Category Archives: medieval

Untruth in wine: a snippet of medieval medical thinking


See the source image

On a King’s Bench roll from Michaelmas 1434, there is an entry telling of accusations made against James Gentill or Gentyll, a broker of London [though perhaps he was a native of Genoa rather than London].[i]

The entry is an ‘error’ case – roughly an appeal in the modern sense – and notes that, in In Trinity 1432, a presentment had been made, accusing Gentyll of offences relating to the illegal export of gold to Bruges, and also with an offence involving the adulteration of wine. The latter accusation was that James and others had conspired to damage the king’s people and inflict a variety of illnesses upon them. Specifically, on 6th October 1431, and various days before and after, in the parish of St Clement Danes outside Temple Bar and elsewhere in Middlesex, they had mixed and brewed up twenty tuns of Rumney wine and twenty tuns of Malmsey wine with other corrupt wines  – Osey and other wines –  and with pitch and resin, producing 100 tuns of corrupt and unhealthy wine. They took some of it this to Westminster and Shoreditch on the 6th October, and on various days afterwards sold it to various lieges of the king, including John Taverner, John Boysse, John Bramsston, Margaret Bosworth, fraudulently affirming it to be good and healthy,  causing those who drank it to be troubled and damaged by various afflictions (diversis perpetuis langoribus), and it was particularly noted that pregnant women drinking it were harmed, their children (pueri – foetuses, presumably) poisoned and rendered putrid (extoxicati & corrupti) and then destroyed, to the great deception and destruction of the king’s people.

And …?

As ever, who knows whether the allegation was true, mistaken or vexatious, but, leaving that aside, this has a number of possible points of interest. It illustrates the action taken locally in London, and at the ‘national’ level, against dishonesty in sales, and the sale of dangerous, as well as substandard, food and drink. This took me back to long-ago research for my PhD, during which I learned some good wine vocabulary, and took a few detours away from usury and pricing laws, and into the colourful world of London punishments for the sale of dodgy food and drink (they went in for ‘educational’ and shaming penalties such as having somebody stand with a rotten fish around his neck for selling putrid produce). The suspicion that wine-merchants or wine-sellers would pass off lower quality wine as something with a higher price and reputation, perhaps disguising their misconduct by introducing other substances, in order to mimic the colour of the supposed type of wine, can be seen in London and royal regulations and pronouncements.[ii] There are some references to the fear that this sharp practice could damage health in general. This is the first time, however, that I have seen the specific allegation about damage to pregnant women and the foetuses they were carrying. There is no reason to think that medieval people would have been unable to make a link between the ingestion of contaminated nutrients and foetal damage and death, but this fleeting reference is the first I have seen specifying damage to foetuses through pregnant women’s consumption of adulterated produce as a concern for the common law.  It is one I will ponder in two of my 2021-2 research leave projects: on legal ideas about pregnancy, foetuses and newborns, and on causation of death or bodily harm.





[i] KB 27/694 m. 7d (AALT IMG 327). See CCR 1447-54, 517, though this is some years later, in 1454.

[ii] For a 1419 London proclamation on adulteration of wines, see H.T. Riley (ed.), Memorials of London and London Life in the 13th, 14th and 15th Centuries, (London, 1868), 669.  [Hoarderish policy of not throwing away old notes hereby vindicated]. For ‘national’ concern, see e,g, CCR 1302-1307 , 526.

Private compensation and fear of castration in medieval Nottinghamshire

An entry on the Nottinghamshire trailbaston roll for 1305-6 tells an intriguing tale of certainly illicit, possibly unwelcome, advances made by one Master William de Newark, to a girl or woman called Beatrix, daughter of Walter Touk, the response of Beatrix’s family to this, and the way in which this was eventually resolved.[i] Once I am free to get to libraries once more, I look forward to being able to check up on some of the personalities involved, but, for now, the entry itself is worth noting.

In the trailbaston session (an ad hoc, mostly ‘criminal’ judicial session, one of several sent out at this time), jurors of the wappentake of Newark presented Walter Touk, Henry his son, and others, for an assault on Master William de Newark, parson of the church of North Muskham. They were accused of having imprisoned and detained him with force and arms and against the king’s peace until he made fine with them for 50 marks, and of having made off with two swords, worth four shillings, belonging to Richard Cauwode, a servant of Master William.

