How Medieval Europe thought of Justice

By Timothy R. Jones

The Early Middle Ages saw the creation of a legal system that transcended into all future periods of time. This fledgling legacy bestowed upon us by our forefathers was the culmination of  classical thought and religious influence that was synthesised and reasoned, until it became an applicable and useful tool in producing a cohesive nation-state.

The first major indicator of the medieval notion of Justice was St. Augustine of Hippo’s seminal De Civitate Dei (The City of God), written in the early fifth-century. Augustine, for his part, provided a theological basis for how a society should perceive justice and its validations for implementing that perception in a certain way. Essentially, the saint was arguing that Justice was a definable concept and could be seen to be issued in a correct or incorrect fashion with observable results. This is remarkable in its adherence to ancient concepts, fused with a Christian understanding of morality.


The idea of Justice as an inherent principle can be traced through the ages to Plato’s The Republic, which postulates a pure form of Justice as the key to a well-functioning society. The assertion that Justice can be handled correctly or incorrectly in reminiscent of Aristotle’s more teleological approach to observing the result of actions around him. De Civitate Dei aided in this endeavour by giving early medieval scholars and rulers a notion of the boundaries that constituted right and wrong. In this sense, served as the cornerstone for what was seen as verifiable justice and what by default, a violation of that concept. Ideas such as the good governance of a state pleased the religious undertones that form the basis of the text and were placed firmly within the realm of justice. This notion was defined and compared to an attempt to hinder good rule of any sort, which was placed firmly within the latter category of violations of justice.

Augustine’s’ text also clarified the divide between spiritual justice and terrestrial justice, although it is not the originator of this concept. The rules that the text enunciates for how justice should be recognised and implemented concern themselves with institutions that dealt with matters that contained to physical property or the actions of humans on the mortal plane.


Whilst this is lauded for its ability to keep secular society peaceful and abiding, it could not be allowed to be seen as a substitute for divine justice. This latter notion was that which was administered from heaven and naturally have superiority over human perceptions of morality. C.W. Previté-Orton, in his work The Shorter Cambridge Medieval History, summarises this rather poetically by describing the secular take on justice as “living in a pilgrim society journeying to the life to come.” In essence, humans were doing their best to live amicably until they reached the Kingdom of Heaven, where God’s version of Justice would be made apparent to them. Earthly justice was, according to Augustine, the best that humanity could offer, prior to the divine revelation of God’s justice being made apparent.

Pope and Emperor

It was in this division of earthly and spiritual justice that the very notion itself encountered its first major challenge as an institution in medieval society. The terrestrial and ‘inferior’ justice that was administered by humanity had become the standard for what people recognised as right and wrong, having been made manifest in the laws of realms across medieval Europe. The issue here was the institution which claimed to be the mediator of God’s will, the Church, was subjecting itself to these terrestrial laws and seemingly prioritising them above the alleged superiority of divine justice. This presented the need for a disentanglement of the two similar concepts and for this correction to be reflected in the basis of medieval society.

Division between Pope and Emperor – Heidelberg, Universitätsbibliothek, Cod. Pal. Germ. 167, fol. 18r

Pope Gelasius I (492-6) offered perhaps the most substantial answer when conversing with Emperor Anastasius (491-518) in which he described the ‘two by which this world is ruled in chief’, referring to the competing administrations of the secular royal courts and the divine justice which the church claimed a monopoly on. The Pope reminded the Emperor of the inherent superiority of the divine justice and this was generally accepted throughout Europe as an immovable, if abstract, fact.

The results of this dialogue and subsequent editions by successive Emperors, Popes and scholars was to create the separation of the secular and spiritual courts into separate administrations that operated in theoretically different spheres. This allowed for divine justice to be seen as having its representation in the church given a more vocal position in the world, whilst the terrestrial justice created by man could still do its job unimpeded. It was this distinction that whilst resolving the previous issue, was to present an altogether more central dilemma for the development of justice in Medieval Europe. The two courts each had their own management system that rested ultimately with the King, controlling the secular and the Pope as head of the courts spiritual. The two proponents often experienced conflict, of varying degrees, in establishing themselves as the final authority through which justice could be ascribed in the name of.


This is one of the major developments in medieval justice because of the ultimate failure of the royalist or imperialists arguments to claims of legal superiority. This occurred because they had no choice but to admit that despite a comprehensive legal system based on the concept of a terrestrial law, that law was naturally submissive to church teaching on the subject. This was because work such as Augustine’s De Civitate Dei and later work such as that from St. Bernard in De Consideratione had proclaimed that all forms of human governance, inclusive of laws and regulations were really just expansions of the divine justice that could be alluded to in scripture. This rendered the secular argument to independent law making as totally invalid given that anything that it produced was derived directly form and reflective of the divine law that informed clerical justice.

This development in what might be tentatively termed the adolescence of medieval justice was highly significant in forming the prominence of the church’s teaching on justice over the justice administration that formed the basis on secular society. This status quo would exist in more or less the same manner from the early medieval period and into the High Middle Ages.

The relationship was occasionally revealed through disputes between particularly judicious or ambitious kings and clerics. The most notable example of which was the discord between King Henry II of England and his turbulent priest, Thomas Becket. Whilst this affair revealed an uneasy wrestling of power between monarch and church, it also demonstrated that the system has evolved to adapt to this kind of dispute and was eventually able to resolve it within its own protocols. King Henry underwent a penance, in keeping with ecclesiastical teaching on making amends, and saw the issue resolved without a major overhaul of the position of justice in the medieval world.


Further Reading:

Brown, Andrew. Church and Society in England, 1000-1500 (New York, 2003).

Bartlett, Robert. The Making of Europe (Princeton, 2004).

C.W. Previté-Orton. The Shorter Cambridge Medieval History (Cambridge, 1953).

Joan Evans (ed.) The Flowering of the Middle Ages (London, 1966).

Timothy R. Jones  is a graduate student in Medieval Studies at the University of Lincoln. Click here to read more articles by Timothy

Top Image: Detail of a miniature of Justice seated, with a sword and scales. British Library MS Royal 19 C II   f. 49v