Category Archives: General Rambles

Archival Amour

It’s not quite the season of compulsory romance, but Valentine’s Day, and, for those lucky enough to be Welsh, the problematic Dydd Santes Dwynwen (Jan 25th – none of your Burns Night here, thank you very much)[i] will soon be upon us. There is, therefore, half an excuse to write about the online National Archives online exhibition about documents relating to love, which can be found at  With Love – The National Archives

It includes:

  • one of Ramsay Macdonald’s love letters (nice handwriting, no obv. LH content, though suggestion of fantasies of husbandly chastisement – rather questionable);
  • one of Robert Dudley’s letters to Elizabeth I (scratchy-quilled Early Modern writing, bit grovelling tbh, and no LH);
  • a letter of 1851 by a man called Daniel Rush, to the Poor Law Board (Law! Here we go! An absolute corker – commentary on the cruelty of those administering the law, and also citing the 1847 Consolidated General Order, ruling that there is no requirement to separate ‘pauper’ married couples to put them into the workhouse – really interesting on ‘lay’ knowledge of the law);
  • the Instrument of Abdication of Edward VIII (constitutional law, I suppose, but, oh, what appalling people);
  • a 1966 letter by Harry Houghton to Ethel Gee (perhaps ignorantly, I had not heard of these two – they were found to be Soviet spies, part of the Portland Spy Ring. This was a very kind letter consoling Ethel when her mother died, written from prison).
  • a 1541 letter from Catherine Howard to Thomas Culpeper (obvious LH link – treason charge etc. It signs off with ‘Yours as long as life endures’ – not that long, as it turned out.)
  • two anonymous letters from the 1740s (seeking ‘Romantick happiness’; an argument as to where this lies, with a particular woman or with L.H. – clearly, to my mind, not another woman but Legal History!)
  • a love letter from the 1930s, from Cyril to Morris, from (LH!) a period when homosexual relationships were likely to fall foul of the law (awkward and intense and very English)
  • a love song from the later 15th C or 16th C (The song itself doesn’t do anything for me, other than making me hum ‘Alone’ by Heart under my breath, but it’s apparently on the back of a document about a riot which – LH – would float my boat rather more)
  •  a letter from James Gillespie to the Prime Minister, Lloyd George, from 1919 (terrible circumstances – following race riots in South Wales – this black resident of Barry wanted to leave, but not without the family he had started there).
  • Wills – obvious LH interest just in the nature of the documents. We have Anne Lister’s will (1841) (She of ‘Gentleman Jack’ fame –interesting bit about provision disappearing if Ann Walker should marry – but some such idea was often present in provision for ‘widows’, certainly in local jurisdictions) and Nelson’s will (1803).


A very nice idea, and well presented. Sadly, I must report that it is inflaming rather than soothing my own particular pining – for the archives themselves. Very much looking forward to The After Times when I can get my hands on some MSS once again.

[i] All is explained here: How St Dwynwen wrongly became known as the Welsh Valentine… – Blog Ysgol y Gymraeg / School of Welsh blog – Cardiff University

A Planetary Kiss Goodbye to 2020

Gwen Seabourne on Twitter: “Jupiter and Saturn thinking about getting friendly.#GreatConjunction #Kiss” / Twitter

Tonight, I finally found a good place to go and look at the night sky event of 2020, the Grand Conjunction of Jupiter and Saturn. Semi-confined as we still are, here in Bristol (now Tier 2 rather than Tier 3, but, apart from it still not being OK to lick doorknobs, or indeed people, I have lost track of what that means…) it took a bit of thought to come up with a decent lookout spot, and it started to … persist … down with rain just as I was setting off, but the view from the Downs was not bad at all.

Of course, apart from just enjoying the phenomenon, with my birdwatching binoculars (I am a strictly part-time stargazer) my mind could not help but run over various DEEPER MEANINGS: about things appearing to be touching, but in fact being spectacularly distant, about human longing to see and feel connections – life, the universe and everything.  (Never quite left the angsty sixth form phase).

And then, equally ‘of course’, off my thoughts went to LEGAL HISTORY – because one of the reasons this celestial event is so cool is that it comes around very infrequently. What, I asked myself, was going on in the world of history/legal history at other points when this conjunction could be seen? Which historical heroes and villains might have seen it? Well, my old chum Edward Coke (ruffs, bad temper, casual relationship with the truth …) was around the last time the internet says it happened (in 1623) but would not have been able to see it, since on that occasion, it was too close to the sun. We are told that the last time it would have been possible to see the event was much further back, on 4th March 1226. The resonance which this has for me, and where I am now, is that, at this date, Eleanor of Brittany, unfortunate Angevin noblewoman and subject of an article I wrote long ago (Gwen, Eleanor of Brittany and her Treatment by King John and Henry III as well as cropping up in other works, was involuntarily resident in Bristol, confined in the castle, and, not that she knew it, never again to be allowed her liberty. No doubt other interesting things were going on at the time (Carpenter’s Henry III Part I is earmarked for reading when I get a bit of spare time over the holiday, so I will be better informed shortly) but that rather self-centred connection is the one which suggests itself this evening.

