Law’s Federation: the trials of Captain Kirk

Trials in Star Trek

It is interesting to see the ways in which a mid-20th C American sci-fi series portrayed legal process, with all sorts of references to what was and what ought to be (in a fundamentally just entity like the United Federation of Planets, and its military wing, Starfleet). I recently watched Series 2 episode 12, ‘The Deadly Years’, which includes a ‘fascinating’ [thank you Mr Spock] legal proceeding to determine whether Captain Kirk should be relieved of his duties, due to physical and/or mental incompetence.

The story revolves around mysterious and rapid degeneration which affects members of the crew, including Kirk, who have visited a planet, Gamma Hydra IV, making them age about thirty years per day. Spock, also affected by this process, but, due to his Vulcanicity, not to quite the same extent, is obliged by a guest character – the bossy but ultimately rather incompetent Commodore Stocker – to set up and chair a competency hearing.

Spock acts as Presiding Officer, chairing and also examining witnesses (so not the classic common law judge role). he process is directed to answering the question ‘is Kirk unfit to command’, a decision to be made by vote by a board, after hearing evidence from witnesses (directed to examples of Kirk’s repetition of orders, forgetting that he had signed things, showing a failing memory, as well as his previous good memory – showing decline) and evidence from a computer assessment of Kirk’s physical health, confirmed by expert witness (but also board member) Dr McCoy. The board deliberates in secret. Kirk would seem to have the right to call witnesses, though chooses not to call them. Unlike the splendid dress uniforms seen in Star Trek court martial scenes, we are in normal uniforms here, with four board members arrayed around a modernist asymmetrical table, other crew members (witnesses, unclear if they had a vote) behind them, and Kirk on the other side on a ‘naughty chair’. The outcome is that he is found unfit, and is relieved of command. It does appear to be correct, according to the story, but perhaps one might wonder at the potential for injustice in the role allowed to several other officers affected – albeit perhaps to a lesser extent – with the same condition as Kirk. There is no obvious appeal from the decision, though once the cure is found an Kirk’s condition reversed, he seems to just resume his command, without formal process – a little slack, surely, unless the decision included a provision for this eventuality.

Looking forward to more Final Frontier Laws …

to be continued.


A fine body of metaphors?

Lawyers and legal historians do love a body metaphor, don’t they – they are all over the place, from descriptions of marriage (one flesh, unity, man as head woman as body versions …) to Baker’s ‘The Law’s Two Bodies’, to all of those rather repulsive metaphors about precedent and childbirth (which somehow segues into horse breeding – you know the one I mean: Bagnall, Cowcher, Denning, Eves), and the even more dodgy ‘emasculation’ references (male bits = good; no male bits = weak and useless). I suppose it all goes back a long way; maybe calling a collection of law a ‘corpus’ did not help. Some interesting possible routes along the lines of Corpus Iuris > Corpus Christi > transubstantiation > it’s OK to make fanciful metaphors about bodies when discussing very definitely disembodied, world of the mind, types of things. Wouldn’t it be an interesting experiment to just … not. The campaign against body metaphors for things that are intellectual constructs starts here (once I have removed several ‘corpus’ references from chapter I’m currently working on …

Legal History and the Decolonial Approach: Thoughts and Questions

I have researched and taught in the area of Legal History for more than two decades. In teaching, coming straight from a taught postgraduate degree in the 1990s, I took over a unit formerly run by Andrew Borkowski, and changed it little by little. It has evolved in various ways (more crime and family, less court in-fighting), but has, until recently, remained firmly anchored in the framework of the Maitland-Milsom-Baker school of ‘classical’ legal history. In the last 5 years or so, first on my own, and then with the input of new colleagues, the ‘socio-legal’ content has been expanded, and, in particular, gender perspectives have come to the fore. What has not really been prominent, however, has been race/colonialism. We are now thinking about that for next academic year – had in fact been doing so even before ‘everything kicked off’ in Bristol this summer, with the Colston statue toppling etc., though that has given a new urgency to this. We will certainly be including more relevant reading and subject matter on this, but the whole exercise, and the initiatives of colleagues in the Law School, has made me begin to think more deeply about things which should undoubtedly have occurred to me before, in particular, asking:

What does the classical framework of English Legal History owe to racialised, colonial mindsets?

I can’t pretend to have a very good answer to this yet, but it seems important at least to pose the question. The ‘classical school’ – and the Selden Society which is one of its most respected manifestations – arose at much the same time as the peak of imperial self-satisfaction, and the popularisation of eugenic theories. What connections should be brought out, in terms of personnel and ideas? There is certainly a feel of ‘linear tunnels’ about the sort of causal connections, and teleology which is evident in some nineteenth century legal historical writing. There is a fair bit of connecting English legal traditions to conveniently monolithic ‘Germanic’ lines of development, and fighting off the suggestion of Roman inspiration. There is very little consideration of other possible influences, or comparators beyond the ‘Western civilisation’ mainstream. There is much ignorance of the legal traditions even of the nearest ‘subject lands’, Wales and Ireland. This has fed through to much modern English legal history, which tends to marginalise the colonial aspects of the common law’s historical realm. The British Legal History Conference is probably the whitest conference I know: recent organisers have clearly made some effort to diversify the content, but the centre of gravity is still England before 1700.

