Gateway to the Classics: Historical Tales: German by Charles Morris
Historical Tales: German by  Charles Morris

The Tribunal of the Holy Vehm

The ideas of law and order in mediŠval Germany were by no means what we now understand by those terms. The injustice of the strong and the suffering of the weak were the rule; and men of noble lineage did not hesitate to turn their castles into dens of thieves. The title "robber baron," which many of them bore, sufficiently indicates their mode of life, and turbulence and outrage prevailed throughout the land.

But wrong did not flourish with complete impunity; right had not entirely vanished; justice still held its sword, and at times struck swift and deadly blows that filled with terror the wrong-doer, and gave some assurance of protection to those too weak for self-defence. It was no unusual circumstance to behold, perhaps in the vicinity of some baronial castle, perhaps near some town or manorial residence, a group of peasants gazing upwards with awed but triumphant eyes; the spectacle that attracted their attention being the body of a man hanging from the limb of a tree above their heads.

Such might have been supposed to be some act of private vengeance or bold outrage, but the exulting lookers-on knew better. For they recognized the body, perhaps as that of the robber baron of the neighboring castle, perhaps that of some other bold defier of law and justice, while in the ground below the corpse appeared an object that told a tale of deep meaning to their experienced eyes. This was a knife, thrust to the hilt in the earth. As they gazed upon it they muttered the mysterious words, "Vehm gericht,"  and quickly dispersed, none daring to touch the corpse or disturb the significant signal of the vengeance of the executioners.

But as they walked away they would converse in low tones of a dread secret tribunal, which held its mysterious meetings in remote places, caverns of the earth or the depths of forests, at the dread hour of midnight, its members being sworn by frightful oaths to utter secrecy. Before these dark tribunals were judged, present or absent, the wrong-doers of the land, and the sentence of the secret Vehm once given, there was no longer safety for the condemned. The agents of vengeance would be put upon his track, while the secret of his death sentence was carefully kept from his ears. The end was sure to be a sudden seizure, a rope to the nearest tree, a writhing body, the signal knife of the executioners of the Vehm, silence and mystery.

Such was the visible outcome of the workings of this dreaded court, of whose sessions and secrets the common people of the land had exaggerated conceptions, but whose sudden and silent deeds in the interest of justice went far to repress crime in that lawless age. We have seen the completion of the sentence, let us attend a session of this mysterious court.

Seeking the Vehmic tribunal, we do not find ourselves in a midnight forest, nor in a dimly-lighted cavern or mysterious vault, as peasant traditions would tell us, but in the hall of some ancient castle, or on a hill-top, under the shade of lime-trees, and with an open view of the country for miles around. Here, on the seat of justice, presides the graf or count of the district, before him the sword, the symbol of supreme justice, its handle in the form of the cross, while beside it lies the Wyd, or cord, the sign of his power of life or death. Around him are seated the Schoeffen, or ministers of justice, bareheaded and without weapons, in complete silence, none being permitted to speak except when called upon in the due course of proceedings.

The court being solemnly opened, the person cited to appear before it steps forward, unarmed and accompanied by two sureties, if he has any. The complaint against him is stated by the judge, and he is called upon to clear himself by oath taken on the cross of the sword. If he takes it, he is free. "He shall then," says an ancient work, "take a farthing piece, throw it at the feet of the court, turn round and go his way. Whoever attacks or touches him, has then, which all freemen know, broken the king's peace."

This was the ancient custom, but in later times witnesses were examined, and the proceedings were more in conformity with those of modern courts. If sentence of death was passed, the criminal was hanged at once on the nearest tree. The minor punishments were exile and fine. If the defendant refused to appear, after being three times cited, the sentence of the Vehm was pronounced against him, a dreadful sentence, ending in,—

"And I hereby curse his flesh and his blood; and may his body never receive burial, but may it be borne away by the wind, and may the ravens and crows, and wild birds of prey, consume and destroy him. And I adjudge his neck to the rope, and his body to be devoured by the birds and beasts of the air, sea, and land; but his soul I commend to our dear Lord, if He will receive it."

These words spoken, the judge cast forth the rope beyond the limits of the court, and wrote the name of the condemned in the book of blood, calling on the princes and nobles of the land, and all the inhabitants of the empire, to aid in fulfilling this sentence upon the criminal, without regard to relationship or any ties of kindred or affection whatever.

The condemned man was now left to the work of the ministers of justice, the Schoeffen of the court. Whoever should shelter or even warn him was himself to be brought before the tribunal. The members of the court were bound by a terrible oath, to be enforced by death, not to reveal the sentence of the Holy Vehm, except to one of the initiated, and not to warn the culprit, even if he was a father or a brother. Wherever the condemned was found, whether in a house, a street, the high-road, or the forest, he was seized and hanged to the nearest tree or post, if the servants of the court could lay hands on him. As a sign that he was executed by the Holy Vehm, and not slain by robbers, nothing was taken from his body, and the knife was thrust into the ground beneath him. We may further say that any criminal taken in the act by the Vehmic officers of justice did not need to be brought before the court, but might be hanged on the spot, with the ordinary indications that he was a victim to the secret tribunal.

A citation to appear before the Vehm was executed by two Schoeffen, who bore the letter of the presiding count to the accused. If they could not reach him because he was living in a city or a fortress which they could not safely enter, they were authorized to execute their mission otherwise. They might approach the castle in the night, stick the letter, enclosing a farthing piece, in the panel of the castle gate, cut off three chips from the gate as evidence to the count that they had fulfilled their mission, and call out to the sentinel on leaving that they had deposited there a letter for his lord. If the accused had no regular dwelling-place, and could not be met, he was summoned at four different cross-roads, where was left at the east, west, north, and south points a summons, each containing the significant farthing coin.

