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Plague, fire and ‘lunacy’: arson and acquittal in medieval Yorkshire

Here is another record which has something of interest to say on lay and legal ideas about mental capacity and responsibility.

We are in 1349 – all a bit plaguey, not though you would always know it, since the rolls are still rolling, with many of the usual sorts of litigation – in the King’s Bench. On the Rex section of the roll, there is a case of arson, from a gaol delivery at York, in which mental state becomes crucial. (KB 27/355 Rex m.29d; AALT IMG 8327).

The jurors of Harthill wapentake presented that John son of William son of Henry of Nafferton was indicted before Thomas de Rokeby, sheriff of Yorkshire, that on 10th January 1349, he feloniously burned the house of Robert Dreng of Driffield, along with 40s worth of goods which were inside it. He pleaded not guilty and put himself on the jury. The jury stated on oath that John was a lunatic, and that, three or four times a year, he was troubled (vexatus) by a disease of the mind (infirmitate demencie), and that he had been affected by it on the day in question, and for eight days before and eight days afterwards, so that he was not aware of the difference between good and evil, nor of his own actions. They found that he had burned the house in question during this period, and had not done so feloniously or by ‘malice aforethought), as was alleged against him, and nor had he fled. And because the jury held that John had been non compos mentis at the relevant time, he was acquitted. Four named men came forward as security for his good behaviour.

So what?

It is not unexpected that somebody with a severe mental problem, defined as lunacy’, would avoid the severe penalties for felony, and that, by this period, this would not be by the cumbersome method of waiting for a royal pardon, but would be a straight acquittal. There is, though, some interesting detail here, in terms of the apparent understanding of mental capacity and the conditions which might affect it. John’s disordered states appear to have been noted, and their frequency was a matter of community knowledge. We do not have the link to the moon made in other cases of ‘lunacy’, but there is a suggestion that the disorder recurred on a more or less regular pattern (was it almost seasonal?). There is also a good explanation of the effect of the disorder on his responsibility – specifically, it diminished his ability to tell right from wrong, and even his awareness of his own acts. The jurors were making a very strong case for his acquittal. The fact that they mentioned that the incapacity had lasted from eight days before the incident to eight days after it could almost sound as if they want to leave no room for argument that John might, in fact, have been experiencing a lucid interval (though I wonder whether this information was elicited by questioning by the court, or whether it was volunteered).

Finally, it is interesting that this is not – as most ‘lunacy’ cases seem to be – a homicide, but a case of arson (in which nobody died). What role might have been played by the nature of the offence? I found myself wondering whether it took more preparation and forethought to burn down a medieval house, or to stab or beat somebody to death, but I am not sure that an answer to that could be obtained easily. As with so much else on medieval ideas of mental capacity and disorder, our understanding is very incomplete, and needs to be built up piece by piece. I find, in this area as a whole, it is a big challenge to think myself back into a world in which mental disorders were not seen as a matter for ‘expertise’,  but one on which ordinary, respectable, jurors could be expected to make a definite judgment. That, though, is my problem rather than theirs.