Category Archives: causation

Untruth in wine: a snippet of medieval medical thinking


See the source image

On a King’s Bench roll from Michaelmas 1434, there is an entry telling of accusations made against James Gentill or Gentyll, a broker of London [though perhaps he was a native of Genoa rather than London].[i]

The entry is an ‘error’ case – roughly an appeal in the modern sense – and notes that, in In Trinity 1432, a presentment had been made, accusing Gentyll of offences relating to the illegal export of gold to Bruges, and also with an offence involving the adulteration of wine. The latter accusation was that James and others had conspired to damage the king’s people and inflict a variety of illnesses upon them. Specifically, on 6th October 1431, and various days before and after, in the parish of St Clement Danes outside Temple Bar and elsewhere in Middlesex, they had mixed and brewed up twenty tuns of Rumney wine and twenty tuns of Malmsey wine with other corrupt wines  – Osey and other wines –  and with pitch and resin, producing 100 tuns of corrupt and unhealthy wine. They took some of it this to Westminster and Shoreditch on the 6th October, and on various days afterwards sold it to various lieges of the king, including John Taverner, John Boysse, John Bramsston, Margaret Bosworth, fraudulently affirming it to be good and healthy,  causing those who drank it to be troubled and damaged by various afflictions (diversis perpetuis langoribus), and it was particularly noted that pregnant women drinking it were harmed, their children (pueri – foetuses, presumably) poisoned and rendered putrid (extoxicati & corrupti) and then destroyed, to the great deception and destruction of the king’s people.

And …?

As ever, who knows whether the allegation was true, mistaken or vexatious, but, leaving that aside, this has a number of possible points of interest. It illustrates the action taken locally in London, and at the ‘national’ level, against dishonesty in sales, and the sale of dangerous, as well as substandard, food and drink. This took me back to long-ago research for my PhD, during which I learned some good wine vocabulary, and took a few detours away from usury and pricing laws, and into the colourful world of London punishments for the sale of dodgy food and drink (they went in for ‘educational’ and shaming penalties such as having somebody stand with a rotten fish around his neck for selling putrid produce). The suspicion that wine-merchants or wine-sellers would pass off lower quality wine as something with a higher price and reputation, perhaps disguising their misconduct by introducing other substances, in order to mimic the colour of the supposed type of wine, can be seen in London and royal regulations and pronouncements.[ii] There are some references to the fear that this sharp practice could damage health in general. This is the first time, however, that I have seen the specific allegation about damage to pregnant women and the foetuses they were carrying. There is no reason to think that medieval people would have been unable to make a link between the ingestion of contaminated nutrients and foetal damage and death, but this fleeting reference is the first I have seen specifying damage to foetuses through pregnant women’s consumption of adulterated produce as a concern for the common law.  It is one I will ponder in two of my 2021-2 research leave projects: on legal ideas about pregnancy, foetuses and newborns, and on causation of death or bodily harm.





[i] KB 27/694 m. 7d (AALT IMG 327). See CCR 1447-54, 517, though this is some years later, in 1454.

[ii] For a 1419 London proclamation on adulteration of wines, see H.T. Riley (ed.), Memorials of London and London Life in the 13th, 14th and 15th Centuries, (London, 1868), 669.  [Hoarderish policy of not throwing away old notes hereby vindicated]. For ‘national’ concern, see e,g, CCR 1302-1307 , 526.

Lucky escape of a Nottinghamshire hot-head

All sorts of interesting questions arise in the case of a Nottinghamshire man who ‘got off’ (eventually) after being presented for his involvement in the death of his mother, not least what actually happened in the confusion which led to her death.

The record is at JUST 1/676 m.2 (image via AALT at: ) This is a roll from a judicial session in Nottinghamshire in 1305-6.

The person who came under some suspicion, William under the Appelton of Harworth, was an angry young man. We are told about the ‘angry’ part, and his actions bear out the description of him as ‘iratus’ that night at least. We do not know his age, but he was young enough to have a mother still living, and, until the events of the night in question, still active enough to run. On the other hand, he was old enough to have a wife. ‘Angry young man’ seems about right.

Those from his area, Bassettlaw,  given the job of reporting offences and unnatural deaths to the session said that Agnes mother of William under the Appelton of Harworth, on a date in 1304, ran onto a sword which was held by her son William and killed herself. This way of presenting the facts ascribed causation of the death to Agnes herself: she moved, took the active part, while William did nothing but hold a sword. He could not possibly be held responsible, to any extent, for his mother’s death. Even without more, one might ask whether holding a sword in such a way that somebody might collide with its point might possibly be worthy of some criticism, but in fact there is more. The jurors told a story which suggests that the death was entirely avoidable, and was mostly or entirely the result of William’s aggressive and reckless behaviour. That they chose not to interpret it in this way tells an interesting story of its own.

