Westphalia, Secret Tribunals Of
The Vehmgerichte, or Fehmgerichte, were secret criminal Courts of Westphalia in the Middle Ages. The origin of this institution, like that of Freemasonry has been involved in uncertainty. The true meaning of the name even is doubtful. Vaem is said by Dreyer to signify holy in the old Northern languages; and, if this be true, a Fehmgericht would mean a Holy Court. But it has also been suggested that the word comes from the Latin Mama, or rumor, and that a Fehm gericht was so called because it proceeded to the trial of persons whose only accuser was common rumor, the maxim of the German law, "no accuser, no judge," being in such a case departed from. They were also called Tribunals of Westphalia, because their Jurisdiction and existence were confined to that country.
The Medieval Westphalia was situated within the limits of the country bounded on the West by the Rhine, on the East by the Weser, on the North by Friesland, and on the South by Westerwald. Render (Tour through Germany, page 186), says that the tribunals were only to be found in the Duchies of Gueldres, Cleves, and Westphalia, in the principal cities of Corvey and Minden, in the Landgravate of a Hesse, in the Counties of Bentheim, Limburg, Lippe, Mark, Ravensberg, Rechlinghausen, Rietzberg, Sayn, Waldeck, and Steinfort, in some Baronies, as Gehmen, Neustadt, and Rheda, and in the free imperial city of Dortmund; but these were all included within the limits of Medieval Westphalia. It has been supposed that the first secret Tribunals were established by the Emperor Charlemagne on the conquest of Saxony. In 803 the Saxons obtained, among other privileges, that of retaining their national laws, and administering them under imperial judges who had been created Counts of the Empire.
Their Courts, it is said, were held three times a year in an open field, and their sessions were held in public on ordinary occasions; but in all cases of religious offense, such as apostasy, heresy, or sacrilege, although the trial began in a public session, it always ended in a secret tribunal.
It has been supposed by some writers that these Courts of the Counts of the Empire instituted by Charlemagne gave origin to the secret tribunal of Westphalia, which were held in the thirteenth and fourteenth centuries. There is no external evidence of the truth of this hypothesis. It was, however, the current opinion of the time, and all the earlier traditions and documents of the courts themselves trace their origin to Charlemagne.
Paul Wigand, the German jurist and historian, who wrote a history of their Tribunals (Fehmgelicht Westfdlens, Hamburg, 1826), contends for the truth of these traditions; and Sir Francis Palgrave, in his Rise and Progress of the English Commonwealth, says unhesitatingly, that "the Vehmic Tribunals can only be considered as the original jurisdictions of the old Saxons which survived the subjugation of their country."
The silence on this subject in the laws and capitularies of Charlemagne has been explained on the ground that these Tribunals were not established authoritatively by that monarch, but only permitted by a tacit sanction to exist. The author of the article on the Secret Societies of the Middle Ages, published in the Lybrary of Erderklining Knowledge, who had written somewhat exhaustively on this subject, says that the first writers who have mentioned these Tribunals are Henry of Hervorden in the fourteenth, and Aeneas Sylvius in the fifteenth century; both of whom, however, trace them to the time of Charlemagne; but Jacob (Recherches Historiques sur les Croisades et les Templiers, page 132), cites a Diploma of Count Engelbert de la Mark, of the date of 1267, in which there is an evident allusion to some of their usages. Render says that they are first generally known in the year 1220. But their absolute historical existence is confined to the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries.
The secret Westphalian Tribunals were apparently created for the purpose of preserving public morals, of punishing crime, and of protecting the poor and weak from the oppressions of the rich and powerful. They were outside of the regular Courts of the country, and in this respect may be compared to the modern Vigilance Committees sometimes instituted in the United States for the protection of the well-disposed citizens in newly settled territories from the annoyance of lawless men. But the German Tribunals differed from the American Committees in this, that they were recognized by the Emperors, and that their decisions and executions partook of a judicial character. The Vehmic Tribunals, as they are also called, were governed by a minute system of regulations, the strict observance of which preserved their power and influence for at least two centuries. At the head of the institution was the Emperor, for in Germany he was recognized as the source of law. His connection with the association was either direct or indirect. If he had been initiated into it, as was usually the case, then his connection was direct and immediate. If, however, he was not an initiate, then his powers were delegated to a lieutenant who was a member of the Tribunal.
