Category Archives: Mental incapacity

Categories of incapacity in medieval common law: the ‘fatuous’ Warwickshire killer

As small footnotes to the work of others on medieval law and mental capacity, I have noted a few interesting cases of medieval individuals being excused or pardoned their felonies by reason of their insanity – most recently focusing on a couple of cases of ‘lunacy’ which were expressly linked to the waxing and waning of the moon. Here is another case which goes a little outside the usual categories and vocabulary of lunacy, idiocy, fury and frenzy, which came up in a Plea Roll search today.

The King’s Bench plea roll for Easter term 1334 incorporates, in its Rex section, the gaol delivery pleas from the session in Warwick. One of the Warwickshire cases,[i] from the hundred of Kington has in the margin beside it not one of the usual process notes – acquitted, hanged, sent to prison etc. – but the big, bold, word ’fatuus’. The entry states that Richard Kyng of Herberbury (Harbury?) chapman, was arrested for killing Robert Deyvilla at Moreton (Daubney) at some point earlier in 1334. He had been indicted for felony before the coroner. He was brought into court by the sheriff and asked how he wished to plead, he answered ‘fatuously’, his speech and actions showing diversa signa fatua. Enquiries were made, so the entry tells us, as to whether the accused had been ‘fatuous’ at the time of the killing, and before, subsequently and now, whether he was feigning this in order to excuse himself from a finding of felony, whether he might get better (‘fury’ is mentioned here). The jury responded that Richard had become ‘fatuous’ two years before the killing, he was ‘fatuous’ at the time of the killing, and still was, and had been consistently ‘fatuous’ for the whole period, and his apparent ‘fatuous’ state was neither feigned nor the result of some other infirmity. Richard therefore went ‘without day’ (i.e. he was not found a felon). His relations were told to look after him (that tricky word custodia is used here, with all of its potential for confinement as well as care) with dark hints that it would not go well for them if his custody was neglected (so that he caused further danger).

Points of interest

Well, it is no surprise that a medieval court would not regard as a felon one who was not mentally capable, nor, really, that he would be entrusted to the care (or ‘care’?) of his relatives, but it is interesting to see some of the vocabulary and ideas here.

I have mentioned that ‘fatuus’ is not common. What did it mean? It is almost impossible to equate with modern ideas – either legal or medical – in this area. I was proceeding on the basis that it was a similar idea to ‘idiocy’ (very roughly, learning disabilities) rather than lunacy/fury/frenzy (which seem to indicate violent, flaring, conditions), but then there was use of ‘fury’ as well, and the fact that the jury said that the ‘fatuity’ had come on at a particular time, rather than having been present throughout life, as one would perhaps expect with ‘idiocy’. The lack of information in the entry about the homicide itself makes it more difficult to get an idea of how Richard was being perceived. So, for the moment, big question mark, and a slight suspicion that these words and ideas were not as neatly separated as I would like to make them. Instructive in itself, I suppose.

I was also interested to note the questioning as to whether the condition might be feigned, in order to avoid a finding of felony, and the awful consequences of that. There is a parallel here with questions which were asked about people who said nothing at all, when they were asked to respond to a charge of felony. Jurors would be asked whether this was because they were unable to speak, or whether they were perfectly able to speak, but were keeping silent in an effort not to allow the case to proceed to a conviction (‘standing mute of malice’, in later parlance). In both cases, juries were considered able to weigh up the reality of the apparent affliction. To a certain extent, this can be explained in terms of the jurors’ identity as some sort of neighbour-witnesses (yes, I know there is a debate about that, but they were at least able to bring in outside knowledge) in that they would be likely to be aware if the accused had suddenly and suspiciously become mentally incapable, or unable to speak. Another way of looking at it is that mental incapacity was considered something fairly ordinary and apparent to one’s community.

So – another little puzzle-piece in to add to the heap. Off went Richard to the tender care of his relatives, and the court went on to the next case.

GS

9/10/2021

 

 

 

[i] KB 27/296 m. 13d (AALT IMG 331)

‘Lunacy’ and legal records

Deep in ‘the Before Times’, back in 2019, I posted something on a medieval ‘criminal’ case with a specific and detailed ‘defence’ of lunacy, that of Alice Brytyene, from 1309. Since I have just found another one, it seemed a good opportunity to revamp and update the post, adding in the new case.

