Monthly Archives: September 2012

Job opportunities

Magna Carta researcher – postgrad:


work experience, BBC History Magazine:


LH internet resources

In the past few years, a large amount of information relating to legal history has been made available on the internet. This is a brief guide to those resources which I have found useful, and which may be of interest to others working in law, history and legal history.

1. Legislation and records of government activity
Pre-1215 laws are being placed online via Early English Laws project:

Statutes of the Realm (to 1713) can be found via Heinonline > English Reports.

The Calendars of Patent Rolls from Henry III to the middle of the reign of Henry VI (1216-1452) have been made available by Prof. G.R. Boynton and the University of Iowa Libraries, with a useful and generally reliable search facility:

British History Online has some content available free, (including the Victoria County Histories, Calendar of Papal Registers, parts of Rymer’s Foedera and journals of the early modern houses of parliament). Other items, such as the Parliament Rolls of Medieval England  and the Calendars of Close Rolls, however, are only available with the ‘premium’ subscription service.

Calendars of Fine Rolls from the reign of Henry III have been made available free as part of the Fine Rolls Project:

The National Archives website gives links to freely downloadable images of its class SC8 (‘Ancient Petitions’) which include many petitions to the king, his council, Parliament and royal officers. These documents are usually in Norman French. The National Archives catalogue is itself a useful resource, with helpful descriptions of documents and classes of documents, and a number of research guides:

Eighteenth to twentieth-century parliamentary papers can be found at: and a variety of 18th Century official publications at:

The National Archives has many projects making available original records. For example, many Poor Law records have recently been put online (free):

2. Court cases
A major project led by R.C. Palmer and E.K. Palmer at the University of Houston has made available, free of charge, high-quality images of the rolls of the royal courts of medieval and early modern England (and, to a limited extent, Wales): There are King;’s Bench, Common Pleas, Exchequer, eyre records and other categories. This material is not, however, particularly ‘user-friendly’, since there is no index or search facility, and in order to understand it, some knowledge of Latin and palaeography is required.

Another American project, led by D.J. Seipp at Boston University, has catalogued and cross-referenced all of the Year Books (lawyers’ reports of the pleading in notable cases in the central courts in medieval and early-modern England): Links to images of the printed ‘black letter’ Year Books are included where appropriate. The search facility is particularly good. This resource is mainly in English, though the original records themselves are in ‘Law French’ – a version of Norman French. A working knowledge of modern French and recourse to J.H. Baker, A Manual of Law French (1979) usually suffices for their translation.

Bracton’s Note Book (thirteenth century cases) is available in HeinOnline’s Legal Classics Library:

The English Reports, the great collection of ‘nominate’ law reports covering cases from medieval times to the Victorian period, are available via Westlaw and as part of the Library’s subscription to HeinOnline: Note that some of the earlier English Reports are, in fact, in Law French, with occasional formulaic Latin.

An important resource for criminal law is the Old Bailey Project, with many reports of criminal trials from the seventeenth to the early-twentieth century:

Miscellaneous records from a variety of courts (especially London’s local courts) are available in British History Online.

Twentieth century cases are found in the normal series of law reports, many of which can be found online.

Records of church court cases are being put up in (in progress)

3. Treatises
Bracton can be found at (Harvard University Library).

Many other treatises, including Blackstone’s Analysis and Commentaries, and Coke’s Institutes are included in HeinOnline’s Legal Classics Library: Note that the versions of ‘classics’ on HeinOnline are not necessarily either the earliest or the latest version, nor, in the case of works originally not in English, are they necessarily the best translation available.

Also extremely useful, with thousands of scans of out-of-copyright books, including treatises and some reports are:,
Early English Books Online
Project Gutenberg

4. Journalism

Newspapers, pamphlets, periodicals can be good sources – lively and opinionated, if not always reliable. These are published online in various ‘packages’ to which university and some civic libraries will subscribe. I have found the collection 19th Century British Periodicals, to which my library subscribes – particularly helpful for teaching purposes, particularly for pictures and satirical accounts from periodicals like Punch, Funny Folks and Judy, the Conservative Comic.

5. Art

Law and especially crime has inspired many works of art. A collection like ArtStor can be useful to locate relevant material.
6. Biography
The Oxford Dictionary of National Biography is available, and fully searchable, online: This gives reliable biographies of many law-makers and lawyers as well as some notorious criminals and victims of crime.

