Category Archives: Women

Lady Lawyers in the Press

For some decades before the reluctant acceptance of the first women into the legal profession in England and Wales,[i] the issue of whether or not this step should be taken was aired in many venues. The Welsh Newspaper Archive provides some interesting insights. Most of them are not particularly Welsh – and the stories are copied from national (English) and international publications. Nevertheless, it is interesting to imagine the newspaper readers of Pembrokeshire, Monmouth, Cardiff or Rhyl digesting these views and comments over their morning bara brith, laverbread etc. etc.

They were invited to consider the early efforts  of women in England and Wales to be accepted as lawyers, and the comparative success of women elsewhere in this area. There is certainly some interest in ‘firsts’ and early female lawyers. Thus reports of the 1870s-1910s mention women (or, more often, ‘ladies’) becoming, or working as, lawyers in  France, Belgium, Ro[u]mania, Switzerland, Scotland, Italy, Netherlands, Russia[ii], Spain,  Illinois, California, New York, Idaho, Nebraska, Minnesota, Wisconsin, Connecticut, Ontario,  Australia, New Zealand, Japan.

 

Nobody will be surprised to hear that there is a fair sprinkling of anti-women feeling. There were, for example,  reports of some lovely, generous and in no way intellectually impoverished, sentiments from the Chief Justice of Australia in 1905, as the first woman barrister was admitted: ‘ladies entering the legal profession were … handicapped by nature and sex. Women were naturally more sympathetic than judicial, more emotional than logical. Besides, knowledge of the world was as essential to success at the Bar as knowledge of the law.’ A charmer, and I do like the idea that ‘the world’ is, by implication, the world of men.

As well as the predictable discriminatory nonsense, there are also some very stupid arguments – trivial reasons not to allow women to be lawyers. One 1897 writer was concerned that language would not cope with it: when the admission of women to the Paris bar was on the cards, he worried out loud that there was a problem about what to call them. Maître would not be appropriate, maîtresse would ‘grate’ and soeur would sound too much like a nun. {In the end, as fellow-fans of the marvellous Joséphine Karlsson from Engrenages/Spiral will know, they did the unthinkable and went with Maître, even if it did ‘unsex’ them – definitely not a problem for J. Karlsson …]

Oh and then there is ‘humour’ – the predictable misogynist nonsense applied to the idea of women lawyers. Somehow worse when it is thrown about in relation to a profession supposed to have rules about what constitutes evidence, isn’t it? So, they use their wiles to get ahead – up to and including marrying a client to keep him … They are evasive about their age.  Yawn. They are ridiculous and insist on having the last word. They talk too much! No, they really love talking. Really – they can talk a chap to sleep!  On the subject of talking too much, and thus needing to be shut up, I do find it rather telling that a 1910 report on the Divorce Commission, mentioning evidence from an eminent US lady lawyer, unnamed, about the reasons for rising divorce rates there, the report breaks off, effectively shutting her up mid-sentence, like this: ‘No longer would woman submit to the domination [Proceeding]’. Take that, you shrew! Absolutely no experience whatsoever of such treatment …

There is some more generous sentiment – e.g. approval for the hard work and perseverance of NZ first, Lucy Rebecca Benjamin, who got where she was through hard work, her family not being rich. There are positive accounts – some time afterwards – of US women lawyers. There is also what might be described as surprised approval at times. Some accounts note a woman lawyer’s appropriate conduct (such as acting with ‘due gravity’). There is certainly surprise in the account of a French ‘lady barrister’ making out ‘a good case for her client’ with a speech which was ‘both clever and practical’, and which ‘impressed’ the Court. And another French female advocate was described as ‘eloquent’, and having had a ‘triumph’ in getting her client acquitted – but the matter was surely only newsworthy because she was a woman, and thus this was surprising.[iii]

Some things phrased as praise are very much coming from a particular, narrow, view of gender appropriate behaviour. It is a positive, for example, that Myra Bradwell, Illinois legal pioneer, never allowed her lawyering ‘to conflict with the claims of her growing family.

