Category Archives: medieval

Peas, grass and battle beyond The Last Duel

Lots of interest in the merits, and historical accuracy, or otherwise, of the big new film The Last Duel. I hope to go and see it, though feeling a little unsure as to whether I want to sit in a cinema with a load of strangers during current circs. I have the book though, so planning to read it this weekend.

I am not going to presume to comment on the film’s medieval French context, since I am definitely not an expert on that, but, since I suspect that there will be some general wondering about the idea of trial by battle, a little bandwagon-jumping and a couple of quick musings on this from a common law point of view might not go amiss.

For many years, in my Legal History classes, I have included something on proof, including trials by ordeal and by battle. It tends to capture the attention of students just a touch more than the development of the strict settlement and the Bill of Middlesex, for some reason. It is one of the useful areas to push students’ imagination a little, and to try and get them to see beyond the Whiggish distinction between ordeals and battles (stupid) and juries (great and totally unproblematic). With ordeals, there is the fantastic article by Kerr et al.[i] to give them to read, and a case to be made for there having been something of value in the so-called ‘irrational’ mode of proof, when compared to contemporary alternatives. Battle is rather a harder sell, and I confess that I tend to send students off to read the articles by M.J. Russell,[ii] and then in class go for cheap shock value and do Ashford v Thornton in a slightly Horrible Histories way … There is obviously more to say than general agog-ness at the late extirpation of the possibility of TBB though. The gender aspect is, of course, important – women were not supposed to engage in TBB, and do not seem to have done so (though there is one slightly bizarre 15th C story about a duel being ordered between a female accuser and a Franciscan friar, who was supposed to fight with one hand tied behind his back![iii] I have spent vain hours trying to track that one down …) Then there are the accounts, in chronicles and legal sources of battles themselves, and the procedure which they followed, or should follow. Some of these are extremely impractical and ritualistic – with weird weapons, a lot of formulaic language and rules. I was reminded, the other day, when looking for something completely different, that another thing which is really fascinating is the fact that those fighting a TBB took an oath against sorcery.

I stumbled on this version in The Boke of Justices of Peas (printed 1506),[iv] in its little ‘how to’ guide to holding a trial by battle, and was enchanted (!). It’s prescribed for an approver (man who had ‘turned king’s evidence’ and was trying to save his skin by accusing another man of felony and then beating him in a TBB):

‘This here you iustice that I have this day neither ete ne dronke nor haue upon me Stone ne Grasse ne other enchauntement sorcery ne witchecrafte where thoroughe the power of the word of God might be enlessed or demenysshed & the deuylles power encresed and that myn appele is true so help me god and his sayntes and by this boke &c.’

[Justice, hear this: I have not eaten nor drunk today, nor do I have upon me stone, grass or other enchantment, sorcery or witchcraft which might serve to diminish the power of the word of God, and increase the devil’s power, and that my appeal is true, so help me God and his saints and by this book etc.’]

Seems a bit harsh not to let the poor devil eat or drink, but fits with the general religious ritualism of this sort of thing. What about the magic though … what ideas does that reveal about ideas as to how TBB worked, and how it could be derailed. It does seem to suggest that God could be foxed by a magic stone or grass (magic grass – new to me – I assume it is the green lawn stuff, and not some special other early modern meaning – sure somebody will tell me if I am wrong …), which is a rather interesting theological position, when you think about it. Belief in magic is one thing, thinking it could actually transcend the human world and put God off his stride, when intervening to say where the truth and right lay in a trial by battle is several steps further on, I would say. It just seems a really fascinating meeting of two sorts of supernatural belief. And it is made all the more striking as the formula for the duel goes on to bar human intervention to help one side or the other – by advice to take advantage of the opponent, or  physical help. It is as if the magic thing and the weighing in of spectators are on a par, equally likely![v] Possibly the supernatural issue can be rendered a little less blasphemous by thinking that the idea behind it must be that the magic grass etc. could skew the result by acting on the bodies of the combatants, rather than on God. Seems a bit weaselish, but maybe that works.  Feeling once again as if I have a lot to learn! It’s certainly something to think about as we enjoy the big film (or book …) and as we approach Halloween.



[i] Kerr, MH, Forsyth, RD, and Plyley, MJ, ‘Cold Water and Hot Iron: Trial by Ordeal in England’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History 22.4 (1992): 573-95.

[ii] Russell, M. J., ‘I Trial by Battle and the Writ of Right’, Journal of Legal History 1.2 (1980): 111-34 ; ‘II Trial by Battle and the Appeals of Felony’, Journal of Legal History 1.2 (1980): 135-64; ‘Trial By Battle Procedure in Writs of Right and Criminal Appeals’, Tijdschrift Voor Rechtsgeschiedenis 51.1 (1983): 123-34.