7. Bibliography
The BREPOLIS Bbliography of British and Irish History is a good place to start for all British and Irish historical monographs and articles: Also at this address are specialised medieval international bibliographies.

8. Journals
The major legal history journals, Journal of Legal History and Law and History Review are available online.

Relevant articles also appear in ‘straight’ history journals (many available online), though these are overwhelmingly about the history of criminal law rather than other aspects of legal history.

9. Miscellaneous
The Internet Text Archive is worth a look if you are after older (printed) public records, local records or chronicles:

Free online transcriptions and documents relating to many areas of history can be found at:

British history primary sources can be found at:

Links to various light articles

Here are various light pieces I wrote a year or two ago (under a pseudonym) which may be of some interest:

Jurisprudence of The Hobbit/Lord of the Rings (3 separate pieces)


Jurisprudence of Abba (yes, really):


Judge Dredd and the legal future:

Legal History Top 10

(if you get them all, you get joint honours as a true legal historian and pop nerd)

10. Your [es]cheatin’ heart

9. Take a Chance[ry] on me

8. She’s a Star {Chamber]

7. [Assump]sittin’ on the dock of the Bay

6. Puttin’ on the writs

5. Ferry ‘cross the Humber

4. Fight the dower

3. [Common] Pleas please me

2. Just like a pill[ory]

1. Hanging [drawing and quartering] on the telephone

Folk Da Police 3

Part 3: Nickety Nackety Noo Noo Noo

As we have seen, the folk-song world can be a dangerous and violent one. For all the fiddles and diddles, the body count is fairly high. Women are, more often than not, the victims in murder ballads. At least in those cases, there is usually some degreee of sympathy for them. In the frequent domestic-violence-ditties, they are usually treated as ridiculous, asking-for-it, or of no account.

The familiar and jaunty Scots jig, ‘The Wee Cooper o’Fife’ has the heroic diminutive maker of barrels, justly exasperated at his wife’s snobbish failure to bake, brew, card, spin, wash or wring. He beats her, amusingly putting a sheepskin across her back, then saying he is merely thrashing his own sheep skin’ when he beats numerous bells out of her. The song ends by advising anybody who has a similarly ‘gentle wife’ to send for the wee cooper! Part of the same dysfunctional song-family can be seen in the English folk song world: ‘ Ruggleton’s daughter of Iero’ (Sharp no. 70) follows a similar pattern. The husband here is a ploughman, whose wife will not have his dinner ready when he comes in from work, the slattern! She refuses to bake and brew as well. In an entirely reasonable, and frankly damned amusing, response (or so the tone of the song would have us think) the husband declares that she will brew and bake, and takes ‘a stick down off the rack; And on [her] back went rickety rack’. This beating causes the woman to agree to bake, brew and cook for her delightful husband. How we laughed!

There is wife- beating, too,  in ‘The Birmingham Boys’ (FBI no. 195). In this number, a husband goes to sea, and while he is away, his wife spends lots of money and carouses with ‘the Birmingham boys’. When he gets home, he beats her with a stick. She agrees to behave in future. So all’s well that ends well, or something.
In ‘Good Ale’ (FBI no 273) the male singer vows that; If my wife should me despise, How soon I’d give her two black eyes’. Go on my son, we are supposed to think.

Particularly violent is the beating of the wife in ‘The Wearing of the Britches’ (FBI no. 215) in which Paddy Keane’s wife insists on ‘wearing the britches’, and they fight often. She, being much shorter comes off worse: ‘Her hide with blows I have left black’ and ; Her head comes often to the wall’, She dies in the end, and he’s not bothered. She was, after all, asking for it.
For all those scholars of ‘masculinities’ out there, there are role-reversal songs too (it’s, like, an inversion, innit?). The ‘Bald-Headed End of the Broom’ (FBI no 193) is a warning to young men against getting married, for they will end up being beaten with the aforementioned bald headed end of the broom. Odd. Why not use the big brushy end? No doubt I am missing something (see, I know Foucault about masculinities).The poor down-trodden husband is once more the theme in ‘The Scolding Wife’ (FBI no, 214), in which a poor man’s life is made a misery by a hard-drinking, tyrannical, cheating wife, who beats him with a poker. Really, when you come to think of it, the wife-bashing husbands were probably just getting their pre-emptive strikes in. Those women, eh? Make a chap’s life a misery.