See the source image

Alice’s case is in a Suffolk Gaol Delivery Roll,  JUST 3/63/4 m.6 (AALT IMG 136). The record tells us that Alice Brytyene of Lawshall appeared in a session in Suffolk in September 1309, before William de Ormesby and William Inge, royal justices. She had been arrested because, so it was said, she had: (i) feloniously burnt the home of Simon Brytyene, her husband, in Lawshall, meaning to burn Simon in the house; (ii) broken into the barn of Pymme Brytyene in Lawshall and taken away sheaves of wheat worth 13d; (iii) broken into the oven of Ralph del Peke and taken away seven loaves of bread worth 6d. Alice pleaded not guilty to these charges, and accepted jury trial. The jurors said on oath that she was not guilty of the burglary of the barn or of the oven, nor of taking away the wheat or bread. As for the burning of the house, they said that, for seven years and more, continuously,  Alice had been furia vexab[atur] in incremento lune so that lunatica[m] infirmitate[m]  patit[ur], i.e. she had been tormented/bothered by madness with the waxing of the moon so that she had suffered from the disease of lunacy. And they said that on the seventh of July last past, Alice had been suffering from this condition [predicte infirmitate vexabatur] when she burnt down the house in question, in her insanity and not feloniously [furiose & non per feloniam] as had been charged against her. Alice was therefore acquitted of the burglaries, and (presumably in respect of the arson, though this is not stated) was to be returned to prison, (presumably in the expectation that she would be pardoned by the king).

The second case comes from the King’s Bench plea roll of Trinity term 1328 – in the ‘Isabella and Mortimer’ period of Edward III’s reign. It is to be found at KB 27/273 Rex m. 29d (AALT IMG 318), and is from a gaol delivery session at York castle, on Monday [13th June, 1328].

The report tells us that Agnes, wife of Roger Moyses was on trial for the killing of Adam son of William Moyses, at Harwood [Dale?] on Monday [16th May, 1328], having been indicted for this at a coroner’s inquest. She was asked how she would defend herself, and said that she was not guilty, putting herself on a jury. The jurors said that, for a long time before the incident, and after, and at the time, Agnes had suffered from a mental illness linked to the waxing and waning of the moon, which caused her to lose her mind to such an extent that she acted without being able to tell the difference between right and wrong (sepius prout luna crescit & decrescit tali infirmitate consueta est gravari quod ipsa amens sepius devenit penitus ignorans quid agit non discernendo malum et bono). They said that on the day in question, Adam, a 12 year old, came into the house in Harwood where Agnes was on her own, and she was suffering from the condition at that time. (laborans in infirmitate). When Agnes became aware that Adam had come in, she grabbed him by the throat and held him so tightly that he died. Afterwards, Agnes simply remained in the house until the constable and bailiffs came and arrested her. The jurors were asked whether Agnes had killed Adam felioniously and with malice aforethought, or without intention (ex amencia … vexebatur), and responded that Adam was killed through per amenciam and not through felony or malice/intention. Agnes was therefore to be sent to prison to await the king’s grace.

So what?

It is already well-established that medieval common law and communities did not hold those with obvious and serious mental disorder responsible for their actions as a matter of felony, I have not turned up a pardon for either Alice or Agnes, but I am reasonably hopeful that they would indeed have been pardoned. This would not necessarily mean a ‘happy ending’, however, since closer confinement by family members might well have been their fate after these grisly episodes.

Medieval criminal records referring to ‘lunacy’ as an explanation/excuse for violent or otherwise offensive activity are not hard to find, but usually they do little more than stating that the accused is deemed a ‘lunatic’, and it is easy to assume that the word is regarded in a mundane way, as a general label for people with some obvious mental disorder, and was rather cut off from its etymological association with the moon. These two records, however, show at least some people going further into the matter, and emphasising the lunar explanation of (some, episodic) mental disorder, explaining odd, violent, behaviour on the moon’s baleful influence upon the mental state of susceptible individuals. They make the definite and dramatically or poetically satisfying link between the waxing moon and the growing disorder, and the (sophisticated and observant) comments about the killers having suffered over a long period with a fluctuating condition.