And then there is the French story of the ‘captivating lady lawyer’ who ‘charms [an] impressionable jury’, which brings us to …

 

That’s all very well, but is she hot?

OK, they would not have said ‘hot’, but there is a fair amount of rather creepy and certainly belittling comment about the looks of the early female lawyers. Hard not to get pointlessly angry at it (at least in the sense that the writers in question are long gone – though maybe not, in the sense that some of these attitudes are still zombie-ing on today).

Early American female attorney, Miss Phoebe Couzins, received a particularly gushing description in 1870: she was young, ‘about 21, tall, well-formed and strikingly handsome’. And there was more. ‘Her hair of the raven hue [black – he means black] and her heavy eyebrows and lashes give force to a most intellectual face.’ The grim condescension and dreadful attempts at literary flourish continue – ‘She approached the stand with timid gracefulness that won all hearts before she said a word, and then assuming, apparently without design [oooh!] an exquisite pose, she opened her lips, and the sweet voice came ringing out like coins dropped down a many-fathomed well.’ [You what?] No need to record anything the poor woman actually said. Or if she really sounded like metal plinking and plopping into a well, possibly there was a bit of a communication issue. Do you know what, I think somebody rather fancied our Phoebe.

The ‘Roumanian’ pioneer, Mlle Bilbisco,  seeking admission to the French profession was described in 1890 as having ‘a magnificent pair of dark eyes and a wide but well-formed mouth’. But this focus on her physical attributes was absolutely not gratuitous, right, because that mouth ‘enable[d] her to throw her voice to a considerable distance’.

In 1894, the sole Spanish lady lawyer who could be found, was noted ‘not only for her legal acumen, but for her great personal beauty’.

The aforementioned French captivating lady lawyer had ‘a slight feminine figure’, ‘of medium height, dark haired and dark-eyed. She has a silvery voice, and a befitting gravity of manner. … 26 … looks well in her robes … personal charm …’ And there is some treatment of her technique – ‘She has so effective a way of appeal to the sympathies that the judge … was heard to murmur “The stage has lost another Rachel in our new confre&re”. I have to say I like her bold line of argument, in defending a client up for homicide – the argument to the jury was, apparently ‘You have mothers and sisters of your own. Can you say in truth none of them has ever raised a hand against you in anger? My client’s hand had a knife in it, but that was her misfortune, not her crime.’ Hmmm. That might have required a bit of ‘sheer personal charm’ to persuade me.

 

And what did she wear?

The account of another early French female advocate was keen to tell us she was wearing an advocate’s gown [as opposed to? Can-can outfit]. This, perhaps, had a certain ‘wearing the trousers’ idea about it – because it was a case in which the woman was appearing with her husband, also an advocate as her junior, ‘playing second fiddle’: ‘unusual’ indeed, and probably in a rather disconcerting way.

Dress itself may be the story, as in an 1896 discussion of an American lawyer, who had spoken in court in her bonnet – her headgear being more important than her words – and the reported 1910 argument as to whether it was acceptable for a lady lawyer to wear a ‘hobble skirt’, (indeed a daft garment).

Inspiring art

There is reference to … er … art on the topic of women lawyers too. I have three exhibits for you:

  1. A 1906 ‘amusing sketch’, co-written by a woman, called ‘A 21st century trial’, imagining a female-dominated courtroom. Honestly, read it.
  2. I am taken with the idea of a courtroom drama told through the medium of silent film, as the clients of a Tonypandy cinema were treated to a  film called The Weaker Sex in 1917 – which featured a woman lawyer being … good. More – being better than the boys …. And saving the day … though also with a flavour of Standing By Her Man … Really want to see this now, but can’t seem to track it down…
  3. Words cannot describe the awfulness of an 1895 lawyer-lady lawyer romance story. Or I cannot. Read it if you are of a stronger constitution…. Here. Bleurgh!!!

 

28/8/2022

GS

 

[i] See, e.g., this site.

[ii] And see this one.

[iii] See also this one.

