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 …
‘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!)
[xiv] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2017-01-17/debates/B8EEB96C-261A-4773-9F97-77AE7911065C/DWPPoliciesAndLow-IncomeHouseholds?highlight=dickensian#contribution-DB8C9E5A-8355-4DC8-A76F-CD74490ED99F https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2016-11-07/debates/605BEFA9-1A9E-443E-A746-BBCC40758D18/ExitingTheEUAndWorkers’Rights?highlight=dickensian#contribution-AB0F0674-F531-4B93-A338-D27EA71CFA05
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. Sometimes, they make a good medieval reference – my heart was warmed to see mention of what medieval churches were actually like, of petty treason, and even weights and measures regulation. 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, and many others fan-boying Magna Carta. 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. 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’. See also pirates going after Spanish galleons – characteristically early modern. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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. 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). 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. The idea of a limit on family size is equally peculiarly designated medieval.
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?)*, 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. Another pick and mix-up comes from Pete Wishart, talking about the medieval graves of Stuarts, Plantagenets and … Roundheads. 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.
Then there are the more serious misuses
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. 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’? 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’. 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!). 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.
 See, e.g., https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2018-02-01/debates/7D778066-4A6F-4128-BDA8-69014CEA42C2/BabyLeaveForMembersOfParliament?highlight=medieval#contribution-59D8EA68-A8A0-4AAC-84CA-A7CD6F7391E7
 https://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/2019-07-01/debates/41580300-A9FE-4FAB-9CCE-16FC196E38AD/Inflation?highlight=medieval#contribution-8304E9F2-116E-436E-A0C8-8245785DEF68 16th C as medieval https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2017-03-20/debates/2E21C4BD-BC87-4E2B-9E3D-2844214108F6/AdvisoryCommitteeOnBusinessAppointmentsMinisterialCode?highlight=medieval#contribution-796386D8-9CF2-4D21-83B1-6D4DEAB33529
 https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2017-03-15/debates/4A88339E-0EE2-445A-BA4C-EF51ACAC7F17/PointOfOrder?highlight=medieval#contribution-B18D88F0-74B1-485C-9EF8-5229DDC96442 https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2016-12-14/debates/3CBE0975-23DD-486C-8244-ADBFF23CBF02/EqualityAutumnStatement?highlight=medieval#contribution-4054FCB8-806E-4BCF-9F6C-21956DC932C9 https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2017-01-25/debates/0D1725C7-23E3-4968-986B-CE07B013D361/PointsOfOrder?highlight=medieval#contribution-41E4D168-4802-4229-841D-8C589145DC72
 See, e.g., (on disease) https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2019-05-23/debates/FAA76D92-33F3-45AA-A835-6D38C8F60A32/YemenPeaceProcess?highlight=medieval#contribution-88CC8497-D97D-45E8-B28A-D9EBCC315518 https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2017-11-30/debates/1C24E14B-85C7-4C5C-9013-091AC89936F1/Yemen?highlight=medieval#contribution-D1974D34-89FA-4887-8663-CE70B12281B9 https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2017-11-30/debates/1C24E14B-85C7-4C5C-9013-091AC89936F1/Yemen?highlight=medieval#contribution-A52672BB-60D3-4DD5-8B80-9BEE69EEB588 ;
On treatment of those with mental health issues or learning disabilities: https://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/2019-11-05/debates/9627E94E-0754-4959-85F0- 5E35A4B2971A/MentalDisorderAutismAndLearningDisabilities?highlight=medieval#contribution-792EDDFC-2316-4CCB-A74D-207F3BD68356 https://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/2019-06-06/debates/82EC353D-FB47-456F-BFC2-528618277852/PeopleWithLearningDisabilities?highlight=medieval#contribution-CBEB34FF-6EDB-4248-B0DB-03411D221E84
On science https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2016-12-19/debates/292C9A19-9A13-482A-961B-F893AEE899E9/ExitingTheEUScienceAndResearch?highlight=medieval#contribution-A1DB9719-D106-4FE3-940E-57A403EE08E0