[iii] Bellamy, John G,  The Law of Treason in England in the Later Middle Ages (Cambridge, 1970), 145; Eulogium Historiarum, III, 389.

[iv] Glazebrook, P. R. The Boke of Justices of Peas, 1506 : With an Introduction by the General Editor (London, 1972). It’s a book which sounds slightly unpleasant if you are a Scot (add the peas and it is all a bit graphically vomity). It is a collection of various ‘templates’ for legal proceedings which might have seemed useful to somebody acting as a JP, or one of his officials. The material is not particularly new – it’s 15th C stuff, perhaps quite a bit from the reign of Henry VII, but earlier than that too.

[v] The no sorcery rule appears in  older sources too– see Russell (1983) above, p. 132.

Photo by Artie Kostenko on Unsplash

Mustard mastered: a tortuously-explained death in medieval Kent

A King’s Bench plea roll entry for Michaelmas 1374[i]  informs us about the legal response to the death of an agricultural labourer, John Mustard, in Kent.

The entry notes that there had been an inquest on the body of one John Mustard, which resulted in the indictment of Simon de Kegworth. The inquest was taken at Earde, Kent, on 3rd August, 1374, and the inquest jury said that events had unfolded as follows…

The scene: John Mustard, who was one of Simon’s workers, along with others of Simon’s servants, was at work tying up sheaves of peas (not quite sure of my agricultural correctness there – sheaves of peas sounds a bit odd – but it’s what the words say!) at the hour of vespers in a field called Priestfield in the hundred of Litley, and vill of Earde…

Action #1 – things get a bit tasty:  Simon came to his servants and as he arrived, John Mustard, who was drunk, spoke to Simon in contemptuous words (which, of course, the record-creators felt the need to preserve for us …). John said that Simon was an idiot (fatuus) and [rough translation!] was no more use than pigshit.

John continued the insults as everyone went on with their agricultural tasks (gathering things up before an expected rain-soaking). Sadly, these ‘even more contumelious’ words are not recorded. It is a shame, because it seems to have been these unrecorded words which tipped Simon over the edge.

Action #2 – Simon loses it, but absolutely doesn’t wish to harm John, and doesn’t cause his death: Simon had a willow staff or club – we are told that this was something he carried in the autumn – and he threw it at John. This, it is pointed out, was meant to frighten John out of continuing his disrespectful words. It may have stopped the words, but it did not knock the fight out of John – he took the staff in his hand and threw it back at Simon. After this, Simon was apparently scared of John, he being so drunk, and drew out his knife, throwing it at John. This, we are told, was to make John want to flee, rather than to do him any harm, but  by misfortune the  knife ‘fell’ onto John’s back, wounding him. This wound was ‘small, neither deep, nor wide, nor mortal. John did die, but this was because the wound was widened and opened by his agricultural work, done afterwards. The jurors insisted on pointing out that John was, at the end, not drunk, and that he did not die of the (initial) wound.

Simon, presumably confident that he would not really be in danger of being hanged for this, turned himself in at once.

So what?

Well, this is interesting to me in a few ways. I do love a good insult – it feels like a real connection to the speech of the past, despite the omissions, and the translation. There is a fair helping of ‘humans don’t change that much’ in my instinctive response to reading the sort of verbal mud (and worse) they allegedly fling at each other in such cases. It gives us some useful information about what was seen as acceptable and unacceptable conduct in the master-servant relationship There is more to late 14th C labour relations than the Ordinance and Statute of Labourers. I suppose it also tells us something about medieval inebriation and attitudes to it (though I have to say I don’t quite understand why we need to know about John’s level of intoxication at the time of his death – is this to do with the state of his soul?).From a legal point of view, iIt is also instructive to see fairly obvious fiddling with the path of causation assigned to the death, in order to avoid serious consequences for a favoured killer. Here, Simon responds to drunken insults with physical force – there is no way that throwing things, including throwing them at a man’s back, fits the usual stereotyped formula for self defence, but the jurors here clearly thought that John Mustard was ‘asking for it’, and did their best to soften the conduct of Simon, to explain it and to put the best possible spin on his intentions.

In the end, Simon’s confidence was well placed: though indicted for the death of John, he received a royal pardon, on 7th November, 1374, and so was sent off ‘without day’ by the King’s Bench,[ii] to return to his pea-gathering in Kent, presumably.





[i] KB 27/455 Rex m.32, AALT IMG 348

[ii] Pardon CPR 1374-7, p. 34.

