Category Archives: Medicine and law

Done or in dereliction of duty? A medical dispute in medieval Sussex

Well, looking at this sort of thing during the awful events of the present does make me feel as if my skill-set qualifies me for Golgafrinchan Ark Fleet Ship B* (*If you don’t know what that is, you are not my friend. Read The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy at once!) but I hope it does something for general morale and the gaiety of nations. It’s certainly keeping me going today.

Join me for another little tale from the Plea Rolls and Year Books – this time with a medical theme.

Master Simon of Bredon v. Prior of Lewes (1367)

Back we go to 1367, reign of Edward III (characterised by some terrible sweeps of infectious disease, but that’s not where this is going). England and France at war, off and on, all sorts of chivalrous things happening. Down in Lewes, in Sussex (site of a big 13th C battle, later to be home of a dubious Guy Fawkes parade), there is a house of Cluniac monks. They are much aggrieved to be taken to court by a medical man (or former medical man) called Simon, who claims that they owe him money.

Simon is Master Simon of Bredon, a doctour de physick, and he is bringing an action of annuity. He claims that the monks are in arrears with payment of sums they had undertaken to pay him, to the tune of £30. The prior (who I take to be John de Caroloco) and monks, however, argue that they should not have to pay the money. Both sides accept that there was an agreement to pay Simon some money – £20 per year, in two tranches – but there is disagreement as to whether this came with strings attached. The prior argued that it was a sum in recognition of Simon’s obligation to offer medical assistance to the house and its brethren, and Simon had utterly failed to do so, in the case of a former prior, Gerard (Gerald Rothonis was prior in 1363, according to the Victoria County History entry). Gerard had fallen ill, and Simon, who was at Mayfield (?), not regarded as too distant, had been sent for. He had refused to come.

Simon appears to have tried more than one line of argument for his position that the money should be paid. According to the Plea Roll, he argued that the money had not been conditional on his medical attendance or advice, and that he was, and had been, in poor health, having been struck by an illness called ‘gutta’ (I am tempted to say ‘gout’, but, in current circs, can’t get to a dictionary of medieval medical terms to check that; whatever it was, it made him helpless at some times, but able to function at other times). The same source also shows him claiming that the annuity was not a payment for future medical services, but a ‘reward’ for having given up to the prior the church of which he had previously been parson. The Year Book account includes additional technical pleas (to do with ‘doubleness’ of some of the other side’s pleading, and the wording of the original deal – did it oblige Simon to come in person and give medical advice, or something less than this; did it require medical advice or some more general counsel, since it did not specify). There is more detail on the prior’s pleading, including the idea that what was expected for a private, or internal, ailment like Gerard’s was examination of the urine – a classic medieval diagnostic procedure. There is a lot of interesting debate on the place of medical professionals, and the nature of expertise (of medics and lawyers). Simon gets into difficulties because his case about giving up the church does not have the sort of gold-standard evidence that the priory can produce: it is not mentioned in the parchment-work, while he is described as a doctor of physic in that document, and has not denied that he is one.

There is less difference between plea roll and year book than is sometimes the case, but the vocabulary and detail varies, so that those interested in this sort of arrangement will find it rewarding to look at both.

In the end (and, for once, we do have a result) Simon lost. He did not recover the ‘arrears’, and, what is more, had to pay for having brought a false claim. As ever, it’s impossible to know the truth – was Simon a poor infirm former medic who had given up his church and was supposed to be supported by this annuity, out of which the priory managed to weasel, or was he an arrogant and negligent doctor who would not attend his monastic clients? If he really was old and infirm, and needed to be looked after in his final years, he would probably not have chosen to approach the Priory of St Pancras for charity.






Plea Roll: CP 40/426 m. 433, 433d

Year Book: see Seipp 1367.014 for the case, and a link to the ‘black letter’ report.

On the Priory of Lewes, see

‘Stillbirth’ or fleeting life? Beyond curtesy

I recently published an article on tenancy by the curtesy in medieval England:

Gwen Seabourne (2019) ‘It is necessary that the issue be heard to cry or squall within the four [walls]’: Qualifying for Tenancy by the Curtesy of England in the Reign of Edward I, Journal of Legal History, 40:1, 44-68, DOI: 10.1080/01440365.2019.1576359

Curtesy is a topic which touches upon traumatic and tragic childbirth, and the difficulty in determining whether or not a baby was ever alive (in order to decide whether or not a man had produced ‘live issue’ with his wife, and thus qualified for curtesy. As is not uncommon, I have now come across something I’d love to have included in the article: linked chronicle accounts of a birth ending in the death of mother and baby, with some interesting inclusions and omissions of information.