Anyway, it seems appropriate, somehow, that 2020 should be rounded off by a celestial marvel, the ‘purblind Doomsters’ putting piffling humans in our rightful place good and proper. Here’s hoping that 2021 becomes calmer and less interesting for historians of the future.




Quantitative methods

And this qualifies as Legal History because …

  1. Some people who do LH like to count stuff (my own efforts here are a bit amateur, but some people do it very well …)
  2. Er … virus… bit like plague …
  3. It needs to be noted for future Legal Historians and other historians.

It is … shall we say interesting … to note that my dear employer, and presumably the decision is one by the senior management team, has changed the way that it is publishing information on coronavirus, now that the cumulative total of cases looks very bad, and the institution is hovering around the top 5 or 6 according to the UCU dashboard (all the others above it being in known hotspots in the NE and NW and E Midlands).

Pleased to see that somebody is trying to fight back:

Otherwise, feeling pretty powerless, as there is so little accountability for all of this. Sometimes, all that’s left is resistance by limerick. So here’s one I found earlier (in my head):

‘Our priority is the health and safety of our staff, students and community’ [signed, from a safe distance, some very well paid people with an interest in minimising the impression that they are putting other people in harm’s way, ]

We care about students and staff,

don’t want you to worry – don’t laugh –

we promise you, that’s

why we’ve swapped scary  stats

for a sweet, soothing, ‘what virus?’ graph.


GS 30/10/2020

‘It’s the Climb’

… as noted jurist M. Cyrus would have said…

Thoughts on a manuscript submission…

Well – big day: I’m about to press the button and send off my checked-over manuscript to the publisher. Women and the Medieval Common Law c. 1200-1500 is a real thing! No doubt there will be  messing around and checking – perhaps some battles about the (admittedly copious) length of the notes, but essentially this is it. I won’t be able to change anything major from this point onwards.

Naturally, I can’t just do it, I have to agonise about doing it … and reflect about it. Well, indulge me, it’s been a long time in the works, and I don’t think I’ll be doing anything like it again.

I have wanted to write about women and legal history for such a long time – probably since my days on a postgrad course in which women were very much an add-on, and only interesting from a property perspective. For a long time, I avoided it, though. It seemed too close to home, in a way – I did drink in all the objective standpoint stuff rather too enthusiastically in my academic youth – and I was well aware that it would not be popular with the powers that be in the world of Law School legal history. So there was a lengthy diversion into other things – economic offences (seems a lifetime ago) suicide, all sorts. (And even a brief stint of masquerading as a modern property lawyer … But eventually it got to the point that I felt robust enough to have a go, and so it has been there in the background for a few years now.

It has changed a lot over the course of researching and writing. Obviously I was massively over-ambitious in thinking I could look at every subject, every relevant document (that has, of course, been especially true in the last few months, with library and archive restrictions). I more than half expect to be clobbered with the old ‘Why have you not looked at [insert name of 50 obscure MSS which would take a year to locate and translate…] and done a comprehensive survey of levels of women’s participation over 3 centuries [at least another year, with a research team and a way with complex quantitative analysis], but there does come a time when you just have to stop and publish the thing. It is the right length for the publishers’ parameters, it has some things to say, and I hope it will make a contribution. So – a little sadness that it is not all that I meant it to be, and trepidation that it will end up being clobbered from several different directions, by those who wouldn’t have done it at all, or would have done it in a different way …but I am so ready to move on.