Violence is not the only approach adopted by your lovable folk-song male to the ladies. There is also deception and theft. ‘Up to the Rigs’ handles as a likeable rogue a man who went to Cheapside in London, spent the night with a girl and then robbed her, leaving her locked up in a room. (FBI no. 192). He recommends others do the same.
The sexual threat of men is seen in the fairly astounding story of ‘Blackberry Fold’ (FBI no 314). Here, a young squire in Bristol pursues pretty milkmaid Betsy. He threatens to kill her with his sword if she ‘denies him’ his way with her in the open field. She protests, loving her virtue ‘as I love my dear life’. She takes out a secreted dagger and stabs him, to protect the aforementioned virtue. She is then sorry and he gets medical help. He recovers and they are married. The moral is – keep him waiting and you willl be made a lady ten thousand times o’er. Naturally, one forgives a man a little matter like attempted rape and threats of murder. Marriage has to be worked at, you know.
A similar situation ends rather differently in ‘Sweet Lovely Joan’. Our Joan seems to be a vulnerable, simple milkmaid. We fear for her when a kinght comes by, checks she is alone, and tries to press her into marrying him, ‘whether [she] will  or no’. She is determined to marry her own true love, however, and manages to rob the knight of his gold and his horse. In the end she gets away to her love, and he is delighted that they can marry, ‘And I will be the knight instead’. Would be nice if she could keep it and buy a tavern or something, but it’s a lot better than poor Betsy’s ending in Blackberry Fold.

Joan is a rare exception to the generally negative view of women found in folk songs. We know that women can be the ruin of a man (see the highwaymen songs and ‘The Black Velvet Band’), that they can be fierce, and that they can nag. In ‘Rocking the Cradle’ (FBI no, 212), we find that they can make a man’s life a misery by their sheer tartiness, and, damn it, the law is on their side. This one tells the tale of an unfortunate man who is left rocking the cradle of a baby who is – shock – not his own, while his wife is out gallivanting at balls and parties, and presumably sleeping around. He notes that ‘by the law Harry, if ever you marry, They’ll give you a babbie and swear it’s your own’. There is a suggestion that all women are equally inconstant and a warning against marrying. It rather ignores the fact that, until the twentieth century, matrimonial law was deeply sexist, enshrining a double standard in which men could divorce for adultery, whereas women had to prove more than that. A chap had needs, after all.

A consideration of folk songs’ treatment of women is important, if we wish to have a balanced picture of the mental world of the folk song. Whilst it is easy enough to make excuses for, or even to applaud, the glorification in folk song of poachers and highwaymen – laughing harsh laws to scorn and fighting against an oppressive establishment – we have to remember that exactly the same culture harbours songs which laugh at wife-beating. Only the truly boneheaded sexist could be comfortable with most of the songs mentioned above. Or perhaps that’s just political correctness gone fa la la.

Silverman – J. Silverman, Folk Song Encyclopedia, 2 vol.s (New Yok, 1976).
JB – The Joan Baez Songbook NY 1964.
Child – F.J. Child The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1882-98) 5 vols.
Sharp – C..J. Sharp (ed.) One Hundred English Folksongs (New York 1916)
FBI  – P. Kennedy (ed) Folksongs of Britain and Ireland (London, 1975).

Folk Da Police 2

Part Two

‘They were a’ful cruel at that time. The laws were different’
– folk singer Jimmy McBeath, commenting on ‘Van Diemen’s Land’ (FBI p. 586)

It’s not just murder-ballads which show an alternative or anti-establishment morality. There is also plenty of interesting material on less deadly crime.

Folk songs don’t have a bad word to say about poachers. They are lovable rogues one and all, no doubt showing a widespread hostility to forest and game laws on the part of the folk-singing classes. One of the most lively folk-tunes is a celebration of the deeds of ‘The Lincolnshire Poacher’ (Silverman I, 68). He moves county but stays the same otherwise in ‘The Northamptonshire Poacher’ (FBI no. 258). Our man delights in his favourite pastime, and, as the song is keen to point out,  uses only necessary force to escape from the keepers. Meanwhile, we rejoice as Nottinghamshire poachers get away with their deer poaching in ‘The Old Fat Buck’ (FBI no. 259) because the old woman who is to testify against them is disbelieved by the judge and jury at Nottingham Sessions.