The narratives are mentioned in L.E. Mitchell, ‘The most perfect knight’s countess: Isabella de Clare, her daughters and women’s exercise of power and influence 1190-c. 1250’, in H.J. Tanner (ed), Medieval Elite Women and the Exercise of Power 1100-1400 (2019) c.3, p. 61, citing Matthew Paris,  English  History  tr. J.A. Giles (3 vols HG Bohn, 1889) I:255.

The unfortunate mother was Isabelle countess of Cornwall (wife of Richard, earl of Cornwall, and daughter of William Marshall and Isabella de Clare). Her demise was noted to have occurred in 1240, along with that of her baby, named Nicholas. She was said to have been ill with jaundice, and to have been sufficiently forewarned of her impending death to make her confession. The birth itself was skated over, and there is an interesting disparity with regard to the state of her offspring: Mitchell notes that ‘the nurses hoped that the child would be born alive, but it was dead’, whereas the child was said, elsewhere to have been born alive, but not lively or not active (vivo, sed non vivido – H. Luard (ed.), M. Paris Chron. Maj. vol 4) and there is no particular mention of the nurses, who, in Giles’s version, named the child despite the fact that it was dead. I would like to check the MSS on this, since the state of the child is potentially crucial in terms of both common law (child born dead does not ‘count’ in the same way to give father property rights – though in this case, Richard had already ‘passed’ this test, with previous live births) and canon law/theology (a dead child can take no benefit from baptism, and the ‘nurses’, though they could perform emergency baptism, had no right to perform this sacrament on what modern parlance would term a stillborn child). Vincent’s account of Richard of Cornwall in the ODNB also says that the child was ‘stillborn’. Perhaps it seems a ‘picky’ point, and it did not seem to have any immediate practical consequences for Richard, or anyone else, whether the baby was ever alive. In relation to curtesy, and the roughly  contemporary accounts of curtesy, such as those in Bracton, however, the possibility that a dead baby may have been baptised is important, since it feeds into Bracton’s suggestion of the likelihood of fraud and mis-reporting by those present at a birth of the state of the baby.

‘Lunacy’ in a Legal Record

A ‘supermoon’ is due tonight:

Reading about this has reminded me of the old idea of the moon’s baleful influence upon the mental state of susceptible individuals. Medieval criminal records referring to ‘lunacy’ as an explanation/excuse for violent or otherwise offensive activity are not hard to find, though usually they do little more than stating that the accused is deemed a ‘lunatic’, and it is easy to assume that this is simply a rather general label for those who are obviously disordered (perhaps specifically in a violent sense). Recently, however, I came across a case which went somewhat further into the matter, emphasising the lunar explanation of mental disorder. It is not one I have seen discussed elsewhere, so is, I think, worth a quick note.

The case is in a Suffolk Gaol Delivery Roll,  JUST 3/63/4 m.6, which can be seen on the AALT site at:


Alice Brytyene of Lawshall appeared in a session in Suffolk in September 1309, before William de Ormesby and William Inge, royal justices. She had been arrested because, so it was said, she had: (i) feloniously burnt the home of Simon Brytyene, her husband, in Lawshall, meaning to burn Simon in the house; (ii) broken into the barn of Pymme Brytyene in Lawshall and taken away sheaves of wheat worth 13d; (iii) broken into the oven of Ralph del Peke and taken away seven loaves of bread worth 6d. Alice pleaded not guilty to these charges, and accepted jury trial. The jurors said on oath that she was not guilty of the burglary of the barn or of the oven, nor of taking away the wheat or bread. As for the burning of the house, they said that, for seven years and more, continuously,  Alice had been furia vexab[atur] in incremento lune so that lunatica[m] infirmitate[m]  patit[ur]m i.e. she had been tormented/bothered by madness with the waxing of the moon so that she had suffered from the disease of lunacy. And they said that on the seventh of July last past, Alice had been suffering from this condition [predicte infirmitate vexabatur] when she burnt down the house in question, in her insanity and not feloniously [furiose & non per feloniam] as had been charged against her. Alice was therefore acquitted of the burglaries, and (presumably in respect of the arson, though this is not stated) was to be returned to prison, (presumably in the expectation that she would be pardoned by the king).