Walter and Henry told a different story, denying that they had committed any trespass against the king’s peace. Exactly how the more detailed tale came out is unclear – was it volunteered by Walter and Henry, who thought that there was nothing wrong with what they had done, or did the jurors learn about it in some other way? Anyway, the jurors told it this way …

Walter Touk, his wife (who doesn’t get a name here), his daughter (Beatrix), and Henry, went to Master William’s house, in North Muskham, to ask him to eat with them. (The Touks and Master William would therefore seem to have been on good terms, but it was not to last …) William spoke secret and unseemly words of love to Beatrix (oculta et indecentia verba de amore), and then he came to Walter’s manor of Kelham at twilight. Secretly, William entered the house. Henry (Walter’s son, Beatrix’s brother) became aware of this incursion. Henry and John de Dunwyche, his groom, followed William, and entered the room where he was, to find William and Beatrix sitting together (with Richard Cauwode, William’s servant, there as well). Henry and John took out their swords and hit William and Richard. John wounded them both. Walter heard some shouting. He came and did not allow any more damage to be done to the intruders. Nevertheless, the Touks made it clear that they thought William had wronged them in a serious way, and had, in particular, damaged Beatrix’s reputation (enormiter defamavit & … scandalizavit) and they demanded that he compensate them at once for this with 50 marks, or else he would face serious consequences (not exactly specified, but sounding severe and physical). William, terrified by these threats, and fearing that they would otherwise castrate him,  agreed to pay. Henry wrote in his own hand a document obliging William to pay him 50 marks. William authenticated it with Henry’s seal, because he did not have his own seal there, and delivered the deed to Henry. The document was made in the presence of Walter, Henry’s father, who, according to the jury,  consented to the requiring of emends and the making of the document of obligation. On the matter of the alleged taking of two swords, the jurors said that John took from Richard a sword, a bow and arrows (worth 9 ½ d) so that Richard did him no damage with them, and that, if Richard had asked for their return, this would have happened.

Rather than continuing to a straightforward finding of culpability or acquittal, the roll notes that the matter was referred upwards to Parliament, and, on a date in 1306, Henry Touk came to Westminster before the council and made a fine for himself and Walter with £20. It says no more of Master William, nor of the two servants, nor of Beatrix.


So What?

Well so quite a lot. This case has several interesting or suggestive legal historical nuggets.

I have found that these trailbaston rolls are particularly rewarding in their illustration of the location of certain borderlines, uncertainties and arguable issues in the common law. To a greater extent than in ordinary plea rolls, in these rolls, we often see people bringing cases, and jurors, showing what they thought the law should be, or where they were unsure as to what it was. Here, it would appear that there was some doubt as to whether the tale of the events of that evening in Nottinghamshire was enough to mean that the defendants were not guilty of an offence. The jurors clearly did not dismiss it, and the whole thing was sent off to be dealt with by a higher power, rather than by the common law. This may have something to do with the relative wealth of the defendants, but the nature of the case itself was probably also debatable. It seems likely that there was considerable sympathy with the efforts of the Touks to make Master William pay for his misconduct – clearly seen as a grave wrong against them all. At what point did forceful action against somebody who had sneaked into one’s house and was perhaps making moves towards violation of a daughter  cross the line into (social or legal) unacceptability?  Castration of sexual offenders was not an unknown response (and may have been official policy in some earlier periods, though not by this point), and settlement of quarrels by financial payment was likewise often tolerated. In a world which assumed a certain degree of self help, was the ‘privatised compensation plan’ thought up by the Touks completely indefensible?

The roll deals with the criminal assault side of things, and so does not go into the question of the compensation agreement. Presumably Master William would have been able to avoid paying by claiming duress of imprisonment. As a social fact, though, it is quite revealing. First, we should note the degree of literacy and technical skill which is implied in Henry’s ability to draw up an obligation, to insist on its being sealed (even if, surely, having William use his seal would have invalidated it) and delivered.

In terms of the background, it is impossible not to be frustrated at the lack of information about Beatrix and her role. We do not know Beatrix’s age, but can assume that she was unmarried, and therefore probably quite young. Was she in any sense a willing participant in events with Master William? Did she understand what was going on? How did she come to see things after the intervention of her brother and father? Perhaps all that can be deduced is that the evidence about the secret and indecent words of love must have come from her (otherwise they would not have been secret, would they?) so that suggests at least a later preference for family and reputation over an involvement with Master William. To a modern reader, it is difficult not to see this as something of a ‘grooming’ situation – man of God and trusted friend of the family, ‘our little secret’, etc. The truth, however, cannot be judged at this distance.



[i] JUST 1/675 m. 2 (AALT IMG 4702).

The other disadvantage of excommunication…

A Cambridgeshire case from the early part of the reign of Edward III shows the other disadvantage of excommunication (apart from the whole ‘no communion, going to Hell…’ side of things, that is) and also contributes to the rich and fascinating picture of women’s participation in medieval ‘criminal justice’.

