BC Social Studies Lesson Plans

Medieval Law

Grade 8


Medieval Law

Big Idea

Changing ideas about the world created tension between people wanting to adopt new ideas and those wanting to preserve established traditions.

Essential Question

How does Medieval legal history help us understand the origins of our current legal system?

Learning Standards

Students are expected to know the following

  • social, political, and economic systems and structures

Curricular Competencies

Students are expected to be able to do the following

  • explain different perspectives on past or present people, places, issues, or events, and compare the values, worldviews, and beliefs of human cultures and societies in different times and places (perspective)

Core Competencies

I can explain how aspects of our criminal justice system began in Medieval times.

I can analyze how the Magna Carta continues to influence the world today.

I can compare my world view and beliefs with those of Medieval times.

First People's Principles of Learning

Learning is embedded in memory, history, and story.

Mr. Ailward broke into his neighbour’s house to collect the money his neighbour, Mr. Fulk, owed him. Fulk came home and found Ailward in his house and had him arrested for theft.


Ailward claimed that he was innocent. But he had to undergo an ordeal to prove it. He was tied up and thrown into a pond. If he sank, he would be innocent. He floated—so he was found guilty. His punishment was that he was blinded.

  • Ask: Was medieval justice fair?
  • Provide students with the handout “Medieval Crime and Punishment: Fact or Fiction”. They should read each of the eight statements about crime and punishment during the Middle Ages and then indicate whether they think the statement is true or false.
  • Then provide students with access to the article Medieval Torture's 10 Biggest Myths to see check their answers.
  • Challenge students to revise each false statement to make it accurate.

Part 1: Medieval Courts

  • Provide students with access to the article Crime and Medieval Punishment and have them read the introduction.
  • Using a Think-Pair-Share strategy ask: How were punishments for breaking the law in Medieval times different from punishments today? (punishments were harsh, used physical punishments including death penalty, focused on deterrence rather than rehabilitation.)
  • Remind students that in the Middle Ages, land was owned by a Lord and farmed by peasants or serfs. The Lord provided safety and protection for the peasants or serfs who lived and worked on his manor. Explain that each manor had a court to settle disputes and punish those who did not follow the law.
  • Have student read the rest of the article Crime and Medieval Punishment and compare the Manorial Court with the King’s Court using the handout “Comparing Medieval Courts”.
  • Have students share their questions about trial by ordeal and their predictions about why it was replaced by trial by jury.


Part 2: From Trial by Ordeal to Trial by Jury

  • Point out that trial by ordeal may seem ridiculous to people today but in Medieval times it made sense.
  • Provide students with the handout “Trial by Ordeal” and access to the articles Trial by ordeal: When fire and water determined guilt and How did Medieval justice work?
  • Ask:
  • What role did religion play in trial by ordeal? (God was seen as determining guilt through the result.)
  • What role did community play in trial by ordeal? (The key to the ordeal was the interpretation of the result. The community would probably have had a good idea if someone had committed the crime or not so would interpret accordingly.)
  • Why did the Church stop supporting trials by ordeal in 1215? (Thought it wasn’t right to ask God to get involved in a trial to determine guilt or innocence.)
  • What role did King Henry III play in replacing trial by ordeal with trial by jury in England? (He issued an edict in 1219 to encourage trial by judge and jury to determine guilt or innocence.)


Part 3: Magna Carta

  • Point out that 1215 was not only the end of trial by ordeal, but it also saw the creation of the Magna Carta. Magna Carta is Latin for “Great Charter”. The Magna Carta is a document signed by King John of England and wealthy landowners (barons) that limited the power of the king and gave rights to the barons, including the right to a fair trial.
  • Show the video What is the Magna Carta? (3:32).
  • Ask:
  • What are some daily protected rights you take for granted?
  • Do they share similarities with those rights in the Magna Carta?
  • Provide students with the handout “Magna Carta in Canada” and access to Canadian Encyclopedia article Magna Carta. Have them read the section about the Magna Carta in Canada and complete a web to show how ideas from the Magna Carta have influenced Canada.


