10 Groundbreaking Legal Milestones from the Middle Ages That Shaped Modern Justice

Which moments from the Middle Ages transformed our understanding of law and justice? In Michael Roffer’s book, The Law Book: From Hammurabi to the International Criminal Court, 250 Milestones in the History of Law, he traces the codes, legal statutes, and trials that have helped shape civilization. The Middle Ages had their share of legal milestones, and here are ten that Roffer believes profoundly impacted our society.

1) The Justinian Code

One of the main accomplishments of the 6th-century Byzantine emperor Justinian was restoring the Roman legal system, which had become cluttered and outdated. This project created one comprehensive body of work to manage the laws of the empire, along with the philosophy and commentary behind them. According to one commentator, it “has been seen by many scholars as the seed from which sprouted all later Western systems of jurisprudence.”


2) The Tang Code

Created in 624, this set of laws examines criminal law and the appropriate punishments for specific offenses. Roffer writes, “one of the Code’s core objectives was to help maintain social order amid perceived declining morality through deterrence of unacceptable behavior.” Han philosopher Tung Chung-shu, who viewed the human and natural worlds as linked, greatly influenced the development of the Code. The essence of the code holds that an offense disrupted society, the proper balance of which could be restored by the appropriate punishment or, in certain cases, by confession and restitution.

3) The Quran

Islamic law is based on the Quran, which includes about 500 legal injunctions, as well as the sayings and traditions of the Prophet Muhammad, known as the Hadith. In the early centuries of Islamic society, their legal system evolved and flourished, becoming the foundation of secular law in many Muslim-majority nations.


4) Gratian’s Decretum

In the mid-12th century, the scholar Gratian completed his Decretum, a compilation of canon law. Legal scholar Harold J. Berman has called it “the first comprehensive and systematic legal treatise in the history of the West, and perhaps in the history of mankind.”

5) The Assize of Clarendon

Created by King Henry II in 1166, this law enhanced the power of royal courts over ecclesiastical courts in judging various serious crimes, including murder and robbery. The concept of juries was first established with the Assize of Clarendon, “providing the blueprint for one of the most significant procedural components of criminal law.”

Miniature of personifications of Prudence, as a young woman, and Justice, as an armed man bearing a shield inscribed with the word ‘Lex’ – British Library MS Royal 6 E. IX, fol.21

6) Lex Mercatoria

As trade continued to increase in medieval Europe, merchants developed informal customs and practices that served as their own law. “These rules,” Roffer explains, “collectively the lex mercatoria, or merchant law, became the governing doctrine for resolving commercial disputes in merchant courts that arose along major trading routes.” Many scholars view it as a precursor to the concept of international law.

7) Magna Carta

While the famous document from 1215 was soon voided by the Pope and ignored by the King and Barons shortly after it was issued, Magna Carta has long since inspired and molded legal thinking. According to legal journalist James Podgers, “that King John agreed to sign a document affirming the principle that no one, not even a monarch, is above the law was historic.” Legal scholar A.E. Dick Howard notes that the document had “enormous significance in the development of one of our most precious ideals: rule of law, a government of laws and not of men.”


8) The Statutes of Westminster

The cornerstones of Edward I’s reputation as one of the most important monarchs in England’s legal history were the Statutes of Westminster. The first set of laws was issued in 1275, followed by other sets in 1285 and 1290.

9) The Star Chamber

Emerging in the second half of the 14th century, the Star Chamber was created by the King’s Council to allow regular citizens to seek justice against even the most powerful men of the realm. Gradually, the seven men who sat in the court began to wield significant power, including the ability to create new laws. “For example,” Roffer writes, “it made crimes of libel, perjury, and conspiracy. However appropriate or necessary such laws were, the process inhibited political dissent and criminalized the expression of certain opinions.” The Court of the Star Chamber continued to operate until 1640.

10) Trial of Joan of Arc

Perhaps the most well-known trial of the Middle Ages took place in 1431 after Joan was captured and imprisoned by the English and their allies. In order to discredit the teenager who had led French forces to a series of military victories just months earlier, she was put on trial for heresy.


You can buy The Law Book: From Hammurabi to the International Criminal Court, 250 Milestones in the History of Law on