This leads me to question my own research choices, which lie firmly within this comfortable centre. My choice of period of special interest was due to a combination of factors, ranging from childhood fascination with knights (and monks, up to a point, but not ladies and definitely not the ‘lower orders’…) to a bloody-minded determination not to be shut out of something because I did not go to the sort of school which taught Latin, and wasn’t going to be talked down to by a load of posh boys, to the supervision available to me for Ph.D., and, probably, an eager-to-impress desire to take on something well-regarded by lawyers and historians alike. From a beginning in law and economic regulation – a little bit political, but nothing to scare the legal historical horses – I moved into the study of women (definitely regarded as eccentric and ‘trendy’ in some quarters) and, to a certain extent, Wales (quaint but unthreatening?). Although of course there is scope to venture beyond the British Isles whilst sticking to the medieval period, I have never done so, and the state of the discipline during my academic life has not encouraged me to do so. I am not likely to change focus entirely, but, even within medieval legal history, I think there is the prospect of considering with a critical perspective the portrayals of the past which have been allowed to predominate, how they arose and what is missing from them.

History is so important to an understanding of Law’s colonial legacies, and yet Legal History has not really been engaged. Much to ponder – which is as it should be.

GS 29/6/2020

Recommended on the Decolonial Approach: Foluke Adebisi  ‘Decolonising the University of Bristol’ Foluke’s African Skies (28.10.19)


Gender running Amok? Thoughts on classic Star Trek episode ‘Amok Time’ (1967)

This episode (the first episode of the second series) has several iconic aspects – first appearance of Chekov, first time out for the Vulcan salute and only trip to Vulcan in original Star Trek – but on rewatching it during my lockdown completist marathon, I was struck by two things. The first was the Legal-Historian-pleasing ‘trial by battle’ between Spock and Kirk with lirpa – weapons looking not a million miles away from medieval judicial duel weapons. Another time. It’s the second I went away thinking about, and will muse upon here – the portrayal of women. Not strictly Legal History, I suppose, but then again, both LH and Sci-Fi are about messing about with time, imagining other eras; and there are certainly some resonances with ideas about women in history, so I think I’m allowed.

The fabulous Lt Uhura on the bridge is not given much attention here – she is just doing her job. The three who are prominent are Nurse Christine Chapel, on the Enterprise, and, on Vulcan, T’Pau and T’Pring. These three all interact with Spock, who is in the grip of the pon farr mating urge, and, to cut a long story short, has to go to Vulcan to consummate his union with T’Pring, or, it is feared, he will die.

Chapel is the least inspiring of the trio. She is revealed to be hopelessly keen on Spock, fussing about after him and bringing him Vulcan soup. Very nurturing. Doesn’t go down well, though, Spock is quite nasty to her.

The best action is on Vulcan, where we have the powerful T’Pau – a diplomat, judge, and more, who presides over what was supposed to be a marriage and turned into a ritual battle – and the fascinating T’Pring. As Lt Uhura exclaims, she is beautiful.

The portrayals of T’Pau and T’Pring are very interesting. They are in some ways positive and forward-looking (in earthly terms – remember when this was written) but the writers could not quite let go of the assumptions of their own times. T’Pau, for example, is respected by all, but is portrayed as rigid and perhaps cruel. Powerful woman as ‘cold-hearted-bitch’ model? T’Pring is clever – even Spock praises her logic – but we are supposed to see her as a bit of a scheming minx and Vulcan ‘gold-digger’, arranging things so that she can get Spock’s property but be with the beefier Stonn instead. I wondered to myself, also, whether it was easier to give power to women who were ‘other’, rather than to the human women, who, on the Enterprise, were always subordinate to men. The Vulcans were portrayed as decidedly ‘Oriental’ (in an indefinite, pan-Asian manner). T’Pau on her litter, with her formality, was particularly reminiscent of an empress of China. Then again, she did remind me slightly of the statues of the BVM which are carried through Spanish streets on holy days. (That of course would make a nice contrast with T’Pring as an Eve-like temptress).

Vulcan law and customs as portrayed here include elements popularly regarded as ‘medieval’ – as well as trial by battle, we had marriages arranged by families at an early age, and the idea of a wife as the property of a man. I was particularly disappointed to hear T’Pau buying into the ‘wife as property’ thing: not much female solidarity with T’Pring there. I assume that there was no Mr T’Pau, otherwise, on this evidence, she would have been at home being a chattel. Even Spock entered into woman as property trope territory when he left Stonn with a little speech about ‘having’ not being as good as wanting (T’Pring, or women in general…) I must say, I came away from watching this as a grownup feeling admiration for T’Pring, for playing the system and getting out of what was clearly a most illogical arrangement. Live long and prosper, T’Pring! (And give Nurse Chapel some tips on not being an inter-galactic  doormat).

GS 27/6/2020

Veins, venom, a ‘leech’ and a canon: suspicions in medieval Cornwall

Something interesting turned up in my plea roll trawling today (or at least it is interesting if you are interested in medieval crime, medicine, religious houses or Cornwall). …

In 1431 (reign of Henry VI), a ‘leech’ (medical practitioner) and a canon of the Augustinian Priory of St Stephen at Launceston fell under suspicion following the death of John Honylond, who had been prior of the same house. As two indictments and two plea roll entries show, the accusation was that John Leche, also known as John Lowell, leech, of Launceston, had killed the prior, both by poisoning his food and drink and also by a cutting procedure (per succisionem), aided and abetted by Richard Yerll, one of the canons of Launceston Priory. The accusation described the killing as false, felonious and treacherous. It also explained that Leche had been retained by the prior since 1427, after he had performed a surgical procedure on the prior’s leg, presumably giving satisfaction on that occasions. No reason was given for the alleged homicide, in regard to Leche or to Yerll. The allegation that the killing was done treacherously (proditorie) is interesting (for those of us who like that sort of thing), in that it hints at even more disapproval than the usual description of such actions as ‘felonious’. It does not really say anything about the subjective intention or state of mind of the alleged offenders, but it shows that there is a possibility that this might be regarded not ‘only’ as felonious homicide (which would be punished by hanging), but as ‘petty treason’ under the 1352 Statute of Treasons (the punishment of which would include ‘extras’ in the shape of being ‘drawn’ as well as hanged). The statute singled out for specially brutal and spectacular treatment homicides which offended against particular hierarchical relationships: wives killing husbands, servants killing masters, religious killing their superiors. Women in these categories would be burnt, men drawn as well as hanged. Richard Yerll, if guilty, would seem to fit reasonably snugly into the category of ‘monk and abbot’ – perhaps there might have been some scope to argue differences in the relationship between monk and abbot in other orders and canon and prior in the Augustinian order. John Leche is a bit more difficult to see as falling into the category of ‘petty traitor’. He was, in modern parlance, more of an ‘independent contractor’ than a ‘servant’ of the prior.

