Categories of incapacity in medieval common law: the ‘fatuous’ Warwickshire killer

As small footnotes to the work of others on medieval law and mental capacity, I have noted a few interesting cases of medieval individuals being excused or pardoned their felonies by reason of their insanity – most recently focusing on a couple of cases of ‘lunacy’ which were expressly linked to the waxing and waning of the moon. Here is another case which goes a little outside the usual categories and vocabulary of lunacy, idiocy, fury and frenzy, which came up in a Plea Roll search today.

The King’s Bench plea roll for Easter term 1334 incorporates, in its Rex section, the gaol delivery pleas from the session in Warwick. One of the Warwickshire cases,[i] from the hundred of Kington has in the margin beside it not one of the usual process notes – acquitted, hanged, sent to prison etc. – but the big, bold, word ’fatuus’. The entry states that Richard Kyng of Herberbury (Harbury?) chapman, was arrested for killing Robert Deyvilla at Moreton (Daubney) at some point earlier in 1334. He had been indicted for felony before the coroner. He was brought into court by the sheriff and asked how he wished to plead, he answered ‘fatuously’, his speech and actions showing diversa signa fatua. Enquiries were made, so the entry tells us, as to whether the accused had been ‘fatuous’ at the time of the killing, and before, subsequently and now, whether he was feigning this in order to excuse himself from a finding of felony, whether he might get better (‘fury’ is mentioned here). The jury responded that Richard had become ‘fatuous’ two years before the killing, he was ‘fatuous’ at the time of the killing, and still was, and had been consistently ‘fatuous’ for the whole period, and his apparent ‘fatuous’ state was neither feigned nor the result of some other infirmity. Richard therefore went ‘without day’ (i.e. he was not found a felon). His relations were told to look after him (that tricky word custodia is used here, with all of its potential for confinement as well as care) with dark hints that it would not go well for them if his custody was neglected (so that he caused further danger).

Points of interest

Well, it is no surprise that a medieval court would not regard as a felon one who was not mentally capable, nor, really, that he would be entrusted to the care (or ‘care’?) of his relatives, but it is interesting to see some of the vocabulary and ideas here.

I have mentioned that ‘fatuus’ is not common. What did it mean? It is almost impossible to equate with modern ideas – either legal or medical – in this area. I was proceeding on the basis that it was a similar idea to ‘idiocy’ (very roughly, learning disabilities) rather than lunacy/fury/frenzy (which seem to indicate violent, flaring, conditions), but then there was use of ‘fury’ as well, and the fact that the jury said that the ‘fatuity’ had come on at a particular time, rather than having been present throughout life, as one would perhaps expect with ‘idiocy’. The lack of information in the entry about the homicide itself makes it more difficult to get an idea of how Richard was being perceived. So, for the moment, big question mark, and a slight suspicion that these words and ideas were not as neatly separated as I would like to make them. Instructive in itself, I suppose.

I was also interested to note the questioning as to whether the condition might be feigned, in order to avoid a finding of felony, and the awful consequences of that. There is a parallel here with questions which were asked about people who said nothing at all, when they were asked to respond to a charge of felony. Jurors would be asked whether this was because they were unable to speak, or whether they were perfectly able to speak, but were keeping silent in an effort not to allow the case to proceed to a conviction (‘standing mute of malice’, in later parlance). In both cases, juries were considered able to weigh up the reality of the apparent affliction. To a certain extent, this can be explained in terms of the jurors’ identity as some sort of neighbour-witnesses (yes, I know there is a debate about that, but they were at least able to bring in outside knowledge) in that they would be likely to be aware if the accused had suddenly and suspiciously become mentally incapable, or unable to speak. Another way of looking at it is that mental incapacity was considered something fairly ordinary and apparent to one’s community.

So – another little puzzle-piece in to add to the heap. Off went Richard to the tender care of his relatives, and the court went on to the next case.






[i] KB 27/296 m. 13d (AALT IMG 331)

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