Image c/o wikimedia commons

Finding the words for offences involving the foetus: a medieval Midlands example

Warning: this post contains references to violent crime and sexual violence.

Something I came across today in an indictment file seems worthy of a note, though the topic is difficult in all sorts of ways. Still, I think it is important to set it out and contextualise it,

The entry comes from a Worcestershire session of the peace from Michaelmas term, 1476. The jury said on oath that Roger Bailly of Hallow, Worcs, chaplain, on Tuesday 27th July, 1473, with force and arms, i.e. with clubs, knives and  lances (though not really/necessarily – these were conventional allegations) broke and entered the close of John Chirche at Hallow, and assaulted John’s wife, Joan, knocking her down. Joan was, at that time, heavily pregnant (grossam impregnatam). Roger wanted to have sex with her (the adverb used here is illicite, but rape, in the modern sense, seems the implication). The attempt does not seem to have succeeded (this is not spelled out) but the injuries caused in the attack had the effect of killing the foetus.

The words which are used to describe the foetus, and the offence, are very interesting. It is foetus ipsius Johanne in ventre sua existent’  [Joan’s foetus, existing in her womb] and the offence was that Roger had totaliter suffocavit, destruit & murdravit [completely stifled/suffocated, destroyed and murdered] the foetus, ‘against the peace of the lord king etc.’

This wording is intriguing in what seems to be its viewing of the foetus as, at one and the same time, a separate entity and also part of Joan. Thus, for example,  we have the word ‘murdravit’, which suggests separate concern for the foetus, but it is also designated Joan’s foetus, and its location in her womb is emphasised.  This suggests to me a more nuanced and sophisticated understanding of the nature of the foetus-within-the-woman than we might have imagined floating about in the minds of medieval jurors. The consensus view, that, while there was one well-known statement equating pre-birth and post-birth killing, the common law had, by the mid-fourteenth century, settled on birth as the start of the application of felonious homicide, remains intact.[i] This entry may be taken to suggest that lay views on questions of pregnancy and foetal life were not identical with the legal position under the law of homicide. Might that  say interesting things about what people thought was the appropriate area of operation of the law, and what was beyond its legitimate involvement?

The document absolutely does not amount to an endorsement of the idea that ending the life of a foetus was equivalent to felonious homicide on a person after birth – so is not something to be deployed in modern drives to restrict legal abortion – this is not equivalent to a ‘normal’ medieval murder/homicide charge, and it does not set the interests of foetus and woman against each other, as is often the case in modern analysis. As I have seen in medieval legal materials concerning other complexes of personality, such as husband and wife or corporations, ‘the medieval mind’ took a different, and perhaps more flexible, approach to accommodating ‘joint and several’ personality than some modern minds are able to accomplish. Perhaps it was all of that thinking about (what I find to be) the hugely difficult concept of the Trinity that limbered them up.

GS

2/6/2022

[i] On this, see Sara Butler’s recent post, and works cited there.

Image – I know, but very hard to find an appropriate image for something like this.

Weapons and words: revisiting an issue from medieval sexual offence records

I have updated it again: now see this one.

(This post contains references to sexual offences and sexual violence).

Despite the lack of interest in this area which is shown in the leading textbook on medieval English legal history, (you have a look at Baker’s Introduction to English Legal History editions 1-5 …), the study of sexual offences has seemed to the better sort of social historians and history-based legal historians to be something worthy of considerable attention, just as it has done to many modern legal scholars. There has been some excellent work, examining the implications of the word raptus (summary: it’s complicated) and differences over time, in terms of the basic allegations which appear in legal records. One aspect which has not been to the fore is the very occasional use of metaphorical language in these records, in relation to sexual offences, specifically the use of the image of weaponry to stand in for male genitalia.

I mused about this in a previous post. Since then, I have found some more examples, and it seems worth revisiting, and perhaps trying to discuss the matter with those who might have wider, relevant, expertise (over a longer time-span, or else a broader knowledge of other sources – literary, theological … than is possible for a legal scholar stepping out of her lane quite enough by taking on medieval history…).