The common lawyers did not, however, get a chance to get their teeth into either of these thrilling areas of potential legal squabbling, since the case never really got anywhere. Yerll appeared as required, but, since Leche, the principal, did not turn up, the case was delayed. Matters went on in the usual desultory fashion until 1438. Leche was acquitted in 1431, but, for reasons which are not clear, process against Yerll was not officially stopped until 1438. This anticlimactic dribble of an ending is not unusual: it was rare indeed for plea rolls to show convictions in this period. Correlation between the findings of juries and the facts of any case is not to be assumed. We will never know whether there was a conspiracy to bump off the prior, which is frustrating, but it is interesting to note the raising of suspicion against the medic in this case. Obvious questions arise: was this part of a more general suspicion or criticism of what may have been aggressive surgical interventions? Was there personal animus against Leche, Yerll or both? It may be that there is more which can be found out about the leading players, but, at the moment, during our own health emergency, the records relating to the priory, in Oxford and Cornwall, which might help here, are beyond my reach. I will, therefore, have to leave it there for now, in the hope that I will be able to flesh it out in the future.


KB 9/225 mm. 39, 40 (AALT IMG 77, 79)

KB 27/681 m. 6R (AALT IMG 161); KB 27/686 m. 4dR.

GS 14/6/2020

Legal History, Slavery, Colonialism

The last few weeks have been full of news of protest and direct action relating to racism, slavery and colonialism. As no one in Bristol can have failed to notice, it has been the week when the most prominent statue of slaver Edward Colston finally fell.

At the place where I work, the University of Bristol, this has brought to the forefront of minds  various issues to do with naming of buildings, and the University logo. The names of families whose wealth derived from slavery are prominently commemorated here, and the emblem of Edward Colston, a dolphin, is included in the University logo. These names and the logo are under review now – and quite rightly (though possibly putting out a tweet to announce this and … using the Colston- commemorationg logo to do so … was not the best call). Both the University and excellent and doughty scholars within it, as well as committed historians outside academia, have been looking at these issues for some time, but recent events have lent it all a particular urgency, and have also drawn in a much wider group of academics who know that we should be doing more, and faster, to try and make the education we offer both inclusive for all students, and also sufficiently energising and mind-expanding to cause positive change in the local community and the wider world.

I have, for many years, run a unit on Legal History for our Law undergraduates. It has always attracted excellent, sparky students who are alive to injustice, including racial and gender injustice, in the world. We have plans to include more on this in the next academic year. I dare say the issue of statues, putting them up, pulling them down, will feature. At the moment, though I am thinking about a couple of other issues: how the common law and common lawyers were implicated in slavery and colonialism, and how Legal History itself has been affected by having been developed as a discipline in the heyday of colonialism and racism. There is a lot to think about, and to do – and, as a medievalist rather than an expert on later periods, I am going to be synthesising the work of other, expert, scholars where I can find it – but it feels as if Legal History needs to put its metaphorical shoulder to the wheel.

Some of the questions which occur to me straight away:

  1. Is there a general survey of lawyers (or legal institutions) as slave-holders? I have put out a Twitter bat-signal to try and see what there is ‘out there’, having drawn something of a blank in my own preliminary searches – I suspect that there might not be, though there are sections and statements in various, disparate works. If there is not such a general survey, how can a start be made on this? Individual biographies are one way to go, I suppose, as well as checking the writings of lawyers themselves. It would be particularly interesting to make a start on lawyers in Bristol …
  2. In what ways has common law doctrine been implicated in slavery, racism, colonial projects? (Huge – obviously – and equally obviously there is excellent work here by historians, but it also seems that there are gaps with regard to more doctrinal (‘dry’?) parts of law, and areas in which a bit of imagination, and consciousness of the issue, might bring up a wider set of connections).

This morning, a cross check in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography has shown me some interesting lawyer/slavers, which is a start for no. 1 at least

[And on the Bristol-Colston front, I just came across another example of his ‘philanthropic’ ubiquity in Bristol – there is a charitable foundation called the Dolphin Society, which might want to be a little firmer in its dissociation from Ed and his murderous works …

Also the ODNB (updated 2008?) has EC article entitled  ‘Colston, Edward (1636–1721), merchant and philanthropist‘. Very neutral…]



There is more ‘Colstonalia’ in Bristol – and more websites which might want to consider saying something stronger about the wrongness of slavery. Today’s example (accessed 13/6) is this one


A programme which those who are not regular watchers of Welsh language TV might have missed …

Dylan ar Daith – S4C programme (Welsh – with subtitles!) on Thomas Picton, governor of Picton, cruel even for the times. Interesting to see the Welsh coming to terms with not having been pure with regard to slavery. Some stories I had not heard here – worth a watch to see what you think of its tone.


