaria, for example) up until the 9th century gave the defendant the right to challenge witnesses. This produced the custom of witnesses coming to court armed, and with blessed weapons ready to defend their sworn testimony. If the witness lost the combat, they were fined the amount that their testimony would have cost the defendant.

In some areas, defendants had the right to challenge the accusers only in criminal cases, while they could indiscriminately challenge witnesses at any time. In France it was common for litigants to eliminate witnesses by making accusations of wrongdoing against them. This forced the witness to fight and win in order to get his testimony accepted as truthful. To make matters worse, witnesses were allowed champions only in the case of age or infirmity. Thus women and children not allowed to give testimony, for they could not defend themselves if challenged.

Well into the 13th century, not only could witnesses be challenged, but the judges as well could be challenged on their decisions. This was the only appeal allowed before widespread use of the ancient (and well thought out) Roman Law and its finer points of legality came into being. As a sign of progress, only the Kings own appointed judges were exempt from being challenged. Other types of judges sat in groups of three or more, thus reducing the chances of a challenge, because a challenge would be against all the judges, who might chose simultaneous combat, and often with champions. For even then, judges tended to be older men.

Trial by combat took many forms . One of the oldest known instances was that between David and Goliath, as recounted in the Old Testament. This was a typical attempt to avoid the cost of a major battle by having the "champions" of either side fight it out and decide the issue. The loser would go away and the winner would advance to whatever their objective was (a city, a water hole, whatever.)

In 1034, on the border of the Saxon lands, the Saxons were firghting the pagan Luzites. Conrad the Salic attempted to settle the matter by proposing a trial by combat of champions. The Saxons (who were actually the aggressors), believing their Christianity would prevail against the pagan Luzites, agreed to such a trial of champions. The Saxon champion was defeated. This was held by all to show the true validity of Gods impartiality in judgement, by allowing a pagan to defeat a Christian.

Later in the 11th century, during the first crusade, John van Arckle, a knight of Holland, was traveling in the Holy land. He came across a group of German knights, one of whom wore a coat of arms (argent two bars gules) identical to his own. The German grabbed and threw Arckles banner to the ground. Arckle petitioned to the leaders of the Crusade, who found both parties to have independantly originated the coat of arms. They allowed a trial by combat, which Arckle won, and went on to fight for nearly ten years in Palestine.

Trial by combat was also used to settle disputes between kings. In the 13th century, Charles of Anjou and Pedro III of Castille were locked in a conflict over who should be the king of Sicily. Pedro issued a personal challenge to Anjou to have the matter of sucession resolved in combat between an "army" of 100 on each side. Such combat to take place in Bordeaux June 1, 1283, with Edward I of England presiding. Edward refused to referee a dule and the Pope issued a bull preventing him from doing so anyway. Nontheless, Pedro secretly rode to Bordeaux on the appointed day and nobley appeared in the lists, where the English senechal told him a fair field was not guarenteed, and he left. Similarly, in 1383, Richard II offered a challenge for a settlement with 100 men to Charles V of france to settle the claims to Frances crown. While there were occasions when small groups of warriors would fight to decide an issue, the custom was increasingly frowned apon by the church and most nobles were more willing to fight a full scale war over the issue.

The church increasingly pressed kings to outlaw dueling and other forms of trial by combat. The kings, realizing the popularity of the practice, were reluctant to issue a ban that would be so difficult to enforce. But sometimes events forced the kings hand. During the reign of Henry II in 1547, a famous combat was fought between Jarnac and La Chastaigneraye to settle an accusation made by Jarnac. In it La Chastaigneraye, a favorite of the King, was slain, causing Henry II to ban all legalized combats. However the practice continued and flourished. Henry IV granted no less than 7,000 pardons for duels fought in his 22 years on the throne.

The persistance of duels was aided by a fervent belief in magic and luck during battle. Champions in judicial duels wore magical tokens and sometimes had occult symbols tattooed or painted on their heads. In one judicial contest between chanmpions representing the bishop and the earl of Salisbury, both fighters were searched for unlawful arms, and "prayers and magical spells" were found sewn into the clothes of the bishop's man. The battle was cancelled and the bishop lose his case. This was not because the court censured the tailsmans, but because it was felt their power would surely make the contest unequal.

In 1455, Duke Philip of Burgundy, who had prohibited duels to the death between his nobles, wished to see a duel to the death between two wealthy commoners (Jacotin and Mahuot.) Jacotin was the larger and more deadly fellow, and was soon had his opponent in a bad way. In vain does Mahuot cry for mercy, and asks to be confessed. "O my lord of Burgundy," he called out, "I have served you so well in your war of Ghent! O my lord, for God's sake, I beg for mercy, save my life!"

Duke Philip was in no mood to grant mercy to anyone so brazen about dueling in defiance of his ban. The duke responded to the dying mans plea by having him dragged out of the lists and hung by the executioner.

Dueling persisted into the 19th century. With it's demise went the ancient custom of trial by combat.