Category Archives: Medicine and law

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.