Part 4: Mens Rea and Actus Reus

  • Point out that Medieval courts in England considered both whether the accused committed a crime (Actus Reus) and also whether the person intended to commit the illegal act (Mens Rea). The accused’s state of mind mattered when judging their guilt or innocence. Mens Rea, Latin for “guilty mind”, asks whether the person intended to commit the crime.
  • Using a Think-Pair-Share strategy, have students discuss:
    • For an act to be a crime, do you think the accused person must have intended to commit the crime? 
    • Consider a situation where a person might have committed a criminal act without meaning to. Should the person be charged? Would it be fair for them to be convicted of the crime? 
  • Have students describe a situation where someone commits an illegal act but does not intend to:
    • where someone accidentally or unintentionally harms another person.  
    • where a person possesses something illegal but either does not know the nature of the substance or does not realize he has it.
    • where someone is acting on a mistaken set of facts.  
  • Provide students with the handout “Mens Rea and Actus Reus”. Have them work with a partner to consider each scenario and determine whether the person had the actus reus (guilty act) and the mens rea (guilty mind) necessary to be found guilty of the crime.
  • Explain that in Canada, most criminal offences require that a person be found to have had the necessary state of mind or mens rea for the offence before they can be found guilty. For many offences the mens rea refers to intending to commit the act but some offences require different states of mind (i.e. intending to cause death, knowledge of likely consequences, wilful blindness, negligence, and recklessness).  It is irrelevant whether or not the person knew the act was illegal. Ignorance of the law is not an excuse.
  • Have students respond to the following question:
    • How do my world view and beliefs compare to those of Medieval times?
    • How does Medieval legal history help me understand the origins of Canada’s current legal system?
  • They could present their learning in a paragraph, chart, web, comic strip, or format of their choice.
  • Pose the question: Should we get rid of prisons? Using a Barometer Strategy have each student take a stand on the issue anywhere between the designated areas for “strongly agree” and “strongly disagree”.
  • Read the following facts one at a time and allow time for students to shift where they are standing. You may want to ask students why they chose to shift their opinion.
    • There are more people in prison around the world today than at any other time in history.
    • The United States has the highest rate of imprisonment with 2 million people behind bars.
    • 40,000 Canadians are in prison and the number of Indigenous and racialized minorities in our prisons is rising.
    • Indigenous adults are 4% of the Canadian adult population and 30% of the prison population. Indigenous youth make up almost ½ of youth in prison but are only 8% of the Canadian youth population.
    • 80% of those in Canadian prisons did not graduate high school and 65% have less than a grade 8 education.
    • The cost of keeping one prisoner in a Canadian prison is $130,000/year.
  • Have students conduct an inquiry into the pros and cons of abolishing prisons. They could start their research with the CBC article If we abolish prisons, what’s next?

“7 Obscure Medieval Laws: These are the laws we're glad aren't enforced today.” [n.d.] English Heritage. https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/visit/inspire-me/obscure-medieval-laws/


“Crime and Punishment: Feudal law and its impact on rural village life” 2021. The London School of Economics and Political Science. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=rjbm0jNS2QM


“Elizabeth Papp Kamali: Medieval England’s Lessons for Today.” 2019. Harvard Law Today. https://today.law.harvard.edu/elizabeth-papp-kamali-medieval-englands-lessons-for-today/


Helmholz, R.H. 2001. "Fundamental Human Rights in Medieval Law." University of Chicago Law School. Chicago Unbound. (Fulton Lectures 2001). https://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=1006&context=fulton_lectures


“Magna Carta: A Major First Step.” 2020. Academy 4 Social Change. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=Ek_3VPSTeIM


“Medieval Law: How harsh was it really?” 2021. Quill and Ink History. https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=jh5PDkWQhc0


Neal, J. “Law & Order in Medieval England.” 2019. Harvard Law Today. https://today.law.harvard.edu/law-order-in-medieval-england/


"Ordeal." 2018. Encyclopædia Britannica. Encyclopædia Britannica, Inc. https://www.britannica.com/topic/ordeal


Paikin, L. "Mens Rea." 2013. The Canadian Encyclopedia. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/mens-rea


Pringle, A. “Criminal Law.” 2014. The Canadian Encyclopedia. https://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/criminal-law

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Last Reviewed

March 01, 2023

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