Mirrors and Borderlands: some Lockdown reflections on a recent project

In what now seems like the very far-off pre-lockdown part of 2020, an article of mine was published, the culmination of a project I had been working on for two years or more, and had presented, at different stages in its development, to audiences at the International Medieval Congress in 2017 and the British Legal History Conference in 2019. Before the current crisis began, I had decided to write something about it for the Law School research blog. In this post, I will do that, but since this unexpected period of locked-down working has prompted more general reflections upon work and life, I will also offer some personal reflections on the project, and some of the more general thoughts about law, history and scholarship which are presenting themselves to me with some force at the moment.

I: The Article

Judging a Hereford hanging: Agnes Glover v. Walter Devereux, William Herbert and others (1457)[i] considered the events of a few days in the spring of 1456, when the English city of Hereford was taken over by a mixed Welsh and English force, led by notable men of south east Wales and Herefordshire. William Herbert and Walter Devereux, along with their kin and connections, the Vaughans. A member of the Vaughan family – Watkin Vaughan – had been killed in Hereford, slain with an arrow through the heart, as one record has it, and the Herbert-Devereux-Vaughan allies came to Hereford to seek justice or revenge for this outrage. They obliged local citizens to try and convict six Hereford men for the killing, then proceded to hang them. Legal action followed, as Agnes Glover, the widow of one of the hanged Hereford men attempted to prosecute the main offenders. The case went on for some legal terms, but, in the end, there was a spate of pardoning, and nobody was punished in accordance with the full rigour of the law.

Perhaps it may seem unremarkable that there would have been an episode of disorder at this point in time (as the ‘Wars of the Roses’ period geared up) or in this particular area (the English-Welsh border having a reputation for tension), and unsurprising that nothing much came of the widow’s attempts to bring to justice those who had caused the death of her husband (since so many medieval ‘criminal’ cases ended without conviction and punishment). Nevertheless, this incident and associated cases seemed to me to be worthy of further investigation, and discussion, partly because of the unusual nature of the available records, and partly because of some issues relating to ciminal law and ideas about law which were striking to a legal historian, but had been left out of political historians’ treatment of the Hereford incident.


i: The records

The documents in this case are much richer than those available in relation to many medieval offences. There are records from ‘the centre’ – the plea rolls and indictments which make a formal note of the (many) stages of legal proceedings. There are law reports in the ‘Year Books’. These were accounts of arguments in cases deemed to be of special interest, made and circulated by lawyers. Putting together report and record can really expand understanding of the proceedings, and it is always very satisfying to be able to match up the different sources. A great bonus in this case is that there is actually even more contemporary material besides these ‘legal’ sources. Most importantly, the incident and its aftermath have left a trail in Welsh poetry, and there is also a reference in an English source, the Paston Letters. Welsh poets of this, ‘the golden century of praise-poetry’ were predisposed to favour the Herberts and Vaughans, as powerful figures in Wales and the borderlands, and also important patrons of the Welsh bards. Perhaps not surprisingly, all things considered, the literary evidence proceeding from this school of poetry gives a positive spin on what might otherwise look like banditry. The relevant section in the English Paston Letters, on the other hand, shows considerable contempt for the Welsh, and ignorance of their language and customs.[ii]


From my own point of view, this was by some distance the best treasury of contemporary sources I have ever worked with in my legal historical investigations, and it was backed up by some very fine secondary scholarship. The work of Dylan Foster Evans and Helen Fulton on the relevant praise poetry, and on William Herbert, was essential.[iii] There was also the rewarding experience of working with an excellent thesis from the 1970s, on fifteenth century Hereford, which I had out on loan from Swansea University.[iv] Holding and reading that physical volume, typed on one side of the paper only and corrected with Tippex and painful care, and with a ‘borrowed by’ list at the front containing the signatures of several of the most prominent late-medievalists of the twentieth century, brought an unexpectedly vivid connection with more recent history, with things which have passed away in my own lifetime.


ii: Borders and centres

My research, particularly in integrating the law reports into the story, showed me that the common law struggled to fit cases like this – cases of wrongful execution following some sort of legal proceedings – into the available modes of prosecution. It seemed as if some sort of limit to the ordinary law of felonious homicide, centred around a simple ‘man 1 hits or stabs man 2, man 2 dies instantly’ paradigm, was being reached. The reports show lawyers grappling with whether this could really be treated just like any other killing, and whether someone like Agnes Glover should have a right to bring a criminal prosecution. In a criminal justice system which relied on private initiative for some prosecutions, and which had not wholly accepted that dealing with killers was the crown’s business alone, these questions could be troubling. Previous political historical treatment of the 1450s has tended to pass over this, its accounts of the weakness of central control emphasising local corruption and royal incompetence, but I argue that at least part of the problem was caused by the common law’s uncertainty and the flaws in its procedure.


In terms of geographical borders and centres, this research gave me much to consider in relation to the attitudes of different groups to the common law and its reach within the realm of the king of England. While the Herbert-Devereux-Vaughan faction were prepared to make some concession to co-operation with common law processes, their main strategy was forceful and extra-legal. It might be seen as inflected with a Welsh sensibility, given the particular emphasis placed upon the duty of kinsmen to respond to the death of one of their own which is to be found in native Welsh laws, but this distinction should probably not be taken too far: Cyfraith Hywel, the collected laws of the Welsh, did not favour forced show-trial and execution, and kin-vengeance was still part of the thinking behind some aspects of English common law procedure as well.