‘The Gallant Poacher’ (FBI no. 248 makes it clear where our sympathies should lie by its title. One of the six poachers was shot by a keeper. The rest went to gaol.  Again in ‘Keepers and Poachers’, (FBI no. 254) a noble picture is given of the poachers. One, William Taylor, sacrifices himself to save his fellows. Our sympathy is also invited for the poachers in the famous ‘Van Diemen’s Land’ (FBI no 262, the poachers are transported for fourteen years.

The poaching theme continues across the globe, with the celebrated, if ultimately unsuccessful, swagman hero of ‘Waltzing Matilda’ (Silverman I, 292). He is cornered by the police after bagging a ‘jumbuck’, and, rather than be taken, jumps into the waterhole (billabong) and is drowned. Approval of his action is granted by letting his ghost roam about singing Waltzing Matilda’.

A poacher in a different league is dealt with in one of the most lovely of English folk songs, ‘Geordie’ (Child no. 209;Silverman I, 225). The flowing minor mode of the melody carries the tale of a young man who is to be hanged and gibbeted for taking some of the King’s deer. He is, however, as a concession to the pleading of his wife or lover, who comes to court to plead for him, to be hanged in golden chains.

Even more desperate characters are treated sympathetically. Highwaymen are a cut above poachers – flashier, more dangerous – and yet often shown as in some ways moral. As with many of the murder-ballads, however, there is something of a lack of explanation of why they turn to highway robbery.

Many of the classic elements of the highwayman song can be seen in ‘The Wild Colonial Boy’ (Silverman I,56). Here, Jack Doolan, the only son of doting parents in Castlemaine, turned, for no apparent reason, to robbing coaches, including that of a judge. The highwayman was beset by troopers, killed one, but was in his turn shot by Trooper Davis. We are certainly supposed to be on Doolan’s side, since the chorus goes ‘Come all my hearties, we’ll range the mountain side; together we will plunder, together we will ride. We’ll scour along the valleys abd gallop o’er the plains, We scorn to live in slavery, bowed down with iron chains.’

Highwaymen are shown as being particularly glamourous. ‘Turpin Hero’ (FBI no. 336 ) gives one of the imagined exploits of Dick Turpin. He gets talking to a lawyer about Dick Turpin, the lawyer not knowing who he is. Then Turpin robs him.

‘Brennan on the Moor’ (Silverman I, 61) is a a’brave’ Irish highwayman. He was ‘wild’, and, in a Robin Hood style, it was wealthy noblemen he robbed. He was so impressive that he could only be taken when ‘’twas said’ he was ‘betrayed by a false-hearted woman’. The same fate befalls our hero in ‘Kilgary Mountain’ (Silverman I, 64). He enjoys his crime, noting how ‘neat and jolly’ the money looked after he had robbed a colonel. His downfall was a woman too, however – unsurprising since ‘the Devil’s in the women and they always lie so easy’. Molly, the young lady in question, filled his pistols with water, and informed on him to Colonel Pepper, whom he had just robbed.  This highwayman  is surprisingly concerned with due process. Although he has confessed in the song that he did in fact rob Colonel Pepper, he is affronted that ‘They threw me into jail without a judge nor writing’. He escapes, however, by bashing the jailer. He is able to resume a life of pursuing whisky and girls – girls other than Molly, presumably.

‘The Robber’ (Sharp no, 83) gives as a justification/ motive for the hero’s turning to highway robbery, the need to ‘maintain’ his new wife ‘both fine and gay’. He insists he robbed only the rich. Women were not his downfall, however. He was captured by Lord Fielding’s men whilst enjlying the play at Cupid’s garden. In a mixture of conscience and bravado, he notes the sadness of wife and family, and asks for a ‘flashy funeral’.

Most of the thieves celebrated in song are male. The most famous female subject is Maggie May – not the Rod Stewart floozy, but the lively Scouse lass who robs foolish sailors, and ends up being transported to Australia. Our sympathy is supposed to be with the daft sailor, but he is rather less interesting than the clothes-stealing scally who bewitches him.
Another tricksy vixen appears in Belfast ballad ‘The Black Velvet Band’ (FBI no. 695). She plants a stolen watch on a young man, calls the police, and he is sent to Van Diemen’s land.

