Here is a striking story from the plea rolls of the time of Henry IV, which throws a few glimmers of light on several shadowy areas of medieval law and social history: the law of mayhem, domestic relations and domestic violence, and the consistency of medieval bread.
Alexander Dalton v. John Barnaby is an appeal of mayhem (private prosecution for infliction of certain sorts of wound) appearing in the King’s Bench plea roll for Easter term 1400. The parties were both described as tailors, and the location is London (more precisely, ‘in the parish of St Gregory in the ward of Baynard’s Castle’). The other character appearing in the record is John Barnaby’s wife, whose name is not given.
Dalton brought the case against Barnaby in relation to an injury to his (Dalton’s) right eye. The accusation was that Barnaby had hit him in the eye, leaving him with complete lack of sight in that eye. Thus far, this is all quite standard: true, most mayhem actions seem to be about injuries to arms and hands (with no end of ‘mortified nerves and veins’), but loss or diminution of sight fits within the overall idea of a mayhem as a serious injury, perhaps to be understood as centring on the concept of damage to a man who might potentially fight for the king. Things swiftly become a bit odd, however, as the ‘weapon’ which Dalton alleges Barnaby used against him was not the usual knife, sword, pole-axe etc., but … half a loaf of white bread. Dalton said that Barnaby had thrown this at him, hitting his right eye and causing his injury.
Barnaby told things somewhat differently, denying that he had done anything felonious. He described events from a slightly earlier point, saying that, on the day in question, Dalton and Barnaby’s unnamed wife had been in the city together. As soon as they got back to Barnaby’s house, Barnaby ordered his wife to sort out the dinner, which involved laying out a tablecloth, and putting the bread (and presumably other items) out. Barnaby said that he intended to chastise his wife for having been out in the city, and away from home, for a long time. This chastisement was supposed to take the form of Barnaby throwing bread at his wife’s head, and this was what he was trying to do. He threw the bread at his wife, and Dalton stupidly got up and jumped in the way of the flying half loaf, so ending up with his injury, through his own stupidity (rather than through Barnaby’s wrongdoing, as had been alleged).
Predictably, we do not get a straightforward conclusion to the case – a jury was to be summoned, matters dragged on for another couple of terms, and then we see Dalton being fined for failing to turn up and press on with his case. Nevertheless, what we have in the record is quite interesting in a number of ways.
As far as the law relating to mayhem is concerned, Dalton v Barnaby provides: a good example of a defence of ‘your own stupidity caused the injury’and an unusual weapon. Unfortunately for medical historians, there is no questioning about the medical care which was, or could have been provided after Dalton was hit by the loaf-projectile, but the rules of medieval common law procedure meant that Barnaby had no need to go into that.
There are also some interesting nuggets with regard to marriage, domestic relations, domestic violence. It is well known that husbands were allowed and, indeed, expected to correct their wives’ misbehaviour, but this episode, at least as Barnaby tells it, shows something a little different to the standard examples of beating (with fists, sticks, clubs). If Barnaby was telling anything like the truth (and that’s debatable – I can’t stop thinking that this was all a food fight which got out of hand) then he thought it a plausible view of ‘reasonable chastisement’ that it might include throwing bread at his wife’s head – was this humiliatory and.or regarded as humorous? Within his story, there is also the germ of a contradictory idea – perhaps Dalton, if he did jump in front of the loaf, was demonstrating that he thought Barnaby was going beyond appropriate husbandly correction. Also on the marriage front, it is interesting that Mrs Barnaby and Dalton appear to have been out and about in London together – the more suspicious reader might wonder whether there was something going on there, and if there was an extra-marital relationship, it might make Dalton’s ‘stupid jumping’ seem rather less of a general intervention to stop a colleague from abusing his wife, and more of a personal defence of somebody to whom he was devoted. Much to ponder. ‘The wife’ of course, apart from not being named, is not allowed much action in either man’s version of events.
And finally, there is that bread! It was part of a white loaf – the more expensive type of wheaten bread – rather than the poor person’s darker fare. Nevertheless, it clearly can’t have been a light and airy creation, if it was thought plausible that it was capable of causing this sort of injury. Again, however, the ‘rules of the game’ would have meant that nobody would have had the opportunity to ask questions about this: since the argument was framed as ‘You injured me with bread’ v. ‘You may have been injured with bread, but it was your own fault’, there was no space within which to test the question of whether that loaf could have caused that injury, or whether, in fact, it did cause the injury. Such are the joys and frustrations of medieval legal records.
Alexander Dalton v. John Barnaby KB 27/556 m.12d (The National Archives); see this online, AALT image 0163 via the Anglo-American Legal Tradition website at http://aalt.law.uh.edu/AALT.html ). Further stages of proceedings can be seen at: KB 27/557 m. 54 and KB 27/557, fine roll.
On medieval domestic violence, see, in particular S.M. Butler, The Language of Abuse: Marital Violence in Later Medieval England (Leiden, Boston, 2007).
Those whose appetite for medieval bread has been whetted may wish to see (ahem), G.C. Seabourne, ‘Assize matters: regulation of the price of bread in medieval London’, Journal of Legal History 27 (2006), 29-52.
Finding myself wondering whether that proverb about half a loaf being better than no bread was current in medieval London …