Wager of Law

AuthorJeffrey Lehman, Shirelle Phelps

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A procedure for defending oneself that could be used in a trial before one of the ancient courts of England.

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A defendant who elected to "make his law" was permitted to make a statement before the tribunal, swear an oath that it was true, and present one or more individuals who swore that they believed he had told the truth under oath. This was the predominant form of defense in the feudal courts, and it persisted for a time in the common-law courts.

It had originated in Anglo-Saxon England in the ties of kinship that bound people together in the period before the year 1000, a time when each man was responsible for the acts of his blood relatives. Later, kinship gave way to a more tribal affiliation and a loyalty to the place of one's birth. When disputes more often than not led to violence, it seemed natural that neighbors would band together. They aligned themselves with a neighbor who was accused in court and swore that in good conscience they believed he was telling the truth. The number of oath-helpers required depended on the defendant's rank and the character of the lawsuit. Eventually it became standard practice to bring eleven neighbors into court to swear for the defendant. The oath-helpers were called compurgators, and the wager of law was called compurgation.

As the kings consolidated their power, suppressing violence and increasing the authority of the courts...

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