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The Tribunal Of The Holy Vehm
by [?]

The ideas of law and order in mediaeval 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.”