What periods and locations in European history had evidence based criminal trials? I'm interested in creating a medieval role playing setting and some fictional narratives involving crime investigators. However, some periods of early European history relied on trial by ordeal to determine innocence or guilt. Evidence appears to have little place in the proceedings. Do I need to go all the way back to ancient Greek and Roman courts? Do I need to go forward to the Renaissance? Perhaps there were a few medieval European cities with local legal systems that employed modern standards of evidence?

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    In France, the formal date after which evidence was supposed to prevails on ordeals in 1261 when Louis IX ordered so : "En 1261, conformément au quatrième concile du Latran, une nouvelle ordonnance royale abolit l'ordalie. Les épreuves par le feu et par l'eau dont l'accusé doit sortir indemne ou les combats dont il doit sortir vainqueur devront maintenant être remplacés par des preuves rationnelles ou testimoniales." fr.wikipedia.org/wiki/Louis_IX#Le_roi_justicier_et_diplomate Of course, practice in the Realm in the following centuries may still differ from royal edicts...
    – Evargalo
    Apr 10, 2018 at 8:54
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    You may also want to check Canon 8 of the Fourth Council of Lateran, 1215. : en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Fourth_Council_of_the_Lateran
    – Evargalo
    Apr 10, 2018 at 8:56
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    I think none of them. Your last line is, I think, the key - did pre-modern course follow modern standards of evidence? (if they did, we wouldn't call them "modern standards"). I'm not a specialist in this area, but the one example that come to mind is Cicero's prosecution of the governor of Sicily, where he amassed enough evidence to intimidate the plaintiff. But even there, the court merely wanted testimony about character; evidence was a tactic.
    – MCW
    Apr 10, 2018 at 8:56
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    Also, you might want to read Umberto Ecos Name of the Rose, which has a hero doing evidence based work in a society that does not think that way.
    – mart
    Apr 10, 2018 at 9:14
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    The question is more about what people in which period considered to be "evidence". They always thought their trials were evidence-based. After all, if a suspect confessed under the ordeal, wasn't that "evidence" of guilt?
    – DevSolar
    Apr 10, 2018 at 9:41

1 Answer 1


As heretical as this sounds . . . the Inquisition.

Of course this sounds completely counter-intuitive, as the crimes prosecuted by inquisitors were slippery, to say it mildly, and the "evidence" could be as ephemeral as cobwebs. However, it is precisely because of this that the Inquisition revolutionized the way trials were handled. Most of what we associate with a proper trial was either invented or popularized by the Inquisition. That includes proper trial transcripts, professional officers of the law, "modern" ideas of evidence, and limitations on torture.

(On the last point, understand that the common opinion of the time was that you could not trust a statement that wasn't made under torture. The manuals given to inquisitors are among the few documents of the era that instructed otherwise.)

There are several reasons why the Inquisition had such a tremendous impact on legal proceedings. The crimes being prosecuted were problematic for the conventional courts - the issues were often subtle and the verdicts often had major political and social ramifications. Many prosecutions involved difficult points of church doctrine, beyond the capacity of an ordinary feudal court to analyze. A verdict reached too casually could inflame a riot (or even a war ) - "heretic" and "rebel" were often all-but synonymous in a milieu where kings were assumed to be blessed by the divine. The Inquisition itself was extra-territorial, with avenues of appeal leading all the way to Rome.

Thus there was a lot of pressure on the inquisitors to develop iron-clad verdicts based on unimpeachable evidence, properly documented and derived in a consistent, professional manner. Of course, it took centuries to develop and was not always successful.

It should not be surprising that over time, the haphazard civil court systems of Europe would be deeply influenced by the much more sophisticated inquisitions. Standards for how courts were run, transcripts kept, appeals heard, and testimony obtained, inevitably improved in imitation of the evolving model. In time (mostly the 17th century) the law codes were updated to reflect the new procedures and the ideas that motivated them, and the form of our modern court systems were solidified.

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    There may be merit to this argument - but without a comparison to the contemporary development of English Criminal Law from the Anglo-Saxon traditions, through the reforms by Henry II and Magna Carta and then the Tudor reforms including introduction of an impartial jury, I see it as ultimately meaningless. Apr 10, 2018 at 16:02
  • My anser here might be interesting reading, especially this reference Apr 10, 2018 at 16:08
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    I like the answer, but I would like to see some sources before upvoting.
    – andejons
    Apr 10, 2018 at 16:55
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    another reason for the inquisition was that heresy judgments was not only "problematic" for a secular court, it was canonically forbidden. Canonically only the church can say if someone is a good catholic or judge doctrine officially, otherwise kings would become head of the church. And as the kings would not tolerate heretics anyway, the only juridical option to avoid secular courts judging heresy was to have the church judge the facts and hand over the heretics for the state to punish.
    – Luiz
    Apr 10, 2018 at 16:55
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    he inquisition was my first hunch, but from wikipedia sources alone I could not arrive at your conclusion (why I didn't write an answer). I join the chorus of those asking for sources.
    – mart
    Apr 11, 2018 at 7:11

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