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Legal History, Slavery, Colonialism

The last few weeks have been full of news of protest and direct action relating to racism, slavery and colonialism. As no one in Bristol can have failed to notice, it has been the week when the most prominent statue of slaver Edward Colston finally fell.

At the place where I work, the University of Bristol, this has brought to the forefront of minds  various issues to do with naming of buildings, and the University logo. The names of families whose wealth derived from slavery are prominently commemorated here, and the emblem of Edward Colston, a dolphin, is included in the University logo. These names and the logo are under review now – and quite rightly (though possibly putting out a tweet to announce this and … using the Colston- commemorationg logo to do so … was not the best call). Both the University and excellent and doughty scholars within it, as well as committed historians outside academia, have been looking at these issues for some time, but recent events have lent it all a particular urgency, and have also drawn in a much wider group of academics who know that we should be doing more, and faster, to try and make the education we offer both inclusive for all students, and also sufficiently energising and mind-expanding to cause positive change in the local community and the wider world.

I have, for many years, run a unit on Legal History for our Law undergraduates. It has always attracted excellent, sparky students who are alive to injustice, including racial and gender injustice, in the world. We have plans to include more on this in the next academic year. I dare say the issue of statues, putting them up, pulling them down, will feature. At the moment, though I am thinking about a couple of other issues: how the common law and common lawyers were implicated in slavery and colonialism, and how Legal History itself has been affected by having been developed as a discipline in the heyday of colonialism and racism. There is a lot to think about, and to do – and, as a medievalist rather than an expert on later periods, I am going to be synthesising the work of other, expert, scholars where I can find it – but it feels as if Legal History needs to put its metaphorical shoulder to the wheel.

Some of the questions which occur to me straight away:

  1. Is there a general survey of lawyers (or legal institutions) as slave-holders? I have put out a Twitter bat-signal to try and see what there is ‘out there’, having drawn something of a blank in my own preliminary searches – I suspect that there might not be, though there are sections and statements in various, disparate works. If there is not such a general survey, how can a start be made on this? Individual biographies are one way to go, I suppose, as well as checking the writings of lawyers themselves. It would be particularly interesting to make a start on lawyers in Bristol …
  2. In what ways has common law doctrine been implicated in slavery, racism, colonial projects? (Huge – obviously – and equally obviously there is excellent work here by historians, but it also seems that there are gaps with regard to more doctrinal (‘dry’?) parts of law, and areas in which a bit of imagination, and consciousness of the issue, might bring up a wider set of connections).

This morning, a cross check in the Oxford Dictionary of National Biography has shown me some interesting lawyer/slavers, which is a start for no. 1 at least

[And on the Bristol-Colston front, I just came across another example of his ‘philanthropic’ ubiquity in Bristol – there is a charitable foundation called the Dolphin Society, which might want to be a little firmer in its dissociation from Ed and his murderous works … https://www.dolphin-society.org.uk/history

Also the ODNB (updated 2008?) has EC article entitled  ‘Colston, Edward (1636–1721), merchant and philanthropist‘. Very neutral…]

12/6/2020

13/6

There is more ‘Colstonalia’ in Bristol – and more websites which might want to consider saying something stronger about the wrongness of slavery. Today’s example (accessed 13/6) is this one https://www.about-bristol.co.uk/chu-04.asp

17/6

A programme which those who are not regular watchers of Welsh language TV might have missed …

https://www.s4c.cymru/clic/programme/532330299

Dylan ar Daith – S4C programme (Welsh – with subtitles!) on Thomas Picton, governor of Picton, cruel even for the times. Interesting to see the Welsh coming to terms with not having been pure with regard to slavery. Some stories I had not heard here – worth a watch to see what you think of its tone.

 

Mirrors and Borderlands: some Lockdown reflections on a recent project

In what now seems like the very far-off pre-lockdown part of 2020, an article of mine was published, the culmination of a project I had been working on for two years or more, and had presented, at different stages in its development, to audiences at the International Medieval Congress in 2017 and the British Legal History Conference in 2019. Before the current crisis began, I had decided to write something about it for the Law School research blog. In this post, I will do that, but since this unexpected period of locked-down working has prompted more general reflections upon work and life, I will also offer some personal reflections on the project, and some of the more general thoughts about law, history and scholarship which are presenting themselves to me with some force at the moment.

I: The Article

Judging a Hereford hanging: Agnes Glover v. Walter Devereux, William Herbert and others (1457)[i] considered the events of a few days in the spring of 1456, when the English city of Hereford was taken over by a mixed Welsh and English force, led by notable men of south east Wales and Herefordshire. William Herbert and Walter Devereux, along with their kin and connections, the Vaughans. A member of the Vaughan family – Watkin Vaughan – had been killed in Hereford, slain with an arrow through the heart, as one record has it, and the Herbert-Devereux-Vaughan allies came to Hereford to seek justice or revenge for this outrage. They obliged local citizens to try and convict six Hereford men for the killing, then proceded to hang them. Legal action followed, as Agnes Glover, the widow of one of the hanged Hereford men attempted to prosecute the main offenders. The case went on for some legal terms, but, in the end, there was a spate of pardoning, and nobody was punished in accordance with the full rigour of the law.

Perhaps it may seem unremarkable that there would have been an episode of disorder at this point in time (as the ‘Wars of the Roses’ period geared up) or in this particular area (the English-Welsh border having a reputation for tension), and unsurprising that nothing much came of the widow’s attempts to bring to justice those who had caused the death of her husband (since so many medieval ‘criminal’ cases ended without conviction and punishment). Nevertheless, this incident and associated cases seemed to me to be worthy of further investigation, and discussion, partly because of the unusual nature of the available records, and partly because of some issues relating to ciminal law and ideas about law which were striking to a legal historian, but had been left out of political historians’ treatment of the Hereford incident.

 

i: The records

The documents in this case are much richer than those available in relation to many medieval offences. There are records from ‘the centre’ – the plea rolls and indictments which make a formal note of the (many) stages of legal proceedings. There are law reports in the ‘Year Books’. These were accounts of arguments in cases deemed to be of special interest, made and circulated by lawyers. Putting together report and record can really expand understanding of the proceedings, and it is always very satisfying to be able to match up the different sources. A great bonus in this case is that there is actually even more contemporary material besides these ‘legal’ sources. Most importantly, the incident and its aftermath have left a trail in Welsh poetry, and there is also a reference in an English source, the Paston Letters. Welsh poets of this, ‘the golden century of praise-poetry’ were predisposed to favour the Herberts and Vaughans, as powerful figures in Wales and the borderlands, and also important patrons of the Welsh bards. Perhaps not surprisingly, all things considered, the literary evidence proceeding from this school of poetry gives a positive spin on what might otherwise look like banditry. The relevant section in the English Paston Letters, on the other hand, shows considerable contempt for the Welsh, and ignorance of their language and customs.[ii]

 

From my own point of view, this was by some distance the best treasury of contemporary sources I have ever worked with in my legal historical investigations, and it was backed up by some very fine secondary scholarship. The work of Dylan Foster Evans and Helen Fulton on the relevant praise poetry, and on William Herbert, was essential.[iii] There was also the rewarding experience of working with an excellent thesis from the 1970s, on fifteenth century Hereford, which I had out on loan from Swansea University.[iv] Holding and reading that physical volume, typed on one side of the paper only and corrected with Tippex and painful care, and with a ‘borrowed by’ list at the front containing the signatures of several of the most prominent late-medievalists of the twentieth century, brought an unexpectedly vivid connection with more recent history, with things which have passed away in my own lifetime.