Photo by Avinash Kumar on Unsplash

Dangerous driving, medieval style

A sad but informative little snippet from a 15th C coroner’s inquest … (well, I suppose you know it’s not going to be a jolly tale when you look at ‘an inquest on the body of …’).[i]

This death took place in 1419, between Whitechapel and Mile End, in modern London. John Waryn of Stratford Langthorne died in a cart accident – the two separate records describe it slightly differently, but the main point seems to be that John dozed off and the cart overturned. An obstacle or ditch may have been involved, and John may or may not have struggled to get things under control, but, one way or another, the cart and/or one of the horses squashed him.

At the risk of seeming callous, I will note that this sad little tale does, incidentally provide someOn –  interesting information about medieval transport. First of all, we learn a bit about the cart – it must have been a reasonably substantial vehicle, with its iron-clad wheels, and its team of four horses. Then we learn that one of the horses had a special designation –  ‘the Thyllehors’ (in this case, a bay). Not a horsey person, but the trusty Middle English Dictionary tells me that this was the horse which worked closest to the wheels, in between the shafts. There is some more Middle English as well – the description of the dozing is somehow rather charming: within the Latin record, we have the specific description that this is not full lack of consciousness – it is partial sleep ‘ commonly called Slomryng’. All very peaceful. Until it wasn’t. Poor John.




[i] Records can be seen here, here and here. It is also quite interesting from a deodand point of view.

Total eclipse of the hearth: a characteristic medieval method of low-level extortion?

Something which has caught my attention when working through many, many accounts of alleged violent offences in medieval court records is a particular method of extorting money by torture, which is specifically ‘pre-modern’: making the unfortunate victim sit on a burning tripod until he or she stumps up. See, e.g., cases from rolls of: 1332, 1337, 1348, 1355, 1381, 1406, 1407 (& same incident) and 1423. There is also a similar case involving burning somebody with a griddle or grate, to get them to say where some jewels were, from 1433).

I suppose that it first struck me as interesting because it sounded so odd – and so specific (and, as a kid, tripods had a special, troubling, place in my heart, both as a required construction of a ‘gadget’ for the guide Camper badge, and as the terrifying villains of the John Christopher books and TV series). A moment of reflection, however, and I realised that a tripod, and a hot tripod at that, would be a common feature of medieval homes, supporting cooking vessels in the hearth. No sci-fi or uniformed organisation reminiscing required.

I find myself asking why this appears to have been a relatively plausible tactic for those trying to get a person to cough up money or do something else to benefit the offender. Why not just use a knife to threaten? Everyone seems to have had a knife, judging by the number of deaths by stabbing on the rolls, after all. Perhaps the answer is a combination of factors:

  • the ‘sit on a tripod’ practice caused pain as well as exerting mental pressure, perhaps speeding the whole process up; might there also have been something humiliating for the victim about being injured on the buttocks?
  • as long as it wasn’t prolonged unduly, it probably wouldn’t cause death – whereas waving a knife about could always end in a stab wound, blood, death.

There are certainly signs that it was regarded as potentially very damaging, though: an unsuccessful allegation of 1330 saw three people (two men and a woman) indicted for having, at ‘Burnecestre’ (really!) , taken and tied up one Alice Garlicmonger and put her on a burning hot tripod, naked, until she made fine with them, burning her ‘enormiter’ and ‘usque ad ossa’ (the latter is interesting from an anatomical point of view – coccyx? femurs?). The three were found not guilty anyway, so no prospect of further interrogation of medieval ideas of the construction of a backside. A roughly similar attack on a male may be seen in the case entered on the KB roll of 1423. Here, a chaplain was allegedly given the hot tripod treatment, whilst naked (at least in the relevant area) – contact was made with his nude members and fundament. ‘Members’ could just about be limbs, but ‘fundament’ is pretty clearly bottom-related.

Some of these, e.g. the 1337 case, mention a causal connection – here, the ‘enormouL gs’ or ‘outrageous’ burning was done in order ‘to get more money’.  ‘The entries don’t always have the burning as connected to the taking, but I think that must be the idea. Can’t rule out gratuitous cruelty, I suppose.

I am not sure that there is anything obvious to do with these, but perhaps I will find something some day. For now – it’s a little curiosity to share asynchronously with anyone who ever stumbles along this way. Pray for me, and you are welcome.




Image – sort of hearth. No, not medieval. General idea …Photo by Zane Lee on Unsplash

Canons and knives: death (and treason?) in a medieval priory

A ‘query petty treason’ case today – while I am most interested in the ‘husband killed by wife’ cases, it is worth remembering that the Statute of Treasons 1352 gives other examples of ‘sort of treason because against the natural hierarchical order of things’ cases. I do have some ‘servant kills master/mistress’ cases on my ‘table of doom’, but there is much less available in the other category – killings of abbots by their monks. Here, though, on two Cambridgeshire gaol delivery rolls,[i] is a case from 1403 which is, if not quite ‘monk on abbot’, tantalisingly adjacent to that. Having been very pleased with myself for finding it, I discovered that those hard-working early 20th C local historians had been there before me: there is a one-page account of the documents (complete with old style roll numbering) in The East Anglian vol. 13.[ii] Slightly miffed for a moment, but then, actually, I quite like making this sort of connection. Maybe one day somebody will do the same with this post … (delusions of being Emily Dickinson, or something, there …).

