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Justice as a Sign of the Law: The Tribunal of Fools

“The Fool Blindfolding Justice” was not the only image of that era deploying a blindfold as a warning against judicial error, as can be seen from the 1508 and 1580 editions of an illustrated volume, Die Bambergische Halsgerichtsordnung. The volume, setting forth the criminal law and municipal ordinances of the city of Bamberg, included some twenty woodcuts.

In the woodcut called “The Tribunal of Fools,” a presiding judge (marked by his rod of office, the collar of his robe, and his place of honor on the throne) sits with his four colleagues. All are blindfolded and wear jesters’ caps. The legend on the scroll above their heads reads: “Out of bad habit these blind fools spend their lives passing judgments contrary to what is right.” Once again blindness is equated with error. Blindfolds could also be found on other readily recognized Renaissance icons – Synagoga, representing the Old Testament, was bent and blindfolded (blind to the “light” of Christianity), while Ecclesia, standing ramrod straight and clear-eyed, embodied the New Testament. Similarly, Fortuna, and Eros were also shown blindfolded, exemplifying that the loss of sight leads one astray.

Bambergische Halssgerichts Ordenung (Metz: Johann Schöffer, 1508). Lillian Goldman Law Library.

Bambergische peinliche Halszgerichtszordnung (Bamberg: Johann Wagner, 1580). Lillian Goldman Law Library.

“The Remarkable Run of a Political Icon: Justice as a Sign of the Law” is curated by Judith Resnik, Dennis Curtis, Allison Tait, and Mike Widener, and is on display Sept. 19-Dec. 16, 2011, in the Rare Book Exhibition Gallery, Level L2, Lillian Goldman Law Library, Yale Law School.

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