 Squalour: https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2017-10-12/debates/A20CF46E-116A-47B2-BA33-11CAA47B3FC0/UNConventionOnTheRightsOfPersonsWithDisabilities?highlight=medieval#contribution-504D426E-A94E-41B9-82C4-2CB7680BA06C
Cruelty to animals: https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2019-07-23/debates/0d31dfe7-20d9-41b9-8c8f-704ba942fb06/AnimalWelfare(Sentencing)Bill(SecondSitting)?highlight=medieval#contribution-36F9E2EE-D6EB-4100-9FC8-539494913CA7 https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2016-09-07/debates/98FFCE19-439C-4F5D-A274-ADFCB7795217/BadgerCullingBovineTB?highlight=medieval#contribution-0138A27F-7BFC-4F4E-B034-0B9A23228C69
 See https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2018-10-25/debates/B6DDA10A-5B99-494F-81D6-395DB298CB73/InternationalFreedomOfReligionOrBeliefDay?highlight=medieval#contribution-7FFAEDB2-3C7C-471B-9E24-822F800E2E79 https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2019-02-20/debates/993F895E-D215-4773-A464-1A6320523B0E/AntisemitismInModernSociety?highlight=medieval#contribution-9B5EBA88-ED54-4E93-922F-6C5DAFB72CDC
 See, e.g., https://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/2016-06-27/debates/8CB4EC8E-411F-4045-92E4-446F13516817/OutcomeOfTheEUReferendum?highlight=medieval#contribution-CBF4D322-B20C-4C10-ADE0-AD891A28F8AC https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2016-04-13/debates/16041336000001/TaxAvoidanceAndEvasion?highlight=medieval#contribution-28FEA400-200F-4182-984A-4DBD7430AF3B https://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/2016-03-10/debates/FD21A151-46BF-4A03-911E-37994CF73EAF/BBCCharter?highlight=medieval#contribution-DB00D49A-0C51-4EF6-BA9E-3AB296E3048C https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2016-10-19/debates/CA0685E2-6A97-43EE-8524-94C27A53AB25/HouseOfLordsReformAndSizeOfTheHouseOfCommons?highlight=medieval#contribution-34A75F18-1C6F-49DD-80AF-11254F40E1B8
 See, e.g. https://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/2015-06-10/debates/15061061000109/Charities(ProtectionAndSocialInvestment)Bill(HL)?highlight=medieval#contribution-15061073000009 https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2019-02-18/debates/69E286BB-03A2-4467-AB65-B3059436CD53/UKNationalsReturningFromSyria?highlight=medieval#contribution-7B804965-408E-4982-B521-A7A931CA1DD4 https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2016-12-20/debates/FF51202E-34FA-48C7-B002-28DB6AF473AA/ChristmasAdjournment?highlight=medieval#contribution-842395D3-D9ED-49EB-ADC2-60A8CEB8B31A ‘medieval monsters’ https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2015-12-02/debates/15120254000002/ISILInSyria?highlight=medieval#contribution-15120254000141
Saudi Arabian punishment: https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2015-07-21/debates/15072129000001/HumanRights(SaudiArabia)?highlight=medieval#contribution-15072129000011 Saudi Islam https://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/2016-10-13/debates/E8C50118-7D12-483C-9DA3-CA0D48BA2AC2/Yemen?highlight=medieval#contribution-3DD47A5E-AF9B-47B7-A06C-29DFDE0FB6D7
Iran v Saudi Arabia: a ‘medieval-off’: https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2016-10-12/debates/E2AD1EFE-3C20-4387-967C-D7F976530F05/Britain-IranRelations?highlight=medieval#contribution-F12256FA-2B29-4BC2-898F-86D6AA293174
 Isis as medieval religious crusaders https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2015-11-30/debates/1511303000001/MiddleEast?highlight=medieval#contribution-1511303000338
 brutality https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2017-10-17/debates/85ADE193-5E40-4798-B15F-F916C81CD87D/TheRohingyaAndTheMyanmarGovernment?highlight=medieval#contribution-679DB413-861C-4F22-A461-48A13DD7B05B
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’ ( https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/turtles-butchered-alive-medieval-wet-22037914 ) 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’: https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/divorced-mum-arranged-medieval-fight-21034911 ; https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/mum-who-arranged-fatal-medieval-21249149 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 https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/pancake-day-medieval-football-match-14093383 – 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 …
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 …)
Ctd.: 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.