 

ii: Borders and centres

My research, particularly in integrating the law reports into the story, showed me that the common law struggled to fit cases like this – cases of wrongful execution following some sort of legal proceedings – into the available modes of prosecution. It seemed as if some sort of limit to the ordinary law of felonious homicide, centred around a simple ‘man 1 hits or stabs man 2, man 2 dies instantly’ paradigm, was being reached. The reports show lawyers grappling with whether this could really be treated just like any other killing, and whether someone like Agnes Glover should have a right to bring a criminal prosecution. In a criminal justice system which relied on private initiative for some prosecutions, and which had not wholly accepted that dealing with killers was the crown’s business alone, these questions could be troubling. Previous political historical treatment of the 1450s has tended to pass over this, its accounts of the weakness of central control emphasising local corruption and royal incompetence, but I argue that at least part of the problem was caused by the common law’s uncertainty and the flaws in its procedure.

 

In terms of geographical borders and centres, this research gave me much to consider in relation to the attitudes of different groups to the common law and its reach within the realm of the king of England. While the Herbert-Devereux-Vaughan faction were prepared to make some concession to co-operation with common law processes, their main strategy was forceful and extra-legal. It might be seen as inflected with a Welsh sensibility, given the particular emphasis placed upon the duty of kinsmen to respond to the death of one of their own which is to be found in native Welsh laws, but this distinction should probably not be taken too far: Cyfraith Hywel, the collected laws of the Welsh, did not favour forced show-trial and execution, and kin-vengeance was still part of the thinking behind some aspects of English common law procedure as well.

 

One of the additional perspectives which a legal historian can bring to this area comes from consciousness of the ‘time travelling dimension’of law reports, as they are handed on from one generation to the next, their arguments to be re-used and developed. When a case such as Agnes Glover’s appeal of Herbert and Devereux is made the subject of law reports, it takes on a life of its own, being cited in future legal works and cases, shedding what are considered unnecessary details and, in the process, changing in meaning. Within the common law tradition, the case soon dispensed with the need to name the claimant, and mangled some other names. It also cast off its geographical moorings, so that, in printed Year Books, it looks as if the location was Hertfordshire rather than Herefordshire. This may be a slip of just one letter, but it does demonstrate that the root of the dispute, in violence on the English-Welsh border, was not regarded as particularly crucial by the common lawyers in and around Westminster. Central control might not be terribly effective on the ground at this period, but it had a strong grip on the minds of the elite members of the legal profession.

 

 

II The Reflective Bit: the historical and the personal

In my early years as a lecturer and researcher, mentioning that my area of investigation held not only intellectual but personal fascination would have been unthinkable, so wedded was I to the idea of academic objectivity that any admission of emotional engagement with the subject of my research would have struck me as entirely unprofessional. I have learned since – from colleagues, from scholars I admire, from life – that detachment is not always the Holy Grail. Thus, I no longer have a problem with putting a few personal reflections ‘out there’ in this form (I did edit them from this for the Law School blog, mind you! Still some work to do …)

First of all, it’s worth explaining that I have particular reason to find all this interesting. The Herberts and their relations the Vaughans were based in what really is the ‘Land of My Fathers’. Places such as Abergavenny, Raglan and Tretower, which feature amongst the relevant locations of the raiders, are deeply familiar from childhood, and resonate from the parchment. The language of the poets resonates too, and presenting this paper to the British Legal History Conference was the first time I dared to recite a line or two of Welsh poetry in that decidedly Anglo-centric gathering. It felt a little like speaking the language of the Elven realm, if not in the land of Mordor (where the shadows lie), at least in the Shire. As J.R.R.T. had it in the 1950s, ‘Welsh is beautiful’.

The other thing I find extremely satisfying in projects like this is bringing to light the stories of women of the past. It was good to be able to bring Agnes Glover out into the open, and to show both her determination to try and do something about the loss she had suffered, and also what she was up against, in this attempt.

 

Concluding thoughts: moving on from Agnes, William, Walter and Watkin

As is so often the way, and despite the unusually full range of records relating to her case, Agnes Glover gives us the slip in the end, disappearing from the record as her litigation ground to a halt, and Herbert and Devereux, pardoned, lived to raid on other days. Watkin Vaughan was commemorated by praise poets and avenged with impunity.[v] It feels a little ungrateful, having got a couple of conference papers and an article (as well as some good teaching material for the undergraduate Legal History unit) out of these characters, to bid them farewell, now, but it is time to move on. I will, however, be expanding on two of the themes raised in this research in future projects, currently at an early stage, one on wrongful execution, and the other on insulting the Welsh, so Agnes, William, Walter and Watkin may be back for the odd cameo appearance.

Gwen Seabourne

May, 2020.

[i] Midland History 45:1 (2020) 2-17 https://www-tandfonline-com.bris.idm.oclc.org/doi/abs/10.1080/0047729X.2020.1712077

[ii] N. Davis (ed) Paston Letters and Papers of the Fifteenth Century vol. II (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1976), p. 172.

[iii] H. Fulton, ‘Guto’r Glyn and the Wars of the Roses’, in ‘Gwalch Cywyddau Gwŷr’ Ysgrifau ar Guto’r Glyn a Chymru’r bymthegfed ganrif; essays on Guto’r Glyn and Fifteenth-Century Wales, ed. D. Foster Evans, B.J. Lewis, A. Parry Owen (Aberystwyth, 2013), c.2; D. Foster Evans, ‘William Herbert of Raglan (d. 1469) family history and personal identity’, same volume, c. 4; D. Foster Evans, ‘Murder in the marches: poetry and the legitimisation of revenge in fifteenth century Wales’, Proceedings of the Harvard Celtic Colloquium 18/19 (1998-9), pp. 42-72.

[iv] A. E. Herbert, ‘Public Order and Private Violence in Herefordshire, 1413-61’, M.A. Thesis, University of Wales, Swansea 1978.

[v] Elegy to Watkin Vaughan of Bredwardine. Foster Evans, ‘William Herbert of Raglan’, p. 100; D. Foster Evans (ed.), Gwaith Hywel Swrdwal a’i Deulu (Aberystwyth 2000), poem 23

Positively (though mostly negatively) Dickensian

‘Dickensian’ came up a few times in my recent search for uses of ‘medieval’ in the reported pontifications in Parliament, and it seemed an interesting additional line to pursue. Hansard 2015-20 (online) tells me ‘Dickensian’ has cropped up 80 times in that period.

Some of the uses are rather clueless. It does appear that there are some MPs who think that ‘Dickensian’ is a label for a particular period of history. I suppose I see what they mean – vaguely 19th C -ish time – but it does look odd to see James Cleverly rather dimly spouting about the ‘Dickensian and Edwardian eras’.[i] Not just historically vague, and mismatched with the certainty of ‘Edwardian’, but also suggesting a lack of understanding of the fact that Dickens was predominantly a writer of fiction (whereas the Edwardian era was not a story made up by a bloke called Edward). We also see ‘Dickensian if not medieval’ – a particularly weird history/fiction from an entirely different period crossover.[ii]

Unsurprisingly, the general import of ‘Dickensian’ is negative. There is one possible exception, though the statement is somewhat confused: a ‘noble Lord’ suggests that people see ‘Dickensian’ Britain as something of a golden age (without immigrants),[iii] but this is unusual. Whenever there is talk of squalor, or contagious disease, then there is likely to be an outbreak of ‘Dickensians’. The standard scientific unit for disease, poverty and squalor may in fact be the ‘Dickensian’.[iv] ‘Pauper funerals’ seem to demand it too.[v] Calling poor employment conditions ‘Dickensian’ may have some justification (Scrooge, O. Twist, etc. etc.),[vi] but Dickensian’ is dragged in as a general intensifier of badness, even when the subject matter is not something with which Charles Dickens would have had particular sympathy. Not sure that Dickens is that into discussions of tax either, though it’s not that much of a stretch to imagine a storyline based on the ‘Bedroom tax’ and its effects.[vii] But, despite the frequent criticism of anti-trade union legislation as ‘Dickensian’, I am not sure that Dickens had a huge amount to say about trade unions (what am I forgetting?), but a.[viii] A rather selfish individual (see treatment of his wife) and one who sneered at efforts at solidarity (see Mrs Jellyby in Bleak House), I don’t see his sympathies lying with combinations of workers.