Next to the Emperor came the Free Counts. Free Counties were certain districts comprehending several parishes, where the judges and counselors of the secret band exercised jurisdiction in conformity with the Statutes. The Free Count, who was called Stuhlherr, or tribunal lord, presided over this free County and the Tribunal held within it. He had also the prerogative of erecting other Tribunals within his territorial limits, and if he did not preside in person, he appointed a Freigraf, or free judge, to supply his place. No one could be invested with the dignity of a Free Judge unless he were a Westphalian by birth, born in lawful wedlock of honest parents; of good repute, charged with no crime, and well qualified to preside over the County. They derived their name of Free Judges from the fact that the Tribunals exercised their jurisdiction over only free men, serfs being left to the control of their own lords.
Next in rank to the Free Judges were the Schppen, as Assessors or Counselors. They formed the main body of the Association, and were nominated by the Free Judge, with the consent of the Stuhlherr, and vouched for by two members of the Tribunal. A Schppe was required to be a Christian, a Westphalian of honest birth, neither excommunicated nor outlawed, nor involved in any suit before the Fehmgericht and not a member of any monastic or ecclesiastical Order. There were two classes of these Assessors or Schppen: a lower class or grade, called the Ignorant, who had not been initiated, and were consequently not permitted to be present at the secret session; and a higher grade, called the Knowing who were subjected to a form of initiation.
The ceremonies of initiation of a Free Judge were very solemn and symbolic. The candidate appeared bareheaded before the Tribunal, and answered certain questions respecting his qualifications. Then, kneeling with the thumb and forefinger of the right hand on a naked sword and halter, he pronounced the following oath:
I swear by the Holy Trinity that I will, from henceforth, aid, keep, and conceal the holy Fehrns from wife and child, from father and mother, from sister and brother, from fire and wind, from all that the sun shines on and the rain covers, from all that is between sky and earth, especially from the man who knows the law; and will bring before this Free Tribunal, under which I am sitting, all that belongs to the secret Jurisdiction of the Emperor, whether I know it to be true myself or have heard it from trustworthy men, whatever requires correction or punishment, whatever is committed within the Jurisdiction of the Fehm, that it may be judged, or, with the consent of the accuser, be put off in grace; and will not cease so to do for love or for fear, for gold or for silver, or for precious stones; and will strengthen this Tribunal and Jurisdiction with all my five senses and power; and that I do not take on me this office for any other cause than for the sake of right and justice. Moreover, that I will ever advance and honor this Free Tribunal more than any other free tribunals, and what I thus promise will I steadfastly and firmly keep; so help me God and his Holy Gospel.
He further swore in an additional oath that he would, to the best of his ability, enlarge the Holy Empire, and with unrighteous hand would undertake nothing against the land and people of the Stuhlherr, or the Lord of the Trtbunal. His name was then inserted in the Book of Gold. The secrets of the Tribunal were then communicated to the candidate, and with them the modes of recognition by which he could be enabled to discover his fellow-members. The sign is described as having been made by placing, when at table, the point of their knife pointing to themselves, and the haft away from them.
This was also accompanied by the words Stock Stein, Graas Grein, the exact ritualistic meaning of which phrase is unknown. The duties of the initiated were to act as Assessors or Judges at the meetings of the Courts, to constitute which at least seven were required to be present; and also to go through the country, serve citations upon the accused, and to execute the sentences of the Tribunals upon criminals, as well as to trace out and denounce all evil- doers.
The punishment of an initiate who had betrayed any of the secrets of the Society was severe. His tongue was torn out by the roots, and he was then hung on a tree seven feet higher than any other felon. The ceremonies practiced when a Fehm Court was held were very symbolic in their character. Before the Free Count stood a table, on which were placed a naked sword and a cord of withes. The sword, which was cross-handled, is explained in their ritual as signifying the Cross on which Christ suffered for our sins, and the cord the punishment of the wicked. All had their heads uncovered, to signify that they would proceed openly and fairly, punish in proportion to guilt, and cover no right with a wrong.
Their hands also were uncovered, to show that they would do nothing covertly and underhand; and they wore cloaks, to signify their warm love for justice for, as the cloak covers all the other garments and the body, so should their love cover justice.
Lastly, they were to wear neither armor nor weapons, that no one might feel fear, and to indicate that they were under the peace of the Empire. They were charged to be cool and sober, lest passion or intoxication should lead them to pass an unjust judgment. Writers of romance have clothed these Tribunals with additional mystery.
But the stories that they were held at night, and in subterranean places, have no foundation save in the imagination of those who have invented them. they were held, like other German Courts, at break of day and in the open air, generally beneath a tree in the forest, or elsewhere. The Public Tribunals were, of course, open to all. It was the secret ones only that were held in private. But the time and place were made known to the accused in the notification left at his residence, or, if that were unknown, as in the case of a vagabond, at a place where four roads met, being affixed to the ground or to a tree, and the knowledge might be easily communicated by him to his friends.