Part of the reason for the sympathetic treatment in folk songs of these thieves of various sorts is knowledge of the penalties they could face. Prior to the reform movements of the nineteenth century, many such offences were punished by hanging. Folk songs give some evidence of disapproval of this as inappropriately harsh.
Hanging songs include ‘Macpherson’s Farewell’, (Silverman I, 60) in which a ‘roving boy’ of Scotland was hanged despite the fact that a reprieve was on its way. He went to his end cursing and swearing revenge on the ‘treacherous woman’ who, actually rather cleverly, caught him for the authorities by throwing a blanket over him. More fortunately, hanging is averted by a bribe in ‘The Gallows Pole’ (Silverman 1, 201) in which the condemned keeps hoping that members of his family will have brought the requisite cash, only to find that they have just come to watch the execution. Finally, however, the faithful sweetheart arrives with the money and all is well. A very similar tale is ‘The Maid Freed from the Gallows’ (Silverman I, 219). Another version is ‘The Briery Bush’ (Sharp no. 17) and ‘Derry Gaol’ (FBI no 316) too is similar. In this cse, the freed convict is male, and he is freed by the production of the Queen’s pardon.  ‘Jack Hall’ (Sharp no. 81; FBI no. 322) takes the whole hanging business rather lightly. It is the ‘beyond the grave’ account of robbing chimney sweep Jack Hall, who describes in rather dashing terms his career of thieving, and his end via Newgate at Tyburn.

Folk singers, or composers of folk songs, seem, then, to have had something of a soft spot for the thieves and vagabonds of the world. Either that or else highwaymen and thieves of old spent their time between robberies in very efficient PR, composing and spreading their own propaganda. With a fol lol lol diddle diddle dee.

Silverman – J. Silverman, Folk Song Encyclopedia, 2 vol.s (New Yok, 1976).
JB – The Joan Baez Songbook NY 1964.
Child – F.J. Child The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1882-98) 5 vols.
Sharp – C..J. Sharp (ed.) One Hundred English Folksongs (New York 1916)
FBI  – P. Kennedy (ed) Folksongs of Britain and Ireland (London, 1975).

Folk Da Police: Law and Order in the English language folk tradition

Part One
Gangsta rappers may not like to think that they have much in common with the fiddle – de –dee tradition of predominantly white English-language folk music, but glorifying violence and celebrating lawbreaking are common themes in the folk tradition. There are, perhaps, not so many guns as we would find in contemporary rap, and no drugs (or not until the early twentieth century, when sniffing things starts to sneak into the odd song), but there is just as much bad behaviour. In fact, in some ways, it is even more unpleasant.

Homicidal Mania
Most unpleasant – and actually without obvious parallel even in gangsta rap – is the
frequently amoral murder ballad. Anglo-American tradition has a festering pile of these songs.

A number fall into the ‘I’ve murdered a woman for no apparent reason and, poor me, I’m going to be executed’ genre. Examples include Pretty Polly (Silverman I, 74), in which Willie has quite deliberately prepared to kill, bury and conceal the grave of Polly, his betrothed, after seducing her. Worse yet, she was apparently carrying his child. Cruelly, he told her he was going to kill her before he did it, and ignored her pleading for mercy. There is no sign of earthly come-uppance for Willie, though the final verse does say that he will have to pay ‘a debt to the Devil’.

Tom Dooley, quite a well known tune, is equally just plain nasty, Tom is condemned for the inexplicable murder of ‘his’ Laura Foster. After the deed, he concealed her body in a shallow grave. There is no trace of repentance.

There is also Banks of the Ohio (Silverman I, 76) which is a slightly more sophisticated song. Here, we see Polly and Willie again, Polly has, it seems, refused to marry Willie, or her mother has forbidden the match on account of her youth. Willie is not best pleased. First, he gets out a knife to stab her, but she pleads that she is not yet ready for eternity. So he throws her into the great river they are walking beside and she is drowned. At least he is sorry in the end that he has ‘murdered the only woman [he] ever loved’, though that is not really much consolation to Polly or her mother.

The Folkestone Murder (FBI no. 320) tells of the murder of Maria and ‘Sweet Caroline’ Beck by ‘Switzerland John’.  John asks Caroline to walk with him. Her mother warns her against it, unless she takes her sister. Caroline agrees to take Maria, and off they go. John stabs them both, for reasons which are not given. They plead for mercy but he kills them anyway. Their bodies are found, he is caught and put in Maidstone, condemned. He laments that he has to die far from his native home. He hopes (bizarrely) to meet Caroline beyond the grave and asks listeners to remember his tale, but there is no real explanation. In fact, it is clear (FBI p. 727) that the story is based on a  real murder, by Tedea or Dedea Redanies, a soldier who was British, though born in Belgrade (Switzerland, Serbia – what’s the difference? Must have been Johnny Foreigner, anyway). He murdered the sisters Caroline and Maria Beck, (19 and 16) in August 1856, the motive apparently jealousy, and was hanged at Maidstone in 1857.