The case was an appeal of robbery, brought by a woman, in which an objection was raised by the accused man, contending that he should not have to face such an accusation brought by a woman he claimed to be in a state of excommunication. It qualified for Year Book reports – it is both YB Pasch. 3 Edw III pl 33 f. 19a;  Seipp 1329.072  and also 3 Edw. III Lib. Ass. 12 f. 5b; Seipp 1329.171ass;,

and I have found the plea roll entry in the King’s Bench roll for Easter term 1329: KB 27/276 Rex m.9; see also m.9d.

As is often the case, the reports are light on, or inconsistent as to, details. Putting it all together allows us to get a little nearer to what was going on.

The plea roll entry clears up the reports’ disagreements on the parties: it should be Margaret le Hornere v. Master Richard Badowe, Stephen Bedel and Thomas Bedel. It tells us that this is an appeal of robbery and breach of the king’s peace. It seems to be from Cambridgeshire rather than Kent, as the reports suggest (‘Cant.’ for Cambridgeshire could easily be misread as indicating ‘Canterbury’). Margaret had brought a trespass case against Richard, alleging that he had locked her up and taken some goods from her, and she had been faced with the argument that she could not do this, as she was an excommunicate, an official ecclesiastical letter to this effect (from John [Hotham] Bishop of Ely) appears to have been produced, and that put a stop to the action (at least until Margaret’s status should be improved.  Not to be put off, Margaret also tried the ‘criminal’ procedure available for ‘theft’ facts – the appeal of robbery – as noted. The KB record of this action gives a more detailed account of the robbery – which she said took place on a stretch of water between Barnwell and Cambridge – and a longer list of the items allegedly taken (much of it fancy  clothing). But the defence and the outcome were similar to the trespass case: Margaret could not pursue the case in her current state of lack of grace, and so the appeal could not proceed.

The case is interesting in a number of respects. In terms of jurisdiction and spiritual-temporal procedural matters, it is worth noting as an example of the effects of excommunication on ability to litigate in the secular courts. If one were able to have potential accusers excommunicated, that might be a very good way to hold them up, or even discourage them from pursuing their suit. In terms of the law on appeals, it looks as if there was some doubt about what should be done with the defendant in a case like this, once it was established that the woman bringing the appeal was excommunicate. The record shows a slightly makeshift looking series of securities being used, while Margaret was allowed time to show she had been absolved.

Things trundled on, with requests for Margaret to produce evidence of absolution, security for Richard’s appearance and several court dates, but in the end, Margaret seems to have given up, and never did manage to show that she had been readmitted as a communicant. Richard prevailed in the end. Nevertheless, Margaret did show an interesting flexibility in what action to bring, as well as clearly being rather keener to bring Richard to justice than to make sure that her soul was safe.


25/1/218 (Dydd Santes Dwynwen!)


Medieval mayhem: the correction of wives, rather hard bread and ‘stupid jumping’

Here is a striking story from the plea rolls of the time of Henry IV, which throws a few glimmers of light on several shadowy areas of medieval law and social history: the law of mayhem, domestic relations and domestic violence, and the consistency of medieval bread.

Alexander Dalton v. John Barnaby  is an appeal of mayhem (private prosecution for infliction of certain sorts of wound) appearing in the King’s Bench plea roll for Easter term 1400. The parties were both described as tailors, and the location is London (more precisely, ‘in the parish of St Gregory in the ward of Baynard’s Castle’). The other character appearing in the record is John Barnaby’s wife, whose name is not given.

Dalton brought the case against Barnaby in relation to an injury to his (Dalton’s) right eye. The accusation was that Barnaby had hit him in the eye, leaving him with complete lack of sight in that eye. Thus far, this is all quite standard: true, most mayhem actions seem to be about injuries to arms and hands (with no end of ‘mortified nerves and veins’), but loss or diminution of sight fits within the overall idea of a mayhem as a serious injury, perhaps to be understood as centring on the concept of damage to a man who might potentially fight for the king. Things swiftly become a bit odd, however, as the ‘weapon’ which Dalton alleges Barnaby used against him was not the usual knife, sword, pole-axe etc., but … half a loaf of white bread. Dalton said that Barnaby had thrown this at him, hitting his right eye and causing his injury.