One of the later things to do in this sort of project is the preface, dedication and so on. I am dedicating it to my mother, who very much deserves it. I hope it will make her happy and proud. I decided, though, against anything else personal by way of preface. I have become rather disenchanted with academic book prefaces. The convention of thanking people at the start of books they will probably never read, nor know about,  is polite in a way, but also a little odd. In some cases, it does feel a bit master/servant, in others, there is the sneaking suspicion that there’s a bit of boasting going on (look – not only do I write books, but I have a great personal life, supportive spouse etc. …) I hope that I have thanked those people who deserve my thanks in person anyway, and treated people in libraries and at conferences with respect as we work together. So I used the preface in a more content-relevant way, to set up the material which would follow. I feel more comfortable with that. At the moment, if I did the thank you thing, it might turn out to be rather more of a sarky ‘and I’d like to say THANK YOU VERY MUCH to the Senior Managers at my University for their handling of the coronavirus emergency and the [innuendo: abysmal] level of respect and support for staff who already have a lot to do [such as writing legal history books] over the summer’. And the email system which decided to play up just when I needed to despatch my files. Which would make me look extremely grumpy to anyone who looked at the book, years from now. So best not. [Could of course start a new trend for ‘And no thanks to …’ sections, a.k.a. Er gwaetha pawb a phopeth if you know your Dafydd Iwan …]

Anyway. Time for action. Things to do. Buttons to press.

With crossed fingers.

And … done.


Ruffs: there ought to have been a law against them

The stiffest and starchiest stuff,

bleached, folded, fussed over enough

to demonstrate I’m

rich in servants and time:

behold, my ridiculous ruff!


Well, this was a bit of a clumsy attempt to justify including an item about ruffs in what is (very vaguely) a blog about legal history. Obviously, there was a long tradition in various jurisdictions of legislating about the sorts of clothing which people could wear, but not (as far as I know) specifically about what is clearly the most ridiculous item of neckwear ever – the early modern ruff.

I have been equally horrified and obsessed by the ruff since being bought a Marks and Spencers book about the Tudors, one childhood Christmas, with all of the classic, much-reproduced pictures of the celebs of the day, increasingly, over the 16th C, ruffed up. I mean, the codpieces were … disturbing (especially on young Edward VI – just so wrong) … but it was the ruffs that really stood out for me. They seemed to be a combination of extreme discomfort and extreme silliness. Also a seriously bad idea to be drawing attention to your neck in an era rather well known for its beheading. Some of them even made the ruffee look like familiar pictures of John the Baptist’s head on a plate.

I seem to keep coming across ruff-pics these days, when looking up biographies of legal history ‘great men’ or on social media feeds about various historical things, and feel the need to work out some of my repressed ruff issues. Here, then, is my chart of ruffs – no doubt to be updated as more ruff-porn comes to my attention.


  1. Ruff(le)

A subtle little number, sort of polo-neck-cum-ruff, from R. Dudley


  1. Ruff puff

The ruff itself is less than spectacular – but with that puffy sleeve, chain and skull accessorising, a winner from ‘Mam Cymru’


  1. Ruff and tough and strong and mean …

It’s Walter Raleigh, wearing a doily


  1. Rufformation

I am not convinced that ruffs are very godly, bishop Hooper


  1. Ruff music

Johannes Eccard is wearing a ruff, but he’s not happy about it …


  1. Ruff ruff ruff

In everyone’s favourite tale of domestic violence, Mr Punch’s dog, Toby, always seems to have a ruff


  1. Ruff and ready

Because there’s no need to be all business-like about your armour,,_illusthatixg_the_ruff_worn_with_armour-_Elizabethan_People_(book).jpg


  1. Outruffed

The absolute satisfaction of knowing yours is the biggest, silliest ruff out there. Also a fine example of the implications of ruffs for hair-dos.


  1. Ruff justice

The the humble and charming Sir Edward Coke – ruthless misogynist, show-off and snappy dresser.

See the source image

Then there’s the picture above – the ‘beard squeezer ruff’ – right up under the ears too 0 astounding.

  1. Elizabeth R[uff]

Was there ever any doubt – this one has it all: the spectacular ruff, the puffy sleeves, the hair … apotheosis of the ruff – ruff as neck-halo, almost.


OK, good to get that off my chest. Or neck. Or whatever.



Update 9/9/2020

Bubbling under…

Not quite worthy of a place on the Completely Official Ruff Pics Top Ten, but may get there in time …



This picture looks as if it has had a bit of early modern photo-shopping. That hat is so 2D. But it’s the ‘ruff almost meets hat’ and ‘scraggy beard’ combo which is worthy of recognition:


Well hello doily!

An honourable mention in the ruff-accessorising category goes to this gent – another Coke – who has cut up a doily and stuck it to his hat and cuffs, to cheer up his look. Also love the detail of shadow on his ruff from his little pointy beard. Marvellous.