It must not be supposed that the administration of justice in Germany was confined to this Vehmic court. There were open courts of justice throughout the land. But what were known as Freistuhls, or free courts, were confined to the duchy of Westphalia. Some of the sessions of these courts were open, some closed, the Vehm constituting their secret tribunal.

Though complaints might be brought and persons cited to appear from every part of Germany, a free court could only be held on Westphalian ground, on the red earth, as it was entitled. Even the emperor could not establish a free court outside of Westphalia. When the Emperor Wenceslas tried to establish one in Bohemia, the counts of the empire decreed that any one who should take part in it would incur the penalty of death. The members of these courts consisted of Schoeffen, nominated by the graf, or presiding judge, and composed of ordinary members and the Wissenden or Witan, the higher membership. The initiation of these members was a singular and impressive ceremony. It could only take place upon the red earth, or within the boundaries of Westphalia. Bareheaded and ungirt, the candidate was conducted before the tribunal, and strictly questioned as to his qualifications to membership. He must be free-born, of Teutonic ancestry, and clear of any accusation of crime.

This settled, a deep and solemn oath of fidelity was administered, the candidate swearing by the Holy Law to guard the secrets of the Holy Vehm from wife and child, father and mother, sister and brother, fire and water, every creature on whom rain falls or sun shines, everything between earth and heaven; to tell to the tribunal all offences known to him, and not to be deterred therefrom by love or hate, gold, silver, or precious stones. He was now intrusted with the very ancient password and secret grip or other sign of the order, by which the members could readily recognize each other wherever meeting, and was warned of the frightful penalty incurred by those who should reveal the secrets of the Vehm. This penalty was that the criminal should have his eyes bound and be cast upon the earth, his tongue torn out through the back of his neck, and his body hanged seven times higher than ordinary criminals. In the history of the court there is no instance known of the oath of initiation being broken. For further security of the secrets of the Vehm, no mercy was given to strangers found within the limits of the court. All such intruders were immediately hung.

The number of the Schoeffen, or members of the free courts, was very great. In the fourteenth century it exceeded one hundred thousand. Persons of all ranks joined them, princes desiring their ministers, cities their magistrates, to apply for membership. The emperor was the supreme presiding officer, and under him his deputy, the stadtholder of the duchy of Westphalia, while the local courts, of which there were one or more in each district of the duchy, were under the jurisdiction of the grafs or counts of their districts.

The Vehm could consider criminal actions of the greatest diversity, cases of mere slander or defamation of character being sometimes brought before it. Any violation of the ten commandments was within its jurisdiction. It particularly devoted itself to secret crimes, such as magic, witchcraft, or poisoning. Its agents of justice were bound to make constant circuits, night and day, with the privilege, as we have said, if they caught a thief or murderer in the act, or obtained his confession, to hang him at once on the nearest tree, with the knife as signal of their commission.

Of the origin of this strange court we have no certain knowledge. Tradition ascribes it to Charlemagne, but that needs confirmation. It seems rather to have been an outgrowth of an old Saxon system, which also left its marks in the systems of justice of Saxon England, where existed customs not unlike those of the Holy Vehm.

Mighty was the power of these secret courts, and striking the traditions to which they have given rise, based upon their alleged nocturnal assemblies, their secret signs and solemn oaths, their mysterious customs, and the implacable persistency with which their sentences sought the criminal, pursuing him for years, and in whatever corner of the empire he might take refuge, while there were none to call its ministers of justice to account for their acts if the terrible knife had been left as evidence of their authority.

Such an association, composed of thousands of men of all classes, from the highest to the lowest,—for common freemen, mechanics, and citizens shared the honor of membership with knights and even princes,—bound together by a band of inviolable secrecy, and its edicts carried out so mysteriously and ruthlessly, could not but attain to a terrible power, and produce a remarkable effect upon the imagination of the people. "The prince or knight who easily escaped the judgment of the imperial court, and from behind his fortified walls defied even the emperor himself, trembled when in the silence of the night he heard the voices of the Freisch÷effenat the gate of his castle, and when the free count summoned him to appear at the ancient malplatz, or plain, under the lime-tree, or on the bank of a rivulet upon that dreaded soil, the Westphalian or red ground. And that the power of those free courts was not exaggerated by the mere imagination, excited by terror, nor in reality by any means insignificant, is proved by a hundred undeniable examples, supported by records and testimonies, that numerous princes, counts, knights, and wealthy citizens were seized by these Schoeffen of the secret tribunal, and, in execution of its sentence, perished by their hands."

An institution so mysterious and wide-spread as this could not exist without some degree of abuse of power. Unworthy persons would attain membership, who would use their authority for the purpose of private vengeance. This occasional injustice of the Vehmic tribunal became more frequent as time went on, and by the end of the fifteenth century many complaints arose against the free courts, particularly among the clergy. Civilization was increasing, and political institutions becoming more developed, in Germany; the lords of the land grew restive under the subjection of their people to the acts of a secret and strange tribunal, no longer supported by imperial power. Alliances of princes, nobles, and citizens were made against the Westphalian courts, and their power finally ceased, without any formal decree of abrogation.

In the sixteenth century the Vehm still possessed much strength; in the seventeenth it had grown much weaker; in the eighteenth only a few traces of it remained; at Gehmen, in MŘnster, the secret tribunal was only finally extinguished by a decree of the French legislature in 1811. Even to the present day there are peasants who have taken the oath of the Schoeffen, whose secrecy they persistently maintain, and who meet annually at the site of some of the old free courts. The principal signs of the order are indicated by the letters s.s.g.g. , signifying stock, stein, gras, grein  (stick, stone, grass, tears), though no one has been able to trace the mysterious meaning these words convey as symbols of the mystic power of the ancient Vehm gericht.

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