Anyway, on with the story. The deceased in this case was William Gilbert, priory of a rather small foundation in Cambridgeshire (I confess I had never heard of it) called Spinney. A bit of basic research reveals that this was a house of Augustinian canons, and, at the relevant time, had only a handful of residents.

The inquest before a coroner was held ‘ on 19th May, 1403. The story noted down from the twelve inquest jurors[iii] was that three canons of Spinney (also said to be confratres – ‘brothers’ of the deceased), John Lode alias John Catesson, Thomas Smyth, and William Hall, had killed him that same day (note speedy start to proceedings!). The killing, as described, was fairly drawn out. John Lode stabbed William Gilbert under the left arm, Thomas Smyth stabbed him in the back. William Gilbert then managed to get away into a different room, but the trio broke the door, and Thomas stabbed William Gilbert through his left arm, and his side, to his heart. It is carefully specified that each of the first two stab wounds would have sufficed to kill WG, had there not been another one.[iv] The geographical as well as physical locations are specified – the initial stabbing was said to have taken place in the priory church, and the final wound, in the priory’s hall, to which William Gilbert had fled in his failed escape bid.

The three were found guilty by a jury, at the gaol delivery session on 20th  July 1403, but escaped execution because they were able to take advantage of benefit of clergy, and were ‘claimed’ by the ecclesiastical authorities.

Petty treason: teasing out the definitional implications

What does all this tell us about petty treason? The account does use the language of treachery or treason – the trio had risen up like traitors, but note that the bond highlighted is not that between the killers and their prior, but between the killers and the king (tanquam proditores domini regis manu forte proditorie). If they were really seen as traitors against the king, it seems surprising that they were allowed benefit of clergy. What am I missing? And does this case show that canon-prior just was not seen as analogous to monk-abbot in this context? The reference to ‘fellow brethren’, as Palmer translates it, suggests a less ‘vertical’ relationship, doesn’t it?

Canon to the right of him, canon to the left of him … thoughts on the social implications

Assuming this is anywhere near true, it does make life at the priory of Spinney sound rather grim – a conspiracy against its leader involving what was probably the bulk of the others in the house. Note, though that one person did rather nicely out of it all – the sub-prior, who escaped indictment, and stepped fairly seamlessly into the top job once the dust settled …





[i] JUST 3/8/6 m.58 (AALT IMG 106);  JUST 3/190 m. 5 (AALT IMG 13).

[ii] W.M. Palmer, ‘Murder of the Prior of Spinney’, p. 104.

[iii] (who, I note, included a certain ‘Willamm Schakespeare’ … there you have it – evidence that W. S. was actually a member of the Undead …).

[iv] I am by no means an expert, but that third wound, right through an arm and side, into the heart, sounds as if it would have had to be particularly forceful. I also note that William Hall is not reported to have struck a blow at all. But then accessory liability – or treating as principals all with any sort of participation in the killing – was certainly ‘a thing’ in these cases.

Image: where the priory would have been if it was still there, but it isn’t. All sorts of symbolic ..

‘Lyvelode’ and imperfect living: a fretful family in the 1450s

I came across an interesting story whilst on one of my ‘bastardy’ trawls today – something in the Close Rolls for March 1459 which has things to say about bastardy but also about other things, including marriage and mental incapacity.[i] Read on if that sounds like your sort of thing …

By his own account (in English!), Edward Sely of Ditton,[ii] husbandman, had got himself into a bit of trouble. He had allowed himself to be drawn into some litigation, fomented by a London mercer, Rauf Marche. Rauf, using Edward’s name, had gone to law, to try and disinherit a relative of Edward’s, one Simon Sely, of London. Rauf had been putting forward the claim that the rightful heir to property once held by Laurence Sely of London, a claim to which passed, indirectly,  to the late John Sely of Chiseldon (JS1),  was Edward, rather than Simon, because, so he said, Edward’s father (JSA) rather than Simon’s father, John Sely of London (JS2), was the legitimate heir of JS1. This, however, was not trewe.

In Edward’s narrative, JS1 had had a rather eventful life. He had fled his original home after having killied a miller ‘by ‘infortunat case’, and lived as a labourer in Cranford, Middlesex. Perhaps concerned that the law would catch up with him, he had used different names during his time in Cranford, and was known as both ‘John Bartholomew’ and ‘John Sely’. He never felt safe enough to claim his rights in the family property either. He did have a family of his own, however, albeit not in the most straightforward way. He had two sons, both called John (thank you so much for that!) – with a woman called Dionise Cranford, sister of a squire. These sons (JSA and JSB) were ‘bastards’, since JS1 and Dionise were not married. They then did get married, and had a son, called (of course) John – this was JS2, eventually to be the father of Simon. So, under the rules about legitimacy and inheritance, JS2 and then Simon were the rightful heirs to JS1, rather than and JSA (and Edward) or JSB.

