Secret Societies of the Middle Ages - Thomas Keightly

C7.Degeneracy of the Fehm-Courts

Attempts at reformation—Causes of their high reputation—Case of the Duke of Wurtemberg—Of Kerstian Kerkerink—Causes of the decline of the Fehm-jurisdiction.

The chief cause of the degeneracy of the Fehm-courts was the admission of improper persons into the society. Originally, as we have seen, no man was admitted to become a schoppe without producing satisfactory evidence as to the correctness of his character; but now, in the case of either count or schoppe, a sufficient sum of money availed to supersede inquiry, and the consequence was that men of the most disgraceful characters frequently presided at the tribunals and wielded the formidable powers of the society. A writer in the reign of Sigismund says, "that those who had gotten authority to hang men were hardly deserving enough to keep pigs; that they were themselves well worthy of the gallows if one cast a glance over their course of life; that they left not unobserved the mote in their brother's eye, but overlooked the beam in their own, etc." And it required no small courage in the writer thus to express himself; for, according to his own testimony, people then hardly ventured even to speak of the Secret Tribunals, so great was the awe in which they were held.

The consequence was that justice was not to be had at any tribunal which was presided over by corrupt judges, as they selected assessors, and even by-standers, of the same character with themselves, and whatever verdict they pleased was found. The tribunal-lord generally winked at their proceedings, while the right of appeal to the emperor was treated with little respect; for these monarchs had generally affairs of more immediate importance to themselves to occupy their attention. The right of exemption was also trampled on; sovereign princes were, as we have seen, cited before the tribunals; so also were the Jews. Purely civil matters were now maintained to belong to the Fehm-jurisdiction, and parties in such cases were cited before the tribunals, and forfehmed in case of disobedience. In short, the Fehm-jurisdiction was now become a positive evil instead of being, as heretofore, a benefit to the country.

Various attempts were doubtless made to reform the Fehm-law and tribunals, such as the Arensberg reformation, the Osnaburgh regulation, and others, but to little purpose. The system, in fact, was at variance with the spirit which was now beginning to prevail, and could not be brought to accord with it.

Before we proceed to the decline of the society, we will pause a moment to consider the causes of the great reputation and influence which it obtained and exercised during the period in which it flourished.

The first and chief cause was the advantage which it was found to be of for the maintenance of social order and tranquillity. In the very worst and most turbulent times a portion of mankind will always be found desirous of peace and justice, even independently of any private interest; another portion, feeling themselves the victims of oppression, will gladly catch at any hope of protection; even the mighty and the oppressive themselves will at times view with satisfaction any institution which may avail to shield them against power superior to their own, or which they conceive may be made the instrument of extending and strengthening their consequence. The Fehm-jurisdiction was calculated to suit all these orders of persons. The fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were the most anarchic periods of Germany; the imperial power was feeble to control; and the characters of most of the emperors were such as to render still more unavailing the little authority which, as heads of the empire, they possessed. Sensible of their weakness, these monarchs generally favoured the Fehm-tribunals, which so freely, and even ostentatiously, recognised the imperial superiority, as long as it did not seek to control them or impede them in their proceedings. The knowledge which, if initiated, they could derive of the crimes and misdemeanors committed in the empire, and the power of directing the arms of the society against evil-doers, were also of no small importance, and they gradually became of opinion that their own existence was involved in that of the Fehm-courts. The nobles of Westphalia, in like manner, found their advantage in belonging to the society, and the office of tribunal-lord was, as we have seen, one of influence and emolument.

But it was the more helpless and oppressed classes of society, more especially the unhappy serfs, that most rejoiced in the existence of the Fehm-tribunals; for there only could they hope to meet with sure redress when aggrieved, and frequently was a cause, when other courts had been appealed to in vain, brought before the Secret Tribunal, which judged without respect of persons. The accuser had farther not to fear the vengeance of the evil-doer, or his friends and dependents; for his name was kept a profound secret if the proofs which he could furnish were sufficient to justify the inquisitorial process already described, and thus the robber-noble, or the feudal tyrant, often met his merited punishment at a time when he perhaps least dreaded it, and when he held his victim, whose cries to justice had brought it on him, in the greatest contempt; for, like the Nemesis, or the "gloom-roaming" Erinnys of antiquity, the retributive justice of the Fehm-tribunals moved to vengeance with stealthy pace, and caught its victim in the midst of his security.

