The Saxon justice system was harsh and primitive. How far do you agree?
Discuss primitive aspects of crime such as blood feud etc…
Discuss more sophisticated methods of punishment such as wergild
Criticism of some of the sophisticated elements
Conclusion-Saxon justice system was primitive with sophisticated characteristics
In Anglo Saxon England, the Saxon justice system had many primitive punishments notably,blood feud as well as trial by ordeal. However the justice system did in fact have some redeeming aspects that were somewhat sophisticated for the time such as wergild and tithings.
It is impossible to understate the primitiveness in the Saxon justice system with some elements making no logical sense. This is of course, trial by ordeal, which was when the Jury couldn’t decide (this happened often) if the victim was guilty or innocent and decided to let God decide. An example of this would be that the accused person would have to be bound and cast into a body of water. If they sank they were considered to be innocent and if they floated they were considered to be guilty. This was due to the belief that the water was repelling them because they were evil and therefore they were guilty of their crime. This was a barbaric and inefficient method of judging people due to the fact that if they floated they would be given a punishment even if they weren’t guilty and if they sank, they died even if they didn’t even commit the crime they lost their lives for. Furthermore another commonplace, primitive Saxon punishment was Blood Feud. Blood feud was the idea that people could get revenge on each other for the crimes committed. This idea was incredibly inefficient because it ended up causing more crime and in the long run caused family rivalries, which is never good considering that many Saxons in villages depended on each other's skill sets in order to survive. A further example of the primitiveness in the Saxon justice system was that anyone, regardless of the crime committed, could claim sanctuary within a church and thus get away. This shows how the church had a lot of influence in Saxon society which would, of course, impact crime and punishment. Mutilation was marginally less primitive than the other aspects of Saxon justice mentioned above, however it still had some faults. The concept of mutilation is that regular offenders regardless of what crimes they had committed would be mutilated.The only reason it was marginally less primitive than other methods such as Blood Feud was because it didn’t incite more crime later on.However it was still extremely primitive because it was very generalised punishment because you just had to be a regular offender so the crimes committed by one person facing mutilation could be drastically different compared to another.
However it is important to note that, despite many primitive methods of Saxon crime prevention and justice, there were some elements that were very sophisticated for the time. Firstly wergild, this was the idea that if someone committed a crime against another person then they would have to compensate the person they committed the crime against a certain amount of money depending on the severity of the crime. This was an effective way of reducing crime because there wasn’t much point in stealing if you had to pay the equivalent of what you stole back to the person you stole/hurt. This was also effective because it was one of the few punishments in the Saxon justice system that compensated the victim of the crime in question which led to less secondary crime being caused.This was better than Blood feud because there were less secondary casualties due to the absences of revenge crimes. Furthermore other methods of saxon crime prevention involved tithings. A tithing was a group of ten men above the age of twelve where if one person within the tithing committed a crime the whole group would have to take the criminal to court. As well as this, they all had to pay a fine. This was an effective system because it imposed collective responsibility on the group meaning that people within tithings were less likely to commit crimes due to the fact that they didn’t want everyone else in tithing to have to pay a fine. The idea of tithings was later expanded upon with the Hue and cry. The Hue and cry was a system in which, if a victim of a crime shouted the Hue and cry (called for help) everyone else in the village was supposed to stop whatever they were doing and help chase after the criminal in the village or the community of the village would face responsibility(pay a fine) for the crime. This system was very sophisticated because not only did it eliminate the need for a police force but was an efficient system of catching criminals. Furthermore, it drew the communities of villages closer together leading to less crime within villages. As well as this, Anglo Saxons did have trial by jury a system we still use in the UK showing it’s advancement for the time.
However, despite the sophistication of Saxon crime prevention, it was not without its faults. For example with both the Hue and Cry and tithings, I believe that it wasn’t fair that other people in the community had to suffer the consequences for crimes that they had not even committed, as well as that, both Hue and Cry and Tithings were simply ways in which the person committing the crime reached a court, where they could face many of the numerously primitive saxon punishments. Another criticism of Hue and Cry was that anyone could sound it depending on what they considered criminal and the village would be obligated to arrest the criminal regardless of the severity of the crime. Therefore people could be punished unfairly. However I am writing this with the hindsight of someone within the 21st century and so the criticisms are somewhat unfair and shouldn’t radically diminish the sophistication of these methods of crime prevention.
In conclusion, the Saxon justice system can be described as primitive with sophisticated characteristics. The reason I say this is because this crude and primitive system that was riddled with logical and logistical faults, it most certainly was not without its redeeming features, notably Wergild and Hue and Cry. It is important to remember that although,at the time the Saxon Justice system was filled with problems, the sophisticated elements would go on to shape law and order today.