Slightly better-focused references, to complex administration – I presume we are thinking Circumlocution Office – pop up occasionally.[ix] See also what is perhaps a reference to Hard Times in relation to education,[x] and a decent point on management style, suggesting Scrooge (though let down by a rogue ‘feudal’ – clearly another one I need to look at).[xi] I was taken by a decently creative use of ‘Dickensian’ by David Lammy: in an attempt to get some of his fellow MPs to see that gangs and gang violence are not inevitably a ‘black issue’. Adopting the language they love is a smart move.[xii] White people can be rough too – Dickens show us. Bravo.

An interesting (in the sense of mask-off nasty compound-sneering) usage is seen in remarks responding to a ‘Dickensian’ gambit: a Tory MP, infuriated at the suggestion that something his government have done (the entirely modern mess of Universal Credit) is ‘Dickensian’ has a go at a Labour MP by mocking the sentimentality of A Christmas Carol.[xiii] Unwittingly ‘Dickensian’ (in the sense of a touch of the Pecksniffs) himself.

The ‘literary name-drop-pile-up’ is seen a few times: thus, for example we may be treated to ‘Orwellian’ meeting ‘Dickensian’.[xiv] There is a ‘Dickensian’/’Trollopian’ mash-up.[xv] I confess to a sneaking appreciation of one MP who really goes for it with the literary references, giving us not only ‘Dickensian’, but also ‘Kafka-esque’ and Catch-22.[xvi] If you are going to ‘culture-drop’, go big, and show that you realise it’s all a bit showy-off and public school debate-ish. Alternatively, of course, just speak straightforwardly and truthfully. I know, that’s never going to happen.

(Tension mounts – future episodes may include: which literary male is most frequently ‘dropped’, what use is made of ‘feudal’, ‘Biblical’ and ‘the size of Wales’? More anon – ooh, a bit Shakespearean there!)

[i] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2018-12-17/debates/D0E9ED66-2066-44BB-B6B0-7628A2E9E449/GoodWorkPlan?highlight=dickensian#contribution-28766783-8A1E-4467-90A2-03E350C48441

[ii] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2016-01-14/debates/16011449000002/HouseOfLordsReform?highlight=dickensian#contribution-16011449000677

[iii] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/2018-10-17/debates/FC5A8FC0-FAFF-435B-B9E5-C5DBFB16465D/ReligiousIntoleranceAndPrejudice?highlight=dickensian#contribution-904B4097-C6AC-4F06-9BDD-DB31FE4B66F8

[iv] E.g. https://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/2019-01-14/debates/EBD47DC9-CAFB-427A-AADE-7CD67E1DB8D9/YemenHumanitarianSituation?highlight=dickensian#contribution-5BB0ED65-A300-4971-BFF9-76F03287AE2C

https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2019-04-10/debates/19041016000003/ContinuousAt-SeaDeterrent?highlight=dickensian#contribution-CCAEC164-7857-4E1C-B9A7-F396AC0737C5

https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2016-09-15/debates/3D4D414C-7E80-4222-9DE3-31615532CD80/PrisonSafety?highlight=dickensian#contribution-B474E0FB-3417-465E-8DE8-BCA8CA62368C https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2016-04-21/debates/16042141000002/BusinessOfTheHouse?highlight=dickensian#contribution-C1B918DC-2DCF-4A6A-961E-18386CD011BA

https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2017-11-07/debates/3FBF9645-734A-48AF-86EE-0F09A47D03C7/TemporaryAccommodation?highlight=dickensian#contribution-64916FB4-1724-4F0D-8BFB-F19A8A0B56E4

[v] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2018-09-11/debates/644EB32A-5741-48B2-A28B-68FA2C5D6EC5/FuneralPoverty?highlight=dickensian#contribution-7DF6D059-8E92-4F59-A249-DCE9A91319CC

https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2018-06-21/debates/18DD50EC-B5D7-41F9-9FCF-BF7C6A94768F/BusinessOfTheHouse?highlight=dickensian#contribution-DCBF0694-3D37-4A47-BD63-CCACA9DFF721

https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2020-02-06/debates/7694FE73-1384-4F37-9812-62BE8D65D895/HistoricalStillbirthBurialsAndCremations?highlight=dickensian#contribution-7A14284C-EA7D-4869-B7A9-B2D73CBC49B5

[vi] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2017-12-12/debates/9B8AB291-FC6B-4C48-A097-C9A25EE41E44/TaylorReview?highlight=dickensian#contribution-19E47D49-616E-4051-9C11-FF17DE7442E7

[vii] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2016-01-28/debates/16012841000005/Under-OccupancyPenalty?highlight=dickensian#contribution-16012841000231

[viii] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2017-03-27/debates/27E8F769-8E57-4B7F-B493-001D24269901/LeavingTheEUDepartmentalPolicyImplications?highlight=dickensian#contribution-62BF1831-4E0C-4368-8E3F-CDDB97B8D065

https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2018-12-17/debates/D0E9ED66-2066-44BB-B6B0-7628A2E9E449/GoodWorkPlan?highlight=dickensian#contribution-28766783-8A1E-4467-90A2-03E350C48441

https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2015-11-03/debates/15110340000001/EuropeanUnion(Approvals)Bill(Lords)?highlight=dickensian#contribution-15110340000445

[ix] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/2016-05-24/debates/70FA7068-7132-4745-A9BE-49CD482EF12E/Queen’SSpeech?highlight=dickensian#contribution-35650370-73D3-4DDD-B0E0-0A0857BB4F3F

[x] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2016-05-19/debates/16051956000003/Term-TimeHolidays?highlight=dickensian#contribution-33D65CCC-EEA7-4AE3-94C5-72B930C30230

[xi] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2015-06-29/debates/1506308000001/PostOfficeHorizonSystem?highlight=dickensian#contribution-1506308000027

[xii] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2016-03-03/debates/16030337000001/GangsAndSeriousYouthViolence?highlight=dickensian#contribution-16030337000430

[xiii] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2017-12-05/debates/07B953FE-5E97-46E4-9A2C-68F4FC91D739/UniversalCreditProjectAssessmentReviews?highlight=dickensian#contribution-1E679AF9-B4A8-4B6C-BD9D-62FCFC955EBB

[xiv] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2017-01-17/debates/B8EEB96C-261A-4773-9F97-77AE7911065C/DWPPoliciesAndLow-IncomeHouseholds?highlight=dickensian#contribution-DB8C9E5A-8355-4DC8-A76F-CD74490ED99F https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2016-11-07/debates/605BEFA9-1A9E-443E-A746-BBCC40758D18/ExitingTheEUAndWorkers’Rights?highlight=dickensian#contribution-AB0F0674-F531-4B93-A338-D27EA71CFA05

[xv] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/2018-06-13/debates/4EF34E37-A02F-4B14-A573-AFA057E78CBC/ClientMoneyProtectionSchemesForPropertyAgents(ApprovalAndDesignationOfSchemes)Regulations2018?highlight=dickensian#contribution-7D2C0AFA-FDD0-4E93-B928-A22C64F7CDA7

[xvi] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2017-11-01/debates/C28AD6D6-F6A7-40AB-A94D-AE8701FB31E1/StMaryMagdaleneAndHolyJesusTrustLeasehold?highlight=dickensian#contribution-B8C58548-C571-4668-AC95-B7D84F298F08

Measly Members? Horrible Medieval History in the Houses of Parliament

Our elected representatives (and unelected hangovers in the House of Lords) swan around on a site with huge medieval resonance. From time to time, MPs like to refer to the medieval buildings and heritage of their constituencies, or try and use medieval precedent to do something positive to improve parliamentary procedure.[1] Sometimes, they make a good medieval reference – my heart was warmed to see mention of what medieval churches were actually like,[2] of petty treason,[3] and even weights and measures regulation.[4] More often, they simplify and sanitise medieval events and institutions in a banal and feeble way – I am looking at you Rishi Sunak, with your blether about how great medieval apprenticeships were,[5] and many others fan-boying Magna Carta.[6] More than one, of course, trots out the old ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin’ debate, both to show off a dangerously little amount of knowledge, and also to belittle the amazing medieval scholars who would actually WIPE THE FLOOR with many of our governing classes.[7] There are worse things though, and this post will muse upon a few of the many references to the ‘medieval’ which are highly negative and also highly questionable, based on Hansard between 2015 and 2020 (all available online, and as this is a blog post, not a formal article, I am just going to copy the links rather than going for full dress footnotes). This is only partly the grumbling of a medievalist who feels that people should make more of an effort to get things right: I also think that there is a real danger in the tendency to reach for the adjective ‘medieval’ to describe all that is bad and brutal, clumsy and just … other.

