Category Archives: General Rambles

Names and associations: when ‘great men’ turn out not to be so great

The latest New Law Journal includes a story with some interest for legal historians, discussing the re-naming of a set of barristers’ chambers – from ‘Hardwicke Chambers’ (after Philip Yorke, Lord Hardwicke, 1690-1764) to ‘Gatehouse Chambers’, with the heading ‘Rebranding the past―when historical ideals fall short of modern values’.

In the aftermath of the Black Lives Matter protests and (in a Bristol context) the toppling of the Colston statue, no doubt many professions and businesses are considering their overt and more subtle links with the offences of the past. One of the things which strikes me about much of the discussion around this issue of commemoration is the fact that it often falls into a binary – ‘the past’ and ‘modern times’. As many good studies of the Colston issue (not to mention US Confederate statues) have shown, however, there is often a rather more complex timeline than that. with an important stage between the life of the now-controversial character and the present day, an era in which there was a move to highlight, or make use of, a figure of the past. Thus, the Colston statue was put up not in the old slaver’s own day, but in the heyday of Victorian imperialism. In a sense, naming modern legal institutions after ‘great legal men’ of the past has something in common with this tendency. The NLJ article more or less makes this point. The attempt to dredge up some historical figure to associate with one’s present day enterprise is both unimaginative and questionable. There is always the chance that the historical figure will turn out to have said or done something dubious, and there is also the issue of whether it is fair to borrow the image of people from the past without their approval – see also the feeble nonsense of ‘Nightingale Hospitals’ and ‘Nightingale Courts’ (at one point it was suggested that these might be called ‘Blackstoen Courts’ too …). Apart from anything else, it all tends to reinforce the ‘great men and the occasional carefully selected great woman’ view of history. Let’s just not, eh?

Though the article was not what I feared, on seeing the title, (was steeling myself for something along the lines of ‘political woke virtue correctness gone mad signalling TM Daily Mail’)  it does have its faults. It is irksome to see a certain lack of concern about the contemporary correctness of the objectionable Talbot-Yorke opinion, and there are some inappropriate choices of language here – it would be wise to avoid ‘slaves’ and ‘slavery’, which  are now rapidly falling into disuse, amongst people who see their effect in rendering matter-of fact the subjugation of certain sections of humanity. In addition,  in the context of the enslavement of Africans, discussing ‘branding’ – the marking of livestock, or people, as chattels, by the imposition of hot metal, is, surely, well beyond infelicitous.



Image: the ‘great man’ himself, c/o Wikimedia Commons.

Plinth photo

Just a quick posting of the current state of the Colston plinth, a year on from the dramatic toppling. I am beginning to get used to it, as I pass it on my regular ‘obey the bossy watch’ circuit. Those not-at-all-mammalian ‘dolphins’ are incredibly ugly, mind you …



Semen and semantics – considering legal metaphors[i]

A little reading this morning on law and metaphor, as I think about the paper I need to write for the SLS conference in September,[ii] which is going to look at bastardy, legitimacy and law/legal methods (a bit more on it here). Not surprisingly, others – lawyers and legal academics – have considered the issue of metaphorical talk in law, though, luckily, not the precise issue I mean to discuss.

Metaphor is an important theme for those of us interested in the history of women and law – especially in relation to coverture, so it is something which has been on my mind quite a bit in recent years. The bastardy angle is slightly different though – I want to think a little more expansively about the links between some of the problematic metaphors and expressions used in relation to bastardy and legitimacy (especially the ‘born within the four seas’ tag, in relation to adulterine bastardy,  but others too) and the process of ‘legitimate’ legal development, considering metaphors of (male POV) reproduction (and its impossibility), ‘father figures’ in law and legal history.[iii] In 20 minutes. Will it work, or will I end up getting too far into areas (language, jurisprudence) of which I know very little? We shall see.