Take the ruff with the smooth

William Cecil sets off his hat/ruff/beard combo with a lot of velvet. Marks for detail in relation to the ‘hand ruff’ cuffs (why not make your wrists just as uncomfy as your neck?) and that emphatic rod (virga – definitely has subtext…)


Not even close …

I am afraid this chap just gets it all wrong. There really is no point in ruffing if your ruff is overshadowed by a brushed beard and natty hat. Yes I know it was early in ruff history, but still…:

What about this one – excellent illustration of variation of ruff angle: James VI of Scotland in the 1580s, ruffed at a very steep angle indeed – going full ‘John the Baptist’s head on a plate’: the head and body seem to be completely separate.  Portrait of James in 1586

And, new in on 5/11/2020 it’s this veritable neck-tutu from Henry Howard, earl of Northants, d. 1614 (from

Portrait of Henry Howard Earl of Northampton

This one – can’t quite put my finger on what it looks like: meringue?

Ruffs: it will never be enough

Well, it would seem that my ruff-obsession remains. Entirely unable to help myself commenting on two more instances of ruff-age, which turned up on Twitter:

Ruff work

This one is a lovely scene of friendship and pastimes, but I can’t help but wonder (yes I know that is rather C. Bradshaw) whether it might have been easier to sew, or to cuddle a child, without the impediment of a ludicrous and extensive folderol about the neck. There must surely have come a point at which the ruff interfered with visibility of the hands or piece of embroidery (directly or because of its shadow). At the same time I would be a bit disappointed to find out that ruffs were not actually worn all the time like this, and it was just a bit of an artistic convention.

Isabella Rosner on Twitter: “I just learned about this image of women embroidering in the @britishlibrary’s friendship album of Gervasius Fabricius zu Klesheim made between 1603 and 1637 and I truly cannot stop thinking about it. Where has it been all my life??” / Twitter

Ruff sketch

Feast your eyes on this multi-layered monstrosity. It puts me in mind of those foam collars worn by people with a whiplash injury, or – in a certain sense – the ‘cones of shame’ worn by dogs who have had an operation. No way Frankie would be licking his stitches with this thing on.

Gray’s Inn (@HonSocGraysInn) / Twitter

Gray’s Inn on Twitter: “Did you know that the Library holds a collection of pre-1800 books, including a collection of the works of Francis Bacon? Whilst the Library is closed you can find out more remotely here:” / Twitter


Medievalwatch: imprisoned by laziness

Oh dear, yet another muddled bit of journalism, pushing the tired ‘anything bad can be called medieval’ line. Simon Jenkins’s piece in the Guardian today makes a sensible overall point about the pointlessness, at best, of most incarceration. But he can’t help himself from going down the easy, lazy route of calling bad things ‘medieval’.

‘Except for dangerously violent individuals, imprisonment is a medieval hangover, a world of clanging gates, yelling guards and filthy cells, the sole purpose being to “teach ’em a lesson”. ‘

Why is this important? Well calling Bad Things ‘medieval’ insults and ‘others’ the long dead, and annoys academics working on medieval matters. In the case of this particular Bad Thing, It is also just inaccurate, in that mass incarceration as punishment for serious offences, in great big fortressy institutions is more properly laid at the feet of the Victorians than medieval people. Likewise, if the point is about the poor conditions, or solitary confinement, then that is not something which is specifically ‘medieval’. There is a big, important, point that is missed, in labelling such Bad Things medieval, and that is that it plays down the connection between the Bad Thing and a particular, later, mode of societal organisation – capitalism. Prison policy, in the nineteenth century and today, is deeply connected to capitalism.  It helps nobody to ignore that.



A fine body of metaphors?

Lawyers and legal historians do love a body metaphor, don’t they – they are all over the place, from descriptions of marriage (one flesh, unity, man as head woman as body versions …) to Baker’s ‘The Law’s Two Bodies’, to all of those rather repulsive metaphors about precedent and childbirth (which somehow segues into horse breeding – you know the one I mean: Bagnall, Cowcher, Denning, Eves), and the even more dodgy ‘emasculation’ references (male bits = good; no male bits = weak and useless). I suppose it all goes back a long way; maybe calling a collection of law a ‘corpus’ did not help. Some interesting possible routes along the lines of Corpus Iuris > Corpus Christi > transubstantiation > it’s OK to make fanciful metaphors about bodies when discussing very definitely disembodied, world of the mind, types of things. Wouldn’t it be an interesting experiment to just … not. The campaign against body metaphors for things that are intellectual constructs starts here (once I have removed several ‘corpus’ references from chapter I’m currently working on …

Positively (though mostly negatively) Dickensian

‘Dickensian’ came up a few times in my recent search for uses of ‘medieval’ in the reported pontifications in Parliament, and it seemed an interesting additional line to pursue. Hansard 2015-20 (online) tells me ‘Dickensian’ has cropped up 80 times in that period.