It is possible that JS2 never really knew about his claim to property formerly belonging to Laurence – the narrative tells of an occasion late in JS1’s life (when he was over 80) when he tried to get the help of JSA’s wife Christian (Edward’s mother) to encourage his ‘childerne’ to ‘laboure to have recovere’ of the ‘lyvelode’ (property) to which he was entitled in London and Bristol, and to get him in contact with JS2, who was his ‘rightful here’. Christian dutifully reported to JS2 what JS1 had said, and the father and son discussed it. JS1 laid upon JS2 the responsibility of suing to recover it, giving him all of the proof he had of his entitlement, and telling him where there was further evidence. He also told JS2 what he wanted to happen to the property, if he recovered it and then JS2 had no issue – he would prefer it to go to JSA and JSB than to ‘any other straunge persones’.

JS2 does seem to have made efforts to recover the property, but it is not clear what the outcome was. What seems to come out of Edward’s narrative, however, is that there were some tensions in the relationships between the three sons of JS1: JS2, JSA and JSB. JS2 needed money to get his lawsuit(s) going, and asked for the help of his ‘bastard’ brothers. JSA – despite his wife’s earlier co-operation with JS1 and JS2 – refused outright. He would neither give nor lend JS2 any money, despite the offer of a share in any winnings. JSB, however, was prepared to make a sacrifice to help out JS2 – he sold two of his plough-oxen and gave JS2 the money.

By 1457, JS2 seems to have died, leaving Simon as the potential heir. At some point before 1459, however, Rauf Marche had entered the picture, seeking out Edward and trying to find (or concoct) a claim on his behalf (searching in ‘frary books’ to sort out JS1’s children). He also had an accomplice/partner, one ‘John Squery late of London, gentleman’. As Edward told it, Rauf and Squery (we are not going with another ‘JS’…) badgered him on different occasions, using a ‘carrot and stick’ approach – he was entitled to property in and around London (nice) and since he didn’t sue to recover it, he was ‘accursed’ (a bit nasty). Rauf, somewhat in the manner of a dodgy PPI mis-selling recovery company – told Edward he couldn’t get the property without Rauf’s help. This, of course, would not come free – thus the deal which Edward suggests he was manoeuvred into: if the claim was successful, Rauf would keep the property until he got back his expenses. Edward claimed that he had not really understood it all – ‘for as moche as he is a lewde man and not lettered’.

All of this does make Edward sound a bit ‘lewde and not lettered’, or at least unwise, since he is, essentially, admitting to having taken part in a dishonest agreement to try and disinherit his relative and the rightful heir to the property in question. Would there be mercy for him? Would there be come-uppance for Rauf? Would Simon get his inheritance? Would anyone remember poor, virtuous and self-sacrificing JSB (now, apparently, dead)? As so often, it’s a big ‘I don’t know’ on all of that. The entry is, however, still interesting in numerous respects, several of which come out in the discussion above, and one which I have kept as a bonus, because it is very interesting, though I am not quite sure what to make of it, and also because it is not entirely necessary to the tale Edward told about property and dubious litigation.

  1. JS1’s lengthy period as a fugitive

We could see this as an indication of the lack of efficacy of the machinery of ‘criminal justice’ at this point – since JS1 clealy lived for decades without being brought to trial for the death of the miller. However, another view is possible – note the lengths he went to, to avoid being tried: distance, name change, keeping his identity and family connections secret from his own sons until he was close to death. All of that suggests a degree of fear that he might be found.

  1. Property matters[iii]

The reason I looked at this was the ‘bastardy’ and inheritance angle – and that is relatively straightforward. The entry confirms contemporary lay understanding that subsequent marriage did not legitimate pre-marital children as far as inheritance to land was concerned. There is interesting material on property, though, in the interactions of JS1 and his family, and Edward and Rauf with regard to the recovery of the property. I note the argument based on a duty to try and recover family property (and the ‘accursed’ position of the person who does not do this). That strikes me as an interesting point of view to consider. Was that just flannel – a way of dressing up self interest? Or was it a real feeling that this was something owed to one’s lineage?