[ii] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2015-05-28/debates/15052828000003/HomeAffairsAndJustice?highlight=magna%20carta#contribution-15052828000532 https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2015-06-30/debates/15063035000001/HumanRightsAct?highlight=magna%20carta#contribution-15063035000045
[viii] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2017-03-23/debates/21613DF3-90F7-4CE7-B62E-D23583C8366E/BusinessOfTheHouse?highlight=magna%20carta#contribution-7BCCF3C7-041E-486C-9B6B-7CE17D4211B5 http://magnacarta.cmp.uea.ac.uk/read/magna_carta_1215/Clause_33
Named after my grandmother, and as an embodiment of Welsh heritage, I have always been proud of my name (it’s the sort of bone-headed pride which comes despite not having a hand in the choosing of it). Today, this splendid name seems to be in something of a decline – even on the lists of Welsh baby names (it’s all about Seren, apparently). So here, to assist in the Gwenaissance, is a list of fabulous Gwens of past, present and the imagination…
- Gwen Cooper (Torchwood) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cYxWY1r7BiM (she’s not English, you know)
- Gwenllian ferch Gruffudd https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gwenllian_ferch_Gruffydd (definite Xena, Warrior Princess vibe) See this rousing trailer: https://twitter.com/BBCWales/status/1264605832081072136 – I’m not the only one who thought Xena.
- Gwenllian ferch Llywelyn (tragic stolen medieval baby princess, but has her own society) http://www.princessgwenllian.co.uk/
- Gwen John (artist) https://biography.wales/article/s3-JOHN-MAR-1876 (talented, slightly scandalous).
- Gwen Guthrie https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gwen_Guthrie (nothing going on but the rent: first non-British Gwen I ever came across: international Gwen-solidarity)
- Gwen(ffrewi) St Winifred – she of the bouncing head, decapitation/stiched back on miracle: well, well … https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Winifred https://www.stwinefrideswell.org.uk/
- Gwen(doline) Mary Lacy, from Malory Towers. Misunderstood and misrepresented by her goody two-shoes over-privileged boarding school nemesis, Darrell Rivers. Quite right not to like lacrosse.
- Gwen from the film Gwen (a bit scary, but nice big GWEN on the poster – good for Gwen-awareness… https://www.empireonline.com/movies/news/exclusive-new-trailer-and-poster-for-dark-drama-gwen/ )
- Gwen Stefani (what is she up to? Deserves her place for barking brilliance of Rich Girl)
- Gwen Torrence (official fastest Gwen in the Gwenlympics https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gwen_Torrence )
And hello to a new Gwen
New to me at least – check out this piece on Gwen Farrar – a vintage comedic Gwen (category: Gwentertainment) https://womenshistorynetwork.org/partners-and-pals-by-alison-child/
A blow to Gwen-awareness
This week, like much of academia in the UK and elsewhere, I have been in recording and captioning mode, as we prepare for the new Blended Learning World (the sensible bit – online learning – rather than the ludicrous face to face during a pandemic bit) and I have learned a terrible truth: the captioning software does not recognise the name Gwen. I am therefore ‘when seaborne’ … Not so bothered about the second bit – in fact my family did spell it without the u until c. 1900 when they decided Seabourne was posher, or something. But not recognising ‘Gwen’ – clearly an outrage!
Historical Gwen Injustice
This one is not at all trivial. The first woman executed in Wales for witchcraft, during the reign of Elizabeth I, was, apparently, a Gwen: Gwen ferch Elis to be exact: https://parish.churchinwales.org.uk/a065/history-en/gwen-ferch-elis-1542-1594/
An injustice at more than one level.
