Monthly Archives: May 2019

‘Stillbirth’ or fleeting life? Beyond curtesy

I recently published an article on tenancy by the curtesy in medieval England:

Gwen Seabourne (2019) ‘It is necessary that the issue be heard to cry or squall within the four [walls]’: Qualifying for Tenancy by the Curtesy of England in the Reign of Edward I, Journal of Legal History, 40:1, 44-68, DOI: 10.1080/01440365.2019.1576359

Curtesy is a topic which touches upon traumatic and tragic childbirth, and the difficulty in determining whether or not a baby was ever alive (in order to decide whether or not a man had produced ‘live issue’ with his wife, and thus qualified for curtesy. As is not uncommon, I have now come across something I’d love to have included in the article: linked chronicle accounts of a birth ending in the death of mother and baby, with some interesting inclusions and omissions of information.

The narratives are mentioned in L.E. Mitchell, ‘The most perfect knight’s countess: Isabella de Clare, her daughters and women’s exercise of power and influence 1190-c. 1250’, in H.J. Tanner (ed), Medieval Elite Women and the Exercise of Power 1100-1400 (2019) c.3, p. 61, citing Matthew Paris,  English  History  tr. J.A. Giles (3 vols HG Bohn, 1889) I:255.

The unfortunate mother was Isabelle countess of Cornwall (wife of Richard, earl of Cornwall, and daughter of William Marshall and Isabella de Clare). Her demise was noted to have occurred in 1240, along with that of her baby, named Nicholas. She was said to have been ill with jaundice, and to have been sufficiently forewarned of her impending death to make her confession. The birth itself was skated over, and there is an interesting disparity with regard to the state of her offspring: Mitchell notes that ‘the nurses hoped that the child would be born alive, but it was dead’, whereas the child was said, elsewhere to have been born alive, but not lively or not active (vivo, sed non vivido – H. Luard (ed.), M. Paris Chron. Maj. vol 4) and there is no particular mention of the nurses, who, in Giles’s version, named the child despite the fact that it was dead. I would like to check the MSS on this, since the state of the child is potentially crucial in terms of both common law (child born dead does not ‘count’ in the same way to give father property rights – though in this case, Richard had already ‘passed’ this test, with previous live births) and canon law/theology (a dead child can take no benefit from baptism, and the ‘nurses’, though they could perform emergency baptism, had no right to perform this sacrament on what modern parlance would term a stillborn child). Vincent’s account of Richard of Cornwall in the ODNB also says that the child was ‘stillborn’. Perhaps it seems a ‘picky’ point, and it did not seem to have any immediate practical consequences for Richard, or anyone else, whether the baby was ever alive. In relation to curtesy, and the roughly  contemporary accounts of curtesy, such as those in Bracton, however, the possibility that a dead baby may have been baptised is important, since it feeds into Bracton’s suggestion of the likelihood of fraud and mis-reporting by those present at a birth of the state of the baby.