Some of the uses are rather clueless. It does appear that there are some MPs who think that ‘Dickensian’ is a label for a particular period of history. I suppose I see what they mean – vaguely 19th C -ish time – but it does look odd to see James Cleverly rather dimly spouting about the ‘Dickensian and Edwardian eras’.[i] Not just historically vague, and mismatched with the certainty of ‘Edwardian’, but also suggesting a lack of understanding of the fact that Dickens was predominantly a writer of fiction (whereas the Edwardian era was not a story made up by a bloke called Edward). We also see ‘Dickensian if not medieval’ – a particularly weird history/fiction from an entirely different period crossover.[ii]

Unsurprisingly, the general import of ‘Dickensian’ is negative. There is one possible exception, though the statement is somewhat confused: a ‘noble Lord’ suggests that people see ‘Dickensian’ Britain as something of a golden age (without immigrants),[iii] but this is unusual. Whenever there is talk of squalor, or contagious disease, then there is likely to be an outbreak of ‘Dickensians’. The standard scientific unit for disease, poverty and squalor may in fact be the ‘Dickensian’.[iv] ‘Pauper funerals’ seem to demand it too.[v] Calling poor employment conditions ‘Dickensian’ may have some justification (Scrooge, O. Twist, etc. etc.),[vi] but Dickensian’ is dragged in as a general intensifier of badness, even when the subject matter is not something with which Charles Dickens would have had particular sympathy. Not sure that Dickens is that into discussions of tax either, though it’s not that much of a stretch to imagine a storyline based on the ‘Bedroom tax’ and its effects.[vii] But, despite the frequent criticism of anti-trade union legislation as ‘Dickensian’, I am not sure that Dickens had a huge amount to say about trade unions (what am I forgetting?), but a.[viii] A rather selfish individual (see treatment of his wife) and one who sneered at efforts at solidarity (see Mrs Jellyby in Bleak House), I don’t see his sympathies lying with combinations of workers.

Slightly better-focused references, to complex administration – I presume we are thinking Circumlocution Office – pop up occasionally.[ix] See also what is perhaps a reference to Hard Times in relation to education,[x] and a decent point on management style, suggesting Scrooge (though let down by a rogue ‘feudal’ – clearly another one I need to look at).[xi] I was taken by a decently creative use of ‘Dickensian’ by David Lammy: in an attempt to get some of his fellow MPs to see that gangs and gang violence are not inevitably a ‘black issue’. Adopting the language they love is a smart move.[xii] White people can be rough too – Dickens show us. Bravo.

An interesting (in the sense of mask-off nasty compound-sneering) usage is seen in remarks responding to a ‘Dickensian’ gambit: a Tory MP, infuriated at the suggestion that something his government have done (the entirely modern mess of Universal Credit) is ‘Dickensian’ has a go at a Labour MP by mocking the sentimentality of A Christmas Carol.[xiii] Unwittingly ‘Dickensian’ (in the sense of a touch of the Pecksniffs) himself.

The ‘literary name-drop-pile-up’ is seen a few times: thus, for example we may be treated to ‘Orwellian’ meeting ‘Dickensian’.[xiv] There is a ‘Dickensian’/’Trollopian’ mash-up.[xv] I confess to a sneaking appreciation of one MP who really goes for it with the literary references, giving us not only ‘Dickensian’, but also ‘Kafka-esque’ and Catch-22.[xvi] If you are going to ‘culture-drop’, go big, and show that you realise it’s all a bit showy-off and public school debate-ish. Alternatively, of course, just speak straightforwardly and truthfully. I know, that’s never going to happen.

(Tension mounts – future episodes may include: which literary male is most frequently ‘dropped’, what use is made of ‘feudal’, ‘Biblical’ and ‘the size of Wales’? More anon – ooh, a bit Shakespearean there!)




[iv] E.g.













Measly Members? Horrible Medieval History in the Houses of Parliament

Our elected representatives (and unelected hangovers in the House of Lords) swan around on a site with huge medieval resonance. From time to time, MPs like to refer to the medieval buildings and heritage of their constituencies, or try and use medieval precedent to do something positive to improve parliamentary procedure.[1] Sometimes, they make a good medieval reference – my heart was warmed to see mention of what medieval churches were actually like,[2] of petty treason,[3] and even weights and measures regulation.[4] More often, they simplify and sanitise medieval events and institutions in a banal and feeble way – I am looking at you Rishi Sunak, with your blether about how great medieval apprenticeships were,[5] and many others fan-boying Magna Carta.[6] More than one, of course, trots out the old ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin’ debate, both to show off a dangerously little amount of knowledge, and also to belittle the amazing medieval scholars who would actually WIPE THE FLOOR with many of our governing classes.[7] There are worse things though, and this post will muse upon a few of the many references to the ‘medieval’ which are highly negative and also highly questionable, based on Hansard between 2015 and 2020 (all available online, and as this is a blog post, not a formal article, I am just going to copy the links rather than going for full dress footnotes). This is only partly the grumbling of a medievalist who feels that people should make more of an effort to get things right: I also think that there is a real danger in the tendency to reach for the adjective ‘medieval’ to describe all that is bad and brutal, clumsy and just … other.