One of the additional perspectives which a legal historian can bring to this area comes from consciousness of the ‘time travelling dimension’of law reports, as they are handed on from one generation to the next, their arguments to be re-used and developed. When a case such as Agnes Glover’s appeal of Herbert and Devereux is made the subject of law reports, it takes on a life of its own, being cited in future legal works and cases, shedding what are considered unnecessary details and, in the process, changing in meaning. Within the common law tradition, the case soon dispensed with the need to name the claimant, and mangled some other names. It also cast off its geographical moorings, so that, in printed Year Books, it looks as if the location was Hertfordshire rather than Herefordshire. This may be a slip of just one letter, but it does demonstrate that the root of the dispute, in violence on the English-Welsh border, was not regarded as particularly crucial by the common lawyers in and around Westminster. Central control might not be terribly effective on the ground at this period, but it had a strong grip on the minds of the elite members of the legal profession.



II The Reflective Bit: the historical and the personal

In my early years as a lecturer and researcher, mentioning that my area of investigation held not only intellectual but personal fascination would have been unthinkable, so wedded was I to the idea of academic objectivity that any admission of emotional engagement with the subject of my research would have struck me as entirely unprofessional. I have learned since – from colleagues, from scholars I admire, from life – that detachment is not always the Holy Grail. Thus, I no longer have a problem with putting a few personal reflections ‘out there’ in this form (I did edit them from this for the Law School blog, mind you! Still some work to do …)

First of all, it’s worth explaining that I have particular reason to find all this interesting. The Herberts and their relations the Vaughans were based in what really is the ‘Land of My Fathers’. Places such as Abergavenny, Raglan and Tretower, which feature amongst the relevant locations of the raiders, are deeply familiar from childhood, and resonate from the parchment. The language of the poets resonates too, and presenting this paper to the British Legal History Conference was the first time I dared to recite a line or two of Welsh poetry in that decidedly Anglo-centric gathering. It felt a little like speaking the language of the Elven realm, if not in the land of Mordor (where the shadows lie), at least in the Shire. As J.R.R.T. had it in the 1950s, ‘Welsh is beautiful’.

The other thing I find extremely satisfying in projects like this is bringing to light the stories of women of the past. It was good to be able to bring Agnes Glover out into the open, and to show both her determination to try and do something about the loss she had suffered, and also what she was up against, in this attempt.


Concluding thoughts: moving on from Agnes, William, Walter and Watkin

As is so often the way, and despite the unusually full range of records relating to her case, Agnes Glover gives us the slip in the end, disappearing from the record as her litigation ground to a halt, and Herbert and Devereux, pardoned, lived to raid on other days. Watkin Vaughan was commemorated by praise poets and avenged with impunity.[v] It feels a little ungrateful, having got a couple of conference papers and an article (as well as some good teaching material for the undergraduate Legal History unit) out of these characters, to bid them farewell, now, but it is time to move on. I will, however, be expanding on two of the themes raised in this research in future projects, currently at an early stage, one on wrongful execution, and the other on insulting the Welsh, so Agnes, William, Walter and Watkin may be back for the odd cameo appearance.

Gwen Seabourne

May, 2020.

[i] Midland History 45:1 (2020) 2-17

[ii] N. Davis (ed) Paston Letters and Papers of the Fifteenth Century vol. II (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976), p. 172.

[iii] H. Fulton, ‘Guto’r Glyn and the Wars of the Roses’, in ‘Gwalch Cywyddau Gwŷr’ Ysgrifau ar Guto’r Glyn a Chymru’r bymthegfed ganrif; essays on Guto’r Glyn and Fifteenth-Century Wales, ed. D. Foster Evans, B.J. Lewis, A. Parry Owen (Aberystwyth, 2013), c.2; D. Foster Evans, ‘William Herbert of Raglan (d. 1469) family history and personal identity’, same volume, c. 4; D. Foster Evans, ‘Murder in the marches: poetry and the legitimisation of revenge in fifteenth century Wales’, Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium 18/19 (1998-9), pp. 42-72.

[iv] A. E. Herbert, ‘Public Order and Private Violence in Herefordshire, 1413-61’, M.A. Thesis, University of Wales, Swansea 1978.

[v] Elegy to Watkin Vaughan of Bredwardine. Foster Evans, ‘William Herbert of Raglan’, p. 100; D. Foster Evans (ed.), Gwaith Hywel Swrdwal a’i Deulu (Aberystwyth 2000), poem 23

Positively (though mostly negatively) Dickensian

‘Dickensian’ came up a few times in my recent search for uses of ‘medieval’ in the reported pontifications in Parliament, and it seemed an interesting additional line to pursue. Hansard 2015-20 (online) tells me ‘Dickensian’ has cropped up 80 times in that period.

Some of the uses are rather clueless. It does appear that there are some MPs who think that ‘Dickensian’ is a label for a particular period of history. I suppose I see what they mean – vaguely 19th C -ish time – but it does look odd to see James Cleverly rather dimly spouting about the ‘Dickensian and Edwardian eras’.[i] Not just historically vague, and mismatched with the certainty of ‘Edwardian’, but also suggesting a lack of understanding of the fact that Dickens was predominantly a writer of fiction (whereas the Edwardian era was not a story made up by a bloke called Edward). We also see ‘Dickensian if not medieval’ – a particularly weird history/fiction from an entirely different period crossover.[ii]

Unsurprisingly, the general import of ‘Dickensian’ is negative. There is one possible exception, though the statement is somewhat confused: a ‘noble Lord’ suggests that people see ‘Dickensian’ Britain as something of a golden age (without immigrants),[iii] but this is unusual. Whenever there is talk of squalor, or contagious disease, then there is likely to be an outbreak of ‘Dickensians’. The standard scientific unit for disease, poverty and squalor may in fact be the ‘Dickensian’.[iv] ‘Pauper funerals’ seem to demand it too.[v] Calling poor employment conditions ‘Dickensian’ may have some justification (Scrooge, O. Twist, etc. etc.),[vi] but Dickensian’ is dragged in as a general intensifier of badness, even when the subject matter is not something with which Charles Dickens would have had particular sympathy. Not sure that Dickens is that into discussions of tax either, though it’s not that much of a stretch to imagine a storyline based on the ‘Bedroom tax’ and its effects.[vii] But, despite the frequent criticism of anti-trade union legislation as ‘Dickensian’, I am not sure that Dickens had a huge amount to say about trade unions (what am I forgetting?), but a.[viii] A rather selfish individual (see treatment of his wife) and one who sneered at efforts at solidarity (see Mrs Jellyby in Bleak House), I don’t see his sympathies lying with combinations of workers.