There is food for thought about the place of the ‘insane person’ within the community as well. In the case of Alice, her community, which was conscious of Alice’s long-term disorder, would appear to have allowed her a degree of freedom, before the incident in question. Agnes was alone in a house – was this some sort of precautionary confinement, or did she live alone?) It is interesting to note that a woman was assumed capable of throttling a twelve year old male, and that Agnes’s condition must have been well enough known and accepted for it to be regarded as having persisted during the killing of Adam, despite the fact that it would appear that there were no immediate witnesses (since we are told she was alone in the house).

It is also worth pondering the fact that these were both women. My impression has been that ‘violent insanity words’ are more usually found in relation to males – furiosus, freneticus etc. are more commonly found than their female equivalents. These two ‘violent insanity’ cases which bring in the moon, are, however, about women. Now, two cases hardly amount to a basis for a theory, but it is hard not to start going off on a train of thought concerning ideas about women, the moon, menstrual cycles etc. Worth bearing in mind, and seeing whether future finds fit in with it at all. [Oh, and if we want to get really spooky and conspiracy theoryish about it, we might note that … everything seemed to happen on a Monday in these cases, that I am writing about it on a Monday, and I am .. OK, too far. But interesting, no?]

28/12/2020

‘Lunacy’ in a Legal Record

A ‘supermoon’ is due tonight: https://www.timeanddate.com/moon/phases/

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

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

http://aalt.law.uh.edu/AALT7/JUST3/JUST3no63_4/IMG_0136.htm

 

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

 

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

 

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

 

19/2/2019.

Medieval mental health: describing, explaining and excusing a ‘furiosus’

Today’s tale comes from Sussex, and from the latter years of Edward I’s reign. It is to be found in a roll of ‘criminal’ proceedings of 1306 (JUST /934 m.3; http://aalt.law.uh.edu/AALT4/JUST1/JUST1no934/aJUST1no934fronts/IMG_5655.htm)  and associated Patent Roll records (CPR 1301-7 p. 416: https://archive.org/details/calendarpatentr00offigoog ). The longer record is in the roll of pleas and gaol delivery before Bereford, Hengham and Mallore, justices commissioned to hear certain cases in Sussex, in Hillary term 1306.

The record states that Nigel Coppedone of Pende had been indicted for the death of Henry Rosselyn of Bradewater, killed in the field of Lancing, on a date in 1305. Nigel pleaded ‘not guilty’, and accepted jury trial.

It tells us that the jury swore the following to be the true story of events surrounding Henry’s killing:

Nigel had recently been a sailor, taking his own ship in the fleet which was supplying the English in Gascony, fighting there against the king of France. Unfortunately, Nigel’s ship, along with others, was captured by the enemies of the king of England, and he lost all of his goods which were on the ship. Nigel was also beaten and wounded. As a result of the beating, the wounds, and the loss of such a large quantity of goods, he was injured, exhausted and mentally incapable or ‘insane’ (in demencia… furore…) for a long time. Grieving, his friends tied him up, as one does with a mad person (furiosus). Tied up in this way, he was brought to these parts, and entrusted to other friends and neighbours of his. They kept him tied up for a long time, because he continued to exhibit the behaviour of a furiosus, but he broke free of his chains, and escaped their custody. He ate raw meat and ran about naked all over the place. Henry got in his way when he was on the run, and, in a state of madness (furiose), Nigel killed him. And afterwards he ran about in the same way (i.e. furiosus). And they specified that he did not kill Henry through malice or by pre-planned felony, but was led to do it by madness (furore tantum ad hoc ipsum inducente). They backed this up by linking it to the statement that before the deed, during and after it, he was in a continuous state of madness (furor). Therefore he was to be sent to jail to await a royal pardon. This pardon was forthcoming, and is reproduced in the record. It accepts the explanation that Nigel had killed Henry through madness (furore ductus). A summary appears in the Calendar of Patent Rolls (above).

Why is this interesting?