At the irritating end of the spectrum, we see these types of dimwittery:


Made that word up. What I mean here is the mistaken labelling as ‘medieval’ of things which occurred at a definite later date. Obviously, there is room for disagreement about the years which should be called ‘medieval’, but conventionally, in England and Wales, they end with the fifteenth century. Henry VII probably sneaks in as the last medieval-ish monarch, but with Henry VIII very few people would deny that we have crossed the boundary into ‘early modern’. So calling the Council of Trent (1545-63) ‘medieval’ would seem to be wrong, as would calling the events of ‘a couple hundred years ago’ ‘medieval’.[8] See also pirates going after Spanish galleons – characteristically early modern.[9] We don’t hear about ‘early modern brutality’ though, do we – even if we should. Torturing Guy Fawkes, anyone? Beheading queens? Capital punishment for hundreds of different offences? Not medieval.


A real word, honestly. This one is the sin of taking something which was arguably a feature of the medieval period, though it could equally be attributed to other periods, and labelling it ‘medieval’, as if that was the only time it happened. A testimony to the snowballing effect of regular precipitation of negative ideas on the idea of the medieval. (Pretentious and wrenching metaphors in the same sentence – good effort). See, for example, ‘medieval’ references with regard to poor treatment of women and sexual minorities.[10] There is a good case for saying that some things at least got worse for these groups after the medieval period. Rape law was not favourable to women in the medieval period, but nor was it greatly altered for centuries thereafter.[11] Likewise, there is a tendency to pick out medieval medicine and science as proverbially backward, though it is not clear that there was a huge improvement in many areas in the early modern period, or thereafter. The description of cholera as ‘medieval’ rather ignores the huge outbreaks in the UK in the nineteenth centuries, and many avoidable outbreaks thereafter.[12] Were squalor, hunger, inequality or cruelty to animals over by 1500? That would seem to be the implication of the references to ‘medieval conditions’, ‘medieval famine’ and the medieval nature of badger-culling, cruelty to dogs and cock-fighting.[13] The idea that the medieval period was less democratic than the sixteenth century is also not obviously correct – both had such a small ‘community of the realm’ that they were outstandingly undemocratic, if democracy is understood in any modern sense, and, as far as women are concerned, no change until 1918.[14] Women’s different experience, of course, is never central to these sloppy grabs at history.

General confusion and random ‘medieval’ references

There is some odd talk about the Declaration of Arbroath – it is the ‘oldest medieval text’ (it’s certainly very important, but, unless there has been a secret re-designation of ‘the medieval period’ as beginning the day before its sealing in 1320, not remotely the oldest medieval text).[15] The idea of the immigration detention system as medieval seems odd: it is far more modern, and much was founded in living memory – we can’t ‘historically distance’ ourselves from that one.[16] The idea of a limit on family size is equally peculiarly designated medieval.[17]

There are also some episodes of random period-dropping – such as that of Robert Jenrick, who can remember three periods, medieval, Georgian and Victorian (are these, perchance, the periods of the various residences he just had to visit during the lockdown period?)[18]*, and by God he is going to throw them in, despite the fact that they are, erm, sufficiently separated in time to make no sense as a group.[19] Another pick and mix-up comes from Pete Wishart, talking about the medieval graves of Stuarts, Plantagenets and … Roundheads.[20] See also the pseudo-historical meets literary mash-up of a portrayal of Parliamentary procedure as somewhat Dickensian and reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland, as well as possibly medieval.[21]


Then there are the more serious misuses

‘Medieval’ politics

There is a tendency to describe government action which seems to be unaccountable, or over-reaching powers, as being like that of a medieval monarch.[22] Essentially, what is going on here is a misattribution to the medieval period of later theories of divine right kingship. There were certainly checks and balances on medieval monarchy – just ask Edward II or Richard II.



There is a general sense – made respectable to many by progress narratives such as that of Pinker – that the medieval period was one of a different order of violence and brutality to other, later ages. Medievalists themselves do not tend to support this view. There are obvious contenders for greater bloodshed – the Thirty Years War, WWI, … and more recent contenders for genocidal and religiously motivated violence. Locating brutality in the medieval period, however, pushes it away to a comforting distance. They were not really like us, after all; they were not really us.