Barnaby told things somewhat differently, denying that he had done anything felonious. He described events from a slightly earlier point, saying that, on the day in question, Dalton and Barnaby’s unnamed wife had been in the city together. As soon as they got back to Barnaby’s house, Barnaby ordered his wife to sort out the dinner, which involved laying out a tablecloth, and putting the bread (and presumably other items) out. Barnaby said that he intended to chastise his wife for having been out in the city, and away from home, for a long time. This chastisement was supposed to take the form of Barnaby throwing bread at his wife’s head, and this was what he was trying to do. He threw the bread at his wife, and Dalton stupidly got up and jumped in the way of the flying half loaf, so ending up with his injury, through his own stupidity (rather than through Barnaby’s wrongdoing, as had been alleged).

Predictably, we do not get a straightforward conclusion to the case – a jury was to be summoned, matters dragged on for another couple of terms, and then we see Dalton being fined for failing to turn up and press on with his case.  Nevertheless, what we have in the record is quite interesting in a number of ways.

As far as the law relating to mayhem is concerned, Dalton v Barnaby provides: a good example of a defence of ‘your own stupidity caused the injury’and an unusual weapon. Unfortunately for medical historians, there is no questioning about the medical care which was, or could have been provided after Dalton was hit by the loaf-projectile, but the rules of medieval common law procedure meant that Barnaby had no need to go into that.

There are also some interesting nuggets with regard to marriage, domestic relations, domestic violence. It is well known that husbands were allowed and, indeed, expected to correct their wives’ misbehaviour, but this episode, at least as Barnaby tells it, shows something a little different to the standard examples of beating (with fists, sticks, clubs). If Barnaby was telling anything like the truth (and that’s debatable – I can’t stop thinking that this was all a food fight which got out of hand) then he thought it a plausible view of ‘reasonable chastisement’ that it might include throwing bread at his wife’s head – was this humiliatory and.or regarded as humorous? Within his story, there is also the germ of a contradictory idea – perhaps Dalton, if he did jump in front of the loaf, was demonstrating that he thought Barnaby was going beyond appropriate husbandly correction. Also on the marriage front, it is interesting that Mrs Barnaby and Dalton appear to have been out and about in London together – the more suspicious reader might wonder whether there was something going on there, and if there was an extra-marital relationship, it might make Dalton’s ‘stupid jumping’ seem rather less of a general intervention to stop a colleague from abusing his wife, and more of a personal  defence of somebody to whom he was devoted. Much to ponder. ‘The wife’ of course, apart from not being named, is not allowed much action in either man’s version of events.

And finally, there is that bread! It was part of a white loaf – the more expensive type of wheaten bread – rather than the poor person’s darker fare. Nevertheless, it clearly can’t have been a light and airy creation, if it was thought plausible that it was capable of causing this sort of injury. Again, however, the ‘rules of the game’ would have meant that nobody would have had the opportunity to ask questions about this: since the argument was framed as ‘You injured me with bread’ v. ‘You may have been injured with bread, but it was your own fault’, there was no space within which to test the question of whether that loaf could have caused that injury, or whether, in fact, it did cause the injury. Such are the joys and frustrations of medieval legal records.





Alexander Dalton v. John Barnaby KB 27/556 m.12d (The National Archives); see this online, AALT image 0163 via the Anglo-American Legal Tradition website at ). Further stages of proceedings can be seen at: KB 27/557 m. 54 and KB 27/557, fine roll.

On medieval domestic violence, see, in particular S.M. Butler, The Language of Abuse: Marital Violence in Later Medieval England  (Leiden, Boston, 2007).

Those whose appetite for medieval bread has been whetted may wish to see (ahem), G.C. Seabourne, ‘Assize matters: regulation of the price of bread in medieval London’, Journal of Legal History 27 (2006), 29-52.


Finding myself wondering whether that proverb about half a loaf being better than no bread was current in medieval London …

Almaric, (not quite) the Champion of the World

A Year Book report of a Common Pleas case of Easter term 1364 YB Pasch. 38 Edw. III pl. 16 f. 10b (Seipp 1364.046) can be identified with the plea roll record: Abbot of St Peter of Gloucester v. Almaric le Botiller CP 40/ 417 m. 111. Here, Almaric was accused of having trespassed against the Abbot’s rights by going into some of land in Gloucestershire in which he had rights of free warren (a species of exclusive property right in certain animals located there), and taking away his rabbits, hares, partridges and pheasants.

Almaric denied most of the accusation, and made an interesting defence in relation to the hunting and retrieval from the Abbot’s land of a pheasant, saying that the pheasant had originally been on Almaric’s own land, when the falcon (in the record, it’s a sparrowhawk) was loosed to chase it, but the pheasant had retreated to the Abbot’s land, and the falcon had followed and killed it there; Almaric had gone in to retrieve his falcon’s prey. This defence seems to show that there would only be a warren trespass offence if the hunt had begun within the Abbot’s warren. The Abbot’s next plea seems to confirm that, since it argues that the pheasant was within the warren when the falcon was set on it. It was this issue of the pheasant’s starting point which was arrived at as the matter to put before a jury,although Knyvet, a Common Pleas judge, observed that, wherever the unfortunate pheasant had begun, Almaric’s entry into the land to retrieve it would have put him in the wrong.