The Oxford Girl (FBI no. 327 – versions noted referring to many different locations) tells a most unpleasant tale of the singer falling in love with an Oxford girl, but ending up killing her. The level of delusion or lack of insight is incredible. He went to take her out, and they fixed a wedding day ‘And little did I realise I’d show her any spite’. He tries to kiss her, she resists, he hits her with a big stick  ‘and … gently knocked her down’. She bleeds, he throws her in the river – ‘gently’, of course. He takes a moment to note that she should have been his bride, then returns home to his uncle’s house. His uncle spots blood, but the singer says he has had a nose bleed. The body is discovered, he is convicted and condemned to hang for murder.  Nothing moral is said.

Deeply unpleasant is the conduct of False Lamkin (Sharp no. 27) who, while the Lord is away, sneaks into the castle or mansion, and kills the babies and the Lord’s wife, and only the eldest daughter survives, because her father returns before Lamkin can go through with his threat to have her hold the basin to catch her blood while he stabs her in the heart (he’s a homicidal maniac, but he doesn’t mean to make a mess). Interestingly, the lord does not go out for personal revenge, but says he wants to see Lamkin hang.

Perhaps most heart-rending is Sweet Fanny Adams (FBI no 333), a song put into the mouth of a parent of the murdered child,  Fanny,‘scarcely eight years of age’ when she was killed by Frederick Baker.  There is an uneasy coupling of the parent’s torment – ‘Shall I never hear thee more, my dearest Fanny’; ‘My poor Fanny’, ‘I love her the more when I miss her/My sorrow I shall never drive away’ and ‘Supposing he so cruelly violate her’. and flat conventional words of what is supposed to be felt – ‘now from all trouble she is free’, ‘now she’s in Heaven above’. The grisly crime is given in detail. Frederick, a solicitor’s clerk, son of well-to do parents from Alton, Hampshire – gave the other two girls, Fanny’s sister and a friend,  money to buy sweetmeats, and dragged poor crying Fanny to a hollow. There was a search when the children returned without Fanny, the neighbours joining in. Pieces of her dismembered body were found in pieces in the hop ground. Some satisfaction seem s to be derived by the last line that ‘now he’s lying in the silent grave’, though equally, this may not be any comfort, since it means that there can be no answers to the haunting issue at the start of the last verse ‘Supposing he so cruelly violate her’. The story is (FBI p. 734) based on a real murder, in Alton, Hants in 1867. The killer was sentenced to be hanged, and the case made a strong enough impression for ‘Sweet Fanny Adams’ to pass into slang.

Perhaps we may find The Cruel Youth (Silverman II, 332) a refreshing change from all this easy victimisation-as-entertainment. In this one, and its variants, the seaside-dwelling youth has bumped off (for, as usual, no apparent reason) six women. When he tries doing the same with Sally Brown, however, she turns the tables on him, and pushes him into the sea. The last verse notes that only the willow tree mourned the youth. It is a version of the popular English folk song The Outlandish Knight which uses a similar story, but gives greater detail. The knight (in for the youth) entices the maiden away by promises of a fine life abroad, then plans, as before, to throw her into the sea. His fatal complication is that he tells her to take off her clothes – not because he wants to rape her too, but because they are silken and too fine to be rotted away in the sea (he is a homicidal maniac, but not wasteful, and with a fine eye for fabric). She tells him to turn away while she strips, and he is enough of a knight to do so. Then she tells him to cut away the brambles from the edge, so that they won’t tangle on her curly locks. As he does so, however, she pushes him over the edge. He hangs on, and pleads with her to pull him up. If she does, he says, he will marry her. She is having none of it, though, and tells him to go and join the six maidens he has already drowned, before the song goes off into an inexplicable few verses about a king and a parrot.

There are other murder-songs which give some explanation of the crime, however feeble it may be. Bruton Town (Sharp no.2) features a girl’s brothers murdering her lover, because he is a servant and therefore beneath her. Their father, a farmer, is curiously uninvolved in the action. The young man loved by the daughter is killed while the brothers have lured him out into the woods for a hunt. They threw his body in a brake. The body is discovered by the sister after her true love appears to her, gory, in a dream. She vows not revenge, or reporting of her brothers, but that they shall both be buried together.