Slightly better-focused references, to complex administration – I presume we are thinking Circumlocution Office – pop up occasionally.[ix] See also what is perhaps a reference to Hard Times in relation to education,[x] and a decent point on management style, suggesting Scrooge (though let down by a rogue ‘feudal’ – clearly another one I need to look at).[xi] I was taken by a decently creative use of ‘Dickensian’ by David Lammy: in an attempt to get some of his fellow MPs to see that gangs and gang violence are not inevitably a ‘black issue’. Adopting the language they love is a smart move.[xii] White people can be rough too – Dickens show us. Bravo.

An interesting (in the sense of mask-off nasty compound-sneering) usage is seen in remarks responding to a ‘Dickensian’ gambit: a Tory MP, infuriated at the suggestion that something his government have done (the entirely modern mess of Universal Credit) is ‘Dickensian’ has a go at a Labour MP by mocking the sentimentality of A Christmas Carol.[xiii] Unwittingly ‘Dickensian’ (in the sense of a touch of the Pecksniffs) himself.

The ‘literary name-drop-pile-up’ is seen a few times: thus, for example we may be treated to ‘Orwellian’ meeting ‘Dickensian’.[xiv] There is a ‘Dickensian’/’Trollopian’ mash-up.[xv] I confess to a sneaking appreciation of one MP who really goes for it with the literary references, giving us not only ‘Dickensian’, but also ‘Kafka-esque’ and Catch-22.[xvi] If you are going to ‘culture-drop’, go big, and show that you realise it’s all a bit showy-off and public school debate-ish. Alternatively, of course, just speak straightforwardly and truthfully. I know, that’s never going to happen.

(Tension mounts – future episodes may include: which literary male is most frequently ‘dropped’, what use is made of ‘feudal’, ‘Biblical’ and ‘the size of Wales’? More anon – ooh, a bit Shakespearean there!)




[iv] E.g.













Measly Members? Horrible Medieval History in the Houses of Parliament

Our elected representatives (and unelected hangovers in the House of Lords) swan around on a site with huge medieval resonance. From time to time, MPs like to refer to the medieval buildings and heritage of their constituencies, or try and use medieval precedent to do something positive to improve parliamentary procedure.[1] Sometimes, they make a good medieval reference – my heart was warmed to see mention of what medieval churches were actually like,[2] of petty treason,[3] and even weights and measures regulation.[4] More often, they simplify and sanitise medieval events and institutions in a banal and feeble way – I am looking at you Rishi Sunak, with your blether about how great medieval apprenticeships were,[5] and many others fan-boying Magna Carta.[6] More than one, of course, trots out the old ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin’ debate, both to show off a dangerously little amount of knowledge, and also to belittle the amazing medieval scholars who would actually WIPE THE FLOOR with many of our governing classes.[7] There are worse things though, and this post will muse upon a few of the many references to the ‘medieval’ which are highly negative and also highly questionable, based on Hansard between 2015 and 2020 (all available online, and as this is a blog post, not a formal article, I am just going to copy the links rather than going for full dress footnotes). This is only partly the grumbling of a medievalist who feels that people should make more of an effort to get things right: I also think that there is a real danger in the tendency to reach for the adjective ‘medieval’ to describe all that is bad and brutal, clumsy and just … other.

At the irritating end of the spectrum, we see these types of dimwittery:


Made that word up. What I mean here is the mistaken labelling as ‘medieval’ of things which occurred at a definite later date. Obviously, there is room for disagreement about the years which should be called ‘medieval’, but conventionally, in England and Wales, they end with the fifteenth century. Henry VII probably sneaks in as the last medieval-ish monarch, but with Henry VIII very few people would deny that we have crossed the boundary into ‘early modern’. So calling the Council of Trent (1545-63) ‘medieval’ would seem to be wrong, as would calling the events of ‘a couple hundred years ago’ ‘medieval’.[8] See also pirates going after Spanish galleons – characteristically early modern.[9] We don’t hear about ‘early modern brutality’ though, do we – even if we should. Torturing Guy Fawkes, anyone? Beheading queens? Capital punishment for hundreds of different offences? Not medieval.


A real word, honestly. This one is the sin of taking something which was arguably a feature of the medieval period, though it could equally be attributed to other periods, and labelling it ‘medieval’, as if that was the only time it happened. A testimony to the snowballing effect of regular precipitation of negative ideas on the idea of the medieval. (Pretentious and wrenching metaphors in the same sentence – good effort). See, for example, ‘medieval’ references with regard to poor treatment of women and sexual minorities.[10] There is a good case for saying that some things at least got worse for these groups after the medieval period. Rape law was not favourable to women in the medieval period, but nor was it greatly altered for centuries thereafter.[11] Likewise, there is a tendency to pick out medieval medicine and science as proverbially backward, though it is not clear that there was a huge improvement in many areas in the early modern period, or thereafter. The description of cholera as ‘medieval’ rather ignores the huge outbreaks in the UK in the nineteenth centuries, and many avoidable outbreaks thereafter.[12] Were squalor, hunger, inequality or cruelty to animals over by 1500? That would seem to be the implication of the references to ‘medieval conditions’, ‘medieval famine’ and the medieval nature of badger-culling, cruelty to dogs and cock-fighting.[13] The idea that the medieval period was less democratic than the sixteenth century is also not obviously correct – both had such a small ‘community of the realm’ that they were outstandingly undemocratic, if democracy is understood in any modern sense, and, as far as women are concerned, no change until 1918.[14] Women’s different experience, of course, is never central to these sloppy grabs at history.