Clearly, the answer would have been further training of the sparrowhawk to get it to bring its prey back to the falconer. Almaric could then have stood outside the warren, waiting for the abbot’s pheasants to stray, hunt them with his trusty sparrowhawk and cause no end of annoyance to the man of God.

GS 31/5/2017

A Liverpool Elopement

An issue I looked at in a couple of articles, and which remains of interest to me, is the use of allegations of elopement and adultery to oppose medieval widows’ attempts to claim dower (a life interest in an allotted proportion of land), following the death of their husbands. When a widow made a dower claim in a common law court, those holding the land could form an ‘exception’ to the widow’s claim based on c.34 of the Statute of Westminster II (1285), arguing that the widow’s action should not be allowed, because, during her former husband’s life, she had left him of her own free will, and had gone to live with the adulterer, and there had not been a freely agreed reconciliation between husband and wife before the husband’s death.

This area is important from both legal and social history points of view. Legally, it illustrates the difficulties lawyers saw in applying a statutory provision with a number of sub clauses (on leaving, staying away, and there not having been a voluntary reconciliation), within the rules of the game of common law pleading (with all the delights of general and special pleading, and such splendid vocabulary as traverses, demurrers, rejoinders and surrejoinders). This was not just a clever intellectual pastime, however: the conclusions which lawyers reached as to exactly what each side had to allege and prove could have a great impact on the chances of a widow obtaining the important resources of dower, to support herself in widowhood, or to bring to a new marriage. One issue which could have an important impact was that of the widow who had left not of her own free will – having been abducted or forced out. If she later lived with another man, did that mean that the c.34 exception could be used, or was it necessary, in order to succeed under c.34, for her opponent to be able to say both that she had left of her own free will and also that she had then lived in adultery?

Another possible argument about the correct use of c.34 was whether it was necessary to allege that the wife had left the husband with her adulterer (rather than just having left him, and then later on lived with ‘her adulterer’): the Latin of the chapter leaves both possibilities open. A Lancashire case which I have recently found in the Common Pleas plea roll for Hillary term 1363 Maria, formerly wife of Thomas Breke of Liverpool v. Robert de Sefton,  Margery his wife and another,  CP 40/413 m. 193, gives an example of use of the exception without suggesting that the wife left with ‘her adulterer’. A free translation follows:



Maria, formerly wife of Thomas Breke of Liverpool, pleaded against Robert de Sefton and Margery his wife, for a third part of two messuages and six acres of land plus appurtenances in Liverpool, and against Hugh son of William le Clerk of Liverpool for a third part of two messuages and six acres of land plus appurtenances in the same vill, as her dower, from the endowment of her former husband, Thomas.

And Robert and Margery and Hugh, by John de Blakeburn, their attorney, said that the same Maria should not have dower in these tenements, because they said that, long before the said Thomas, former husband etc. died, the said Maria had eloigned herself from her husband, and lived with William de Maghell, chaplain, her adulterer, in adultery, in Liverpool in the same county, without ever being reconciled with her said husband, from whom she is claiming dower etc., and they are ready to prove this, and ask for judgment etc.

And Maria said that she should not be excluded from her action by virtue of this allegation, because, at the time of the death of the said Thomas, and long before, she was living with him, and reconciled without the coercion of Holy Church. And she prays that this be inquired of, and the said Robert, Margery and Hugh similarly. So the sheriff is ordered to make 12 [jurors] come etc., by whom etc., a month after Easter, to [swear to the truth] etc.”


Aside from its legal interest in terms of the elements of pleading, two further points are worth mentioning. First, it is noteworthy that the alleged ‘other man’ is a chaplain: a great deal of suspicion seems to have existed in relation to the sexual mores of chaplains, with their supposed celibacy and their privileged access to women, and this is not the only chaplain/adultery case in the c.34 jurisprudence (see, e.g., CP 40/192 m. 233d), Secondly, the idea that a woman might leave her husband to live with another man for a time, and then might be reconciled – whether or not true in this case, it must at least have seemed a plausible set of circumstances – raises some interesting queries with regard to medieval marriage and gender relations. As the statute itself suggested, it does seem that at least some medieval men might be prepared to forgive and take back their wives, and we see this being claimed here. Why might men do this? The statute suggests that some reconciliations were achieved through the Church’s coercion of the husband. The coercion of others – family, neighbours – would be another possibility. But it is also conceivable that at least some strands of medieval thought took a rather less ‘once lost, always lost’ (T. Hardy, Tess of the D’Urbervilles, c. XV!) view of chastity than would come to be the case in later eras.

