In Dutch-speaking areas, a schout was a local official appointed to carry out administrative, law enforcement and prosecutorial tasks. The office was abolished with the introduction of administrative reforms during the Napoleonic period.
The exact nature of the office varied from place to place and changed over the course of time. In general, a schout was appointed by the lord (heer) of a domain (heerlijkheid) and acted in the lord's name in the local day-to-day administration of the domain, especially the administration of justice. A schout had three main functions: administration, law enforcement and criminal prosecution.
First, the schout was responsible for many local administrative matters in the town or heerlijkheid. The schout presided in the meetings of the schepenen. Together, the schout and schepenen made up what we would call the "town council" today. He ensured decrees were published. He sometimes represented the town or heerlijkheid in business matters or in negotiations with other towns. In these functions, a schout was somewhat like a modern-day mayor.
The phrase schout en schepenen appears in many legal documents from before the Napoleonic period, including the civil registration of marriages. Depending on the context and in what capacity they were acting, this phrase could mean something like the "mayor and aldermen" (i.e. the town council) or it could mean "the sheriff and magistrates".
Second, the schout was responsible for public order and policing. He was responsible for investigating a crime, apprehending a criminal and presenting the criminal to the court of magistrates (schepenen) for judgment. He or his men checked the drinking houses, carried out conscription orders, made sure taxes were paid and enforced the law. After a criminal verdict was given, the schout was responsible for carrying out the sentence. In these functions, he was somewhat like a modern-day chief of police.
Third, a schout prosecuted suspected criminals and presided over the sessions of the magistrates (schepenen) when they sat as a court. The schout was not the judge, but directed the court proceedings. In this function, he was somewhat like a modern-day prosecutor.
Schout is the word usually used in Dutch, but there were a number of other terms used for this or similar offices in Dutch-speaking lands. The terms used included schout, baljuw, drost, drossaard, amman and meier. Perhaps the most common alternative name for this office in Dutch was baljuw. Baljuw is usually translated into English as "bailiff".
The word schout, depending on its context, can be translated variously into English, usually as sheriff, bailiff, or reeve, but strictly in their respective medieval senses. As a result, the Dutch word is sometimes used in English (even though schout is not actually a word in English). In Dutch, the plural of schout is schouten.
The Dutch word schout comes from Middle Dutch scouthete, in turn from Old Low Franconian skolthēti, and is cognate with Old English scyldhǣta, sculthēta "reeve, (medieval) bailiff", German Schultheiß, (Swiss) Schulze "bailie (magistrate)", from PGmc *skuldi-haitijō "debt-orderer". The office was occasionally referred to in Latin as scultetus.
- As a specific example of how a schout functioned in a specific town, see the description of the office of schout in Leiden in R.C.J. van Maanen, ed., Leiden tot 1574, p. 75 (written in Dutch)
- Joan E. Jacoby (May/June 1997). "The American Prosecutor in Historical Context" (PDF). The Prosecutor. Retrieved 2008-02-25.
- I.M. Calisch and N.S. Calisch, Nieuw Woordenboek der Nederlandsche Taal, 1864
- Van Dale. Groot Woordenboek Nederlands-Engels. ISBN 90-6648-147-1.
- For example, see Simon Schama, The Embarrassment of Riches.
- For example, see Russell Shorto, The Island at the Centre of the World and David Nicholas, Medieval Flanders.
- Stefan Bielinski (April 1979). "The Schout in Rensselaerswijck: A Conflict of Interests" (PDF). A Beautiful and Fruitful Place: Selected Rensselaerwijck Seminar Papers. New Netherland Project. Retrieved 2007-07-11.