Clearly, it is a striking and tragic story. It is also a valuable source for ‘lay’ and ‘official’ attitudes to mental disorders and appropriate responses to them. Some things are not new: it is well-known that a person who was in an obvious state of mental disorder when committing homicide could expect a pardon (see, e.g. N. Hurnard, The King’s Pardon for Homicide (Oxford, 1969). The tying up – or chaining- of violently unwell people is also known. What is a little different to other accounts I have seen, however, is (i) the thoroughness of the jury’s explanation and (ii) what that allows us to deduce about their ideas of the causes and effects of mental disorder. We could note that they see a causal link between Nigel’s mistreatment and the loss of his goods on the one hand, and his descent into ‘fury’ on the other. Their care to ensure that Nigel is not held criminally responsible for his actions also leads them to talk about the periods before and after the killing, adding fascinating details about the sort of behaviours thought to indicate ‘fury’ – the raw meat, the nakedness, the running around. They portray ‘fury’ as something which entirely removes responsibility – and is, in a sense, a cause of the killing: Nigel is led by ‘fury’ into doing what he does.

Another little glimpse of a much bigger subject is afforded by the description of those around Nigel as he becomes disordered: his shipmates are grieved by this. And, although chaining up does not strike the modern reader as a kind way to treat somebody like Nigel, we should note that those doing the chaining are described as his ‘friends’,  indicating that he was not cast off by those who had known him before, and that they were probably trying to do their best for him. One wonders, of course, what would have been the perspective on all of this of the friends and family of the unfortunate Henry.

GS

3/2/2018

Land, fraud and vulnerability in medieval Yorkshire

Just in case anyone is not convinced that medieval land cases are worth the bother, here’s a tale of fairly outrageous behaviour from Yorkshire, found in a plea roll of the eyre of 1293-4 (JUST 1/1084 m. 48; AALT image 4715; http://aalt.law.uh.edu/AALT4/JUST1/JUST1no1084/aJUST1no1084fronts/IMG_4715.htm ), which might have something of interest for those looking at several different aspects of medieval history.

The record tells us that the Prioress of Yedingham (a Benedictine house) had previously appeared before the royal justices by attorney and claimed some land on behalf of her foundation, from Agnes daughter of Raph Bertram. Agnes had defaulted and the Prioress had been awarded seisin (more or less possession in this context) of the land. This was thought to be a little fishy, and possibly a collusive transfer, done in this way to get around Edward I’s legislation against transfers into ‘mortmain’. The mischief being fought in this legislation was the sort of transfer which meant that lords would lose the windfalls they usually received in connection with the normal human lifecycle (death, marriage, wardship): i.e. transfers to the ‘dead hand’ of an ecclesiastical institution. One way of trying to do this without being obvious about it would be by pretending to have lost the land to the transferee in a legal case, rather than making a straightforward transfer. To find out what had happened in this case, an inquiry was to be held, and 12 jurors were sworn to tell the truth of the matter.

They said that the land had indeed been lost by agreement and collusion, then went on to tell a rather strange tale. Agnes had been unwell (infirmabatur) for six months before the enactment of ‘the statute’ (this might refer to the Statute of Mortmain 1279, but more likely to mean the statute Quia Emptores 1290, which also dealt with mortmain). The description of the illness is no more specific than that, but the effect of it is stated to be that she was not in good mental health: quasi non compos mentis sue. During this period, a clerk with whom (they said) she used to sleep came and found her in that state, and at once had her taken away from her own land to another house. Once there, he made a charter in Agnes’s name, then used that to transfer Agnes’s land to the predecessor of the current Prioress.  Afterwards, Agnes returned to full mental health (revenit ad statum suum). A servant (ancilla) who was living with her told her what had happened. As soon as Agnes heard and understood this, she had herself put in what seems to be a basket (in quodam corbello; I assume this is a slightly unusual twist on corbis, and it certainly makes more sense than my initial guess of ‘crow’…] and had herself taken to the manor of one Richard de Breaus, chief lord of the tenement. Richard reseised her of the land, which she held for three years before the collusive action with the new Prioress.

There seem to be some annoying gaps in the narrative here. What was the naughty clerk’s game? Was the business with a basket a way of concealing herself and escaping from the house to which she had been taken (in the manner of St Paul in Acts 9) or was she physically incapacitated and unable to move without being carried?  And why, after making heroic efforts to get the land back, would Agnes arrange to transfer it to the priory in any case? I hope she was being well paid, either in temporal or spiritual currency, not being bullied out of it. Still – despite the usual holes, there is some good material in this case on mental health and ideas about it, on the vulnerability of those in ill-health, but also on the possibility of recovery of mind and determination to get back control of land out of which one had been cheated.

GS

2/2/2018