It is already well-established that medieval common law and communities did not hold those with obvious and serious mental disorder responsible for their actions as a matter of felony, but it is interesting to see glimpses of the reasoning behind such determinations by lay-people, in the legal context. Here, we have the definite and dramatically or poetically satisfying link between the waxing moon and the growing disorder, and the (sophisticated and observant) comments about Alice having suffered over a long period with a fluctuating condition.  There is food for thought about the place of the ‘insane person’ within the community as well: this community, which was conscious of Alice’s long-term disorder, would appear to have allowed her a degree of freedom, until a recent time. (I am also musing about the effect of a widespread theory of lunar influence – to what extent would people have internalised that idea and to what extent might it have had an effect on their behaviour? One for transcultural psychiatrists/ historians of psychiatry, I think).


I have not turned up a pardon for Alice, but I am reasonably hopeful that she would indeed have been pardoned. This would not necessarily mean a ‘happy ending’, however, since closer confinement by family members might well have been her fate after this episode.



Matrons, medicine and maternity

This morning, I have been listening to a podcast of a late-2017 seminar paper from the Institute of Historical Research Late Medieval seminar:

Zosia Edwards (Royal Holloway), ‘Pregnancy diagnosis in the later Middle Ages: medical methods and courtroom procedures’

This was of interest to me in relation to two projects/areas of on-going research: my monograph on women in the medieval common law and my work on curtesy and live birth/still birth.

Its central focus was the divergence between a rich textual tradition of learned medical writing on techniques of diagnosing pregnancy and the common law’s approach, apparently scorning such learning, or the use of (male) ‘medical experts’ in favour of the judgment of ‘lay persons’: mainly ‘matrons’, though with some involvement of knights (in land cases). It includes some very good examples of both medical diagnosis and common law practice.

The divergence between learned texts and common law practice is striking divergence, and has been commented upon to some extent (e.g. by S.M. Butler). There is much to be said about the common law’s emphasis on jury findings as opposed to those of ‘experts’, not just in the medieval period and not just in medicine. In addition, it seems to me that there are also other particular  explanations for the difference in procedure in relation to pregnancy which would be worth consideration. First, the medical texts and the investigation in common law felony cases were directed at slightly different questions. In the case of the medical texts, the search (however dubious we might find the methods) was for the presence of any pregnancy. At least in the case of the ‘pregnant felon’ cases, it was a search for confirmation of a woman’s claim that she was pregnant with a ‘quick’ child: thus a less ‘expert’ and sensitive test might be thought to suffice. In addition, there does not seem to have been a desire to avoid all possible killings of pregnant women: witness the approach to those claiming a second pregnancy, the possible presence of a foetus not being sufficient to defer execution. Views on the value to be accorded by the law to the foetus at various phases of existence were in a state of development/flux in the medieval period, and trying to bring together the attitudes encapsulated by legal texts and plea rolls relating to foetuses in homicide, abortion, curtesy and other land cases is a task with which I am wrestling. A paper on determinations of live birth in relation to curtesy temp. Edward I is on its way to publication, but I would love to expand into a more general overview of ideas about the foetus/newborn in different categories of legal case. One of these days.


Early modern medical snippet

I am neither an early modernist nor a medical historian, but came across an early modern medical case recently and thought it was worth sharing, for the benefit of those who know more about these things.

Brashford v. Buckingham 79 ER 65 and 179 , Cro. Jac. 77 and 205, is a King’s Bench case from 1605-7 (Trinity 3 James I, and Hilary 5 James I),  concerning a promise to pay a healer £10 for healing a wound, and then a dispute as to whether payment was due. It is not especially surprising to see an action of this sort in this context (it is an ‘action on the case’, not unexpected in the medical context), and the main legal point which was of interest to the reporter concerned a technical issue of the appropriate parties, but it did strike me as slightly unusual in that the ‘medical practitioner’ was a woman.  Curing a wound which was worth £10 does sound like fairly serious medical treatment, and being trusted to do so by somebody who can pay £10 suggests a high reputation for healing. The woman in question deserves some attention from early modern medical historians.  Sadly, this will mean trawling through four KB plea rolls: KB 27/1391, 1392, 1403 and 1404, since the report (annoyingly) does not give a roll or membrane number. One day …

Swooning and sexual offences: recent article

Thoughts on Victoria Bates (2016): ‘Under Cross-Examination She Fainted’: Sexual Crime and Swooning in the Victorian Courtroom’, Journal of Victorian Culture (2016)

As an openly medievalist legal historian, I am not a regular reader of this journal, but am glad that I was put on the trail of this very interesting study of the fascinating but frustrating world of the Victorian trial. There is so much information, in comparison with the trials of earlier eras (and – hurrah – no Latin), and yet it often feels as if the most important things remain annoyingly opaque.

