Trials

The Sixteenth Century saw the Renaissance take hold in northern Europe, the spread of reading, and the first stirrings towards reason. However, reason remained beyond the ken of even the upper classes of European society.

The trial records of 16th Century Rome give good indication of just how little reason had penetrated the consciousness of most people. In transcripts (some incomplete) of nine trials, the magistrates examined the witnesses in great detail, sometimes using torture. Witnesses often lied, and the magistrates were hard put to extract the truth from some recalcitrant witnesses. However, there is no indication that magistrates ever used any kind of extended reasoning to get to the truth. There was little effort to use physical or documentary evidence to corroborate or refute a witness’s testimony. This was true even when such evidence was readily available. In one case, in which a woman was accused of witchcraft, she was confronted with a number of items found in her home that were clearly instruments of necromancy. But she claimed that they were the property of a friend who was conveniently out of town. No attempt was made to follow up on her claims.

In another case, a maidservant was accused of aiding and abetting the adultery of her mistress. The entire case boiled down to her word against her mistress’s. The matter could easily have been resolved by questioning the male adulterer, but his status as a nobleman apparently put him above questioning. There was some physical evidence in the form of money and letters that might have resolved the matter, but that too was never tracked down.

This reluctance to rely on physical evidence was partially due to the fact, that, under the law, a person could be convicted only by his own confession or by the testimony of two reliable witnesses. Physical evidence by itself had no legal weight. This is understandable, given the sloppy investigative techniques of the sixteenth century. Nevertheless, it is striking that every case was decided solely on the direct testimony of the accused and witnesses.

Even the use of witnesses was remarkably illogical. The trial of Sir Thomas More (1534), revolved around the question of whether he would swear an oath of allegiance to King Henry VIII as the head of the Anglican Church. More had refused to swear such an oath, but they couldn’t nail him for that, because an ancient law had specified that nobody could be convicted for something they didn’t say, only for what they did say, and More was too clever a lawyer to ever say anything self-incriminating. Indeed, he had refused to discuss the case with his wife and family for precisely this reason. In desperation, the prosecutor found a slimeball willing to perjure himself. The perjurer declared that, while visiting More in the Tower to oversee removal of More’s books, he had engaged More in conversation, during which More made several treasonous statements. More denied the allegation and pointed out that the liar’s testimony was completely inconsistent with More’s extreme circumspection in discussing the matter with friends, interrogators, and family, all of which was readily verifiable. More called as witnesses the laborers who had been in the room at the time of the purported conversation, and they couldn’t recall anything about the conversation. Despite the patent perjury, More was convicted and executed.

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