To add a twist, the context in which we tend to see this ‘medieval brutality’ idea is in connection with Islam and the present other. It is almost obligatory to describe violence by ISIS, the Saudis or Iran as ‘medieval’. Clearly, there is much to disapprove and oppose, but what is added by calling it ‘medieval’?[23] There are lots of questions about this – whose ‘medieval’ is meant? Is the comparison with medieval Europe or with the medieval period in the Islamic world? If the latter, how does that work, when a strong tendency of historical study of the medieval Islamic world emphasises its advanced learning, culture, and capacity for tolerance? In one particularly muddle-headed statement, ISIS are likened to ‘medieval religious crusaders’.[24] Crusaders? Really? So much going on there.

It is Interesting to note that the only other regimes I saw labelled ‘medieval’ in their brutal behaviour were China and Myanmar – not Islamic – in fact acting against Muslim minorities – but certainly foreign (not even European!).[25] Very bad but very not-medieval, on either their own terms, or in terms of medieval western Europe.


Make ‘History’ History

It is interesting what can be turned up in an hour, with access to a search engine. Without even getting into some obvious additional terms – ‘feudal’, ‘vassal’ or the dreaded ‘Dark Ages’, it is pretty clear that there is some serious abuse of the term ‘medieval’ going on in Parliament. I wish they would stop, and give up the attempts at rhetorical flourish using stupid stereotypes and misinformation about people of the past. Not only do they make our representatives look foolish, and insult scholarship, but they also serve more pernicious purposes, allowing us all to perform ‘historical distancing’, and slough off the guilt of our own times, and the many horrendous things we might have done more to stop.

Wouldn’t it be good if this nonsense could be jettisoned along with the ludicrous ‘This Place’ and ‘The honourable member..’ claptrap. Oh, and the House of Lords. Unlikely, I know – in fact there is probably a whole heap of ill-informed Black Death meets Covid-19 connections ‘oven-ready’ for the next session of Parliament.

[1] See, e.g.,







[8] 16th C as medieval




[12] See, e.g., (on disease) ;

On treatment of those with mental health issues or learning disabilities: 5E35A4B2971A/MentalDisorderAutismAndLearningDisabilities?highlight=medieval#contribution-792EDDFC-2316-4CCB-A74D-207F3BD68356

On science

[13] Squalour:



Cruelty to animals:

[14] Medieval and undemocratic

[15] See







[22] See, e.g.,

[23] See, e.g. ‘medieval monsters’

Saudi Arabian punishment: Saudi Islam

Iran v Saudi Arabia: a ‘medieval-off’:

[24] Isis as medieval religious crusaders

[25] brutality

Medieval behaviour

‘Medieval’ watch: a Mirror of Injustices?

Time for a new ‘-watch’, I think. Not exactly a new peeve, but, like many of those who spend a lot of time trying to get to grips with the world of c.500-1500, I do tend to recoil at the frequent, lazy, and inaccurate descriptions of things regarded as brutal or primitive as ‘medieval’ (possibly also throwing in the ‘Dark Ages’, to compound the sloppiness). Today’s description in the Mirror, of Chinese ‘wet markets’ as ‘medieval’ ( ) has prompted a bit of an investigation of how the modern press is (mis)using ‘medieval’. When I say investigation, I mean search on the website of the Daily Mirror, having persuaded the search engine that I do indeed want to look up ‘medieval’ and not ‘Meghan’ or ‘Megxit’. Still, it’s a start.

It seems to me that there are two main categories of misuse:

First, we have the straightforward type 1 ‘detached slur’ instances – in which ‘medieval’ is thrown in, as a synonym for all that can be thought of as backward. The ‘wet markets’ example is a classic type 1 case. While it is true that butchering practices in medieval England were not concerned with animal welfare, and were seen as a matter in need of regulation to avoid nuisance to cities, it is the scale of modern animal-exploitation which is the most dangerous thing in terms of disease-promotion. Were people to go back to medieval levels of meat-consumption, we would be likely to see a fall in many problems, including disease. I am a vegetarian, and would be glad to see an end to all sorts of animal slaughter, but focusing on ‘foreign’ practices, and labelling them ‘medieval’ feels very wrong. There is more than a touch of racism in it, as well as its inaccuracy from a historical point of view.