At the irritating end of the spectrum, we see these types of dimwittery:

Mis-periodisation

Made that word up. What I mean here is the mistaken labelling as ‘medieval’ of things which occurred at a definite later date. Obviously, there is room for disagreement about the years which should be called ‘medieval’, but conventionally, in England and Wales, they end with the fifteenth century. Henry VII probably sneaks in as the last medieval-ish monarch, but with Henry VIII very few people would deny that we have crossed the boundary into ‘early modern’. So calling the Council of Trent (1545-63) ‘medieval’ would seem to be wrong, as would calling the events of ‘a couple hundred years ago’ ‘medieval’.[8] See also pirates going after Spanish galleons – characteristically early modern.[9] We don’t hear about ‘early modern brutality’ though, do we – even if we should. Torturing Guy Fawkes, anyone? Beheading queens? Capital punishment for hundreds of different offences? Not medieval.

Scape-period-goating

A real word, honestly. This one is the sin of taking something which was arguably a feature of the medieval period, though it could equally be attributed to other periods, and labelling it ‘medieval’, as if that was the only time it happened. A testimony to the snowballing effect of regular precipitation of negative ideas on the idea of the medieval. (Pretentious and wrenching metaphors in the same sentence – good effort). See, for example, ‘medieval’ references with regard to poor treatment of women and sexual minorities.[10] There is a good case for saying that some things at least got worse for these groups after the medieval period. Rape law was not favourable to women in the medieval period, but nor was it greatly altered for centuries thereafter.[11] Likewise, there is a tendency to pick out medieval medicine and science as proverbially backward, though it is not clear that there was a huge improvement in many areas in the early modern period, or thereafter. The description of cholera as ‘medieval’ rather ignores the huge outbreaks in the UK in the nineteenth centuries, and many avoidable outbreaks thereafter.[12] Were squalor, hunger, inequality or cruelty to animals over by 1500? That would seem to be the implication of the references to ‘medieval conditions’, ‘medieval famine’ and the medieval nature of badger-culling, cruelty to dogs and cock-fighting.[13] The idea that the medieval period was less democratic than the sixteenth century is also not obviously correct – both had such a small ‘community of the realm’ that they were outstandingly undemocratic, if democracy is understood in any modern sense, and, as far as women are concerned, no change until 1918.[14] Women’s different experience, of course, is never central to these sloppy grabs at history.

General confusion and random ‘medieval’ references

There is some odd talk about the Declaration of Arbroath – it is the ‘oldest medieval text’ (it’s certainly very important, but, unless there has been a secret re-designation of ‘the medieval period’ as beginning the day before its sealing in 1320, not remotely the oldest medieval text).[15] The idea of the immigration detention system as medieval seems odd: it is far more modern, and much was founded in living memory – we can’t ‘historically distance’ ourselves from that one.[16] The idea of a limit on family size is equally peculiarly designated medieval.[17]

There are also some episodes of random period-dropping – such as that of Robert Jenrick, who can remember three periods, medieval, Georgian and Victorian (are these, perchance, the periods of the various residences he just had to visit during the lockdown period?)[18]*, and by God he is going to throw them in, despite the fact that they are, erm, sufficiently separated in time to make no sense as a group.[19] Another pick and mix-up comes from Pete Wishart, talking about the medieval graves of Stuarts, Plantagenets and … Roundheads.[20] See also the pseudo-historical meets literary mash-up of a portrayal of Parliamentary procedure as somewhat Dickensian and reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland, as well as possibly medieval.[21]

 

Then there are the more serious misuses

‘Medieval’ politics

There is a tendency to describe government action which seems to be unaccountable, or over-reaching powers, as being like that of a medieval monarch.[22] Essentially, what is going on here is a misattribution to the medieval period of later theories of divine right kingship. There were certainly checks and balances on medieval monarchy – just ask Edward II or Richard II.

 

Brutality

There is a general sense – made respectable to many by progress narratives such as that of Pinker – that the medieval period was one of a different order of violence and brutality to other, later ages. Medievalists themselves do not tend to support this view. There are obvious contenders for greater bloodshed – the Thirty Years War, WWI, … and more recent contenders for genocidal and religiously motivated violence. Locating brutality in the medieval period, however, pushes it away to a comforting distance. They were not really like us, after all; they were not really us.

To add a twist, the context in which we tend to see this ‘medieval brutality’ idea is in connection with Islam and the present other. It is almost obligatory to describe violence by ISIS, the Saudis or Iran as ‘medieval’. Clearly, there is much to disapprove and oppose, but what is added by calling it ‘medieval’?[23] There are lots of questions about this – whose ‘medieval’ is meant? Is the comparison with medieval Europe or with the medieval period in the Islamic world? If the latter, how does that work, when a strong tendency of historical study of the medieval Islamic world emphasises its advanced learning, culture, and capacity for tolerance? In one particularly muddle-headed statement, ISIS are likened to ‘medieval religious crusaders’.[24] Crusaders? Really? So much going on there.

It is Interesting to note that the only other regimes I saw labelled ‘medieval’ in their brutal behaviour were China and Myanmar – not Islamic – in fact acting against Muslim minorities – but certainly foreign (not even European!).[25] Very bad but very not-medieval, on either their own terms, or in terms of medieval western Europe.

 

Make ‘History’ History

It is interesting what can be turned up in an hour, with access to a search engine. Without even getting into some obvious additional terms – ‘feudal’, ‘vassal’ or the dreaded ‘Dark Ages’, it is pretty clear that there is some serious abuse of the term ‘medieval’ going on in Parliament. I wish they would stop, and give up the attempts at rhetorical flourish using stupid stereotypes and misinformation about people of the past. Not only do they make our representatives look foolish, and insult scholarship, but they also serve more pernicious purposes, allowing us all to perform ‘historical distancing’, and slough off the guilt of our own times, and the many horrendous things we might have done more to stop.

Wouldn’t it be good if this nonsense could be jettisoned along with the ludicrous ‘This Place’ and ‘The honourable member..’ claptrap. Oh, and the House of Lords. Unlikely, I know – in fact there is probably a whole heap of ill-informed Black Death meets Covid-19 connections ‘oven-ready’ for the next session of Parliament.

