To Catch a Medieval Thief: The Hue and Cry

Digitially reconstructed image of people responding to the hue and cry on a medieval street

Digitially reconstructed image of people responding to the hue and cry on a medieval street; (c) Algol,, with permission.

Stop! Thief!

Cries pierce the night air and echo down the narrow streets. Doors and shutters fly open, feet pound the cobblestone, and the pursuit begins. A criminal has struck in a European town, and the residents respond in the only way they know how. They are raising the hue and cry.

Before the advent of professional police, citizens helped catch the crooks. Everyone knew what to do. If you were the witness or victim of a crime, you cried out. Anyone hearing the hue and cry had to dash out onto the streets to chase and catch the culprit. Townsfolk made a citizen’s arrest and waited for a sheriff to arrive and haul away the suspect.

 Hue and cry in England

The hue and cry probably had its origins in Germany, where towns continued to use it well into the 17th century. In England, Æthelstan codified it as early as the 10th century. In 1285, the Statute of Winchester required bystanders to respond to the hue or face a fine. The system not only empowered communities to protect themselves, it ensured there would be witnesses. Any witness who didn’t raise the hue became suspect. In 1329, for instance, John Brayn witnessed a homicide in Northhamptonshire but failed to summon help with the hue and cry. He was imprisoned.

 Hue and cry in continental Europe

People used the hue and cry throughout England and continental Europe. What the victim cried out depended on the country.

  • In Germany, victims initiated the hue by calling out “Zeter und Mordio!”
  • In France, a victim hollered “haro,” “harou,” or “harue.”
  • Italians yelled “accor’uomo!” and Hungarians “Tolvaj!” (thief) or “Tulai!” (help).
  • In England, it was usually “thief,” “fire,” or “wolf,” depending on the situation. Shepherds used the latter, and crying wolf when no wolf is there amounts to nothing more than abuse of the hue and cry.
  • Other countries, like Spain, also used the hue and cry too, although I haven’t found exactly what words the Spaniards used.
City gate in Iphofen, Germany

City gate in Iphofen, Germany

 Role of city walls in the hue and cry

Besides the fleeing thief, pursuing townsfolk, and sheriff, a forth factor played a role in the hue and cry, and it was one that made it uniquely European and especially effective. The city walls trapped the thief so he or she couldn’t get very far. Towns had only a handful of exits at the city gates, and if the citizens raised the hue, the watchmen would slam the gates shut. Trapping the criminal made the chase easier.

City wall in Iphofen, Germany. For the fleeing criminal, these walls were usually insurmountable.

City wall in Iphofen, Germany. For the fleeing criminal, city walls were usually insurmountable.

The city walls did more to facilitate this medieval law enforcement method than just contain the suspect. Historian Emise Bálint pointed out that because of the medieval city’s layout, the hue and cry worked better. Buildings and walls better carried the ringing echoes of the cry through the streets and alleys. Houses were built bordering the streets, and without trees and shrubbery to absorb the sounds, residents could better hear a cry for help. People also lived closer together and were more likely to hear someone hollering.

Changes in city structure and improved law enforcement mean that the hue and cry is rarely used today. But it still occurs: Stories of victims crying out for help and a modern-day heroes chasing down crooks still grace our newspapers today.

The National Archives in the United Kingdom has an interesting website and game dealing with the hue.

Can you offer a modern example of this old law enforcement technique?

Literature on point

Emise Bálint, Mechanisms of the Hue and Cry in Kolozsvár in the Second Half of the Sixteenth Century, in Cultural History of Early Modern European Streets (Ledien, Bosten: Brill 2009) pp. 39-62.

Janka Rodziewicz, “Women and the Hue and Cry in Late Fourteenth-Century Great Yarmouth,” in Women, Agency and the Law, 1300-1700 (Abingdon: Routledge, 2013) 15:87-98.

Samantha Sagui, “The hue and cry in medieval English towns,” Historical Research 87(236):179-193 (2014).


Read More

Charms that Excused Perjury: A 19th Century Detective’s List

A witness testifying under oath

A witness testifying under oath. By bikeriderlondon, Shutterstock, with permission.

Is the witness lying?

It’s an important question for a detective – a train switch that can change the course of the investigation. Modern detectives can rely on lie detectors and subtle clues in body language. They get training based on sophisticated psychological research.