According to the trial jurors, on the day in question, as evening fell, William was angry (iratus) with Richard, one of his servants, and wanted to hit him with his drawn sword. Was this to be beating with the flat of the sword – unconventional, but masters did have the right to chastise their servants, up to a point – or was the intention more murderous? This is not explained, and, in any case, Richard was saved from William’s attack when Avelina, his wife, restrained William physically, helped by Thomas, William’s brother, and Isolda, his sister, who came in because of Avelina’s shouting.

Next, the scene was plunged into darkness, because a candle lighting William’s home went out. Agnes enters at this point. She had been getting ready for bed in her dower house, located nearby,  in William’s court, when she heard the noise, and came over to William’s place in the dark, to investigate and calm things down.  She did not see that William was (still) holding a drawn sword in his hand, and ‘suddenly’, ‘by accident’  she ran onto it, and was injured by her own movement, and died some hours later.

Concluding their account of the episode, the jurors reinforced the point that this fatal injury happened by accident, and also chose to say that the stupidity (stulticiam) of Agnes had contributed. This seems rather unjust as a judgment on Agnes’s conduct. It was, as the story shows, hardly stupid to come and try to defuse a situation caused by her aggressive son, which was clearly causing alarm to a number of people in the household. The point of defaming Agnes in this way might show some contempt for women, but the main reason to do it was to make sure that the death was not ascribed to felony or malice on William’s part. William, still alive, could soon not be, if he was found to have killed his mother feloniously, whereas Agnes was now beyond hurting, except in the most metaphorical sense.

The jurors had done their best to exculpate William, but he still had something of a wait in gaol, until a royal pardon was obtained. The pardon was forthcoming, however, and it appears in Calendar of Patent Rolls 1302-7, 421. So William was free to rage another day, now also presumably enjoying the part of his inheritance formerly assigned to his mother as dower.

Points of interest

There are, as ever, many of these. In social history terms, it might get us thinking about relations between masters and servants, husbands and wives, mothers and sons. In legal terms, it is an interesting illustration of the interaction of ideas about causation and culpability and the stretching of causation ideas to bolster a case for non-culpability. Mostly, though, I am left wondering just how reckless men were allowed to be with deadly weapons before it would be regarded as their fault that somebody was killed. The efforts of the jurors to distort the likely facts (e.g. the business with Agnes running so fast, in the darkness, onto a motionless sword, that she gave herself a fatal wound, with seems much less likely than a confused struggle involving William not remaining entirely still) appears to suggest that they knew they were pretty near to the limit in this case.


Buckets and causation in medieval Kent

Here is an interesting record from a crown pleas roll from the Eyre of Kent 1313-14:

JUST 1/383 m. 28d, which can be seen at AALT IMG 1763

It involves the unfortunate demise of a man called Augustine. These rolls contain endless examples of unfortunate deaths (frequently involving falls, fires and vicious pigs) but they way in which they are recordsd often makes it hard to see how a decision was made as to whether somebody should be held responsible, or whether the death was an unfortunate accident (look for infort’ in the margin). In particular, it is often impossible to know whether a death has been ruled accidental because of ideas about the (lack of) intention of another person who was potentially culpable, or because it was not, in fact, thought that this other person caused the death. This case, however, has an interesting and unusual little statement about causation, which might be of value to those wrestling with the outlines of ideas about culpability in medieval law and thought.

The facts were unglamorous enough: Augustine, son of Richard de Holeweye, wanted to fill his well, but it was full of mud. He went down into the well and told Alice his wife to set up and lower the bucket hanging over the well, in order to remove the mud from the well. When the bucket was full of mud, Alice began to pull it up. Sadly, the rope holding the bucket broke as she did so, and the bucket, full of mud and presumably heavy, fell down the well and hit Augustine’s head. He suffered an injury which was not immediately fatal. We are not told how (or whether?) he was brought up from the well, but in any case, he died (we are told, from this cause) within fifteen days. Alice was arrested. Evidently, she was seen as potentially culpable in this situation. ‘Afterwards’, however (and we do not know how long afterwards) it was held that the deed was a sort of act of nature [quasi factum naturam] and Alice was not the efficient cause [causa efficiens] of Augustine’s death, and the  Justices regarded this as an accident. [So Alice was cleared].

The language of ‘efficient cause’ is interesting – hints of Aristotle, perhaps? – and the whole episode suggests some doubt about the distinction between human agency and the workings of ‘nature’. In what sense was ‘nature’ engaged here – was it in the breaking of the rope, the falling of the bucket of mud, or both? We might wonder why there is no mention of the bucket (with or without mud, as the deodand – the object regarded as ‘moving towards’ the fatal convergence which, in most cases, would have been demanded by the crown. Does the idea of efficient causes and acts of nature cancel out the idea of causation based on the ‘fault’ of objects? And, if there was blame to be given out,  why was Alice the obvious person to think of blaming rather than Augustine himself? As ever, the plea rolls leave us with a bucketful of questions.