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Compurgation, also called wager of law, is a defence used primarily in medieval law. A defendant could establish his innocence or non-liability by taking an oath and by getting a required number of persons, typically twelve, to swear they believed the defendant's oath. From Latin, com = with, purgare = make clean, cleanse, excuse[1] L. com is also an intensifier[2] and turns a word into the superlative form, so compurgation, by etymology, means 'to thoroughly clean or excuse'.

Compurgation was found in early Germanic law, in early French law (Très ancienne coutume de Bretagne), in Welsh law, and in the English ecclesiastical courts until the seventeenth century. In common law it was substantially abolished as a defence in felonies by the Constitutions of Clarendon in 1164. The defence was still permitted in civil actions for debt and vestiges of it survived until statutory repeal at various times in common law countries, e.g. in England in 1833,[3] and Queensland, Australia at some point before the Queensland Common Practice Act of 1867.[4]

Wager of law (compurgation) survived to recent centuries, and, in many jurisdictions has been repealed by statute. An example of this is the Queensland Common Law Practice Act 1867, s 3.,[4] which makes direct reference to the abolition of wager of law.

"Wager of Law, obsolete for centuries" ... was "a living fossil ... a dead letter statute" and was repealed in England in 1833.[3]

See also[edit]


  1. ^ "English etymology of compurgation". Retrieved 2012-02-07. 
  2. ^ Delbridge, A, et al, Editors (1997). Macquarie Australia's National Dictionary. The Macquarie Library Pty Ltd. p. 388. 
  3. ^ a b Friedman, Lawrence Meir (1975). The Legal System: A Social Science Perspective. Russell Sage Foundation. p. 272. 
  4. ^ a b


  • Baker, JH (2002). An Introduction to English Legal History (4th ed.). London: Butterworths. pp. 5–6. ISBN 0-406-93053-8. 

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