Formerly, when a person was accused of a crime, or sued
in a civil action, he might purge himself upon oath of the accusation made
against him, whenever the proof was not the most clear and positive; and
if upon his oath he declared himself innocent, he was absolved.
2. This usage, so eminently calculated to encourage perjury by impunity,
was soon found to be dangerous to the public safety. To remove this evil
the laws were changed, by requiring that the oath should be administered
with the greatest solemnity; but the form was soon disregarded, for the
mind became. easily familiarized to those ceremonies which at first imposed
on the imagination, and those who cared not to violate the truth did not
hesitate to treat the form with contempt. In order to give a greater weight
to the oath of the accused, the law was again altered so as to require that
the accused should appear before the judge with a certain number of his
neighbors, relations or friends, who should swear that they believed the
accused had sworn truly. This new species of witnesses were called compurgators.
3. The number of compurgators varied according to the nature of the charge
and other circumstances. Encyclopedie, h. t.. Vide Du Cange, Gloss. voc.
Juramentum; Spelman"s Gloss. voc. Assarth; Merl. Rep. mot Conjurateurs.
4. By the English law, when a party was sued in debt or simple contract,
detinue, and perhaps some other forms of action, the defendant might wage
his law, by producing eleven compurgators who would swear they believed
him on his oath, by which he discharged himself from the action in certain
cases. Vide 3 Bl. Com. 341-848; Barr. on the Stat. 344; 2 Inst. 25; Terms
de la Ley; Mansel on Demurrer, 130, 131 Wager of Law.
Source: Bouviers Law Dictionary 1856 Edition
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