Vehmgericht (fāmˈgərĭkht) [key], Vehme fāˈmə, or vehmic court fāˈmĭk, in medieval Germany, a type of criminal tribunal. The inability of the Holy Roman emperors to exercise effective central control over their lands and the extensive feudal warfare of the period brought increasing disorder. To control this lawlessness, there emerged in Westphalia near the end of the 12th cent. extralegal but efficient criminal tribunals, the Vehmgerichte. Probably the outgrowths of the Frankish courts, they had presumably received their original jurisdiction from the royal court in Carolingian times. In the legal fragmentation of medieval Germany they represented the remnants of royal, as opposed to territorial, jurisdiction; they were supported by the Holy Roman emperor until the 16th cent. They combined old traditions with new legal forms and filled an important gap in German medieval criminal law. Operating where ordinary seignorial or territorial justice failed, they were strongest in Westphalia; in 1382, Holy Roman Emperor Wenceslaus granted them jurisdiction elsewhere in Germany, and they subsequently appeared in Frankfurt (1386), Cologne (1387), and Lübeck (1399). Originally public, they became increasingly secret after the 14th cent. and were operated by "holy bands" sworn to secrecy on pain of death. Any freeman could become a member. Accusations were made mysteriously, often by nailing a notice to a tree, and failure to appear for trial was punished by death. The possible trial verdicts were hanging or acquittal. Despite apparently terroristic methods, the Vehmgerichte were less severe than tradition has made them. They were most powerful in the 15th cent. Thereafter increasing corruption and abuse, and the consolidated power of the petty princes, brought a general move against them, and in the 16th cent. the Vehmgerichte largely disappeared; they were entirely eliminated only in the 19th cent. Their secret and solemn proceedings and fear-inspiring methods made them fit material for romantic historical novels such as Sir Walter Scott's Anne of Geierstein. The name is also spelled Fehmgericht or Femgericht.
The Columbia Electronic Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright © 2012, Columbia University Press. All rights reserved.
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