A second cause was the opinion of these courts having been instituted by Charles the Great, a monarch whose memory was held in such high estimation and such just veneration during the middle ages. Emperors thought themselves bound to treat with respect the institution of him from whom they derived their authority; and the clergy themselves, exempt from its jurisdiction, were disposed to view with favour an institution established by the monarch to whom the Church was so deeply indebted, and of whose objects the punishment of heretics was one of the most prominent.

A third, and not the least important cause, was the excellent organization of the society, which enabled it to give such effect to its decrees, and to which nothing in those times presented any parallel. The veil of secrecy which enveloped all its proceedings, and the number of agents ready to execute its mandates, inspired awe; the strict inquiry which was known to be made into the character of a man before he was admitted into it gained it respect. Its sentences were, though the proofs were unknown, believed to have emanated from justice; and bad men trembled, and good men rejoiced, as they beheld the body of a criminal suspended from a tree, and the schoppe's knife stuck beside it to intimate by whom he had been judged and condemned.

The reign of the Emperor Maximilian was a period of great reform in Germany, and his establishment of the Perpetual Public Peace, and of the Imperial Chamber, joined with other measures, tended considerably to alter and improve the condition of the empire. The Fehm-tribunals should, as a matter of prudence, have endeavoured to accommodate themselves to the new order of things; but this is a part of wisdom of which societies and corporate bodies are rarely found capable; and, instead of relaxing in their pretensions, they even sought to extend them farther than before. Under their usual pretext—the denial of justice—they extended their citations to persons and places over which they had no jurisdiction, and thereby provoked the enmity and excited the active hostility of cities and powerful territorial lords.

The most remarkable cases which this period presents of the perversion of the rights and powers of the Fehm-tribunals are the two following:—

Duke Ulrich of Wurtemberg lived unhappily with his duchess Sabina. There was at his court a young nobleman named Hans Hutten, a member of an honourable and powerful family, to whose wife the duke was more particular in his attentions than could be agreeable to a husband. The duchess, on her side, testified a particular esteem for Hans Hutten, and the intimacy between them was such as the duke could not forgive. Hutten was either so vain or so inconsiderate as to wear publicly on his finger a valuable ring which had been given to him by the duchess. This filled up the measure of the jealousy and rage of the duke, and one day, at a hunting-party in the wood of Bebling, he contrived to draw Hutten away from the rest of the train, and, taking him at unawares, ran him through with his sword; he then took off his girdle, and with it suspended him from one of the oak-trees in the wood. When the murder was discovered he did not deny it, but asserted that he was a free schoppe, and had performed the deed in obedience to a mandate of the Secret Tribunal, to which he was bound to yield obedience. This tale, however, did not satisfy the family of Hutten, and they were as little content with the proposal made by the murderer of giving them satisfaction before a Westphalian tribunal. They loudly appealed to the emperor for justice, and the masculine eloquence of Ulrich von Hutten interested the public so strongly in their favour, that the emperor found himself obliged to issue a sentence of outlawry against the Duke of Wurtemberg. At length, through the mediation of Cardinal Lang, an accommodation both with the Hutten family and the duchess was effected; but the enmity of the former was not appeased, and they some time afterwards lent their aid to effect the deposition of the duke and the confiscation of his property.

It would seem that the Fehm-tribunals would have justified the assassination committed by the duke, at least that all confidence in their justice was now gone; and, at this period, even those writers who are most lavish in their praises of the schoppen of the olden time can find no language sufficiently strong to describe the iniquity of those of their own days. It was now become a common saying that the course of a Fehm-court was first to hang the accused and then to examine into the charges against him. By a solemn recess of the Diet at Triers, in 1512, it was declared "that by the Westphalian tribunals many an honest man had lost his honour, body, life, and property;" and the Archbishop of Cologne, who must have known them well, shortly afterwards asserted, among other charges, in a capitulation which he issued, that "by very many they were shunned and regarded as seminaries of villains."

The second case to which we alluded affords a still stronger proof of their degeneracy.

A man named Kerstian Kerkerink, who lived near the town of Munster, was accused, and probably with truth, of having committed repeated acts of adultery. The Free-tribunal of Munster determined to take cognizance of the affair, and they sent and had him taken out of his bed in the dead of the night. In order to prevent his making any noise and resistance, the persons who were employed assured him that he was to be brought before the tribunal of a respectable councillor of the city of Munster, and prevailed on him to put on his best clothes. They took him to a place named Beckman's-bush, where they kept him concealed while one of them conveyed intelligence of their success to the town-council.