My general reading so far has highlighted the sheer number of doctrinal tests which ‘get metaphorical’ – in all areas, but perhaps especially on the ‘civil’ side). Writings highlight their utility or problems, but there is probably quite a lot to say about their use as display within the legal profession and to/by its academic associates.

One thing I have noticed in my reading up to now is the difficulty people seem to find in writing about legal metaphor without using metaphors in that discussion itself. For example, this one at 257 states that  ‘[l]egal discourse is pregnant with metaphor., ’[iv]  this one (at p. 8) discusses metaphors ‘taking root’ in legal and other language, while this one, is generally wary of legal metaphors, but can’t resist (at 19) referring to a ‘seminal judgment’. That last one is a term I dislike – I know that semen-seminal could be interpreted generally, as ‘seed’/seedy (OK, I know, ‘seed-related’), but let’s be honest, sunflower seeds are not the first sort of seed that comes into anyone’s head in relation to those words. (And quite apart from the gendered sperminess of it, it has a rather uncritical aspect to it, justifying the process of legal development as somehow inevitable).[v] I certainly need to do some more thinking about how the apparently morally-neutral biological idea of the ‘seminal’ judgment relates to the morally-inflected legitimate procreation metaphors seen in some other places.

(And a final random thought – what would we call an ‘Ockham’s Razor’ for metaphors?).



[i] (I know – tabloidy title: never claimed to be classy …)

[ii] (seems a long way off but I already know I am going to have a large batch of marking in August, and, well, a break after the current lot might be quite nice/necessary if I am not going to collapse)

[iii] Thinking about this now, the main rivals to the fatherhood metaphor for legitimate legal development are probably that of botanical growth, that of rivers  and that of orthodoxy/heresy. Also n.b. the absolute ‘metaphor bingo line’ would be refs to fatherhood + ‘seminal’ + legitimacy.

[iv] Ah – takes me back to the ‘negative pregnant’ in medieval pleading …

[v] Maybe it’s compound metaphor as well, since presumably semen came to be used for … well … semen … before the motility of sperm was observed (otherwise, clearly, the people who choose words would have gone with something a bit more tadpoley). I can see I have work to do …

Photo by Erik van Anholt on Unsplash

Legitimate distraction

In today’s between-marking interludes, doing a case-search for something I am writing on ‘bastardy’. This keeps turning up 19th C cases with Bastard as a surname (Polden v Bastard; Nicolls v. Bastard…). Would have thought that would be a pretty mortifying surname in the days of Dickens and Wilkie Collins, with all of their illegitimacy-related plots, and all of the very real legal implications and social stigma of ‘bastardy’. Seems odd that it was not jettisoned. (Is it still with us? Can’t say I have ever been introduced to a Mr Bastard, Ms Bastard or Professor Bastard).

(Top prize for the most Blackaddery sounding ones, though, must go to some earlier examples – so we have Bastard, Administrator of Bastard, who was Executor of Bastard v [disappointingly not Bastard, but] Jutsham 94 E.R. 996 1 Jan 1738  Barnes 444 | [1738], and the simple but classic Bastard v. Bastard 89 ER 807| (1690) 2 Show. K.B. 81.)



Image: Wikimedia Commons.

(PS Fans of the author, Mr Collins, ought to have an information site about him called Wilkiepedia, oughtn’t they? Maybe they do.)

Between cause and effect: the length of lingering deaths

There is an interesting (if, obviously, horrible) local murder case in the press today, for anyone looking at the issue of causation, and the potential time-gap between offending action and death, which action may still be amenable to prosecution as homicide. Rather than simply being a matter of later discovery of, and prosecution of, a murder, the death of Jacqueline Kirk was relatively recent (2019), but the criminal action being assigned as its cause (setting her on fire) occurred 21 years before that. This leapt out at me today, quite apart from its horror and human interest, as connecting to an academic interest which I have long had in ideas about causation of death, and the issues surrounding ascribing criminal culpability in cases of ‘lingering death’, in so far as we can gather them from medieval legal records – and on which I plan to work in 2021-2. There are differences, of course, in that there can now be considerably greater certainty about factual causation than would have been the case in the ‘premodern world’, but causation in the law of homicide is never just a matter of fact, but mixes in all sorts of judgments about blame and appropriateness of bringing belated legal proceedings, so this recent case, and the discussion which it will no doubt encourage, will be an interesting lens through which to examine my material (though I have to say that, while there are certainly some very belated prosecutions, I have not found any attempts to argue for a ‘lingering death homicide’ of anything like this length, in older materials – no doubt to a great extent because people subjected to serious violence such as being set on fire would be unlikely to survive long, without modern medical interventions, but there are fascinating changes in ideas about the moral/legal aspects of causation to track as well).