In the earlier post, to summarise, I noted an entry on the King’s Bench plea roll for Easter 1435 relating to proceedings against a clerk, Thomas Harvy, for alleged offences in Norfolk, including a sexual offence (which was probably understood to be ‘consensual’ – at least in contemporary terms of an absence of overt physical struggle).[i] Jurors had presented before the justices of the peace that, on 1st October 1433, Thomas Harvy of Testerton, clerk, … broke into the house of  John Serjeant of Colkirk, at Colkirk, and attacked Margaret, John’s wife,  wounding her shamefully (turpiter) with a certain carnal lance called, in English, a ‘ballokhaftitdagher’, and so he continued to do until that day, setting a bad example etc., to John’s great damage and against John’s will.’[ii]

I did, at first, question my reading of the carnal lance/ ballokhaftitdagher’: could the lance perhaps have been some sort of butchery implement? But both terms being used together made a pretty strong case for seeing the ‘carnal lance’ and ‘ballock hafted dagger’ as evoking not actual weapons but metaphorical weapons, and to refer to male genitalia.

I had come across the ‘carnal lance’ image on its own in a very small number of other cases.[iii] Now, though the number remains small, I have a couple more. There is another ‘carnal lance’ reference  in a  1483 Devon indictment.[iv]  This one does seem to separate the attack with the lance and the sexual penetration, so did make me wonder once more whether I might be talking fanciful nonsense, but yet another, from the same county and roll, mentions the use in an attack on a female servant of both ‘carnal lance’ and two ‘stones’.[v] A metaphorical link between testicles and stones was certainly present in the medieval period, and appears, for example, in the Mirror of Justices, in a discussion of mayhem (Book I c. 9). It is, of course, hard to be sure that this was not a real lance and real stones, but the more examples I find of the link between weapon-talk and sexual offence cases, the less likely that seems.

I have not gone out looking for references in a systematic way, and it seems unlikely that I have, by chance, found all of them. The best view which I can give at the moment is that this was a known idiom/image in later medieval England, and an unusual, but not unknown,  inclusion in legal records.

Update, 29th May, 2022

I found another reference to carnal lances and stones, from Devon, from an indictment file for Hilary term 1482 – this time I think it really does confirm that carnal lances were not actual lances, and stones were not actual stones, in some legal records. It is a deeply unpleasant sexual assault accusation, in which a certain William Gamon, clerk, was accused of what would now be called  a rape (though no ‘rape term’ is used, and neither are words of felony) on Joan, wife of John Stonehewer, on two separate occasions.   

A rough-and-ready translation of The case on KB 9/359 m.2 would be:

‘[A Devon jury on 12 October 1480] said on oath that Wm Gamon, [ff] recently of [Denbury], Devon, on 2nd July and 10th October 1479, with force and arms and against the peace of the lord king, with staves and knives and also a carnal lance, broke and entered  the houses of John Stonehewer at Denbury and Ottery St Mary, hit John’s wife, Joan, several times, and then hit and penetrated her with the aforesaid lance and two stones hanging in the said William’s nether regions, in a certain hairy opening between her two thighs, in the rear, so that her life was despaired of and against the peace of the lord king.’

Aside from confirming the lance/stones metaphor usage, this introduces further examples of figurative language for body parts in the sexual context. The woman’s body is discussed in particularly demeaning terms here, which is not very surprising really, but which reinforces the everyday misogyny which would have pervaded the atmosphere of medieval courts.

 

Why is this interesting, and what does it all mean?