In the 19th century, a detective had to rely on his or her knowledge of human nature. A common technique was to question a witness over and over again to see if the story remained consistent. Detectives still do that today.

Crossing the fingers behind one's back was one of the charms that excused perjury.

Crossing the fingers behind one’s back was one of the charms that excused perjury. Photo from Pixabay.

But because folklore and superstitions about perjury ran rampant in bygone eras, detectives had to watch out for a whole list of things that would never occur to a modern detective. Witnesses used talismans or charms that excused perjury in the eyes of God – similar to a witness crossing his fingers behind his back. They thought these tricks negated the consequences of lying and absolved a perjurer from any moral and legal consequences. Just as a detective today would question the veracity of a person with crossed fingers behind his back, a 19th century detective had a list of folklore tricks to watch out for; they indicated the witness was lying.

Hanns Gross, father of modern criminology.

Hanns Gross, father of modern criminology, public domain.

 Charms that excused perjury

Hanns Gross, the 19th century Austrian professor and father of criminology, researched folklore about perjury and wrote about it in his landmark handbook for investigators. Austrian detectives put witnesses under oath when they interrogated them, but they needed to keep a sharp eye out for the tricks a witness might use to wiggle out from the weight of the oath. Here are some of them:

 Bird eyeballs

The eyes of two European birds, the hoopoe and lapwing, were supposed to bring luck in court. A person carrying them on their chest became “beloved.” In the courtroom, that meant one could escape from the consequences of the oath and lie even if sworn. The eyeballs would help the judge to view the witness’s case favorably.

Folklore ascribed magical powers to the hoope's eyeballs.

Folklore ascribed magical powers to the hoopoe’s eyeballs. Pixabay.

 Bones of one’s own child

Carrying the bones of one’s own deceased child supposedly excused perjury. Gross doesn’t mention how people obtained the bones. My mind doesn’t even want to go there. But the presence of a bone on a witness’s person should have been enough to arouse the detective’s suspicion.

 Bent thumbs

“Pressing” the thumbs is the German equivalent of the English crossing of the fingers; it’s supposed to bring luck. Bending the thumbs during testimony is another variation. Austrian detectives needed to watch out for witnesses employing this trick.

 Actions with the left hand

Putting your left hand on your side, making a fist with it, stretching out your left fingers, or holding your left hand backwards supposedly balanced out the right hand’s gestures in taking the oath. Left hand activity signaled possible charms that excused perjury to the astute 19th century detective.

 Actions with the mouth

According to folklore, spitting following taking an oath negated the oath. So did a gold piece under the tongue or seven pebbles in the mouth.

 Twisting the pants button

Twisting one’s pants button was another one of the charms that excused perjury Hanns Gross encountered. Witnesses did it while taking the oath to nullify its consequences.

Mistletoe in the shoe? That was one of the 19th century charms that excused perjury.

Mistletoe in the shoe? That was one of the 19th century charms that excused perjury. Pixabay.

 Mistletoe in the shoe

Mistletoe is for much more than kissing during the Christmas season. If you put it in your boot, on the sole, when you gave sworn testimony, it protected you from the consequences of your perjury.

 Burial shroud

The southern Slavic culture, according to Professor Gross, viewed parts of the burial shroud as charms that excused perjury. Carrying the clothing that bound the deceased’s chin, especially if it was still knotted, had magical powers that prevented the court from detecting or punishing perjury. Wearing the part of the shroud that bound the dead man’s feet in our own shoe had the same effect.

Watch out for a burial shroud in court.

Watch out for a burial shroud in court. Pixabay.

 Raising the right leg

In the Turkish culture, raising the right leg while taking an oath negated the oath and allowed the person to commit perjury.

 Can you add to this list about charms that excused perjury? Or superstitions about lying in general?

Literature on point:

Hanns Gross, Handbuch für Untersuchungsrichter (Graz: Leuschner & Lubensky’s, 1899) 372-373.

Johann Gotthold Kunstmann, The Hoopoe: A Study in European Folklore (Dissertation, Univ. of Chicago, 1938) 14

Ministry of Culture and Tourism, Republic of Turkey, Superstitions


Read More
error: Content is protected !!