At break of day the tribunal-lords, free-count, and schoppen, taking with them a monk and a common hangman, proceeded to Beckman's-bush, and had the prisoner summoned before them. When he appeared he prayed to be allowed to have an advocate; but this request was refused, and the court proceeded forthwith to pass sentence of death. The unfortunate man now implored for the delay of but one single day to settle his affairs and make his peace with God; but this request also was strongly refused, and it was signified to him that he must die forthwith, and that if he wished he might make his confession, to which end a confessor had been brought to the place. When the unhappy wretch sued once more for favour, it was replied to him that he should find favour and be beheaded, not hung. The monk was then called forward, to hear his confession; when that was over the executioner (who had previously been sworn never to reveal what he saw) advanced and struck off the head of the delinquent.

Meantime, information of what was going on had reached the town, and old and young came forth to witness the last act of the tragedy, or perhaps to interfere in favour of Kerkerink. But this had been foreseen and provided against; officers were set to watch all the approaches from the town till all was over, and when the people arrived they found nothing but the lifeless body of Kerkerink, which was placed in a coffin and buried in a neighbouring churchyard.

The bishop and chapter of Munster expressed great indignation at this irregular proceeding and encroachment on their rights, and it served to augment the general aversion to the Fehm-courts.

Our readers will at once perceive how much the proceedings in this case, which occurred in the year 1580, differed from those of former times. Then the accused was formally summoned, and he was allowed to have an advocate; here he was seized without knowing for what, and was hardly granted even the formality of a trial. Then the people who came, even accidentally, into the vicinity of a Fehm-court, would cross themselves and hasten away from the place, happy to escape with their lives: now they rush without apprehension to the spot where it was sitting, and the members of it fly at their approach. Finally, in severity as well as justice, the advantage was on the side of the old courts. The criminal suffered by the halter; we hear of no father confessor being present to console his last moments, and his body, instead of being deposited in consecrated earth, was left to be torn by the wild beasts and ravenous birds. The times were evidently altered!

[Illustration] from Secret Societies of the Middle Ages by Thomas Keightly


The Fehm-tribunals were never formally abolished; but the excellent civil institutions of the Emperors Maximilian and Charles V., the consequent decrease of the turbulent and anarchic spirit, the introduction of the Roman law, the spread of the Protestant religion, and many other events of those times, conspired to give men an aversion for what now appeared to be a barbarous jurisdiction and only suited to such times as it was hoped and believed never could return. Some of the courts were abolished; exemptions and privileges against them were multiplied; they were prohibited all summary proceedings; their power gradually sank into insignificance; and, though up to the present century a shadow of them remained in some parts of Westphalia, they have long been only a subject of antiquarian curiosity as one of the most striking phenomena of the middle ages. They were only suited to a particular state of society: while that existed they were a benefit to the world; when it was gone they remained at variance with the state which succeeded, became pernicious, were hated and despised, lost all their influence and reputation, shared the fate of every thing human, whose character is instability and decay, and have left only their memorial behind them.


It is an important advance in civilization, and a great social gain, to have got rid, for all public purposes, of Secret Societies—both of their existence and of their use; for, that, like most of the other obsolete forms into which the arrangements of society have at one time or other resolved themselves, some of these mysterious and exclusive institutions, whether for preserving knowledge or dispensing justice, served, each in its day, purposes of the highest utility, which apparently could not have been accomplished by any other existing or available contrivance, has been sufficiently shown by the expositions that have been given, in the preceding pages, of the mechanism and working of certain of the most remarkable of their number. But it has been made at least equally evident that the evils attendant upon their operation, and inherent in their nature, were also very great, and that, considered even as the suitable remedies for a most disordered condition of human affairs, they were at best only not quite so bad as the disease.

They were institutions for preserving knowledge, not by promoting, but by preventing that diffusion of it which, after all, both gives to it its chief value, and, in a natural state of things, most effectually ensures its purification, as well as its increase; and for executing justice, by trampling under foot the rights alike of the wrong-doer and of his victim. Mankind may be said to have stepped out of night into day, in having thrown off the burden and bondage of this form of the social system, and having attained to the power of pursuing knowledge in the spirit of knowledge, and justice in the spirit of justice. We have now escaped from that state of confusion and conflict in which one man's gain was necessarily another man's loss, and are fairly on our way towards that opposite state in which, in everything, as far as the constitution of this world will permit, the gain of one shall be the gain of all. This latter, to whatever degree it may be actually attainable, is the proper hope and goal of all human civilization.