The author makes a good point about the various meanings and readings of fainting/loss of consciousness in women, in connection with sexual offences and sexual offences trials. The volume of court records studies is such as to impress the most train-spottingly completist legal historian (guilty), and the material brought in here is a valuable addition to the burgeoning literature on sexual offences, and attitudes to them, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The whole thing got me thinking about whether the use of the swoon in descriptions of sexual offences was something of a compromising device – getting a jury on the side of the prosecutrix in a trial for an offence less than rape (most of the cases covered here are ‘lesser offences’), whilst perhaps making the facts as presented less of a ‘fit’ for rape (even if the act was in fact completed) because there would be a problem in relation to lack of demonstrated absence of consent.

Anyway – a good piece of work and worth a look.

Curtesy and crying

A Year Book note on curtesy, and the requirements which a man must meet in order to claim to hold by the curtesy of England (proof of a live birth to his wife – specifically a baby’s cry being heard) YB Trin. 20 Edw I pl 39; Seipp 1292.88 refers to the case of Richard Danyel v Richard de la Bere (Herefordshire Eyre 1292) JUST 1/303 m. 6.  Richard Danyel, claiming the land formerly held by his mother, argued that Richard had not had qualifying issue with Cecily. De la Bere claimed that Cecily had given birth to his (qualifyingly noisy) child at Bishopston. A jury was summoned (the Year Book has some comments on the appropriate place from which to draw a jury when the alleged birth was in one place and the land in another). The jury told a sad tale of a very sick baby and an emergency baptism at home, then a brief visit to the church, after which it died, without having qualified, in auditory terms, as the right kind of offspring to give the father a right to curtesy. The crying test for curtesy is being taken seriously – and, as this case shows, could be used to exclude severely unwell children, even if they appear to have been viewed alive by at least a priest. Richard Danyel did not pursue the case, and should have been amerced for this failure, but was forgiven because he was a minor. Exactly what his role was in this story is unclear, but it does not suggest a happy family.

Year Book/Plea Roll matches: Mayhem and medical evidence

Reporters in the King’s Bench in 1354 seem to have been interested in defining mayhem and refining the rules relating to proving and pleading in this area. There are three reports in the Seipp database.

Seipp 1354.043 is probably KB 27/376 m. 10 [AALT IMG 3179], Robert de Yakesle v. Thomas de Ribbeford  (KB 1354T). In both roll and report, there is a request that the wound in question should be looked at by two London doctors, to see whether or not it amounts to mayhem. The Year Book makes it clear that this is at the defendant’s risk – he is putting himself entirely on this issue.  This does seem to put quite a burden on the defence, and is worth thinking about with regard to the balance between accusers and accused. The facts of 1354.099ass also deal with medical evidence in a mayhem case, though with some more details, and suggesting a degree of recognition by the court of its own lack of expertise in terms of assessing the fresh wound. Might this be the same case?

Seipp 1354.044 looks to me like KB 27/376 m.10 (AALT IMG 2925), John, parson of the Church of Stowe v Hugh the Ironmonger of Daventry (KB, 1354T). since both cases involve injury to the finger next to the little finger. The Year Book suggests a querying by D of whether this could amount to mayhem, followed by a clear ruling that it could, and an alternative plea of self-defence. The Plea Roll, as one would expect, only records the self-defence plea actually relied upon.  My immediate thoughts on seeing this pleading were that mayhem seems to have been a slightly ill-defined concept at this period, and that this is something of a contrast with all those specific penalties/ sums due in conpensation for different injuries which are listed in the Leges Henrici Primi.

Recent Reads: May 2014

Very much enjoyed the following:

P.R. Cavill’s article in the latest EHR, ‘Heresy, Law and the State: forfeiture in medieval and early modern England’ –  which avoids the more obvious issue of burnings and looks at the practice and meaning of introducing and upholding property forfeiture for heresy in this period.

A Kirkham and C Warr, Wounds in the Middle Ages (Ashgate, 2014), which brings together medical, military, gender, business and theological aspects of history in a series of papers based on wounds. It is always admirable when a collection of essays manages to represent something more than the sum of its parts, and that is certainly the case here. It was an interesting and imaginative choice of subject, and the collection shows that, despite the various pressures, there is some excellent medieval scholarship about.

Marauding ‘lepers’ in thirteenth century Yorkshire?

Interesting little snippet from the 1293 eyre of Yorkshire rolls – a homicide case from the liberty of Knaresborough. Margery Barry was, the report says (JUST 1/1098 m.22) , hosting two men with leprosy. At night, they got up, killed her and fled. The killing is not the interesting part – what struck me as particularly interesting was the fact that the two men were not confined in some out of town leprosarium, but were, apparently, moving about fairly normally (if homicidally). Worth bearing in mind when we think about the treatment of those with leprosy in medieval England.