GS 22/5/2017.


See on this area of medieval law:

P. Brand, ‘“Deserving” and “undeserving” wives: earning and forfeiting dower in medieval England’, Journal of Legal History, 22 (2001), 1-20.

G. Seabourne, ‘Copulative complexities: the exception of adultery in medieval dower actions’. in M. Dyson and D. Ibbetson (eds), Law and Legal Process: substantive law and legal process in English Legal History (Cambridge: CUP, 2013), 34-55.

G. Seabourne, ‘Coke, the statute, wives and lovers: routes to a harsher interpretation of the Statute of Westminster II c. 34 on dower and adultery’, Legal Studies 34 (2014), 123-42.

Licence, Denial and Disobedience: a ravishment case from fifteenth-century Oxfordshire

Today I tracked down the Plea Roll entry corresponding to Anon. (1461) YB Mich. 1 Edw. IV pl. 2 f.1a; Seipp 1461.018: the King’s Bench report, Thomas Wilcotes v John Newers, can be found at KB 27/802 m. 43. It is a ‘ravishment of wife and goods’ case, in which the plaintiff is complaining that the defendant has taken away both his wife and also some of his goods. The offence was well-established, having been introduced under Edward I, and there are many examples of its use in medieval plea rolls, although there is debate as to what we should understand ravishment or raptus to mean in this context. Much attention has been paid to the idea that a proportion of these cases might, in fact, have been consensual on the part of the wife, who wanted to leave her husband. Wilcotes v. Newers is relevant to the idea of consent – but it is the consent of the husband which is alleged, not that of the wife.

The story, briefly, is that Eleanor, wife of Thomas Wilcotes, had been taken away from his house and kept for an unspecified period at the house of her kinsman, John Newers.  Wilcotes alleged that this taking was against his will, (and also listed a number of items which he said had gone missing with his wife) but Newers had a different version of events: he said that Wilcotes and his wife had been at odds for some time, and Wilcotes had given him permission to take Eleanor away to his (John’s) house, and to try and encourage and cajole her to be obedient to her husband. As far as Newers was concerned, he had done nothing which was against the law, since he had this permission. Wilcotes’s side had tried to argue that, even if there had been permission, Newers would still have been guilty of an offence, but this did not seem to go down well with the court, and so the issue which would go to the jury was whether or not there had in fact been a granting of permission by Wilcotes to Newers.

What I am going to say next will be all too familiar to those who have had dealings with plea rolls: it is not clear what the end result was. The entry peters out after listing steps taken to have the case tried in Oxfordshire, where there were problems with finding an appropriate jury, and noting that it was to come back to King’s Bench, and, so far, I have not found any sign of later episodes (though Thomas Wilcotes is involved in litigation with another Newers in 1462).

Even so, having this much is very interesting. Whether or not Wilcotes had given Newers any sort of licence or encouragement to become involved, it is notable that it seemed a plausible story that a kinsman might be brought in in this way, and might hold and pressurise his kinswoman to be obedient to her husband. This suggests an interesting collaboration between men in enforcing women’s obedience, and at the same time it is based on the idea that some husbands are not capable of keeping their wives appropriately subservient: so there is a rather equivocal message here about the situation of women (nothing new there then). There are also some good comparisons to be made between the information in the two different documents, Year Book and Plea Roll, and I hope to have time to include these in a paper I am writing for a fast-approaching conference in Swansea in June.

To go back to the story, I would really like to know why Thomas Wilcotes brought the case: was the story about planning and permission a lie – or did the plan just make an unhappy marriage even worse, leading him to lash out in frustration against his partner in the failed Operation Make My Wife Do What I Want?

GS 12th May, 2017

Adultery and violence in the medieval West Midlands

Here’s a case I found in a roll relating to theWorcestershire trailbaston sessions of 1306 (JUST 1/1032), when looking for something else entirely – so interesting it deserved a blog post.

On m. 4d (AALT image 2700), we are told that Johanna, wife of Edmund Sneed was indicted for having gouged out (extraxit) the eyes of Christiana daughter of Thomas de la Twychene at Hampton Lovett. The sheriff of Worcestershire had been ordered to have Edmund and Johanna before the Justices ‘to respond to the King for this trespass’, but he had to report that Edmund had not been found. The coroner and several credible members of the county community gave evidence that Edmund was on his way to the Curia in Rome. Johanna came, though, and was asked how she wished to plead to the trespass. She said that she was not guilty and submitted to a trial by jury.

