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The Vehmic courts, Vehmgericht, holy vehme, or just the Vehm, also spelt Feme, are names given to a tribunal system of Westphalia active during the later Middle Ages, based on a fraternal organisation of lay judges called francs-juges or Freischöffen ("free judges"). The principal seat of the courts was in Dortmund. The proceedings were sometimes secret, leading to the alternative titles of secret courts, silent courts, or forbidden courts. The courts took jurisdiction over all crimes during the Late Middle Ages, and those condemned by the tribunal were done away with by secret means. After the execution of the death sentence, the corpse was hung on a tree to advertise the fact and deter others.

The peak of activity of these courts was during the 14th to 15th centuries, with lesser activity attested for the 13th and 16th centuries, and scattered evidence establishing their continued existence during the 17th and 18th centuries. They were finally abolished by order of Jérôme Bonaparte, king of Westphalia, in 1811.

The Vehmic courts were the regional courts of Westphalia which, in turn, were based on the county courts of Franconia. They received their jurisdiction from the emperor, from whom they also received the Blutgericht (capacity to pronounce capital punishment) which they exercised in his name. Everywhere else the power of life and death, originally reserved to the emperor alone, had been usurped by the territorial nobles; only in Westphalia, called "the Red Earth" because here the imperial Blutbann was still valid, were capital sentences passed and executed by the Fehmic courts in the emperor's name alone.[citation needed]



Obscure origins

The term's origin is uncertain, but seems to enter Middle High German from Middle Low German. The word vëme first appears in the Middle High German literature of the 13th century as a noun with the meaning of "punishment". A document dated to 1251 has the reference illud occultum judicium, quod vulgariter vehma seu vridinch appellari consuevit. ("It is hidden justice, that by common fashion is habitually referred to as vehma or vridinch.")

The general meaning of "punishment" is unrelated to the special courts of Westphalia which were thus originally just named "courts of punishment". But as the word entered the Southern German dialects via Saxony and Westphalia, the word's meaning in Early Modern German became attached to the activities of these courts specifically.

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