This is kind of a companion question to this one (How to reconcile a feudal system with a congressional/parliamentary democracy...?), so if you are looking for some extra context, you can read this question first.

I realize the anachronistic nature of this concept, but that's kind of the idea. I am just mostly interested in seeing how to combine conventions and workings of modern law enforcement, within reason, with a medieval/Middle Ages setting and the challenges that presents.

I know, for example, that knights were supposed to hold the peace over land that they were assigned, and that in some countries this was such a task for a single person (or a small group of people) that the ancient precursors of our idea of "police" were basically armed volunteers, groups that were supposed to eventually go away and never did. And in other parts of Europe, local lords appointed people under a constable to handle the law for them, etc. It's traditions like that which I want combined with present-day police forces, insomuch that that is possible.

If I need to refine the topic, let me know.

  • 4
    $\begingroup$ This is not anacronistic at all. Medieval China and Japan had proper police forces. If you think about it ancient Rome had something close to it too. Policemen were just called 'guards' back then. $\endgroup$ Jul 7, 2016 at 3:52

4 Answers 4


The primary anachronism is that a modern police force is essentially a state controlled bureaucracy and essentially part of the State apparatus to monopolize and control the use of force.

Polities in the Middle Ages do not resemble states at all, and the Feudal system essentially breaks things down into personal holdings which (as you correctly point out) were the responsibility of a single individual to manage and maintain. At the lowest level, a Knight could police his own domain, or have a constable to do it for him, but their reach is only to the border of the domain. Once a criminal manages to escape the feudatory's domain, then they are essentially home free.

Indeed this situation is similar to the extreme Libertarian position of "competitive police forces"; why will force A cooperate with force B, and what happens when I don't recognize the authority of your police force?

The other issue is what happens once the "police" catch a criminal. While there was a justice system of sorts in the Middle Ages. it was neither standardized or universal. What might merit a flogging in one jurisdiction might be punishable by death in another. In a civil case, the "police" might not even be needed; the quarrelling parties are brought to the local lord who either adjudicates on his own, or maybe pits the two in a trial by combat.

Until the development (or recreation if you will) of a centralized state by the Treaty of Westphalia in 1648, the conditions needed for a modern police force simply did not exist (and indeed it still took Sir Robert Peel to institutionalize the idea of a public police force in 1829).


Feudal systems (where you would expect to find knights and lords) and police forces don't really mix. In general, the more centralized a government is and the more power the local leader wields, the more likely there is to be a police force (or 'guard') making sure that everyone follows their rules.

Of course, strong central governments aren't exactly a new thing - Japan, Rome, even ancient Babylon had them. Instead of basing your social system off of feudal medieval Europe, base it off of one with larger cities, stronger rulers, and better organization. A city guard might use swords (or crossbows) instead of guns and horses instead of cars, but the concept of a loyal guard hired by the city to keep the peace probably hasn't changed much in the past thousand years, so other aspects of the story can follow the same conventions as any modern cop drama if you want it to.


Finally a SME question, so my first answer to the forum.

  1. Policing has a long history as being an all-community tasks. When populations are small, and movement between communities limited, it would be quite easy for most petty crime to be dealt with, within the community. This maybe mob justice, or formal hearings in front of the all powerful local lord. See Nights Watch for how this was implemented (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Watchman_(law_enforcement))

  2. The first civilian policing service you probably are familiar with is Peel's London Metro Police (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Metropolitan_Police_Act_1829). By then London had 2 million people, so it is easy to be unidentifiable whilst you commit crimes, the community run policing doesn't work. Prior to this courts would issue arrest warrants, and private 'thief catchers' would use citizen arrests powers to drag people before the court - often paid for by the victim. (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Thief-taker)

  3. A few proto-police forces prior to Peels Police are the Roman Praetorian Guard later supplemented by the Urban Cohort (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Cohortes_urbanae) and French Maréchaussée (https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/National_Gendarmerie#Early_history_of_the_institution). | Both start life as the king's(or emperors) personnel guard force, and their presence signaled the kings personal interest in matter. Also not all government enforcement isn't all about criminal justice that came about later in history - for example customs inspectors or tax collecting - both pre-modern.

    • 3A. Prior to the praetorian Guard Ancient Roman republic also featured magistrates who could order anything (judge equivalent) they would have Lictors follow, but who could en-act anything the magistrate demanded.(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Lictor)

    • 3B. The French Maréchaussée became French Gendarmes, they were almost all ex-military, moved away from their local province and severed the King not local lords. They would police towns ensuring they providing conscripts to the national army, policed the roads between towns, police vagrants who moved between towns (which locals hated at untrustworthy). Over time they would be the butting heads representing the Kings laws against the Local lords, their laws (and their police).

    • 3C. Ancient Rome sold the right to collect taxes to private contractors. The sale of the contract was the "tax paid" and the government didn't care what happened next. I think for large parts of history this was how it worked. The Lord in charge of salt duties at the port would pay \$10,000 to the king, collect $20,000 in taxes - keep the profit.(https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Publican)

Something going forward.

  1. They key thing is the police would serve the powers that be (either rule of law as set by parliament, independent judiciary, king or lord). This may not align with community expectations. Unlike today's central authority, you could have competing police forces one enforcing the kings laws, the other enforcing community laws.

  2. No one cared about petty crime and policing until the population is so large the community can't self police anymore. Until then the police operate to enforce other laws - like conscription that the community would not enforce.