  1. Marriage and mental incapacity

This is the bit I held back, though it comes up quite early in the narrative. Edward’s story about his father’s early days living in Cranford has something more to say about the relationship between JS1 and Dionise, the squire’s sister. According to the story, after the (‘illegitimate’) birth of JSA and JSB, Dionise’s brother, and other people made JS1 marry her. They were, apparently unhappy at the irregular state of this union – ‘their imperfite lyvyng’. JS1 was not at all keen – he was ‘right loth’ to marry Dionise. Why? Because she had some sort of mental incapacity. In the now-jarring language of the times she was (so it is said here) ‘an idiotte’. There is a tiny bit of additional information about this judgment, though, to be honest,  it is not exactly … informative (to me at least). Dionise ‘knewe no worldly reason in so moche that she wolde calle a noble a nubble’. That does seem rather a problem with pronunciation than anything else, but I may well be missing something. Is it perhaps a vague echo of some of the older medieval tests of capacity which involve basic financial acuity – since a ‘noble’ was a unit of currency – or is the problem with a lack of respect for the entitled? I am imagining various mildly racy meanings for ‘nubble’ but haven’t found anything to back them up … Or is that some sort of proverbial expression which would convey a lot more to contemporaries? I do hope somebody better-informed will clear that up for me one day.

Finally, Edward’s choice to include this material about Dionise (his grandmother) is interesting – why would he do that? Perhaps the most obvious implication is that he was trying to justify JS1’s tardiness in getting married to Dionise. It doesn’t really make him look too good, though, to suggest he thought Dionise was fine for sex but not for marriage, does it?




[i] CCR 1454-61, 355-7. There is one other easily accesible (from home – general pandemic issues and also currently under specific order to stay at home as a close contact of an infected person … with that infected person … viral sword of Damocles or what?) record which corroborates parts of this story: it’s from 1457.

[ii] Dinton, Bucks?

[iii] (I am using ‘property’ like a modern lawyer – note that that word is not used once in the entry itself – which is quite interesting in itself, but concepts of property in the medieval common law is probably a bit too big a topic for a quick blog post).

Image – tree, family, complexity and stuff … Photo by Lucas van Oort on Unsplash

Burn Books and Year Books: Mean Girls in the medieval convent?

A Selden Society volume from several decades ago noted the Year Book treatment of an interesting case, Wakefield v. Prioress of Hampole (1318) and a matching plea roll entry, and commented on its importance in relation to the medieval ‘law of contract’. I have just come across another entry on a plea roll relating to this case, which was not mentioned in the Selden Society volume, which I thought I would note, for those who like such things (massive global audience, I am sure), and have a little recap and reconsideration of this case, which is interesting both in relation to the ‘law of contract’ and also to investigations with a focus on social and gender history. And religious women being, well, mean.[i]


The nerdy bit, a.k.a. ‘You can’t join Mathletes, it’s social suicide! [but still a rung above being a medieval legal historian]’[ii]

The Year Book references can be found here, (Seipp 1318.099ss) and the case is included in SS 65, J.P. Collas and T.F.T. Plucknett (eds), Year Books of 12 Edward II (Michaelmas A.D. 1318) (London, 1950), p. 58,  and discussed by Plucknett at p. xlvii. The plea roll reference given is quite correct: (translated into modern format) TNA CP 40/225 m 250, which you can see here, but the case did not finish at that point, and to have a proper match, covering the ground seen in the YB, you would also need this entry, from CP 40/231 m. 221.


The basics, a.k.a. ‘Get in loser, we’re going [legal history]ing’

The case was, at its root, a dispute about money. It was said that money (20 marks)  had been paid over by a man called Robert le Botiller to Christine, prioress of Hampole,[iii] in 1294, in relation to Robert’s daughter, Eleanor, who was intended for the cloister. The nuns at the convent in question did not, however, accept her. Not surprisingly, given the way things didn’t work out, There was an attempt to get the money back, but the new prioress resisted this. The prioress won. This may well seem questionable, but the explanation lies in the rules about proof and evidence which prevailed in the medieval ‘old personal actions’, i.e. the available modes of proceeding in the area occupied by modern contract law.


The law bit: ‘Stop trying to make debt happen. It’s not going to happen.’

There was some quibbling over whether a debt action of this sort could be brought by a person other than the person who had paid the original sum (Robert had died, and the current claimant was William de Wakefield, the executor of Robert’s executor) , but in the end that was not the thing which killed it: the real problem was that it was brought against somebody other than the original recipient (a new prioress had succeeded). William’s side clearly saw that this might be a difficulty, as they tried to make a connection via benefit to the convent as a whole, as a result of the money handed over. This didn’t work, though – in this case, a ‘debt on a contract’ case without a specialty (deed), a defendant was allowed to proceed by ‘wager of law’ or compurgation (swearing that the money was not owed and bringing along 11 oath-helpers to support credibility). This could not work (according to its own logic) for somebody other than the original contracting party – only the former prioress herself would have been able to wage her law and make statements about whether or not the money was owed. A successor could not do so.