Many medieval records are less than expansive after this point in proceedings, but, here we get some interesting material from the jury, rather than the all-too-frequent blank ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’. It is reported that the jury said Edmund Sneed had been involved in an adulterous liaison with Christiana (tenuit … in adulterio) and often withdrew himself from  Johanna, beat and mistreated her, and moved her from the house in Worcestershire to another house he had in Warwickshire. There seems to have been a partial reconciliation, since they said that Johanna came back to Edmund and lived with him at Hampton Lovett, but Edmund was still involved with Christiana. Johanna was said to be aggrieved and provoked (gravata et commota) by this state of affairs (as it were) that, on a day which the jury could not specify, but which was in the year 30 Edward I (i.e. 1301-2), she asked Christiana around to Edmund’s house to discuss the adultery. Christiana came as requested, but rather than a civilised discussion of their situation, a fight broke out between them. Johanna is said to have hit Christiana and put out her eyes. (I am a bit puzzled as to exactly how to imagine that happening: surely actually removing somebody’s eyes requires something other than a blow? How inappropriate would it be to ask about this next time I am at the Eye Infirmary?)

The jury also felt moved to say that Edmund and Johanna had always provided for Christiana, and continued to do so, (which would indicate a fairly long term commitment, considering the date they said the eye-gouging had occurred) but noted the insecurity of Christiana’s position. This is certainly an interesting passage in relation to provision of care for those with disabilities and impairments. It suggests some form of informal taking of responsibility by Edmund and Johanna, outside legal proceedings. We might wonder, however, just how desperate Christiana must have been, to accept help from the very person who had caused her very serious injuries.

There seem to be traces of sympathy for Johanna (and lack of sympathy for Christiana as no better than she ought to be?) on the part of the tribunal, and perhaps an effort to find a way to excuse Johanna’s actions. The report tells us that the jury was asked how old Johanna was at the time of the eye-ripping, and whether she had been in her right mind. The jury, however, did not take the opportunity to engage in a bit of ‘pious perjury’ to let her off the hook: they said that she was twenty years old, and sane. Johanna was therefore committed to jail, with the instruction that the case was to be heard at Westminster on Monday in Pentecost week.

Most unfortunately, I have found no trace of the case in the relevant plea roll, so, unless and until some other evidence turns up, the story ends there, with no answer as to how the justices at Westminster would have handled it. Nevertheless, there is a lot to think about here. There is a fair amount of reported sexual misbehaviour in medieval legal records, but the story of the supposed summit meeting between two women who had been involved with the same man, and then the extreme violence, is very unusual. In relation to Johanna’s violence, there is thinking to be done about what was expected, and countenanced, in terms of the behaviour of a wronged wife towards ‘the other woman’. Interesting that the medieval Welsh legal triadic literature suggests some leeway for wives hitting ‘the other woman’ (though certainly not eye-gouging).

Then there is also the report that the married couple were in some sense looking after the ‘other woman’ in her impaired state, and the intriguing story of Edmund’s trip to Rome – not, we might note, some sort of repentance pilgrimage to Rome in general, but specifically to the Curia. Something matrimonial seems most likely – though going in person to the Curia would not be standard practice.

So – lots of loose ends, but, apart from anything else, this record shows just how useful trailbaston (and plaint) rolls of this period can be in giving glimpses of a world of facts and legal ideas often effaced in the increasingly standardised forms in King’s Bench and Common Pleas rolls.



Allegations of women being hit so that their eyes are said to fall out can be seen in S.M. Butler, The Language of Abuse: marital violence in later-medieval England (Leiden, 2007), e.g. at 161 and 177-8. While some descriptions of such extreme and horrifying episodes may have been somewhat exaggerated attempts to portray a woman in conformity with saintly models, this case, with the subsequent apparently impaired and needy state of Christiana, probably records a genuine incident of eye-gouging.


8th May, 2017.

St Winifred and the Shrewsbury captives

I am currently working on a paper which focuses on rather hostile intervention by the Welsh in the medieval English borderlands (on William Herbert and associates, and their foray into Hereford in the 1450s) but, while looking at the King’s Bench plea rolls for 1456, came across a case which highlights a rather different sort of cross-border intervention, namely the help said to have been given by St Winifred to a Shrewsbury man, (allegedly) held captive and tortured by extortioners in North West England.
There is a petition in the National Archives (SC 8/96/4769) relating to this incident, presented by or on behalf of Shrewsbury men, William Bykton and Roger Pountesbury, but I don’t think the related KB document has been collated with this before – so I’m claiming it as a ‘find’. KB 27/781 m. 110 is also quite a lot clearer than the petition (even though it is in Latin rather than the petition’s English) which helps with working out the story.