Image (and yes I know this is not the court where the accused appeared yesterday, but the new one is a bit ugly: also good to see a statue in Bristol which is not obviously in need of a toppling): Stone statue of Justice by Edward Sheppard, the old Magistrates Court, Bridewell St., Bristol, dated 1879

Musing on mayhem

Unable to get settled into marking after the excitement of this morning’s ‘French trip’, I have spent an hour or two this afternoon doing a little bit of preliminary reading for next year’s project on mayhem. May have been slightly distracted by references to Norwegian black metal and a film about loss of inhibition, but the actual relevant legal material is also interesting – the changing nature of an offence which was never quite pinned down, and then faded into a strange twilight, overtaken by various statutory provisions, and civil actions of trespass. My initial interest in it came from the very gendered early statements about it, which came to be ignored, allowing women to proceed for mayhem, and with the relationship between ‘crime’ and ‘tort’ here. Today’s reading, though,  has also got me thinking a little bit about categories of offence, and the weight of labels. ‘Mayhem’ feels more condemnatory than ‘trespass’, or wounding, or ‘an offence against statute X’. There’s something about its venerability, something about its … I don’t know … presumption of discrete existence … which demands attention and care. I am sure that a better way of articulating that will emerge as I read on.

In the end, more tightly drawn offences and processes seem to have fitted the needs of the law and those turning to it rather better than mayhem. But was anything lost when the category was de-emphasised and allowed to dwindle? I wonder whether there were victims who would have wanted to see their assailant labelled a mayhem-er (is there even a labelling noun like that?). Questions, questions! But … marking …



(Later re-musing: the more I ponder, the more it seems as if this might end up as something like ‘Mayhem: the long decay of an always-ailing concept’ … with or without the sick body imagery).

Photo by Charl Folscher on Unsplash

Presenting (and Indicting): talk on medieval sexual offences

In between the marking and admin today I am getting ready for a talk tomorrow (online, of course – in this case, with academics from various European universities, and nominally ‘in’ Paris – may purchase a croissant and coffee to get in the mood, since it starts relatively early). The topic is sexual offences, and the overall topic of the project, historicising sexual harassment. It is a challenge, to present the oddities of medieval common law to a mostly non-common-lawyer audience, but it has also been interesting preparing this, with a slight external perspective, thinking about what will be unfamiliar, and where the audience will probably know rather more than me (e.g. presenting on law-French to a ‘room’ full of French scholars is a new one on me).

I am looking at ways of making this available beyond the seminar itself, though I am not sure I want to go on with my experiment in YouTubing. Sticking it up on Mediasite and sending links on request might be the answer, should anyone be interested.



Reviewing (the situation)

I have a book review out today a review of Felony and the Guilty Mind in Medieval England, by Elizabeth Papp Kamali, in The English Historical Review: Felony and the Guilty Mind in Medieval England, by Elizabeth Papp Kamali | The English Historical Review | Oxford Academic (

Since this (excellent) book has received all sorts of praise and prizes, it feels slightly bandwagon-jumping to review it now, though in my defence I wrote this ages ago – possibly even pre-Lockdown I – the world of publishing moves in mysteriously-paced ways.