Shame is presumably the motive for infanticide in the hideous tale of The Cruel Mother (Sharp no. 13; Silverman I, 182-3). A lady who lived in York fell in love with her father’s clerk, took a rather active role in having sex with him, fell pregnant, trussed her twin babies up, stabbed them with ‘a wee penknife’, buried them and went back to pass herself off as a maid. However, conscience and consciousness of her own damnation struck when she met two small children, or childish ghosts, who confronted her with her crime. Mary Hamilton (Child 173) is another infanticide case, this time, the mother is to be hanged.

A fine example of the ‘killing rival in jealous rage’ song is Lily of the West, in which the singer, whose mind has been ‘sore distressed’ by the two-timing ‘faithless Flora’ stabbed his rival whilst ‘mad to desperation’. He is condemned to die, but still, bizarrely, loves Flora. (Silverman I,178). Joan Baez does a virtuoso version of this, but it is certainly best not to listen too closely to the words.

The famous story of Frankie and Johnny (Silverman II, 370-1) has the same sort of thing in gender-reverse. Johnny goes off with Nelly Bly (though here, unlike ‘Lily’, Johnny is see by Frankie ‘loving up’ Nelly Bly, who is clearly a good-time, easy rhyme sort of gal). (Flora, on the other hand was merely talking, however suggestively, to the ‘man of high degree’). Thus provoked, Frankie shoots Johnny. She then turns herself in at once, confessing her crime. There is sympathy for Frankie, who goes to the scaffold in something of a state of grace, saying ‘Nearer my God to thee’, and the last verse remarks that ‘a man’s been the cause of all trouble ever since the world began’ [You go, girl!] The repeats of ‘He was her man, but he done her wrong’ also serve to put us rather firmly on Frankie’s side.

Poison in a glass of wine (FBI no. 329) is set in Oxford. Here, A young man loves a fair maid. Another man dances with her at a dance house and the jealous first young man poisons her. He seems to take some too so that they can die in each other’s arms.

A man drowns his wife most amusingly in The Old Woman of Blighter Town (FBI no. 208) but she has tried to blind him, and loves another man, so that is OK.

I will confess to some sympathy for the unnamed ‘little brown girl’ in Lord Thomas and Fair Ellinor. Thomas and Ellinor are in love. Ellinor is blonde, beautiful, but, tragically, not rich in land. The ‘little brown girl’ is rolling in it, but ‘brown’ and ‘little’ and so terminally undesirable. It is, however, the little brown girl that Lord Thomas is ‘made’ (by his mother – wimp!) to marry. After the wedding, Ellinor taunts Thomas’s wife with being ‘wonderfully brown’, while Thomas tells Ellinor not to worry, because he loves Ellinor’s ‘little finger [more] than all her whole body’. This not surprisingly annoys the brown girl, who stabs Ellinor in the heart with her penknife. Thomas then beheads her and flings her head against the wall, then  falls on his sword. Before expiring, he is able to give directions for his burial: he is to be buried by the side of Ellinor, with the brown girl at his feet. Naturally, a red rose grows from Ellinor’s bosom and entwines with Lord Thomas’s briar. There is no further mention of the poor brown girl.

It is rarer to find a ‘miscarriage of justice’ song, but we have one in Poor Ellen Smith (Silverman I, 57). The singer’s lover, Ellen, has been shot dead, not, he claims, by him, but he is in jail, about to be tried for murder. and he fears that the jury is eager to convict him – ‘The jury will hang me, that is if they can, But God knows I die as an innocent man’. Some sympathy is lost for the man, however, in the previous verse, when he, charmingly, says ‘I didn’t love little Ellen to make her my wife, but I loved her too dear than to take her sweet life’. A broadly similar theme is found in Long Black Veil, a modern ballad by M. Wilkins and D. Dill (JB 110), in which a man is convicted of murder because he will not confess that he was in fact with his best friend’s wife at the relevant time. More fortunate is the hero in Polly Vaughan, (FBI no. 330) young Jimmy, who accidentally shoots his love, Polly Vaughan, mistaking her for a swan, when out hunting. He is to be tried for murder and thinks of running away, but his uncle tells him he will not be hanged for it. True enough, his love appears at the trial (a ghost, one presumes) and explains that she had her apron wrapped around her , explaining why he took her for a swan. Juries will believe anything in folk songs.