General confusion and random ‘medieval’ references

There is some odd talk about the Declaration of Arbroath – it is the ‘oldest medieval text’ (it’s certainly very important, but, unless there has been a secret re-designation of ‘the medieval period’ as beginning the day before its sealing in 1320, not remotely the oldest medieval text).[15] The idea of the immigration detention system as medieval seems odd: it is far more modern, and much was founded in living memory – we can’t ‘historically distance’ ourselves from that one.[16] The idea of a limit on family size is equally peculiarly designated medieval.[17]

There are also some episodes of random period-dropping – such as that of Robert Jenrick, who can remember three periods, medieval, Georgian and Victorian (are these, perchance, the periods of the various residences he just had to visit during the lockdown period?)[18]*, and by God he is going to throw them in, despite the fact that they are, erm, sufficiently separated in time to make no sense as a group.[19] Another pick and mix-up comes from Pete Wishart, talking about the medieval graves of Stuarts, Plantagenets and … Roundheads.[20] See also the pseudo-historical meets literary mash-up of a portrayal of Parliamentary procedure as somewhat Dickensian and reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland, as well as possibly medieval.[21]


Then there are the more serious misuses

‘Medieval’ politics

There is a tendency to describe government action which seems to be unaccountable, or over-reaching powers, as being like that of a medieval monarch.[22] Essentially, what is going on here is a misattribution to the medieval period of later theories of divine right kingship. There were certainly checks and balances on medieval monarchy – just ask Edward II or Richard II.



There is a general sense – made respectable to many by progress narratives such as that of Pinker – that the medieval period was one of a different order of violence and brutality to other, later ages. Medievalists themselves do not tend to support this view. There are obvious contenders for greater bloodshed – the Thirty Years War, WWI, … and more recent contenders for genocidal and religiously motivated violence. Locating brutality in the medieval period, however, pushes it away to a comforting distance. They were not really like us, after all; they were not really us.

To add a twist, the context in which we tend to see this ‘medieval brutality’ idea is in connection with Islam and the present other. It is almost obligatory to describe violence by ISIS, the Saudis or Iran as ‘medieval’. Clearly, there is much to disapprove and oppose, but what is added by calling it ‘medieval’?[23] There are lots of questions about this – whose ‘medieval’ is meant? Is the comparison with medieval Europe or with the medieval period in the Islamic world? If the latter, how does that work, when a strong tendency of historical study of the medieval Islamic world emphasises its advanced learning, culture, and capacity for tolerance? In one particularly muddle-headed statement, ISIS are likened to ‘medieval religious crusaders’.[24] Crusaders? Really? So much going on there.

It is Interesting to note that the only other regimes I saw labelled ‘medieval’ in their brutal behaviour were China and Myanmar – not Islamic – in fact acting against Muslim minorities – but certainly foreign (not even European!).[25] Very bad but very not-medieval, on either their own terms, or in terms of medieval western Europe.


Make ‘History’ History

It is interesting what can be turned up in an hour, with access to a search engine. Without even getting into some obvious additional terms – ‘feudal’, ‘vassal’ or the dreaded ‘Dark Ages’, it is pretty clear that there is some serious abuse of the term ‘medieval’ going on in Parliament. I wish they would stop, and give up the attempts at rhetorical flourish using stupid stereotypes and misinformation about people of the past. Not only do they make our representatives look foolish, and insult scholarship, but they also serve more pernicious purposes, allowing us all to perform ‘historical distancing’, and slough off the guilt of our own times, and the many horrendous things we might have done more to stop.

Wouldn’t it be good if this nonsense could be jettisoned along with the ludicrous ‘This Place’ and ‘The honourable member..’ claptrap. Oh, and the House of Lords. Unlikely, I know – in fact there is probably a whole heap of ill-informed Black Death meets Covid-19 connections ‘oven-ready’ for the next session of Parliament.

[1] See, e.g.,







[8] 16th C as medieval




[12] See, e.g., (on disease) ;

On treatment of those with mental health issues or learning disabilities: 5E35A4B2971A/MentalDisorderAutismAndLearningDisabilities?highlight=medieval#contribution-792EDDFC-2316-4CCB-A74D-207F3BD68356

On science

[13] Squalour:



Cruelty to animals:

[14] Medieval and undemocratic

[15] See







[22] See, e.g.,

[23] See, e.g. ‘medieval monsters’

Saudi Arabian punishment: Saudi Islam

Iran v Saudi Arabia: a ‘medieval-off’:

[24] Isis as medieval religious crusaders

[25] brutality

Medieval behaviour

‘Medieval’ watch: a Mirror of Injustices?

Time for a new ‘-watch’, I think. Not exactly a new peeve, but, like many of those who spend a lot of time trying to get to grips with the world of c.500-1500, I do tend to recoil at the frequent, lazy, and inaccurate descriptions of things regarded as brutal or primitive as ‘medieval’ (possibly also throwing in the ‘Dark Ages’, to compound the sloppiness). Today’s description in the Mirror, of Chinese ‘wet markets’ as ‘medieval’ ( ) has prompted a bit of an investigation of how the modern press is (mis)using ‘medieval’. When I say investigation, I mean search on the website of the Daily Mirror, having persuaded the search engine that I do indeed want to look up ‘medieval’ and not ‘Meghan’ or ‘Megxit’. Still, it’s a start.