[1] See, e.g., https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2018-02-01/debates/7D778066-4A6F-4128-BDA8-69014CEA42C2/BabyLeaveForMembersOfParliament?highlight=medieval#contribution-59D8EA68-A8A0-4AAC-84CA-A7CD6F7391E7

[2] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/2015-07-16/debates/15071641000125/RuralCommunities?highlight=medieval#contribution-15071641000056

[3] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2017-03-02/debates/42672B78-03C7-44B0-9C5C-7582EDEFECDF/InternationalWomen’SDay?highlight=medieval#contribution-08BDD217-E060-4B09-8412-4F313361E9A1

[4] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/2017-07-13/debates/C9D8A1B9-A494-4E16-A147-D501D3AD3B48/DeregulationPublicServicesAndHealthAndSafety?highlight=medieval#contribution-B7400880-9CA0-4738-8561-FAD2487E31D3

[5] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2016-03-10/debates/16031040000004/Apprenticeships?highlight=medieval#contribution-97B47CFE-07F1-436C-9A15-313C249734CC

[6] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2015-05-28/debates/15052828000003/HomeAffairsAndJustice?highlight=medieval#contribution-15052828000637

[7] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2016-10-18/debates/c1c95763-8239-42db-bb86-44135e63fe62/HigherEducationAndResearchBill(FourteenthSitting)?highlight=medieval#contribution-C7B96EB6-9012-45CC-81FD-B5DA55D5BD14

[8] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/2019-07-01/debates/41580300-A9FE-4FAB-9CCE-16FC196E38AD/Inflation?highlight=medieval#contribution-8304E9F2-116E-436E-A0C8-8245785DEF68 16th C as medieval https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2017-03-20/debates/2E21C4BD-BC87-4E2B-9E3D-2844214108F6/AdvisoryCommitteeOnBusinessAppointmentsMinisterialCode?highlight=medieval#contribution-796386D8-9CF2-4D21-83B1-6D4DEAB33529

https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2018-01-25/debates/00389B37-64AA-4AC8-BBBB-BE6B98F9C5C1/JointEnterprise?highlight=medieval#contribution-F8009194-8223-44A4-A302-41902ABDECB9

[9] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2019-02-27/debates/9C80605C-FF04-45EE-B587-70457FA80814/FutureOfDFID?highlight=medieval#contribution-BB135479-D36A-4834-AA5B-2765DF8F1EC7

[10] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2020-03-12/debates/777B5A80-B736-40A2-8EF4-9ACD218F37FB/BusinessOfTheHouse?highlight=medieval#contribution-72B71126-57AF-4724-8B68-261F44188925

https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2019-05-16/debates/51A214EF-5D07-4B0C-9DDD-AD460436B1D6/InternationalDayAgainstHomophobiaBiphobiaAndTransphobia?highlight=medieval#contribution-07B6DECB-665D-4AEF-A5F4-FF87D4368224

[11] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2017-03-15/debates/4A88339E-0EE2-445A-BA4C-EF51ACAC7F17/PointOfOrder?highlight=medieval#contribution-B18D88F0-74B1-485C-9EF8-5229DDC96442 https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2016-12-14/debates/3CBE0975-23DD-486C-8244-ADBFF23CBF02/EqualityAutumnStatement?highlight=medieval#contribution-4054FCB8-806E-4BCF-9F6C-21956DC932C9 https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2017-01-25/debates/0D1725C7-23E3-4968-986B-CE07B013D361/PointsOfOrder?highlight=medieval#contribution-41E4D168-4802-4229-841D-8C589145DC72

[12] See, e.g., (on disease) https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2019-05-23/debates/FAA76D92-33F3-45AA-A835-6D38C8F60A32/YemenPeaceProcess?highlight=medieval#contribution-88CC8497-D97D-45E8-B28A-D9EBCC315518 https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2017-11-30/debates/1C24E14B-85C7-4C5C-9013-091AC89936F1/Yemen?highlight=medieval#contribution-D1974D34-89FA-4887-8663-CE70B12281B9 https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2017-11-30/debates/1C24E14B-85C7-4C5C-9013-091AC89936F1/Yemen?highlight=medieval#contribution-A52672BB-60D3-4DD5-8B80-9BEE69EEB588 ;

On treatment of those with mental health issues or learning disabilities: https://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/2019-11-05/debates/9627E94E-0754-4959-85F0- 5E35A4B2971A/MentalDisorderAutismAndLearningDisabilities?highlight=medieval#contribution-792EDDFC-2316-4CCB-A74D-207F3BD68356 https://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/2019-06-06/debates/82EC353D-FB47-456F-BFC2-528618277852/PeopleWithLearningDisabilities?highlight=medieval#contribution-CBEB34FF-6EDB-4248-B0DB-03411D221E84

On science https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2016-12-19/debates/292C9A19-9A13-482A-961B-F893AEE899E9/ExitingTheEUScienceAndResearch?highlight=medieval#contribution-A1DB9719-D106-4FE3-940E-57A403EE08E0

[13] Squalour: https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2017-10-12/debates/A20CF46E-116A-47B2-BA33-11CAA47B3FC0/UNConventionOnTheRightsOfPersonsWithDisabilities?highlight=medieval#contribution-504D426E-A94E-41B9-82C4-2CB7680BA06C

https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2017-10-24/debates/C9F5648A-5F04-4F47-AE17-D5D5B1085654/RaqqaAndDaesh?highlight=medieval#contribution-07E754D5-DE56-4488-BDE1-FF775ACF9C8B

https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2017-12-07/debates/7CB43379-F694-4496-8DC0-D4BC13C94371/PrisonReformAndSafety?highlight=medieval#contribution-2C4B247B-1C97-487E-9A9D-22C0DF9F1690

https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2019-04-09/debates/2AB40199-E9A5-4EFC-801B-897178356A91/Housing?highlight=medieval#contribution-97FEBFA0-EFF9-4FF0-8F2F-F49770B2F7A0

Hunger: https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2019-06-18/debates/5C4FC6AD-EC73-4BC7-8943-C61E25BF332B/InternationalHumanitarianLawProtectingCiviliansInConflict?highlight=medieval#contribution-04BDC428-1564-4F37-811A-141F446D57F7

Inequality https://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/2015-11-19/debates/15111930000820/TradeUnions?highlight=medieval#contribution-15111930000255

Cruelty to animals: https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2019-07-23/debates/0d31dfe7-20d9-41b9-8c8f-704ba942fb06/AnimalWelfare(Sentencing)Bill(SecondSitting)?highlight=medieval#contribution-36F9E2EE-D6EB-4100-9FC8-539494913CA7 https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2016-09-07/debates/98FFCE19-439C-4F5D-A274-ADFCB7795217/BadgerCullingBovineTB?highlight=medieval#contribution-0138A27F-7BFC-4F4E-B034-0B9A23228C69

https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2017-07-05/debates/9FCB904C-19D6-4FD7-82F6-15AFDBC8AC73/YemenPoliticalAndHumanitarianSituation?highlight=medieval#contribution-3C66BD3A-BD79-43AB-AA20-E7AB47C60E4C

[14] Medieval and undemocratic https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2016-04-13/debates/16041336000001/TaxAvoidanceAndEvasion?highlight=medieval#contribution-B81DEFB9-D387-4DC0-A2A8-98E7C68EE556

[15] See https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2018-10-25/debates/B6DDA10A-5B99-494F-81D6-395DB298CB73/InternationalFreedomOfReligionOrBeliefDay?highlight=medieval#contribution-7FFAEDB2-3C7C-471B-9E24-822F800E2E79 https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2019-02-20/debates/993F895E-D215-4773-A464-1A6320523B0E/AntisemitismInModernSociety?highlight=medieval#contribution-9B5EBA88-ED54-4E93-922F-6C5DAFB72CDC

[16] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/2015-12-22/debates/15122250000363/ImmigrationBill?highlight=medieval#contribution-15122253000022

[17] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2018-02-05/debates/0AFDB64F-5B9D-4710-9853-2B945896D79F/SocialSecurity?highlight=medieval#contribution-36B9BC63-919A-4B50-9EC3-E655A507A019

[18] https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/politics/cabinet-minister-robert-jenrick-breaks-21844275

[19] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2016-10-17/debates/6F19E4B9-7D75-437C-ACD3-6215D5D0D3DB/Savings(GovernmentContributions)Bill?highlight=medieval#contribution-4B249659-2107-4BEA-9A10-D2379777AD3B