Bykton and Pountesbury alleged that they had been seized, carried off to various lairs of Robert Bolde and his associates in Lancashire, tortured in creative and prolonged ways, and made to promise and hand over large sums of money. St Winifred comes in in the story of Roger Pountesbury, who gave a particularly detailed narrative about being hung up in specially constructed stocks – he put his eventual escape down to the saint’s intercession.

St Winifred (in Welsh, Gwenfrewi, and in the KB roll, it’s ‘Wenefride’) was, according to the ODNB entry by T.M. Charles-Edwards, around in the mid-7th century. She was a nun, and the most memorable part of her story involves being decapitated by a prince, incensed that she would not give in to his sexual desires, followed by the miraculous rejoining of head to body and subsequent virtuous nunnish life. Needless to say, where the head dropped, a miraculous well sprang up (with, of course, healing powers), and there were many posthumous miracles.

It is interesting in terms of my current article that there is this positive story about a Welsh saint in English records, relating to English people. It may not be hugely surprising that a Shrewsbury man held Winifred in high regard – since her relics had, by the time of these events, been in Shrewsbury for more than 300 years (see ODNB), but it is interesting to see mention of her in a document intended to have an impact on ‘national’ authorities. Even in a century which had seen Welsh rebellion and highly discriminatory laws, as well as a Welsh-English (or Welsh-Marcher-English) dimension to lawlessness, it is assumed that talking about a Welsh figure is a good move for an Englishman in want of a favour from Englishmen. Just another ingredient in the fascinating bara brith of the Welsh borderlands.

There is a lot more to think about here: no doubt the underlying incidents need to be fitted into a wider English political context too – I’m on the trail of Robert Bolde and his associates, who seem interesting. Also, from a more purely legal-historical point of view, this raises issues about the on-off inclusion in legal records of accounts of the divine and supernatural, about the petitioning process and the efficiency or otherwise of justice at this difficult period for ‘central government’. My ‘to do’ list has just expanded by several lines: thanks a lot, St Winifred.

28th April, 2017.

Surviving an execution

The law relating to executions is in the news at the moment, as pharmaceutical companies battle to dissociate themselves and their drugs from killing as opposed to healing (see, e.g. ). Over in my world of medieval study, as a side-note to a current project on unauthorised hanging, I have been turning my attention to botched or failed – or successful and yet not final – executions. The first fruit of this is my ‘work in progress’ list of those who survived executions. It’s into double figures and no doubt there are many more instances out there: I am sure I will be adding to the list over time.

The victims (or not) are mostly male, mostly thieves, and many of the stories involve hanging, removal and revival in a church. Few are very detailed, but there are some interesting themes emerging. First, although there has been a lot of attention on the best-reported case, that of William Cragh of c. 1290, and the idea of miraculous resurrection after definite death (in that case, through the intervention of proto-saint Thomas de Cantilupe: see Bartlett, The Hanged Man: a story of miracle, memory and colonialism in the Middle Ages (Princeton University, 2006), most cases are not quite on that model. In more ‘secular’ sources, a few of those who survived excited talk of miracles, but even these instances do not seem to have been regarded as full resurrections.

They may be seen as miraculous escapes, or, at times, the result of blunders by others. Ropes breaik or people revive after having been taken down from the gallows. It is generally impossible to know whether there were interventions meant to defeat the intention of killing the convict – interference with ropes, or deliberate early removal from the gallows – as opposed to blunders and mistakes (certainly, there are other, clear, examples of deliberate rescue), but some, at least, of the stories suggest genuine surprise at the survival of a condemned person, as well as a lack of reliable testing for the expiry of life.

These cases certainly underline the important observation made by Henry Summerson: “It may be a sign of the extent to which present-day society has distanced itself from the realities of capital punishment that the word ‘execution’ is commonly misused to describe a killing that has been carried out in a manner quick, clean and efficient. A medieval execution at least was commonly a messy business, unskilfully carried out.” (H. Summerson, ‘Attitudes to capital punishment in England 1200-1350’, in M. Prestwich, R. Britnell and R. Frame (eds), Thirteenth Century England VIII (Woodbridge, 2001), 123-34, 132). Aside from the fact that modern systems generally do not allow their blunders to affect the ultimate outcome, by tending to reprieve those who have somehow managed to survive, the criticism is applicable to modern death-dealing legal systems as well.


19th April, 2017.