Gwens in space …
Watched an old favourite tonight – Galaxy Quest, I had forgotten its Gwen-relevance, with Sigourney Weaver as Gwen Demarco:
Gwentertainment continued … a long-lived and classy Gwen
Gwen Ffrangcon Davies (1891-1992): ‘legend’, it says! Good work!
For most of my academic career, reading at speed, and always off to the next book on the list, I have skipped and skimmed the ‘additional pages’ – the Roman-numbered ones at the beginning and end of a volume, containing the preface and index. More recently, though, I have become a little obsessed. First of all, I started looking at the index of any book I was reading, to see whether they had anything to say about women (in the case of Legal History books, the answer was very often no). Then, more recently, I have started to read prefaces. A particular feature seems to be the ‘minimising and patronising thanks’ motif – especially the brief, duty-bound, mention of women who no doubt did more than the transcription and typing credited to them. The attitude conveyed is one of arrogance and self-importance, seeking to emphasise the author’s own struggle, importance and genius. A particular gem turned up in my reading today, featuring not only women-minimising, but also something of an under-estimate of the others involved in bringing a book to press.
In Selden Society vol. 62, C.T. Flower, Introduction to the Curia Regis Rolls (London,. 1944), Preface, viii, Our Cyril (as I am sure he was known) informs his reader that ‘This book has been read in proof by my colleague, Mr. L. C. Hector, who has made numerous suggestions, of which I have used a very large proportion. I am greatly indebted to Mr. Stuart Moore for his unfailing encouragement, and to Professor Plucknett for his careful scrutiny of the proof sheets. My wife has made my task much easier by typing more than half the text, although she was at the time crippled by an accident. A last word of thanks is due to the printers, on whom the times in which we are living must have imposed great difficulties, of which they seldom made me aware.’
So what sets my teeth on edge here? Well, first of all it is the bit about his wife. No name. It’s his wife and he can’t even be bothered to include her name. According to his ODNB entry, it was Helen Mary Harding, before she married Cyril. Thereafter, apparently, ‘my wife’ sufficed. Then there is the ‘more than half the text’ – was it really necessary to go into proportions? And finally, the implications of this poor woman typing away whilst badly injured (we will pass over ‘crippled’: vile though it is, it was probably not out of the ordinary at that time). The idea that, during WWII, it was thought to be so urgent a matter to get out a volume on medieval legal records that a very-injured woman was called upon to type it up suggests both a lack of perspective and also a less-than-healthy partnership. The dismissal of the printers and their ‘great difficulties’ in a few bland words also seems jarring – and is there a hint that they sometimes did make him aware of problems (uppity little tradesmen! Don’t they know how important the work of a learned society is? Hitler will look upon my disussion of essoins in thirteenth century records and despair!)?
I shall continue to seek out dodgy preface remarks: they seem to be an interesting window into the mental world and self-regard of earlier scholars, and the lives of Legal Historians’ Wives. There seem to be so many ways to go wrong in a preface – self-indulgence, boasting, performative thanking, general dullness – that I do wonder whether we might not do away with them and just, you know, write the book. Which is what I am supposed to be doing now.
Twelfth night is upon us, and although I have taken the decorations down, I am looking at a pile of still-to-be-gobbled Christmas puddings. This may explain why my mind has been turning on a pudding-related issue from a late-medieval legal treatise today.
Littleton’s Tenures is not an especially easy or exciting read, and I had been putting (or pudding?) off checking some bits of it for a project I’m working on. Finally made myself do it today, only to be sidetracked by Littleton Bk 3 c 2 ‘§ 267, a passage on something called ‘hotchpot’. Without getting too tedious, this is to do with ensuring fair shares of property to a group, by looking at assets together. To the extent that I had ever thought about the word, I suppose I would have seen a connection with the ‘hotpot’ produced in great quantities once upon a time by Coronation Street’s Betty Turpin. But Littleton sees it not as a stew, but as a metaphorical ‘puddyng’ in which we might expect to see a variety of ingredients. His description is a little reminiscent of some of those Great British Bake Off technical challenges – ‘for in this pudding [puddyng] is not commonly put one thing alone, but one thing with other things together’. But what things, Littleton, what things? Are we talking sweet or savoury – or one of those sweet v. meat horrors?
