I swear by my sacred honour that I will hold and conceal the secrets of the Holy Vehm,
From sun and from moon,
From man and from woman,
From wife and from child,
From village and from field,
From grass and from beast,
From great and from small,
Except from the man
Who the Holy Vehm serve can,
And that I'll leave nothing undone
For love of for fear,
For garment or gift,
For silver or gold,
Nor for any wife's scold.


The Vehmgericht is a particularly interesting instance of vigilantism in history, primarily located in the area of medieval Germany known as Westphalia during the late 12th century. It was a Holy Order of the most mysterious and romantic kind, complete with initiation rites, ceremonial proceedings, and solemn summons nailed to trees in the dead of night.

The emergence of the Vehmgericht (or Vehme) is directly linked to the political situation in Germany during this period. The nation was comprised of many individual lordships ruled by princes (Henry the Lion might be the most famous of these), all of which were subject to the Holy Roman Emperor. However, it was a period of increasing feudal warfare and instability, with petty rivalries between lords and ineffective/independent legal jurisdictions creating an atmosphere of utmost lawlessness in many areas; Westphalia was one of the most turbulent of these spots.

The Vehme emerged to fill this gap in German law. Any freedman could become a member, provided he swore the oaths on pain of death. These adherents, known as Die Wissenden, or Knowing Ones were said to have numbered at least 100,000 and were organized into several ranks. Unhindered by a pesky bureaucracy, the Vehme operated from horseback; accused criminals were summoned to proceedings overseen by at least three judges, who delivered the sentence on the spot. There were only two potential rulings: acquittal, or death by hanging. If the accused failed to appear at the trial, he was immediately declared an outlaw, a sentence which, in the vast majority of instances, was equatable with death.

This brand of hard justice proved to be quite effective, if not exactly humanitarian. So much so, that Holy Roman Emperor Wenceslaus granted them jurisdiction elsewhere in Germany, and they subsequently appeared in Frankfurt (1386), Cologne (1387), and Lübeck (1399). They retained this support until the 16th century, when increasing corruption and waywardness within the tribunals brought about the wrath of the petty princes, and a general move against the judges. The persisted, however until the 19th century, around the time of the unification of Germany.

There is some question of the proper spelling of this term, both the Columbia online encycodpedia (bartleby.com), as well as encyclopedia.com contained references to Fehmgericht which simply said "see Vehmgericht." A Google search on the German domain only (.de) also returned both spellings at about the same frequency. It is suggested that Vehm- is the old German spelling, which seems to have persisted in English, whereas Fehm- is the more correct modern German spelling. Concrete evidence either way is welcomed, /msg me. Thanks to Gritchka and Siobhan and the others who have already contributed.

Lepper, John Heron. Famous Secret Societies. London: Sampson Low, 1920. (from an online text located at http://www.warhammer.net/anonftp/Miscellaneous/HolyVehm.txt)

Vehm"ge*richt (?), n.; pl. Vehmgerichte (#). [G. vefm, fehm criminal tribunal + gerichte court, judgment. Cf. Vehmic.]

A vehmic court.


© Webster 1913

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