If the ‘weapons’ are metaphorical, what then? First it is worth noting that a resort to metaphorical language is unusual within the generally unfanciful context of medieval plea rolls. It was not necessary to describe the (alleged) offences in this way. Secondly, it should be acknowledged that  the use of weapon-imagery is a well-known practice in literary sources.[vi] What are the implications of this weapon imagery in the legal context?  Several things occur to me, all a little tentative just now – I would certainly be interested to know what others think. Here are some of them:

  1. I wonder whether we can read into the occasional intrusion of this sort of imagery in entries on the legal record something of the mood of discussion about such offences, amongst the men involved in making records, or those in court. Is there validity to my intuitive reaction that it sounds like joking about and diminishing the seriousness, or the wrong, of sexual assault and rape? Might it be argued to show the exact opposite: since we know that these prosecutions almost never ‘succeeded’ in the sense of ending with a conviction and punishment according to secular law, aligning it more closely with the ‘ordinary’ sort of violence (and especially categorising the harm as a ‘wound’, as in ‘ordinary’ batteries etc.) showed a greater-than-usual degree of concern. The ‘rape: an offence (predominantly) of sex or violence?’ question is something of an ‘old chestnut’ in modern legal scholarship, but I think that there is some worth in considering linking up those debates with the work on rape/sexual offences in historical studies, which does not always deal with this point.
  2. What does the weapon imagery say about ideas of men, rape and sex?
    1. Does associating offending sex with a weapon in some sense dissociate man and penis, and, if so, is this something which serves to minimise – or ‘outsource’ – culpability?
    2. How does the association work with ideas/reality of rape as a weapon in (medieval) warfare?
    3. What does it all say about contemporary ideas of (socially sanctioned) sex? We are well used to the medieval idea of heterosexual encounters as asymmetrical, perhaps with a ‘playful’ combat aspect. Does using the weapon idea in sexual offence cases suggest an acceptance of a continuity between offending and non-offending sex?
    4. If weapon-imagery is to be used, what is the reason to choose one type of weapon rather than another? What implications might there be in choosing a lance rather than a dagger, a Latin/French term or an English one?

As ever with medieval legal records, far more loose ends and questions than concrete findings, but, I will stick my neck out a tiny bit and make one statement based on all of this. It does seem to me that one thing the use of weapon-words must have done was to reinforce the connections between the men involved in the legal process (jurors, clerks, those in court) and place them in opposition to the woman against whom, or with regard to whose body, the offence had, allegedly, been committed. The wielding of such weapons was a thing clearly gendered male, and, as such, something drawing men together in exclusion of women. Probably not, therefore, something conducive to a receptive attitude to allegations of a crime against a woman’s body.

GS

26/5/2022.

[i] KB 27/697 Rex m.5 AALT IMG 0183. You can see a scan of the record here on the AALT website.

[ii] For the ‘ballock hafted dagger’ (a real weapon), see the earlier post, and Ole-Magne Nøttveit, ‘The Kidney Dagger as a Symbol of Masculine Identity – The Ballock Dagger in the Scandinavian Context’, Norwegian Archaeological Review 39, no. 2 (2006), 138-50.

[iii] KB 27/725 m. 31d; AALT IMG 567 (1442); KB 9/359/mm 67, 68 (these two also mentions stones); AALT IMG 141 (1482). There are two on KB 9/359 m.3

[iv] KB9/363 m. 2

[v] KB 9/363 m.3

[vi] See, e.g., D. Izdebska, ‘Metaphors of weapons and armour through time’, in W. Anderson, E.  Bramwell, C. Hough, Mapping English Metaphor Through Time (Oxford, 2016), c. 14; C. Saunders, Rape and Ravishment in the Literature of Medieval England (Woodbridge, 2001), 42; R. Mazo Karras, Sexuality in Medieval Europe: Doing Unto Others, third edn, (Abingdon, 2017), 26, 151, 172; Robert Clark ‘Jousting without a lance’, in F.C. Sautman and P. Sheingorn (eds), Same Sex Love and Desire Among Women in the Middle Ages (New York, 2001), 143-77, 166. The Dictionary of Medieval Latin from British Sources (Brepols, 2018) suggests this meaning too, in its sixth variation on ‘hasta’.

Note on terminology: I have generally stuck to ‘sexual offences’ here, because of an imperfect mapping on to modern conceptions of ‘rape’ of the ideas and definitions current in the medieval common law. There is probably not a satisfactory way of dealing with this mismatch, or at least I have not found one, and my choice is not intended to minimise the severity of the harm suffered, or the culpability of offenders of the past.