[20] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2019-07-24/debates/6B8555D9-C899-4EA7-A843-A0C9DADB654F/KewGardens(Leases)(No3)Bill(Lords)?highlight=medieval#contribution-361D9E99-1A13-412A-8DE5-7F4BD7F7F7B3

[21] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2016-01-14/debates/16011449000002/HouseOfLordsReform?highlight=medieval#contribution-16011449000677

[22] See, e.g., https://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/2016-06-27/debates/8CB4EC8E-411F-4045-92E4-446F13516817/OutcomeOfTheEUReferendum?highlight=medieval#contribution-CBF4D322-B20C-4C10-ADE0-AD891A28F8AC https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2016-04-13/debates/16041336000001/TaxAvoidanceAndEvasion?highlight=medieval#contribution-28FEA400-200F-4182-984A-4DBD7430AF3B https://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/2016-03-10/debates/FD21A151-46BF-4A03-911E-37994CF73EAF/BBCCharter?highlight=medieval#contribution-DB00D49A-0C51-4EF6-BA9E-3AB296E3048C https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2016-10-19/debates/CA0685E2-6A97-43EE-8524-94C27A53AB25/HouseOfLordsReformAndSizeOfTheHouseOfCommons?highlight=medieval#contribution-34A75F18-1C6F-49DD-80AF-11254F40E1B8

[23] See, e.g. https://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/2015-06-10/debates/15061061000109/Charities(ProtectionAndSocialInvestment)Bill(HL)?highlight=medieval#contribution-15061073000009 https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2019-02-18/debates/69E286BB-03A2-4467-AB65-B3059436CD53/UKNationalsReturningFromSyria?highlight=medieval#contribution-7B804965-408E-4982-B521-A7A931CA1DD4 https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2016-12-20/debates/FF51202E-34FA-48C7-B002-28DB6AF473AA/ChristmasAdjournment?highlight=medieval#contribution-842395D3-D9ED-49EB-ADC2-60A8CEB8B31A ‘medieval monsters’ https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2015-12-02/debates/15120254000002/ISILInSyria?highlight=medieval#contribution-15120254000141

Saudi Arabian punishment: https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2015-07-21/debates/15072129000001/HumanRights(SaudiArabia)?highlight=medieval#contribution-15072129000011 Saudi Islam https://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/2016-10-13/debates/E8C50118-7D12-483C-9DA3-CA0D48BA2AC2/Yemen?highlight=medieval#contribution-3DD47A5E-AF9B-47B7-A06C-29DFDE0FB6D7

Iran v Saudi Arabia: a ‘medieval-off’: https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2016-10-12/debates/E2AD1EFE-3C20-4387-967C-D7F976530F05/Britain-IranRelations?highlight=medieval#contribution-F12256FA-2B29-4BC2-898F-86D6AA293174

[24] Isis as medieval religious crusaders https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2015-11-30/debates/1511303000001/MiddleEast?highlight=medieval#contribution-1511303000338

[25] brutality https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2017-10-17/debates/85ADE193-5E40-4798-B15F-F916C81CD87D/TheRohingyaAndTheMyanmarGovernment?highlight=medieval#contribution-679DB413-861C-4F22-A461-48A13DD7B05B

Medieval behaviour https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2019-01-22/debates/F7CFB3DD-5089-44EB-8EB2-E291EA9BC8C9/TopicalQuestions?highlight=medieval#contribution-68576A47-A567-47C2-8955-3773043828C9

‘Medieval’ watch: a Mirror of Injustices?

Time for a new ‘-watch’, I think. Not exactly a new peeve, but, like many of those who spend a lot of time trying to get to grips with the world of c.500-1500, I do tend to recoil at the frequent, lazy, and inaccurate descriptions of things regarded as brutal or primitive as ‘medieval’ (possibly also throwing in the ‘Dark Ages’, to compound the sloppiness). Today’s description in the Mirror, of Chinese ‘wet markets’ as ‘medieval’ ( https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/turtles-butchered-alive-medieval-wet-22037914 ) has prompted a bit of an investigation of how the modern press is (mis)using ‘medieval’. When I say investigation, I mean search on the website of the Daily Mirror, having persuaded the search engine that I do indeed want to look up ‘medieval’ and not ‘Meghan’ or ‘Megxit’. Still, it’s a start.

It seems to me that there are two main categories of misuse:

First, we have the straightforward type 1 ‘detached slur’ instances – in which ‘medieval’ is thrown in, as a synonym for all that can be thought of as backward. The ‘wet markets’ example is a classic type 1 case. While it is true that butchering practices in medieval England were not concerned with animal welfare, and were seen as a matter in need of regulation to avoid nuisance to cities, it is the scale of modern animal-exploitation which is the most dangerous thing in terms of disease-promotion. Were people to go back to medieval levels of meat-consumption, we would be likely to see a fall in many problems, including disease. I am a vegetarian, and would be glad to see an end to all sorts of animal slaughter, but focusing on ‘foreign’ practices, and labelling them ‘medieval’ feels very wrong. There is more than a touch of racism in it, as well as its inaccuracy from a historical point of view.

Then there are the type 2 cases in which there is a bit more of a chain of connection – the comparison is with a particular (supposed) aspect of medieval life, though either the connection is questionable, or the aspect of medieval life is represented inaccurately. A case of this type from the Mirror was their description of a deadly ‘duel’, allegedly set up to decide which of two potential love-interests would acquire a woman, as ‘medieval’: https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/divorced-mum-arranged-medieval-fight-21034911 ; https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/mum-who-arranged-fatal-medieval-21249149 Yes, there was such a thing as the judicial duel in medieval England, but, in the age of recorded legal history, it was not frequent, not necessarily deadly, and certainly not employed to decide between suitors. Had the paper wished to risk going a little closer to actual history, it might have thought about later duelling culture, from the early modern period. (You don’t often see contemporary behaviour described as ‘early modern’, do you?) Also worth noting that the facts here were about ‘foreigners’ as well: those involved were originally from Lithuania. In slight mitigation of the the paper’s offence, we might note that the ‘medieval duel’ idea seems to have originated with one of the trial lawyers. Presumably not one with good training in legal history.

Perhaps there is a third type, the ‘innuendo by juxtaposition’: a report of contemporary violence, in a situation which is portrayed as having a medieval connection, thus reflecting back on the medieval period an idea of violence. Such a ‘type 3: juxtaposition’ case can be seen in https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/pancake-day-medieval-football-match-14093383 – an event dating from ‘medieval times’ (unexplored) resulted, in the present day, in violence. Readers are, arguably, being encouraged to conclude that there is something ‘medieval’ about the violence.

So, there is a lot of rubbish being spouted about the ‘medieval’. It is worth, finally, thinking about why I dislike it so much. Partly it is discomfort at unashamed ignorance: when there is such wonderful scholarship on the medieval world going on throughout the world. A larger part, however, is high dudgeon (not dungeon) at the contemptuous dismissal of people as human as ourselves as blundering, brutal idiots, and the concomitant self-congratulatory implication that we are doing so much better. Not so sure about that.

To be continued …

GS 17/5/2020

Ctd: Unsystematic ‘feudalism’ – use of ‘feudal’ by Parliamentarians

I was a little surprised to see that ‘feudal’ scored a mere 27 mentions in the 2015-20 debates.

