Performance and procedure: ‘insanity defence’ cases from fourteenth century Norfolk

Another pair of cases on crime and mental disorder, to add to the growing collection on the blog … this time, they are from Norwich gaol delivery sessions in 1330 and 1331. Both, I think, add something to the picture of medieval attitudes to people’s responsibility and lack of responsibility for their actions.

First we have a case from a session at Norwich castle in 1330. John son of John Spynk of Winterton was indicted for the killing of William son of John Wrenne of Winterton. John denied felony. A jury  from the hundred of Flegg said that John had killed William but was at that time demens & furiosus. They explained that John had hit William in the head with an iron fork, causing his brain to ooze out, and William died at once. The jury was asked whether John had committed ‘other insanities’ before he killed William, and responded that he had. It was specified that he had gone into the church in Winterton, and spat on the images there, as well as beating some men in the church. They confirmed that at the time of the killing, John was furiosus.

The second case on the same roll is an entry from a session at Norwich castle in 1331. Goda wife of John Attebek was indicted for the killing of her children, John and Beatrix, at Horsham St Faith, Norfolk. Goda denied all felony, said she was not guilty and put herself on the jury of the hundred of Taverham. The jurors said on oath that Goda killed her children, but was at that time demens & furiosa. As with the first case, the jury was asked about her previous ‘insanities’. This time, the example of ‘insane’ behaviour given was that she had, on a number of occasions, wandered about in Horsham and other places nearby, sometimes trying to drown herself in ditches, and only being stopped from doing so by the intervention of neighbours. They confirmed that, at the time of the killing, Goda was  furiosa.

In both cases, the accused person was kept in custody, until the king’s will was known – and we can probably assume that they had no other punishment: as several other cases have shown, those judged ‘insane’ would not face the usual penalties for felony. They might face a different sort of custody – contained and watched over by relatives or others assigned – but this was not technically a punishment.

So what?

Well, these are not going to change the world, but they do add to knowledge in small ways.

The ‘madness words’ used can be added to my collection – the conventional expression for ‘the sort of disorder which removes liability’, in the Norfolk of the 1330s at least, involved demens and furiosus/a. We might note that this seemed to cover rather a broad spectrum – from a condition which caused a person to strike out against others to one which manifested itself in wandering and turning inwards to thoughts of and attempts at suicide.

Even more interesting, to me at least, is what the cases show about what was required by a court in such cases, and what sort of conduct, aside from the offence itself, would be taken to indicate that the accused had had a severe mental disorder. These cases demonstrate that a court would not simply accept a jury’s assertion that the person in question was ‘insane’: they would require some sort of evidence of other disturbed behaviour, such as could be witnessed by other members of the local community. To count, ‘madness’ had to be performed in public.

This requirement gives us a rare window into the views on mental disorder held by fourteenth century laymen. What was ‘obviously mad behaviour’ which would work in this context? We have two examples – (i) disrespectful and violent behaviour in a church; (ii) wandering around the area and attempted self-drowning. It is interesting that the example of male ‘fury’ is directed outwards, while the example of female ‘fury’ is directed inwards (though, of course demonstrated in public – quiet, inert, depressive behaviour would not work here, would it?) , and I am intrigued by the statue-spitting misconduct. There certainly seems to be something here worth the attention of scholars of gender, and of lay piety (and impiety).