1902 Encyclopedia > Fehmic Courts

Fehmic Courts

FEHMIC COURTS (FEHMGERICHTE or VEHMGERICHTE), celebrated secret tribunals which flourished in Germany from the end of the 12th century to the middle of the 16th, and which, from the extent of their organization and the mystery which surrounded their proceedings, inspired a feeling of dread in all who came within their jurisdiction. Their origin is uncertain. The traditional account is that they were instituted by Charlemagne and Pope Leo III. to prevent the Saxons from relapsing into paganism. It is more probable that they arose from the relics of the ancient Teutonic free courts. Their immediate cause, however, is to be found in the utter lawlessness and disregard of authority then prevailing in Germany, which obliged the weak and the peace-loving to band them-selves together as protection against the outrages of the princes and nobles. The birthplace of the Fehmic courts was Westphalia, where they appeared shortly after the de-position of Henry the Lion in 1179. The duchy was in consequence of this event annexed to the archbishopric of Cologne, and the archbishops appear to have had a good deal to do with the origination of the courts. Fehmic courts subsequently made their way into most other parts of Germany, but the institution never seems to have suc-ceeded in gaining a firm footing outside the limits of Westphalia, or the Red Land, as it was called. Within this district, however, which included nearly the entire country between the Rhine and the Weser, they soon ac-quired an immense power, which was at first used only in a beneficial and upright manner, supplying a means of re-dress at a time when the public administration of justice was in abeyance. But in the end, as might have been an-ticipated, the secrecy of their proceedings and the arbitrary nature of their rules converted them into an instrument of tyranny in the hands of the very persons whose lawless deeds they were designed to suppress. The emperors them-selves, who had at first encouraged the Fehmic courts, finding them a useful means of keeping their feudal de-pendants in check, were unable directly to resist their en-croachments ; and it was only with the restoration of public order and the establishment of a regular judicature that the influence of the Fehmgerichte gradually waned. The last regular court is said to have been held at Celle, in Hanover, in 1568 ; but there are traces of the institution at a much later date; and in the present century even, a relic of the once famous Fehmgerichte was to be found in Westphalia in the form of a society for the suppression of vice. It was abolished by order of Jerome Bonaparte in 1811.

It was necessary that a candidate for initiation into the Fehm should be born in wedlock, that he should be a Christian, and neither excommunicated nor outlawed, and that he should not be a party to any process before a Fehmic court. Originally only natives of Westphalia were admitted. At initiation the candidate took a solemn oath to support with his whole powers the Holy Fehm, to conceal its proceedings " from wife and child, father and mother, sister and brother, fire and wind, from all that the sun shines on and the rain wets, and from every being between heaven and earth," and to bring before the tribunal every-thing within his knowledge that fell under its jurisdiction. He was then initiated into the signs by which the members recognized each other, and was presented with a rope and a knife, upon which were engraved the mystic letters S.S.G.G., whose signification is still involved in doubt, but which are supposed to mean Stride, Stein, Gras, Grein. The emperor was the nominal head of the Fehmic courts. Under him the supreme president was the archbishop of Cologne as duke of Westphalia. The whole country over which the jurisdiction of the Fehmic courts extended was divided into districts, in each of which there was at least one court, presided over by a judge called a Freigraf, or free count. Along with him sat an indefinite number of assessors, but never less than seven, called Freischoffen, or Freischoppen, in Latin scabini. These Freischoffen had the duty of bringing complaints before the courts, and of carrying into execution the sentences which were pronounced. There were two distinct sorts of Fehmic courts,—one which held its sittings openly, and another whose proceedings were conducted in secret. The open court, in one of its branches, exercised a jurisdiction in civil suits and over offences of a trifling description, in which cases it was unnecessary that either plaintiff or defendant should be a member of the Fehm. The other branch of the open court took cognisance of all crimes of an ordinary nature. The accuser was always one of the Freischoffen. The accused was cited by nailing the summons during night to the door of his house, or, if it was not known where he lived, by fixing four copies upon a post at cross roads near his supposed abode. If the accused appeared, the accuser stated the case, and the investigation proceeded by the examination of witnesses as in an ordinary court of law. The judgment was put into execution on the spot if that was possible. The secret court, from whose procedure the whole institution has acquired its evil character, was closed to all but the initiated ; any one not a member on being discovered was instantly put to death, and the members present were bound under the same penalty not to disclose what took place. Crimes of a serious nature, and-especially those that were deemed unfit for ordinary judicial investigation-—such as heresy and witchcraft—fell within its jurisdiction, as also did appeals by persons condemned in the open courts, and likewise the cases before those tribunals in which the accused had not appeared. The accused if a member could clear himself by his own oath, unless he had revealed the secrets of the Fehm. If he were one of the uninitiated it was necessary for him to bring forward witnesses to his innocence from among the initiated, whose number varied according to the number on the side of the accuser, but twenty-one in favour of innocence necessarily secured an acquittal. The only punishment which the secret court could inflict was death. If the accused appeared, the sentence was carried into execution at once; if he did not appear, it was quickly made known to the whole body, and the Freischoffe who was the first to meet the condemned was bound to put him to death. A knife with the cabalistic letters was left beside the corpse to show that the deed was not a murder.

See Wigand, Das Fehmgericht Westphalens, 1825, and Usener, Die Frei und Heimlichen Gerichte Weslphalens, 1832 ; also Scott's Anne of Geierstein, introduction and chap. xx. (H. J. B. P.)

About this EncyclopediaTop ContributorsAll ContributorsToday in History
Terms of UsePrivacyContact Us

© 2005-19 1902 Encyclopedia. All Rights Reserved.

This website is the free online Encyclopedia Britannica (9th Edition and 10th Edition) with added expert translations and commentaries