The Chapter-General met once a year, generally at Dortmund or Arensburg, but always at some place in Westphalia. It consisted of the Tribunal Lords and Free Counts, who were convoked by the Emperor or his lieutenant. If the Emperor was an initiate, he might preside in person; if he was not, he was represented by his lieutenant. At these Chapters the proceedings of the various Fehm Courts were reviewed, and hence these latter made a return of the names of the persons initiated, the suits they had commenced, the sentences they had passed, and the punishments they had inflicted..
The Chapter-General acted also as a Court of Appeals. In fact, the relation of a Chapter- General to the Fehm Courts was precisely the same as that of a Grand Lodge of Freemasons to its subordinates. The resemblance, too, in the symbolic character of the two institutions was striking. But here the resemblance ended, for it has never been contended that there was or could be any connection whatever between the two institutions.
But the coincidences show that peculiar spirit and love of mystery which prevailed in those times, and the influence of which was felt in Freemasonry as well as in the Westphalian Tribunals, and all the other secret societies of the Middle Ages.
The crimes over which the Fehmgericht claimed a jurisdiction were, according to the Statutes passed at Arensburg in 1490, of two kinds: those cognizant by the Secret Tribunal, and those cognizant by the Public Tribunal. The crimes cognizant by the Secret Tribunal were, violations of the secrets of Charlemagne and of the Fehmgericht, heresy, apostasy, perjury, and witchcraft or magic. Those cognizant by the Public Tribunal were sacrilege, theft, rape, robbery of women in childbirth, treason, highway robbery, murder or manslaughter, and vagrancy. Sometimes the catalogue of crimes was modified and often enlarged. There was one period when all the crimes mentioned in the decalog were included; and indeed there was no positive restriction of the Jurisdiction of the Tribunals, which generally were governed in their proceedings by what they deemed expedient for the public peace and safety. In the early history of the institution, its trials were conducted with impartiality, and its judgments rendered in accordance with justice, being constantly restrained by mercy, so that they were considered by the populace as being of great advantage in those times of lawlessness. But at length the institution became corrupt, and often aided, instead of checking, oppression, a change which finally led to its decay.
When anyone was accused, he was summoned to appear before the Tribunal at a certain specified time and place. If he was an initiate, the summons was repeated three times; but if not, that is, if any other than an inhabitant of Westphalia, the summons was given only once. If he appeared, an opportunity was afforded him of defense. An initiate could purge himself by a simple oath of denial, but any other person was required to adduce sufficient testimony of his innocence. If the accused did not appear, nor render a satisfactory excuse for his absence, the Court proceeded to declare him outlawed, and a Free Judge was delegated to put him to death wherever found.
Where three Free Judges found anyone flagrante delicto, or in the very act of committing a crime, or having just perpetrated it, they were authorized to put him to death without the formality of a trial. But if he succeeded in making his escape before the penalty was inflicted, he could not on a subsequent arrest be put to death.
His case must then be brought for trial before a Tribunal. The sentence of the Court, if capital, was not announced to the criminal, and he learned it only when, in some secret place, the executioners of the decree of the Fehmgericht met him and placed the halter around his neck and suspended him to a neighboring tree. The punishment of death was always by hanging, and from a tree. The fact that a dead body was thus found in the forest, was an intimation to those who found it that the person had died by the judgment of the Secret Tribunal.
It is very evident that an institution like this could be justified, or even tolerated, only in a country and at a time when the power and vices of the nobles, and the general disorganization of society, had rendered the law itself powerless; and when in the hands of persons of irreproachable character, the weak could only thus be protected from the oppressions of the strong, the virtuous from the aggression of the vicious.
It was in its commencement a safeguard for society; and hence it became so popular that its initiates numbered at one time over one hundred thousand, and men of rank and influence sought with avidity admission into its circle:
In time the institution became demoralized. Purity of character was no longer insisted on as a qualification for admission. Its decrees and judgments were no longer marked with unfaltering justice, and, instead of defending the weak any longer from the oppressor, it often became itself the willing instrument of oppression. Efforts were made from time to time to inaugurate reforms, but the prevailing spirit of the age, now beginning to be greatly improved by an introduction of the Roman law and the spread of the Protestant religion, was opposed to the self-constituted authority of the Tribunals.
They began to dissolve almost insensibly, and after the close of the sixteenth century we hear no more of them, although there never was any positive decree of dissolution enacted or promulgated by the State. They were destroyed, not by any edict of law, but by the progressive spirit of the people.
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