Collier's New Encyclopedia (1921)/Femgerichte

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FEMGERICHTE, FEHMGERICHTE, or VEHMGERICHTE (faim-ge-rik'tā), the name of celebrated secret tribunals which existed in Westphalia, and possessed immense power and influence in the 14th and 15th centuries. They are said by some to have been originated by Charlemagne. The femgerichte first came into notice after the deposition and outlawry of the Emperor Henry the Lion, when anarchy everywhere prevailed. In such circumstances the secret tribunals took on themselves the protection of the innocent and defenseless, and inspired with salutary terror those whom nothing else would keep in check. These tribunals soon acquired great power, and spread themselves over the whole of Germany, though their principal seat still continued to be Westphalia. The secrecy with which they carried on their operations, and the power they manifested in carrying out their sentences, rendered them the terror of all Germany. Their number is said at one time to have amounted to 100,000.

Though originally established for the preservation of right and justice, there can be little doubt that they afterward were frequently made use of to carry out party feelings. The members were called the Wissende, or the knowing ones; and, before being admitted, they must be of blameless life, of the Christian religion, and take a terrible oath. From among the Wissende the Freischöffen (free justices) were elected, who were the assessors of the court and executors of its sentences. The president of the court was called the Freigraf (free count). The general superintendence of the whole of the tribunals was in the hands of the lord of the land, who, in Westphalia, was the Archbishop of Cologne. The chief superintendence, however, was in the hands of the emperor, who was usually, on his coronation at Aix-la-Chapelle, admitted a member of the society.

Their courts were either open or secret; the former were held by day in the open air, the latter by night in a forest, or in concealed and subterranean places. The process of trial, and the circumstances of judgment were different in the two cases; the former decided in all civil causes, the latter took cognizance of such as had been unable to defend themselves sufficiently before the open courts, as well as such as were accused of heresy, sorcery, rape, theft, robbery, or murder. The accusation was made by one of the Freischöffen, who, without further proof, declared, upon oath, that the accused had been guilty of the crime. The accused was then thrice summoned to appear before the secret tribunal, and the citation was secretly affixed to the door of his dwelling, or some neighboring place. The citation mentioned that the accused was to meet the Wissende at a certain hour and place, and to be conducted by them before the tribunal. Here by an oath the accused might clear himself; but the accuser might also oppose it with his oath and the oaths of witnesses. If the accused could not bring forward six witnesses in his favor, the accuser might strengthen his oath with 14 witnesses; and sentence of acquittal did not necessarily follow until the accused had supported his case with the oaths of 21 witnesses. The judges were all armed, and dressed in black gowns, with a cowl that covered their faces like a mask. The condemned, as well as those who did not obey the summons, were then given over to the Freischöffen. The first Freischöffe who met him was bound to hang him on a tree; and if he made any resistance it was lawful to put him to death in any other way. The punishment, however, was rarely inflicted on those who readily appeared, the judges being satisfied with cautioning the offender to redress the wrong he had been guilty of.

At length a great outcry was raised against these courts, and in 1461 various princes and cities of Germany, as well as the Swiss Confederates, united in a league to resist the free judges, and to require that the trial of accused persons should take place in open day.

Their influence, however, was not entirely destroyed until the public peace was established in Germany, and an amended form of trial and penal judicature introduced.