Image: I am going for a general suggestion of ‘puzzling’ here: a maze, Photo by Ben Mathis Seibel on Unsplash

Owning words: some musings on categories and captivity

I have had cause to think quite a lot about the idea of people as property. Amongst other places in which this has come up in my teaching and research have been: medical law (yes – once upon a time used to teach that) where it features in relation to embryos and organs, for example; property law (can you have property in a corpse?) and of course legal history. In thinking about the history of women and the law, it is not uncommon to see references to the effect that ‘oh well, of course women used to be the property of their husbands/fathers etc.’. I have never been very happy with this line – apart from anything else, it often seems to be something of a device to encapsulate and dismiss a whole messy and uncomfortable area of historical (mis)behaviour, a somewhat ‘othering’ tendency too (for, if older dispensations can be seen as stark, and starkly different from present ideas, any nasty continuities and analogies of injustice can be ignored). I made some comments on the ‘women as property’ idea in the recent book on Women in the Medieval Common Law. It continues to bubble away in my mind, and here are a couple of other thoughts on it.

  1. Working with words and processes

One of the reasons why it might feel right to make a link between legal treatment of women and property in chattels is the recurrence of words in legal process relating to both categories. Thus abduxit would be used in relation to both the removal of a woman and the removal of a sheep, and relevant legal processes might also bear some resemblance, one to another. I am not sure, though, that that can be taken to indicate that ‘women were property’ in any meaningful sense.[i] The truth is that there were limitations of both linguistic and procedural sorts which go quite some way to explaining why there would be such similarities. The linguistic issue is that those choosing words for legal process and its records had a limited selection from which to select, and we should be slow to infer from the use of a term in two different legal contexts that it was understood in an identical sense in both. To take a possibly silly example, just because the verb used in relation both to wrongful cutting of a tree bough, and also to wrongful removal of a person’s arm in a sword fight would be amputavit, it does not mean that medieval common lawyers thought people and trees were the same. Likewise, the ‘vocabulary’ of legal process was finite, and the fact that a husband’s action with regard to the removal of his wife looks a bit like an action for the removal of a chattel cannot be taken too far. As students of legal history will know, the process of putting a set of facts into a few pre-existing procedural patterns is one of the hallmarks of common law development. Of course, the fact that the husband is accommodated in seeking legal action in relation to wrongs to his wife shows that he was seen as, and made, her superior – but I am not convinced that this should be seen as ‘property’ rather than ‘power’.

  1. Women/slaves/property

The links between ‘women as property’ and the explicit treatment of enslaved people as property are potentially problematic. Those noting the difficulities of women, or involved in campaigning for improvements in women’s rights have long made the connection (see also Jacobites, American independence fighters). It is particularly hard, now, to understand the viewpoint of those who talked of the injustice of women’s position in terms of ‘slavery’, while living in an age which did not reject the slave trade or the material benefits derived from such exploitation. See, for example,these lines from  a poem which makes this analogy:

 

Lady Mary Wortley Montagu (1689-1762),

Epistle from Mrs Yonge to Her Husband (1724)[ii]

 

All bargains but conditional are made;

The purchase void, the creditor unpaid;

Defrauded servants are from service free;

A wounded slave regains his liberty.

For wives ill-used, no remedy remains,

To daily racks condemned, and to eternal chains.

O’er the wide world your pleasures you pursue.

The change is justified by something new;

But we must sigh in silence – and be true

 

It did strike me today, however, when reading a review of a new publication on resistance by enslaved women, that, if we proceed with extreme caution, there could be some useful transferring of ideas for modern scholars of women’s history from the growing body of work done on enslaved people. In particular, I was arrested by the observation of the author, Rebecca Hall, that slave traders, afraid that there would be resistance by those being shipped into slavery, insured against cargo insurrection, and noting the complete contradiction between (explicitly) calling something a cargo (and really treating it as such – see the Zong Massacre) and yet admitting that there is a human will there. The point which is useful, from the point of view of women’s history, is not exactly the ‘persons as property’  part, it is the ‘subordinated persons as amenable to being put into whichever legal class we want, maybe even two arguably contradictory classes at the same time’ idea which is implicit. That unrepentant mental gymnastics point certainly applies to the history of women’s legal treatment (see one of my recent posts, on petty treason) , and I think deserves some further thought.