Conclusion to Part One
Homicide, then, has been a disturbingly popular subject for folk singers. Its treatment says some very interesting things about ‘folk’ attitudes (an indistinct and amorphously blobby idea, yet nonetheless one of some worth in balancing ‘official’ mentalités) to the taking of life, to motives for killing, to good and evil, and to punishment. The idea which seems to me to emerge most strongly from the murder ballads is that we don’t need to explain killings too carefully: some people are just inexplicably and unalterably bad – or perhaps there is some idea that we all have it in us.

Homicide is, however, not the only area of legal historical interest seen in Anglo-American folk song, and other aspects will be discussed in future parts of this series.

Silverman – J. Silverman, Folk Song Encyclopedia, 2 vol.s (New York, 1976).
JB – The Joan Baez Songbook NY 1964.
Child – F.J. Child The English and Scottish Popular Ballads (1882-98) 5 vols.
Sharp – C..J. Sharp (ed.) One Hundred English Folksongs (New York 1916)
FBI  – P. Kennedy (ed.) Folksongs of Britain and Ireland (London, 1975).

Current Research: September 2012

I have just finished a paper on dower and adultery, looking at the way in which lawyers interpreted a 1285 statute disqualifying widows from claiming part of a deceased husband’s land if they were found to have left the husband for a lover. The statute section (Westminster II c.34) remained part of the law until 1925, and interpretation of it became harsher over the years, making it more difficult for widows to claim their dower than had been the case in the fourteenth century. It is always interesting to look at issues like this, in which history just can’t be seen in terms of progress for women or other disadvantaged groups. In the course of writing two articles on this area, I have looked at thousands of medieval manuscript pages – always a challenge, though also a privilege – and I have also extended myself into more modern documents, going as far as the mid-nineteenth century. Many interesting and some strange stories have come out of these searches, and I have a pile of material which deserves to be written up in separate pieces.  I am finding it hard to stop looking for yet more dower/adultery cases, but it is probably time to leave it and do something new.

One new area which I will be getting into this year is humour in the medieval courtroom. There are some excellent examples of this in the Year Books (medieval court reports) which are crying out for some categorisation and consideration. I am particularly interested in gender aspects, but there is also much to say about word play and grim or gallows humour.

Over the next two years, I also plan to write papers or at least notes based on material discovered in archives during my research into women’s abduction and imprisonment. One paper will relate to material which I have found on the difficulties experienced by widows of the battle of Bannockburn (1314) in proving that their husbands were in fact dead, so as to allow them to claim dower lands. Another will consider a tale told in a fourteenth-century case, relating to a pilgrimage, a shipwreck and a pair of Cornishmen mistaken for Scots enemies and imprisoned in Cumberland, exploring medieval mobility and conceptions of the ‘foreign’. And I have amassed a pile of material on the land dealings of Hugh Despenser Senior and Junior and Eleanor de Clare which may yet come to something.

The next big project, though, will probably be a book on medieval law and women, drawing together some existing work by me and by many others, and trying to get an overview of the law’s treatment of women. There is much historical writing on women which assumes that there was a clear contrast between ‘law’. a monolithic, unproblematic thing, and ‘life’ or ‘practice’. My research thus far has shown me that ‘law’ and lawyers had a complicated view of women, and I think that an elaboration of this point is a contribution which a legal historian can make to the gender/women’s history debate.

Bracton’s Sister: what’s that all about then?

Welcome to Bracton’s Sister, my Legal History site.  Why Bracton’s Sister? Well, it’s a nod to Virginia Woolf’s A Room of One’s Own with its notion of Shakespeare’s sister. As with literature, law was, until the twentieth century, an exclusively male profession, and we might wonder about the thoughts of Judith Bracton on the developing common law of the thirteenth century. Unlike her brother Henry, she did not have the chance of becoming a judge and reputed author/editor of an important legal treatise.  One day, her works may be discovered. Until then, there is Bracton’s Sister.

What’s it for? The idea is that it will:

1. give some details of my current research projects;

2. note interesting new work from others which has impressed me;

3. bring a bit of legal history into more lives than could be reached by seminar and conference presentations and academic journal papers.

Legal historians don’t tend to get out much, which is a pity, because our subject is fascinating and packed with human interest, as well as the intricacies of writs and deeds. Sometimes, there’s even some humour. So the site will allow me to publicise the interest of the subject (without actually having to go out and talk to real people). Ideal.  And Judith Bracton agrees.