The biggest cluster of references came in debates around leasehold reform in England and Wales.[i] Using ‘feudal’ here is intended to suggest that landlords are abusive, in the manner of medieval lords. There are two problems, though. First, leases are not feudal arrangements – check your Baker, Introduction to Legal History. Secondly, we have the ‘historical distancing’ thing again: the abuses perpetrated by modern landlords are a feature of capitalism, not feudalism. Calling them feudal lets capitalism off the hook. Using ‘feudal’ in discussing an unequal employment relationship falls into the same difficulty: abuses and power differentials are deeply embedded in relationships in the market economy, and throwing the f-word around distracts from that.[ii]

It comes up a bit in some of the same contexts as ‘medieval’, especially in lazy attempts to jazz up an argument that the government is behaving in an absolutist way.[iii] Look it up, people – autocracy and divine right kingship are not the same as ‘feudal’ monarchy.Sometimes, greater accuracy breaks out, e.g. unless you are a hardline medievalist who will not countenance any reference to the ‘feudal’, you are probably OK with Keir Starmer’s distinction between historical royal roles as sovereign and feudal lord.[iv]

On the whole, a poor haul. (Mind you, I have seen a few ‘feudal’ references recently in the press coverage of the Dominic Cummings ‘essential 250 mile trip during Lockdown’ episode – those terrible envious socialists suggesting that dear Dom was behaving somewhat unaccountably in crossing the country during a time of pandemic isolation – so we may see a bit of a resurgence …)

GS 23/5/2020

Ctd.: Magna Carta

Magna Carta

Since 2015 was a big anniversary, I would expect some MC-drivel in this section of Hansard. Mostly rather ‘samey’ though. There are predictably lazy suggestions that Magna Carta involved barons insisting on the ‘rule of law’ as if what they were after was remotely like the modern concept that goes by that name, as opposed to ‘their privileges’.[i] Some have had the intelligence to distinguish the charter and its myths.[ii] MC is ‘signed’ quite frequently (rather than sealed), but that is a relatively minor inaccuracy.[iii] It is a worse error to get its date wrong,[iv] or to identify the MC barons with the House of Lords.[v]

There are some generous/far-fetched interpretations of the narrow and self-interested chapters of MC as founding general ‘democratic’ rights. Thus, it seems a bit questionable that c.12 on scutage and aid can be scaled up to ‘no taxation without representation’,[vi] or that c.41 really supported a modern idea of free trade.[vii] Beyond exaggeration and straightforwardly wrong, however, is David Lidington’s statement that Magna Carta ‘mentions the importance of maintaining fish weirs in the river Thames’ – oh dear, cl. 33 is all about getting rid of these from rivers![viii] Obviously well qualified to be Lord Chancellor (later), with that impressive attention to legal detail.

GS 25/5/2020

[i] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/2019-03-11/debates/48DA63DB-B1E1-4427-AAEA-4197441184D9/FurtherDevelopmentsInDiscussionsWithTheEuropeanUnionUnderArticle50OfTheTreatyOnEuropeanUnion?highlight=runnymede#contribution-1453B54D-84C2-4211-A0A1-F3AA8EB99106

 

[ii] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2015-05-28/debates/15052828000003/HomeAffairsAndJustice?highlight=magna%20carta#contribution-15052828000532 https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2015-06-30/debates/15063035000001/HumanRightsAct?highlight=magna%20carta#contribution-15063035000045

[iii] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2015-06-03/debates/15060324000002/DevolutionAndGrowthAcrossBritain?highlight=magna%20carta#contribution-15060324000528

[iv] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/2018-02-26/debates/6C8A5D63-CA0F-4393-B028-B914B7F4F495/EuropeanUnion(Withdrawal)Bill?highlight=magna%20carta#contribution-950B417D-90BB-4EA4-9D96-58C37B42D404

[v] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/2018-02-26/debates/6C8A5D63-CA0F-4393-B028-B914B7F4F495/EuropeanUnion(Withdrawal)Bill?highlight=magna%20carta#contribution-950B417D-90BB-4EA4-9D96-58C37B42D404

[vi] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/2019-10-21/debates/56AF9C6F-59F6-4F48-9A7D-C03AEEEF7EB7/Queen’SSpeech?highlight=magna%20carta#contribution-B11431F5-6429-4A48-8789-E429E2BA0341

[vii] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2019-02-28/debates/43B3BCE8-E19A-47EC-AAA6-588F13697380/TopicalQuestions?highlight=magna%20carta#contribution-5EA86517-2B1D-475B-9440-95621BBD84BA

[viii] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2017-03-23/debates/21613DF3-90F7-4CE7-B62E-D23583C8366E/BusinessOfTheHouse?highlight=magna%20carta#contribution-7BCCF3C7-041E-486C-9B6B-7CE17D4211B5 http://magnacarta.cmp.uea.ac.uk/read/magna_carta_1215/Clause_33

[i] See, e.g. https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2018-04-30/debates/74C70C7C-8A72-4710-996D-6B266212735C/TopicalQuestions?highlight=feudal#contribution-5818858B-2BB8-471B-809B-8F89DDB35F9F

https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2019-10-23/debates/D3DCA636-3FA8-41A2-9EDB-E32E12970166/Engagements?highlight=feudal#contribution-EB7A7995-E0F5-43A4-817A-2D51C95D1EFF

https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2020-01-13/debates/FCF3122B-CF68-4785-9095-BA0F274C79B4/LeaseholdProperty?highlight=feudal#contribution-EE1CAEC9-0F76-4E54-AF4D-532B5C3355BC

[ii] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2015-06-29/debates/1506308000001/PostOfficeHorizonSystem?highlight=feudal#contribution-1506308000027

[iii] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2017-09-11/debates/B10868CD-F096-47A2-84EE-A902C8A271BE/EuropeanUnion(Withdrawal)Bill?highlight=feudal#contribution-259D7E72-2BBB-4F75-9D89-CB7C8B2E9CF4

[iv] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2016-10-12/debates/F327EC64-3777-4D40-A98D-BEC2E11763A2/ParliamentaryScrutinyOfLeavingTheEU?highlight=feudal#contribution-29ED1899-E810-4057-A369-AE3941958732

Top Ten Gwens: an entirely trivial list

Named after my grandmother, and as an embodiment of Welsh heritage, I have always been proud of my name (it’s the sort of bone-headed pride which comes despite not having a hand in the choosing of it). Today, this splendid name seems to be in something of a decline – even on the lists of Welsh baby names (it’s all about Seren, apparently). So here, to assist in the Gwenaissance, is a list of fabulous Gwens of past, present and the fictitious imagination…

  1. Gwen Cooper (Torchwood) https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cYxWY1r7BiM (she’s not English, you know)
  2. Gwenllian ferch Gruffudd https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gwenllian_ferch_Gruffydd (definite Xena, Warrior Princess vibe) See this rousing trailer: https://twitter.com/BBCWales/status/1264605832081072136 – I’m not the only one who thought Xena.
  3. Gwenllian ferch Llywelyn (tragic stolen medieval baby princess, but has her own society) http://www.princessgwenllian.co.uk/
  4. Gwen John (artist) https://biography.wales/article/s3-JOHN-MAR-1876 (talented, slightly scandalous).
  5. Gwen Guthrie https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gwen_Guthrie (nothing going on but the rent: first non-British Gwen I ever came across: international Gwen-solidarity)
  6. Gwen(ffrewi) St Winifred – she of the bouncing head, decapitation/stiched back on miracle: well, well … https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Saint_Winifred https://www.stwinefrideswell.org.uk/
  7. Gwen(doline) Mary Lacy, from Malory Towers. Misunderstood and misrepresented by her goody two-shoes over-privileged boarding school nemesis, Darrell Rivers. Quite right not to like lacrosse.
  8. Gwen from the film Gwen (a bit scary, but nice big GWEN on the poster – good for Gwen-awareness… https://www.empireonline.com/movies/news/exclusive-new-trailer-and-poster-for-dark-drama-gwen/ )
  9. Gwen Stefani (what is she up to? Deserves her place for barking brilliance of Rich Girl)
  10. Gwen Torrence (official fastest Gwen in the Gwenlympics https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Gwen_Torrence )

Go Gwens!