GS

16/5/2021

[i] Let’s leave aside the difficult question of defining ‘property’, and comparison of ‘property words’ and expressions in different languages. I am sure a better linguist would be able to do more with the comparative aspect of this, though I do enjoy this distinction between English and colloquial Welsh: ‘I have a cat’ v. ‘Mae cath gyda fi’ (= ‘There is a cat with me’). If you will excuse a reference to extreme high culture, it is somewhat reminiscent of the distinction between ‘You belong to me’ (Police, The, ‘Every Breath You Take’) (stalky and unacceptable) and Swift, T. ‘You Belong With Me’ (a touch desperate, perhaps – the object of Ms Swift’s affections in this classic work clearly not being worth it – but both ‘relatable’ and acceptable).

[ii] Norton Anthology of Poetry, p. 580, footnote – ‘In 1724, the notorious libertine William Yonge, separated from his wife, Mary, discovered that she (like him) had committed adultery. He sued her lover, Colonel Norton, for damages, and collected £1,500. Later that year, according to the law of the time, he petitioned Parliament for a divorce. The case was tried in public. Mrs Yonge’s love letters were read aloud, and two men testified that they had found her and Norton “together in naked bed”. Yonge was granted the divorce, his wife’s dowry, and the greater part of her fortune’. I have long used this as a source in my undergraduate legal history teaching.

Image: Photo by Junbeom Ahn on Unsplash Clearly not a medieval sheep, but there to show property rights – indication of ownership in its ear-tag, see.

Passion, poison, pardons … and pins: law and death in medieval London

When looking through medieval records, it is especially interesting to see the many occupations by which people (mostly men) were identified. Noting a man’s trade or position becomes essential in the fifteenth century, but is normal before that, and so we learn of various agricultural and industrial specialisms – some which seem very ‘niche’ to the modern reader. Such a specialised trade is that of ‘pinner’. The pin-making industry (pindustry?) is not something to which I have ever given much thought, though I have been doing some quick research on it today, in connection with an interesting case from the reign of Richard II, about a London pinner and his household.

This case can be seen in entries on a King’s Bench plea roll for Michaelmas term 1386, telling of an inquiry which the London civic authorities were ordered to carry out, by a writ dated 20th August 1386, and which took place in the Guildhall on 27th September 1386.

From this material, we find that our pinner, Hugh Bromhill, was married to a woman called Margery, and was employer to the other main character in the story, John de Shrewsbury. Hugh, perhaps, seemed to outsiders to be well-placed both in his trade and his domestic life. That, though, was not the truth of things, at least not according to a jury of London men. Yes, it was an inquest jury. Yes, he ended up dead. And yes, those of a suspicious nature, given to salacious speculation, there was allegedly something going on between Margery and John.

The story, as told by the London jurors, went like this. The pair had killed Hugh in the parish of St Martin Pomary in Ironmonger Lane in the ward of Cheap. Why? Well – John, at that time Hugh’s employee, a cardmaker (there’s another niche trade for us)  and Margery had been involved in an illicit relationship. They had slept together often, both at Hugh and Margery’s house and also in other secret locations. Not secret enough, however: Hugh learned what was going on, and threw John out.

We do not know why, but Hugh took John on once more. This makes me warm to him rather – but it was a mistake. John and Margery now, according to the jurors,  plotted Hugh’s death. On Thursday 1st September 1384. They put arsenic powder and realgar (arsenic sulphide, according to the internet – well actually it said ‘arsenic sulfide’, but I just can’t …cool alternative name – ‘ruby of arsenic’) in Hugh’s food and drink. The unsuspecting Hugh ingested it and fell ill, declining over a period of days, and dying early in the morning of 3rd September, in his house.