One might think that the appropriate response to that would have been ‘well, let’s find another mode of proof then …’, but no – that’s not how these thngs worked. Forms of action came with a particular set of procedures attached, and in this sort of action, the defendant had to be capable of waging his or her law. This meant that William could not get as far as an inquiry about the terms of the deal, whether the money was in fact paid over, or what was supposed to happen if the other side of the agreement was not fulfilled. In the world of of medieval common law litigation, he was indeed … a loser.


The human bit: ‘On Wednesdays, we wear habits’

Well, what is better than a story about medieval nuns? Obviously one about medieval nuns being less than obvious embodiments of Christian charity. Here, we appear to see them rejecting a candidate for nun-hood, and then finding a reason not to pay back the money intended to help that happen. This may be a false picture of course – Eleanor may have been ‘evil [taking] a human form’, or she may have been unwilling to join the convent – there was no chance for the facts alleged by the claimant to be interrogated. Whatever the truth behind this allegation of rejection, however, it is certainly not implausible that a prioress, with the aid of her legal advisers, would stand by her strict legal rights. The plea rolls are full of actions in which heads of religious houses seek to use the law to secure their house’s economic position (and, as much work on nunneries has shown, this position was not infrequently rather precarious). One thing which occurs to me is that the changing of heads of house might be rather useful, as a way of making actions like that of William incapable of success. Surely medieval religious would never be so sneaky as to do this deliberately?

Shut Up!




(Image – as you can gather, the convent isn’t visible above ground – there are remains, but it’s a private site and I couldn’t find a free image …thus this unevocative view ,,,]



[i] I am sure I don’t have to say this, but, you know, classic teen film, 2004. Regina George, Plastics, L. Lohan before it all went wrong …

[ii] Latter clause inexplicably cut from the line.

[iii] Hampole was a Cistercian priory, in Yorkshire, see this outline.

That which we call ‘rhosyn’ … names and language in medieval common law records

A question which has often occurred to me is how medieval criminal justice managed to confirm people’s identities, in a world without ‘identity documents’, and with a wide margin of error (or a lack of a definite concept of error) with regard to spellings. This is probably hugely anachronstic, and no doubt the answer has something to do with small communities and good memories, but I came across a case today (after a period of rather slim pickings in my searches) which suggested another angle to this question of identity.

In a King’s Bench roll of 1368, there is a short entry relating to a homicide case in Gloucestershire. It notes that the roll of one of the Gloucestershire coroners recorded that one John Penres had been indicted for the felonious homicide of Gerard Walyssh[i] at Ockington, arrested and sent to the gaol at Gloucester castle. John Tracy, sheriff of Gloucestershire, was now ordered to bring this man before the court, to answer the charge. No John Penres could be produced, however. The sheriff contended that somebody had been executed for this crime already – he was a Penres, but his first name was not the Anglo John but the Welsh Yeuan (Ieuan as it is in modern Welsh). There was an investigation, referring to a particular previous session, at which Ieuan was said to have been tried and executed, and it was confirmed that a Ieuan Penres had been executed for the homicide of Gerard Welssh [sic]. The sheriff was off the hook therefore.

This shows that the identity question was solved in part by documentary searches, and it is a little comfort to see that care was taken to check these things. It probably also has things to say about physical and linguistic borderlands. I have noted the fun and games clerks of the English bureaucracy had with some of the more ‘difficult’ Welsh names, especially Gwenllian, but did they really find Ieuan difficult? Or would somebody of Welsh background, living or working in Gloucester, have adopted an English name as a matter of routine, for his dealings with non-Welsh-speakers? There is definitely scope for further digging and thought on this issue. Nice little research project for somebody?


And this one jumped out at me just the other day – not a Welsh one, but another apparent ‘mistaken identity’ case, from a gaol delivery session at Newgate on Wednesday 17th March 1316, A certain Ralph le Leche was in jeopardy – he was said to have been appealed by an approver of involvement in a robbery and a homicide in Northamptonshire. His story, though, was that the original accused man was some other Ralph le Leche of London – let us call this alleged miscreant Ralph 1 – while he, Ralph 2, had been in London all the time, and at the relevant period, he had been ill. A jury of London citizens confirmed his story, so Ralph 2 was saved. Does make you wonder whether less ‘together’ defendants might have ended up being executed by mistake in this way, though.


3/7/2021, updated 7/7/2021

[i] This sounds like a ‘Welsh-on-Welsh’ crime, from the names, doesn’t it? Or at least ‘Welsh-extraction on Welsh-extraction’.

Image – your actual Offa’s Dyke – symbolic border etc. etc.