Then there are the type 2 cases in which there is a bit more of a chain of connection – the comparison is with a particular (supposed) aspect of medieval life, though either the connection is questionable, or the aspect of medieval life is represented inaccurately. A case of this type from the Mirror was their description of a deadly ‘duel’, allegedly set up to decide which of two potential love-interests would acquire a woman, as ‘medieval’: ; Yes, there was such a thing as the judicial duel in medieval England, but, in the age of recorded legal history, it was not frequent, not necessarily deadly, and certainly not employed to decide between suitors. Had the paper wished to risk going a little closer to actual history, it might have thought about later duelling culture, from the early modern period. (You don’t often see contemporary behaviour described as ‘early modern’, do you?) Also worth noting that the facts here were about ‘foreigners’ as well: those involved were originally from Lithuania. In slight mitigation of the the paper’s offence, we might note that the ‘medieval duel’ idea seems to have originated with one of the trial lawyers. Presumably not one with good training in legal history.

Perhaps there is a third type, the ‘innuendo by juxtaposition’: a report of contemporary violence, in a situation which is portrayed as having a medieval connection, thus reflecting back on the medieval period an idea of violence. Such a ‘type 3: juxtaposition’ case can be seen in – an event dating from ‘medieval times’ (unexplored) resulted, in the present day, in violence. Readers are, arguably, being encouraged to conclude that there is something ‘medieval’ about the violence.

So, there is a lot of rubbish being spouted about the ‘medieval’. It is worth, finally, thinking about why I dislike it so much. Partly it is discomfort at unashamed ignorance: when there is such wonderful scholarship on the medieval world going on throughout the world. A larger part, however, is high dudgeon (not dungeon) at the contemptuous dismissal of people as human as ourselves as blundering, brutal idiots, and the concomitant self-congratulatory implication that we are doing so much better. Not so sure about that.

To be continued …

GS 17/5/2020

Ctd: Unsystematic ‘feudalism’ – use of ‘feudal’ by Parliamentarians

I was a little surprised to see that ‘feudal’ scored a mere 27 mentions in the 2015-20 debates.

The biggest cluster of references came in debates around leasehold reform in England and Wales.[i] Using ‘feudal’ here is intended to suggest that landlords are abusive, in the manner of medieval lords. There are two problems, though. First, leases are not feudal arrangements – check your Baker, Introduction to Legal History. Secondly, we have the ‘historical distancing’ thing again: the abuses perpetrated by modern landlords are a feature of capitalism, not feudalism. Calling them feudal lets capitalism off the hook. Using ‘feudal’ in discussing an unequal employment relationship falls into the same difficulty: abuses and power differentials are deeply embedded in relationships in the market economy, and throwing the f-word around distracts from that.[ii]

It comes up a bit in some of the same contexts as ‘medieval’, especially in lazy attempts to jazz up an argument that the government is behaving in an absolutist way.[iii] Look it up, people – autocracy and divine right kingship are not the same as ‘feudal’ monarchy.Sometimes, greater accuracy breaks out, e.g. unless you are a hardline medievalist who will not countenance any reference to the ‘feudal’, you are probably OK with Keir Starmer’s distinction between historical royal roles as sovereign and feudal lord.[iv]

On the whole, a poor haul. (Mind you, I have seen a few ‘feudal’ references recently in the press coverage of the Dominic Cummings ‘essential 250 mile trip during Lockdown’ episode – those terrible envious socialists suggesting that dear Dom was behaving somewhat unaccountably in crossing the country during a time of pandemic isolation – so we may see a bit of a resurgence …)

GS 23/5/2020

Ctd.: Magna Carta

Magna Carta

Since 2015 was a big anniversary, I would expect some MC-drivel in this section of Hansard. Mostly rather ‘samey’ though. There are predictably lazy suggestions that Magna Carta involved barons insisting on the ‘rule of law’ as if what they were after was remotely like the modern concept that goes by that name, as opposed to ‘their privileges’.[i] Some have had the intelligence to distinguish the charter and its myths.[ii] MC is ‘signed’ quite frequently (rather than sealed), but that is a relatively minor inaccuracy.[iii] It is a worse error to get its date wrong,[iv] or to identify the MC barons with the House of Lords.[v]

There are some generous/far-fetched interpretations of the narrow and self-interested chapters of MC as founding general ‘democratic’ rights. Thus, it seems a bit questionable that c.12 on scutage and aid can be scaled up to ‘no taxation without representation’,[vi] or that c.41 really supported a modern idea of free trade.[vii] Beyond exaggeration and straightforwardly wrong, however, is David Lidington’s statement that Magna Carta ‘mentions the importance of maintaining fish weirs in the river Thames’ – oh dear, cl. 33 is all about getting rid of these from rivers![viii] Obviously well qualified to be Lord Chancellor (later), with that impressive attention to legal detail.

GS 25/5/2020










[i] See, e.g.