We need to know!
This morning’s mind-broadening podcast (listened to as a way of attempting to blot out the sheer tedium of a gym session) was the latest ‘In Our Time’ on papal infallibility.
As ever, a good way of getting an overview of a subject on which I am not entirely ignorant, but my knowledge is pretty thin. Also as ever, however scrupulously the programme tries not to make the easy modern connections, it is very hard for the listener not to relate it to current debates about sovereignty, supra-national organisations, binding authority for the future … I now blame the Franciscans for our current slither towards Brexit.
Teaching an undergraduate Legal History unit means venturing outside my usual medieval limits, and, when it comes to criminal law and criminal justice, it means engaging with the vast and ever-increasing scholarship on the 18th century.
I will admit to a bit of anti 18th century prejudice – probably stemming from having ‘done’ 18th C history at ‘A’ level and wanting to move on from Walpole, Bubbles and Wars. But I am starting to get over it by listening to some podcasts on crime and punishment in this era (study of which is more popular than ever amongst historians, at least partly because of the Old Bailey digitisation project).
Today’s mind-broadener was from 2013 at the Institute of Historical Research, London: Steve Poole (UWE) ‘For the benefit of example’: hanging felons at the scene of their crime in the long eighteenth century’. https://www.history.ac.uk/podcasts/british-history-long-18th-century/benefit-example-hanging-felons-scene-their-crime-long
This was extremely interesting. It was good to hear about places other than London (the Old Bailey project, marvellous though it is, has tended to push London even more to the fore in crime history scholarship than had previously been the case) and intriguing to learn about differences in practice, and cross-currents, in relation to the location of, procession to, and conduct of executions. The paper was also very worthwhile in its demonstration of the danger of trying to impose progress narratives on the past.Apart from anything else, my heart was gladdened to see yet another example of Foucault’s much-genuflected-at theories being proved inaccurate. (One can only hope that the end is in sight for the disciplining and punishment of academia by these pretty patterns which, when examined in the context of specific histories, show their lack of substance).
This paper, and the research behind it, however, showed real substance, and introduced important matters for consideration. In particular, it is vital – though hugely difficult – to try and get one’s head around what people of the past thought was good and appropriate about public execution. There are some good and thoughtful suggestions here, and some excellent examples to back them up.
Well worth a listen.
This week in UK legal history, it’s all about the pensions strike by lecturers, professional services and librarians:
I feel sure that Bracton’s sister would have been completely behind the union on this one. (offering solidarity on behalf of the Union of Families of Reputed Medieval Treatise Writers along with Glanvill’s Auntie and Britton’s Kitten).
The following lines have reached me – I cannot speak for the provenance of this work of literature, (and I take the point of the International Association of Weasels about some of their members being quite honest and straightforward, and that of the British Trough Diners’ Club that they have made great strides in improving their image by the promotion of dainty eating amongst members and guests, and do not appreciate reinforcement of tired stereotypes of greed and indelicacy) but it does seem to chime in with the attitudes of a certain body …
We’re getting unwelcome attention
For our stance of tone-deaf condescension
We could end this all easily
But we’d rather be weaselly –
Promise ‘talks’, (only not about pensions).
[PS, Just ignore those unpleasant ‘noises off’
It’s just some VCs, falling, snout first, into a trough.]
( https://www.theguardian.com/media/2018/feb/24/vice-chancellors-expenses-scandal-channel-4-dispatches-universities )
Update: good heavens, here’s another ‘leaked position paper’ (yes – it does strike me as odd that policy is being expressed through the medium of limericks, but who am I to question?)
We know it’s unfair, doesn’t mean we
Can’t stiff our staff really obscenely
We can dump defined benefit
If we sex up the ‘deficit’
Now: pass me my porn star martini.