Still quite like reviewing books, as long as I like them. As a young whippersnapper, it was a bit of a thrill to make the odd criticism (though I don’t think I have ever been inappropriately critical – very much hope not; certainly nothing in comparison to some of the miserly-spirited write-ups I have seen of late), but these days, it is just nice to show appreciation for good work and well-made arguments.  It feels, at the moment, as if there is a particular wealth of good legal history books – perhaps it is that there is a crop of people coming to the top of their game at the same time (yes I did a bit of metaphor mixing there – what of it?). Long may it continue.



Photo by engin akyurt on Unsplash

Pictures (and words) at an (online) exhibition

We are all hoping that it will be safe to end the pandemic restrictions at some point not too far into the future. Historians are aching to get back into archives on the old basis, without booking or the frustration of being able to book, and to attend conferences once again. Nevertheless, many of us have found some aspects of ‘remote scholarship’ quite positive. I have certainly attended far more talks and seminars over this past year and a bit than ever I did in the Before Times. For example, I have watched a large number of seminars in London at the IHR, which, ordinarily, due to the travel time and expense, I would not have attended. To drag myself there in person, the subject matter would have to be absolutely central to my interests, whereas this year, I have been going and having my horizons broadened in all sorts of directions. I think it has been a bonus for postgraduate scholars, and early career researchers too. And it has been wonderful to have the participation of scholars from all over the world in these gatherings. I imagine that many series will go back to their previous pattern once they are able to do so, but I hope very much that that won’t be the case with all of them – I am sure that there is scope for continued history/legal history online seminars in the future. More on that in due course, I hope.

The other sort of ‘event’ I have enjoyed ‘attending’ has been the online exhibition. I have always been a haunter of museums of all sorts, from childhood enthusiasm for those glass cases of coins and badly-stuffed-and-posed animals, through intense teen art-staring, to an appreciation for slightly more off-beat, interactive things in more recent times – so one of the pains of lockdown has been not being able to see new exhibitions in person. It has been eased by some of the creative things done, e.g. by the National Archives, and various universities; and today (as a reward for hitting my afternoon marking target!) I visited an online exhibition about women’s magazines  between the world wars, Exhibition ( Women’s history is, of course, an interest, but I feel rather ill-informed about the era of my own grandparents. So much popular history of this era is dominated by ‘the rise of the Nazis’ and ‘the abdication crisis’ that the lives and enthusiasms of ordinary women can easily be drowned out – so it is good to see careful work being done on such things.

Lady Rhondda features prominently (and I do know about her, from suffragette studies, as well as because she was a big figure in Monmouthshire, which is Seabourne family home turf) along with Time and Tide. There’s so much more, though. I had never heard of The Woman Engineer –  and it’s rather heartening that there was such a publication. There’s a bit on political campaigning, relating to equalising the franchise, amongst other things. There is fashion too – with those unfeasibly long thin figures of women in suits and hats (pronounced ‘hets’ in a clipped R.P. in my head), and material on careers, and problem pages. Some of the design is very attractive.  (And who knew that Good Housekeeping in the 1930s featured articles on international politics by Helena Normanton? Well, not me!).

Anyway – I enjoyed that. As with the online seminars, I think there is a future for this format. Have a look before it disappears. As for me, well, time, tide and the marking pile (electronic) wait for no woman …



Photo by Philipp Katzenberger on Unsplash

Adventures in internet searching & unworthy toilet humour ..

Awaiting the arrival of assessment scripts and the start of the markathon, I had a few minutes to spend on some petty treason cases this morning. Had an issue with a letter – was it an S or an M? Searched ‘Medieval M and S images’ and then ‘Medieval S and M images’. Now fully educated on Britain’s favourite purveyor of nice sandwiches and underwear, and also … whips. Lesson learned. Rather follows on from experience, earlier in the year, of searching for ‘naughty nun images’, to illustrate a post on medieval convent escapes. Who knew that nun-erotica was such a thing?

Then, deciding it was an S, looked up the gent in question in Calendar of Patent Rolls, and stumbled on this charming index entry (pictured). Made me snigger anyway. Must get out more.