Danish Penal Law in the Middle Ages: Cases of Homicide and Woundings
By Helle Vogt
Paper given at REUNA: Legal history on the edge of Europe: Nordic law in the European legal community 1000-2000 a.d (2008)
Introduction: In 1476 the Danish nobleman Erik Ottesen Rosenkrantz ordered a copy to be made of the compendium Saxonis, which was a shorter version of Saxo’s Res Gesta Danorum. Erik Ottesen wrote a prologue to the manuscript about the Ten Commandments, which he found was the best guide for you’re the conduct of life. The Fifth Commandment, Thou shall not kill, was glossed by him as Thou shall not kill unless the law allows you to do it either yourself or through instructions to others. This clearly indicates that Erik Ottesen found that killing could be legitimised by the law, or at least that the law either did not ban all killings, or did not prescribe the same punishment or condemnation of all killings.
With this statement in mind, the purpose of this article is to introduce and discuss the development of penal law in Denmark in the Middle Ages, and to explain it both in the light of the domestic conditions and the foreign influences especially, from Sweden and Germany. The focus will be on homicide and woundings. Theft and other economic crimes, as well as sexual offences, will not be discussed since they were primarily were covered by canon law, and when they start to appear in the secular laws in the late Middle Ages this is probably due to a change in the view of the relationship between secular and canon penal law, which is a subject which is much too broad for this article.
Our knowledge of legal practice in Denmark in the Middle Ages is very limited, since almost no court reports have survived from before the fifteenth century, and it is only since the Reformation in 1536 that records of judgments have survived. Therefore the focus here is on the laws, and any discussion of how they were applied in practice plays a minor role in this article.