Could you get justice in the Middle Ages?

World History teaching resources for the high school classroom: lesson plans, worksheets, quizzes and simulation games for KS3, IGCSE, IB and A-Level teachers.

"Could you get justice in the Middle Ages?" - Essay assignment with roleplay activities

In this study unit students will consider several aspects of the Medieval criminal justice system. At the end of each activity they will produce a paragraph concluding. When all the activities are completed, they will join these paragraphs together as the basis of an overall essay project.

How effective was the Medieval method of capturing suspected criminals?
In this activity, students decide whether the modern “police” system is better or worse than the Medieval “tithing” system.

How effective was the Medieval method of determining guilt?
Students start by considering "What methods do the police and courts use today to decide if someone is guilty of a crime?". They then consider which of theses methods were used (or were even possible) in the Middle Ages. They then interpret an original picture source, and consider the methods that were actually used to conclude whether these were likely to produce 'justice'.

Medieval Trial - Roleplay!
Students complete a creatively written 'crime report' against someone else in the class based on one crime from a list provided. Anyone accused of a crime then has to produce a defence statement and the cases proceed to trial, with the credibility of the prosecution and defence cases resting on how effectively they use key terms from the Middle Ages that they should now be familiar with. We then proceed to trials by battle, water and fire (see picture!). At the end of this process, a handful of people in the class will be guilty on TWO charges - one of the original crime they were accused of, and one for perjuring someone else. These people will face severe punishment in the next part of the roleplay exercise later in the unit...

How far did Medieval Punishments fit the crime?
Students start by considering that "In Western Europe the death penalty no longer exists (in other words, people cannot be executed for their crimes). Do you think the death penalty should be brought back for certain crimes? Explain your answer by considering two sides". They then consider eight medieval punishments and for each consider how far they were fair given the crimes they were applied against.
The class then goes back into role for the next part of the roleplay activity. They take a vote on which punishment each of the most "guilty" people from the classroom role play should be given. These punishments can then be acted out (and filmed) or freeze-framed (and photographed - see image.). The class could be organised into groups for this activity and the results shared in a classroom display.

TWIST - The Neck Verse!
Whilst the class is voting on the punishments to be given, the “guilty” criminals might be taken outside and provided by your teacher with a copy of the “Neck Verse” (this can be found on ActiveHistory along with an explanation about how it worked). A coin will be flipped. “Heads” means that the verse must be read in the original Latin. “Tails” means it can be read in the (easier) English translation (which was permitted after King Henry VIII broke with Rome). A clear reading without hesitation will lead to a surprise acquittal!

Essay Assignment - Markscheme
It is now time to write the essay. Use this detailed mark scheme to help students produce their essay. The teacher may wish to award up to two bonus marks for use of images in the piece (if it is done as a homework project rather than in timed conditions).

Recommended video sources to help with the independent essay-writing phase
"Guilty as Charred" (10m)
Medieval Justice (14m).

Trial by Battle in one of the roleplay phases of the investigation


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