Penalising medieval poetry

The other day, whilst looking through the scanned plea rolls on the AALT website, I thought I might have made a bit of a discovery – a long poem in English, in the midst of a Latin entry. Probably unsurprisingly, it had long since been discovered and written up, more than a hundred years ago, in fact. Nevertheless, I think it deserves another outing.

The case concerned some Yorkshire men who had come to the attention of the authorities for their disruptive behaviour. It was written up from the indictment, and commented upon, by a man with more titles than one might consider strictly necessary – ‘the Reverend Professor Skeat Litt. D’,[1] in the Yorkshire Archaeological Journal vol. 15 for 1900.[2] The indictment is here, and the corresponding plea roll entry here.[3] The indictment is from 1392 and the plea roll entry from 1393, both in the latter part of the reign of Richard II.

As indictment and plea roll entry note, jurors of Yorkshire wappentakes made a number of accusations, including various sorts of disorderly conduct. Those accused included John Berdwald of Cottingham, and at least 31 others, said to have formed some sort of organisation to support each other in litigation and quarrels, six years previously, contrary to laws against maintenance, and some of them had been unruly and violent. The specific poem-related accusation was that John Berwald junior composed a rhyme in English, and had it spoken in public at Beverley on Sunday 21st July 1392, and at Hull the following Sunday, and at various other places in Yorkshire that year. The rhyme was set out in the indictment and the plea roll, going like this,[4]  …

‘In the countrè heard was we that in our soken shrewes shuld be, with-al for to bake.

Among this Frer[e]s it is so, and other ordres many mo, whether they slepe or wake.

And yet wil ilkan hel[d] up other, and meynten him als his brother, bothe in wrong and right.

And so will we in stond and stoure, meynten oure negheboure, with al oure myght.

Ilk man may come and goo among us both to and froo, I say you sikyrly.

But hethyng wil we suffre non, neither of Hobbè ne of Johan, with what man that he be.

For unkynde we ware yif we suffird of lesse or mare any vilans hethyng.

But it were quit double agayn, and [he] a-corde and be ful fayn to byde oure dressyng.

And on that purpos yet we stand; who-so do us any wrang in what plas [that] it fall,

Yet he might als[o] wel, als[o] I hap and hele, do a-geyn us all.’


The overall sense is that these men want to behave like friars and stand together against all comers, taking each other’s part in quarrels.

It seems interesting to me in a number of respects. First, it is clearly not a vote of confidence in the system of justice generally available: such alliances would not be needed if normal legal processes were considered appropriate. Secondly, assuming that there is some truth in it, the declaration of mutual support is an interesting counter-current to the anti-maintenance views of more literary authors, noted in Jonathan Rose’s book on maintenance.[5] Here, the confederacy is announced, celebrated, justified in terms of its similarity to the behaviour of friars and in terms of a positive idea of natural solidarity.

Secondly, there is the matter of the authorities’ strategy. It seems to me that they may have run into what might be termed the ‘Mike Read/Frankie Goes To Hollywood problem’, after a notable incident in the 1980s when a BBC Radio 1 presenter drew everyone’s attention to the rather rude words of the song ‘Relax’  – promptly helping the song to rise to chart domination. Was it really necessary to give the whole rhyme in indictment and plea roll? Could some phrase like ‘seditious rhyme’ not have been sufficient? The inclusion of the rhyme does make me wonder what would have been the reaction to it amongst those involved in making these records – did they repeat it to each other, or tap a foot along with its rhythm? I have to say, as a complete non-expert (I actually find medieval literature a bit scary, always feeling that I am missing allusions, references, the point …) that I think it’s quite catchy.[i]



[1] (‘So you’re a cleric and a leading academic …’ as I believe H.R.H. Shania Twain had it, in an early iteration of country-pop classic ‘That Don’t Impress Me Much’, before going for the Brad Pitt verse …).

[2] (a journal which manages expectations of readers by including in its preface the following slightly gloomy line: ‘It is hoped that the contents of the volume are not inferior in interest to those of its predecessors.’)

[3] The front of this membrane is here.

[4] (after Skeat, checked against the plea roll text – there are only very small differences).

[5] Rose, J. (2017). Maintenance in Medieval England (Cambridge Studies in English Legal History). Cambridge: Cambridge University Press. doi:10.1017/9781107358324, c.7,

Image – Beverley Minster, which must be somewhere near the site of the alleged naughty poetry reading. And, OK, some of that is post-Ric. II, but it’s very pretty, isn’t it? Never been. Hope I can visit it one day.

[i] and rather better than this effort at political protest which an anonymous bard of our own days was unable to suppress, on the subject of more recent political events  …

Unhealthy ministrations

He’s come to a sticky end, Matt

the pound-shop BJ, pant, slip, splat;

his back-hand- jobs sleaze –

the old Tory disease –

just how could anyone fancy that?

Presenting (and Indicting): talk on medieval sexual offences

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

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