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Holy Vehm

In the middle of the 13th century and at the height of Templar power, Westphalia in Germany was suffering from a state of lawlessness and oppression from loosened warriors, mercenaries and bands of outlaws. It seemed no innocent man could travel between the rivers Rhine and Weser, and so the Chivalrous Order of the Holy Vehm or Fehm was secretly created to encounter this state of affairs. It was created by ex-outlaws and freemen who now had families and business concerns of their own to worry about and so, with the initial backing and aid of the Holy Church, they took up arms and horse and chased down the tyrants. The name “Vehm” or “Fehm” was a corruption of the Latin word “fama,” a law founded upon a common or agreed upon opinion. However, “Fehm” could also mean something that was set apart, and the leaders of the Holy Vehm soon decided that their crusade against evildoers had set them apart and above the laws that governed others. The word vëme first appears in the Middle High German literature of the 13th century as a noun with the meaning of "punishment".

A document dated to 1251 has the reference illud occultum judicium, quod vulgariter vehma seu vridinch appellari consuevit. ("It is hidden justice, that by common fashion is habitually referred to as vehma or vridinch.")

The general meaning of "punishment" is unrelated to the special courts of Westphalia which were thus originally just named "courts of punishment". But as the word entered the Southern German dialects via Saxony and Westphalia, the word's meaning in Early Modern German became attached to the activities of these courts specifically. The peak of activity of these courts was during the 14th to 15th centuries, with lesser activity attested for the 13th and 16th centuries, and scattered evidence establishing their continued existence during the 17th and 18th centuries. They were finally abolished by order of Jérôme Bonaparte, king of Westphalia, in 1811.

In the beginning, the resistance group had the approval of both the church and the Holy Roman emperor. Eventually the Holy Vehm began to take the law into their own hands and held secrets sessions wherein they judged those they had caught and sentenced them often to death. Because the society began with only a handful of members and violent retaliation could be expected from any gang of outlaws who might learn the identities of those commoners who dared to oppose them, an oath of secrecy was imposed upon all those with the courage to join the ranks of the Vehm.

During the initiation the candidate would swear on oath to kill himself and his family should be reveal himself to be a member of the Holy Vehm. The judge or Stuhlherren would then place his sword across the candidate’s throats and draw a few drops of blood to seal the oath and serve as a reminder of the judgement he would receive. The initiate would then kiss the cross on the hilt. These oaths were often held in caves or the depths of the forests, and went something like this :
“I swear to be faithful to the secret Tribunal, to defend it against myself, against water, sun, moon, stars, foliage of trees, all living beings, all that God has created between heaven and earth; against father, mother, brothers, sisters, wife, children, finally all men, the head of the Empire alone excepted; to uphold the judgement of the secret tribunal, to aid in its executions…”

Below the Stuhlherren in rank were the deputy judges, the Freischoffen, and the executioners, the Frohnboten. The deputy judges and the executioners carried out the various tasks of inquisitors, jury, and hangman. Within a few decades of its formation, the Vehm had more than 200,000 free men and commoners in its ranks—each man sworn to uphold the Ten Commandments and to eliminate all heresies, heretics, perjurers, traitors, and servants of Satan. Once anyone was suspected of violating one or more of the Lord’s commandments or laws, he or she was brought before one of the Holy Vehm’s courts and was unlikely to escape the death sentence to be hanged. Because of the great power that the Vehm acquired, it conducted trials of noted outlaws and thieves unopposed in public places, such as village squares or market places, in the full light of midday.

Before suspects came to court, they were served with three summonses, each of which gave them the opportunity of attending voluntarily. Each summons also gave the accused a period of consent of six weeks and three days. Those who tried to escape were condemned without the usual pretense of a trial and Vehm executioners were assigned to hunt them down.

Because the tribunals of the Vehm were willing to accept the weakest of circumstantial evidence against any individual accused of a crime or an act of heresy, there appears to be no record of any of the secret courts ever finding anyone innocent. While no accurate records of their victims were ever kept, historians have estimated that thousands of men and women—the innocent along with the guilty—were dragged into the night to attend one of the Vehm’s secret courts.

Regardless of the charges levied against those victims the Vehm accused, the sentence was always death. And if any spoke in defense of their friends, they were likely to be hanged as well, for giving false witness to defend a heretic or a traitor. On those rare occasions when the tribunal failed to convince even its own members of an accused individual’s guilt, that unfortunate person was hanged to preserve the secrecy of the tribunal.

Eventually the Holy Vehm was condemned by the church and the German state, but the secret society remained active in a greatly diminished capacity. They remained, hidden and secret, being heard of in the early 19th century when the French under Jerome Bonaparte legislated against them at Munster.

Toward the end of the nineteenth century, they seemingly ceased all acts of violence. But they reemerged again with true vengeance in the 1930’s with the rise of the Nazi in Germany. For the first time in its 700-year history the Vehm came into the open, focusing its bigotry upon the Jewish people, judging them to be guilty of heresy.

Sources :
Secret Societies : Gardiner’s Forbidden Knowledge by Philip Gardiner;
The Gale Encyclopedia of Unusual and Unexplained Vol. 2 by Brad Steiger and Sherry Hansen Steiger;

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