Medieval monastic mental disorder: an ‘insanity plea’ from Tavistock Abbey

A few more ‘insane felony’ cases have come up in recent trawls of gaol delivery rolls, in the last part of the fourteenth century, bringing with them some variations on vocabulary, procedure or facts, which seemed worth noting.[i] At some point, I will get around to pulling all of this together, but, until then, these occasional posts will at least put them ‘out there’ for anyone with an interest.

Today’s intriguing entry is in a gaol delivery roll for a session in February 1369. It involves the tale of a monk, said to have killed a cook. Walter Thynnewode, a monk of Tavistock Abbey, had been arrested for the killing of Stephen Lyoun, a cook from the abbey kitchen. The killing was reported to have occurred in Tavistock on Sunday 5th February 1368, and Walter had been indicted before a coroner for the deed. Walter pleaded not guilty and put himself upon a jury. The jury said that, on the relevant day, Walter had been a lunaticus and insane memorie. He had left the Abbey at night (the implication is, I think, that he wanted to depart on a more than temporary basis). He encountered Stephen, who tried to bring him back to the abbey. Walter, being, at that time, non compos mentis, stabbed Stephen in the abdomen with a knife, and Stephen died. Walter was to be sent back to prison ‘until the next &c’.[ii]


So what?

Well, it’s the first time I have seen a monk in this context, so that is a little bit interesting. On the whole, the legal stuff is nothing particularly new: we know that insanity of particular kinds worked to avoid the consequences of actions usually deemed felonious. We might wonder, though, at the willingness of the jury to overlook the fact that Walter does seem to have been able to form an intention to leave the abbey, though they decided his mental disorder explained the killing of poor Stephen the cook. It is noteworthy that it is assumed that Walter had, by the time of the case, made a  recovery from his serious mental disorder: he is now pleading competently, for himself, and care is taken to restrict the ‘madness words’ to his past self. Another piece of evidence suggests that he was re-integrated into the community at Tavistock Abbey quite quickly, and not held in any sort of confinement there, since (unless there were two men with the same name) he was accused of illicit hunting on Dartmoor, in the company of his abbot, two other monks and various other local men, in 1371.[iii] Of the cook, Stephen, whose apparent attempt to enforce monastic discipline on the erring Walter (or, perhaps, to restrain him in his disordered state), no further trace appears to remain.






[i] For previous posts on this topic, see: Mental incapacity | Bracton’s Sister (

[ii] AALT Page ( JUST 3/156 m. 36 (AALT IMG 83).

[iii] See G.H. Radford, ‘Tavistock Abbey’, Report & Transactions of the Devonshire Association 46 (1914) 119-45, 128; CPR 1370-4, p. 172.