GS

16/5/2020

And hello to a new Gwen

New to me at least – check out this piece on Gwen Farrar – a vintage comedic Gwen (category: Gwentertainment)  https://womenshistorynetwork.org/partners-and-pals-by-alison-child/

18/9/202

A blow to Gwen-awareness

This week, like much of academia in the UK and elsewhere, I have been in recording and captioning mode, as we prepare for the new Blended Learning World (the sensible bit  – online learning – rather than the ludicrous face to face during a pandemic bit) and I have learned a terrible truth: the captioning software does not recognise the name Gwen. I am therefore ‘when seaborne’ … Not so bothered about the second bit – in fact my family did spell it without the u until c. 1900 when they decided Seabourne was posher, or something. But not recognising ‘Gwen’ – clearly an outrage!

 

 

 

Additional Pages: A historical source in their own right

For most of my academic career, reading at speed, and always off to the next book on the list, I have skipped and skimmed the ‘additional pages’ – the Roman-numbered ones at the beginning and end of a volume, containing the preface and index. More recently, though, I have become a little obsessed. First of all, I started looking at the index of any book I was reading, to see whether they had anything to say about women (in the case of Legal History books, the answer was very often no). Then, more recently, I have started to read prefaces. A particular feature seems to be the ‘minimising and patronising thanks’ motif – especially the brief, duty-bound, mention of women who no doubt did more than the transcription and typing credited to them. The attitude conveyed is one of arrogance and self-importance, seeking to emphasise the author’s own struggle, importance and genius. A particular gem turned up in my reading today, featuring not only women-minimising, but also something of an under-estimate of the others involved in bringing a book to press.

 

In Selden Society vol. 62, C.T. Flower, Introduction to the Curia Regis Rolls (London,. 1944), Preface, viii, Our Cyril (as I am sure he was known) informs his reader that ‘This book has been read in proof by my colleague, Mr. L. C. Hector, who has made numerous suggestions, of which I have used a very large proportion. I am greatly indebted to Mr. Stuart Moore for his unfailing encouragement, and to Professor Plucknett for his careful scrutiny of the proof sheets. My wife has made my task much easier by typing more than half the text, although she was at the time crippled by an accident. A last word of thanks is due to the printers, on whom the times in which we are living must have imposed great difficulties, of which they seldom made me aware.’

 

So what sets my teeth on edge here? Well, first of all it is the bit about his wife. No name. It’s his wife and he can’t even be bothered to include her name. According to his ODNB entry, it was Helen Mary Harding, before she married Cyril. Thereafter, apparently, ‘my wife’ sufficed. Then there is the ‘more than half the text’ – was it really necessary to go into proportions? And finally, the implications of this poor woman typing away whilst badly injured (we will pass over ‘crippled’: vile though it is, it was probably not out of the ordinary at that time). The idea that, during WWII, it was thought to be so urgent a matter to get out a volume on medieval legal records that a very-injured woman was called upon to type it up suggests both a lack of perspective and also a less-than-healthy partnership. The dismissal of the printers and their ‘great difficulties’ in a few bland words also seems jarring – and is there a hint that they sometimes did make him aware of problems (uppity little tradesmen! Don’t they know how important the work of a learned society is? Hitler will look upon my disussion of essoins in thirteenth century records and despair!)?

 

I shall continue to seek out dodgy preface remarks: they seem to be an interesting window into the mental world and self-regard of earlier scholars, and the lives of Legal Historians’ Wives. There seem to be so many ways to go wrong in a preface – self-indulgence, boasting, performative thanking, general dullness – that I do wonder whether we might not do away with them and just, you know, write the book. Which is what I am supposed to be doing now.

 

GS

4/4/2020

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

 

GS

22/3/2020

 

References:

Plea Roll: CP 40/426 m. 433, 433d http://aalt.law.uh.edu/AALT4/E3/CP40no426/aCP40no426fronts/IMG_0635.htm

http://aalt.law.uh.edu/AALT4/E3/CP40no426/aCP40no426fronts/IMG_0856.htm

Year Book: see Seipp 1367.014 http://www.bu.edu/phpbin/lawyearbooks/display.php?id=13743 for the case, and a link to the ‘black letter’ report.

On the Priory of Lewes, see https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/sussex/vol2/pp64-71#anchorn99

A’ things hae an end … post-Christmas musing

Twelfth night is upon us, and although I have taken the decorations down, I am looking at a pile of still-to-be-gobbled Christmas puddings. This may explain why my mind has been turning on a pudding-related issue from a late-medieval legal treatise today.

Littleton’s Tenures is not an especially easy or exciting read, and I had been putting (or pudding?) off checking some bits of it for a project I’m working on. Finally made myself do it today, only to be sidetracked by Littleton Bk 3 c 2 ‘§ 267, a passage on something called ‘hotchpot’. Without getting too tedious, this is to do with ensuring fair shares of property to a group, by looking at assets together. To the extent that I had ever thought about the word, I suppose I would have seen a connection with the ‘hotpot’ produced in great quantities once upon a time by Coronation Street’s Betty Turpin. But Littleton sees it not as a stew, but as a metaphorical ‘puddyng’ in which we might expect to see a variety of ingredients. His description is a little reminiscent of some of those Great British Bake Off technical challenges – ‘for in this pudding [puddyng] is not commonly put one thing alone, but one thing with other things together’. But what things, Littleton, what things? Are we talking sweet or savoury – or one of those sweet v. meat horrors?

We need to know!

GS

5/1/2020

Sashaying away (from imprisonment) in medieval Warwickshire

Time for another story from the medieval plea rolls. This one is, I suppose, vaguely appropriate to pantomime season, involving, as it does, a touch of cross-dressing. The leading man is not a sympathetic character, but it is hard not to have a sneaking admiration for his female co-stars.

The story emerges from a presentment, in a roll from 1306, at the end of the reign of Edward I. It can be seen at JUST 1.966 m.8 (AALT IMG 8919). The jury of Kineton hundred stated that Robert de Henynton or Hyninton had killed Robert son of Henry Roger of Compton Scorfen, in that settlement, in 1298. (See what I mean about him not being the most sympathetic character?). The murderous Robert then fled to the church of Compton Scorfen (this one? https://britishlistedbuildings.co.uk/101024126-church-of-st-mary-ilmington#.Xgj7zG52uUk ) and stayed there for eight days. He could have used this time to arrange to confess his crime and abjure the realm, but this was not the way things went. While he was in the church, two women took a leading role in helping him: his wife, Clarice, and his sister, Alice. They seem to have buttered up the men who were guarding the church, and arranged a cunning substitution of Alice for Robert, involving sneaking in women’s clothes for Robert to wear, to facilitate the whole sashaying away thing, while Alice stayed to face the music, dressed in Robert’s clothes.

The plan worked – at least for Robert. He seems to have got clean away, though he did forfeit his chattels, worth the large sum of £10 13s 10d, because of his flight from royal justice. Where he went is not clear, though apparently he was dead by 1306. Back in 1298, the sheriff had been ordered to arrest Clarice and Alice, once the deception was discovered. Alice at least was arrested and imprisoned at Westminster. It is not clear how long she remained there.

In 1306, Clarice was still alive, and keen to set the record straight. She came before the royal justices and presented a royal pardon, which had been granted to Robert in September 1298, for his good service in Scotland. This was no forgery – it is enrolled on the patent rolls (see CPR 1292-1301 p. 363). While this would have put an end to Robert’s problems with royal justice, however, it is interesting to note that a pardon did not amount to a blotting out of all guilt: the part played by Clarice and Alice was still held to be blameworthy, and there was an expectation that they would pay money to the king to make up for their transgressions. Since the jury said that they had no assets from which to make such a payment, however, this did not happen.

Alice did not come to this later hearing, and it remains a mystery what happened to her. Was she, like her brother, dead? The jury, which confirmed his death, said nothing to this effect with regard to her. I would like to imagine that she had used her undoubted pluck and resourcefulness and slipped away once more.

GS

29/12/2019.