What was/is an ‘Outlaw’ ?
In Medieval England, an Outlaw was a man who had literally been placed ‘outside the protection of the law.’
Only men over 14 could be ‘Outlawed’.
Women were said to be ‘waived’ rather than Outlawed although the punishment remained the same.
Outlawry normally occurred as a consequence of a criminal or civil action, although the process could occasionally begin with a petition in parliament.
Criminal outlawries came from indictments for treason, rebellion, conspiracy or other serious felonies.
Civil outlawries were usually proclaimed only in cases of debt.
“Under the common law of England, a “Writ of Outlawry” made the pronouncement Caput gerat lupinum (“Let his be a wolf’s head,”) with respect to its subject, using “head” to refer to the entire person and equating that person with a wolf in the eyes of the law.
So, under English Common Law, not only was the ‘Outlaw’ deprived of all legal rights of the law being outside of the “law”, but others could kill him on sight as if he were a wolf or other wild animal.”
The ‘crime’ of Outlawry was therefore classed as one that attracted one of the harshest penalties under ‘Common Law’ as well as on the books of the English legal system.
It was also, often unofficially applied to anybody living outside, or on the fringes of society, regardless of whether they had committed a criminal act or not.
‘Outlawry’ does not appear to have found it’s way into Europe or across the Atlantic as a legal tool, as by the time of the founding of the American colonies, it was already disappearing in England.
Even the ‘Outlaws’ of the Old West, made famous by the movies coming out of Hollywood, were generally not declared Outlaws as such by any legal means.
Many of the often-quoted bounties being placed on people, were either offered by private citizens or local law enforcement, both of which acted mainly outside the mainstream legal system.
In reality, the legal situation in the American Old West was very similar to pre-modern England, inasmuch as the reach of the court was pretty limited.
Many judges travelled around the court circuits on horseback, sometimes only once or twice a year, which meant that local communities usually dealt with things in their own way, without ever going near a court of law.