  3. Not really raised before but the police only gather evidence to the extend the person deciding guilt needs it. This mean if their is no fair trials, their is no need for evidence gathering.

  4. Policing by the state could be substituted for sold rights to enforce ; or citizen rights to enforce.

  • $\begingroup$ I don't think Romans used $ $\endgroup$
    – L.Dutch
    May 1, 2020 at 13:01
  • $\begingroup$ FYI, the most common symbol used in Roman accounting looked like "HS" which stood for 1/2 of a sestertii. This would have been the average hourly wage in the Roman Empire. $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    May 1, 2020 at 14:23
  • $\begingroup$ @Nosajimiki - 1/2 of a Sestertius (singular) $\endgroup$ Jan 14, 2021 at 19:06
  • $\begingroup$ @chasly-supportsMonica youtube.com/watch?v=IIAdHEwiAy8 $\endgroup$
    – Nosajimiki
    Jan 14, 2021 at 19:19
  • 1
    $\begingroup$ @Nosajimiki - Quite right! Now don't do it again ... $\endgroup$ Jan 14, 2021 at 19:33

What History Gives Us to Work With

Many pre-modern civilizations had police forces of various sorts. Most were just military personnel, bounty hunters, or bodyguards of public officials, but some larger civilizations had proper police forces. The big difference between now and then was not the existence of people to enforce the laws but the differences in training, accessibility, technology, and structure.

Training: Modern cops have access to specialized training based on decades of research into human psychology that helps them de-escalate volatile situations and effectively interrogate people for the truth. Without this training, police forces are much more likely to resort to violence as a first response; so, when an untrained cop comes across a domestic dispute, it's more likely to end in floggings for everyone than a peaceful resolution.

Accessibility: The invention of the telephone has made police much more able to respond to issues in real time. If there is a crime being committed now, you have a good chance of being able to contact an officer within a relatively short amount of time, but in most ancient cities, the best you can do is walk to the nearest magistrate building and report the crime well after it's happened. This lack of accessibility meant that common citizens were much more expected to carry arms for self defense and perform citizen's arrests as necessary.

Technology: Modern forensics is an unfathomably huge factor in what makes modern legal systems different. In pre-modern times, there was literally no way to prove a crime 99% of the time; so, there is no real basis for the role of a detective or evidence based trial in such a setting. Instead most criminal disputes were resolved by who was "more trustworthy" which typically translated to who has the higher social status. This also made the prosecution of nobility nearly impossible.

Structure: Modern police forces are designed to follow the same set of rules they enforce. They are separate from the judicial system whereas most medieval police like forces were retainers of the lords who also wrote the laws and judged all cases. This separation helps keep modern police from accumulating to much political power and losing track of their function of protection and serving.

How to Mix and Match

Training: The most sophisticated and specialized pre-modern police force were probably the Roman Vigiles. Literally translates to "watch men". The Vigiles were full time professionals hired to patrol the streets, enforce the laws, prevent fires, and arrest criminals. In other words they were the police and fire department all wrapped into one. Because they were non-military professionals, Rome could devote enough time to properly train their police forces to be "police" and not "city guards". This distinction is important when training police because the later is trained on how to deal with enemies whereas police are trained how to deal with citizens.

Accessibility: Again, the Roman Vigiles are going to be your best blueprint for this. While you can not achieve the same level of accessibility as modern cops without phones, the fact that they patrolled the city streets is a HUGE improvement over most other pre-modern police entities. This means they had eyes on places where crime was most likely (shops, ports, major road, etc.) and there was always a chance that no matter where you were in the city that if you did something illegal that a Vigil might walk by and catch you doing it. So, not as accessible as modern cops, but certainly comparable to the police forces of the 1800s. You could also give your cops pipe whistles (invented in the 1200s) so they could coordinate over large distances similar to how early British police did.

Technology: This is going to be your hardest hurdle because your setting by definition does not have modern tech. This means you have no forensics evidence with which to create reasonable evidence of most crimes. This means you need a system that decides what reasonable evidence is in lue of proof. In a modern courtroom, evidence is evaluated by Subject Matter Experts who are professionals who specialize in the analysis of certain kinds of evidence. Judges and juries turn to these people's rhetoric to really make the case of guilt or innocence more so than the evidence itself which is often far to technical or abstract to actually be evaluated by non experts.

This means that your courts will need to employ the best experts at getting the truth you have such as fortune tellers or torturers...

Or, if you want a more fair system and don't mind going into non-historical systems, you could add a special class of fictional investigator to your society who are just people renowned for their ability to use logic and observation to find the truth. Think Sherlock Holmes, Shawn Spencer, or Dr. Lightman, but instead of this being a single exceptional person in your story, have an entire bureau of such people drawn from society with these special talents who are then trained to push those talents to their absolute human limits. In reality, veteran cops are usually right about who is guilty even when they can not prove it; so, at its core, this is a system that relies on the fine tuned intuition of the best of the best cops to help judges make their final decisions.

Structure: Marrying historical feudalism and a modern law enforcement system is mutually exclusive. Feudal law gave local lords unlimited executive, legislative, & judicial power within their own fiefdom which means that "law" is not a justice system but a set of guidelines designed to set expectations, but those expectations could simply be ignored when it is convenient to those in power.

To get around this without totally abolishing feudalism, you need to separate your lords into judges, executives, and legislators. For example, it could be that only the King has the right to pass laws, only provincial lords have the right to command and organize the police forces (like a county Sheriff), and only local lords like knights would have the right to preside over legal cases.


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