It seems to me that there are two main categories of misuse:

First, we have the straightforward type 1 ‘detached slur’ instances – in which ‘medieval’ is thrown in, as a synonym for all that can be thought of as backward. The ‘wet markets’ example is a classic type 1 case. While it is true that butchering practices in medieval England were not concerned with animal welfare, and were seen as a matter in need of regulation to avoid nuisance to cities, it is the scale of modern animal-exploitation which is the most dangerous thing in terms of disease-promotion. Were people to go back to medieval levels of meat-consumption, we would be likely to see a fall in many problems, including disease. I am a vegetarian, and would be glad to see an end to all sorts of animal slaughter, but focusing on ‘foreign’ practices, and labelling them ‘medieval’ feels very wrong. There is more than a touch of racism in it, as well as its inaccuracy from a historical point of view.

Then there are the type 2 cases in which there is a bit more of a chain of connection – the comparison is with a particular (supposed) aspect of medieval life, though either the connection is questionable, or the aspect of medieval life is represented inaccurately. A case of this type from the Mirror was their description of a deadly ‘duel’, allegedly set up to decide which of two potential love-interests would acquire a woman, as ‘medieval’: ; Yes, there was such a thing as the judicial duel in medieval England, but, in the age of recorded legal history, it was not frequent, not necessarily deadly, and certainly not employed to decide between suitors. Had the paper wished to risk going a little closer to actual history, it might have thought about later duelling culture, from the early modern period. (You don’t often see contemporary behaviour described as ‘early modern’, do you?) Also worth noting that the facts here were about ‘foreigners’ as well: those involved were originally from Lithuania. In slight mitigation of the the paper’s offence, we might note that the ‘medieval duel’ idea seems to have originated with one of the trial lawyers. Presumably not one with good training in legal history.

Perhaps there is a third type, the ‘innuendo by juxtaposition’: a report of contemporary violence, in a situation which is portrayed as having a medieval connection, thus reflecting back on the medieval period an idea of violence. Such a ‘type 3: juxtaposition’ case can be seen in – an event dating from ‘medieval times’ (unexplored) resulted, in the present day, in violence. Readers are, arguably, being encouraged to conclude that there is something ‘medieval’ about the violence.

So, there is a lot of rubbish being spouted about the ‘medieval’. It is worth, finally, thinking about why I dislike it so much. Partly it is discomfort at unashamed ignorance: when there is such wonderful scholarship on the medieval world going on throughout the world. A larger part, however, is high dudgeon (not dungeon) at the contemptuous dismissal of people as human as ourselves as blundering, brutal idiots, and the concomitant self-congratulatory implication that we are doing so much better. Not so sure about that.

To be continued …

GS 17/5/2020

Ctd: Unsystematic ‘feudalism’ – use of ‘feudal’ by Parliamentarians

I was a little surprised to see that ‘feudal’ scored a mere 27 mentions in the 2015-20 debates.

The biggest cluster of references came in debates around leasehold reform in England and Wales.[i] Using ‘feudal’ here is intended to suggest that landlords are abusive, in the manner of medieval lords. There are two problems, though. First, leases are not feudal arrangements – check your Baker, Introduction to Legal History. Secondly, we have the ‘historical distancing’ thing again: the abuses perpetrated by modern landlords are a feature of capitalism, not feudalism. Calling them feudal lets capitalism off the hook. Using ‘feudal’ in discussing an unequal employment relationship falls into the same difficulty: abuses and power differentials are deeply embedded in relationships in the market economy, and throwing the f-word around distracts from that.[ii]

It comes up a bit in some of the same contexts as ‘medieval’, especially in lazy attempts to jazz up an argument that the government is behaving in an absolutist way.[iii] Look it up, people – autocracy and divine right kingship are not the same as ‘feudal’ monarchy.Sometimes, greater accuracy breaks out, e.g. unless you are a hardline medievalist who will not countenance any reference to the ‘feudal’, you are probably OK with Keir Starmer’s distinction between historical royal roles as sovereign and feudal lord.[iv]

On the whole, a poor haul. (Mind you, I have seen a few ‘feudal’ references recently in the press coverage of the Dominic Cummings ‘essential 250 mile trip during Lockdown’ episode – those terrible envious socialists suggesting that dear Dom was behaving somewhat unaccountably in crossing the country during a time of pandemic isolation – so we may see a bit of a resurgence …)

GS 23/5/2020

Ctd.: Magna Carta

Magna Carta

Since 2015 was a big anniversary, I would expect some MC-drivel in this section of Hansard. Mostly rather ‘samey’ though. There are predictably lazy suggestions that Magna Carta involved barons insisting on the ‘rule of law’ as if what they were after was remotely like the modern concept that goes by that name, as opposed to ‘their privileges’.[i] Some have had the intelligence to distinguish the charter and its myths.[ii] MC is ‘signed’ quite frequently (rather than sealed), but that is a relatively minor inaccuracy.[iii] It is a worse error to get its date wrong,[iv] or to identify the MC barons with the House of Lords.[v]

There are some generous/far-fetched interpretations of the narrow and self-interested chapters of MC as founding general ‘democratic’ rights. Thus, it seems a bit questionable that c.12 on scutage and aid can be scaled up to ‘no taxation without representation’,[vi] or that c.41 really supported a modern idea of free trade.[vii] Beyond exaggeration and straightforwardly wrong, however, is David Lidington’s statement that Magna Carta ‘mentions the importance of maintaining fish weirs in the river Thames’ – oh dear, cl. 33 is all about getting rid of these from rivers![viii] Obviously well qualified to be Lord Chancellor (later), with that impressive attention to legal detail.

GS 25/5/2020










[i] See, e.g.