John and Margery then ran off, and were received by William Coventry, pinner, in the parish of St Mary le Bow, Ward of Cheap, Robert Byssheye in the parish of St Michael Bassishaw,  Nicholas Luffenham, wiredrawer, in the parish of St Benet Fink in the ward of Broad Street. These receivers were said to have known just what Margery and John had done. An innkeeper John de Harwell had also accommodated John de Shrewsbury, at his inn in the parish of All Hallows, Bread Street ward, but the jurors were careful to say that he did not know about the felony his guest had committed.

This all looked as if it might be heading for a burning for Margery, and a drawing and hanging for John de Shrewsbury, as the wife and servant of Hugh respectively, and so petty traitors both. But no.

Margery came to court in January 1389, and produced a pardon for offences between 1st Oct 1382 and 31st May 1388. This is CPR 1385-9, 519. (We have to wonder what else she had been up to! One suggestion is that is was really concerned with the Brembre/Northampton kerfuffle. Could it be that Margery was ‘repurposing’ a pardon to cover things it was never intended to cover?). She was also waving another letter, dated 2nd December 1388, telling the justices not to molest her, which I have not yet managed to track down. This all worked to ward off the possibility of conviction and punishment. She used her status as a citizen of London to get out of jail. John was, apparently dead by the time proceedings came to an end, and the people who had received the pair walked free.

All a bit anticlimactic perhaps, but still, some things to think about.

 

Points (!) of interest

  1. Margery

I think we have to conclude that Margery was somebody with a bit of clout in the pinning/wiredrawing community, since she got the support of a number of people, who sheltered her and John S, and helped out as sureties during the court cases. (Either that or all of the pinners just hated poor Hugh). Amongst a slightly less pin-focused group of Londoners, the evidence about Margery is equivocal. The inquest jurors were not backward in pinning (!) the blame on Margery and John S, leaving them open to the death penalty, with the extra relish of punishment for ‘petty treason’. On the other hand, however, Margery was acknowledged to be a citizen of London. If this  was a case in which she took over the status of citizen following the death of her husband, then it does seem interesting that a suspected husband-killer would not have been blocked from this, in some way.  In any case, she had enough money or (p)influence to obtain a pardon, during a period when the killing of husbands does seem to have been a particular concern to ‘the authorities’, which seems noteworthy. There is some easily-found evidence about the property interests of Hugh and Margery. Hugh had an interest in, and perhaps lived in, a tenement and shop in the parish of St Martin Pomary. Margery was his executor (which does suggest that he trusted her). I wonder if there is any more information on her, lurking about anywhere.

  1. Relationship drama

A woman committing adultery with her husband’s servant was fairly transgressive. The entry shows some interesting hints of the thinking of medieval (male) jurors about gender and hierarchy. It is one of those situations in which two different hierarchies collide – John S is the man but he is also the employee, so on the one hand he was the superior, on the other hand, the inferior, of Margery. How was the jury to understand the couple’s interactions in that case? Well, they seem to have gone with an unusually equal portrayal. As far as the sex was concerned, the pair ‘slept together’ and Margery is given some of the initiative at least. As far as the killing went, rather than the more usual story which is given in such situations, of the male doing the killing while the female procures or encourages, this was very much a joint venture. They acted with ‘unanimous assent’, and the poisoning activity is described in the third person plural.

  1. Cause of death

Poisonings – or alleged poisonings – are always interesting. The type of toxin used is not unusual really, but perhaps the separation of arsenic and realgar says something about popular understanding of poison, and we do have a few more details than usual on how it was administered, and the length of time it took to act and to prove fatal. Another one for my ‘lingering death’ spreadsheet and considerations of causation.

  1. Petty treason

How does this affect the picture of attitudes towards petty treason which I have been building up? It does trouble things a little, doesn’t it? Although wives killing husbands certainly had to be scared of being consigned to the flames, and the troubled state of England in the later fourteenth century did push authorities at various levels towards exemplary burnings of husband-slayers, not even this was immune from the prerogative of mercy. Thus Margery was left to enjoy her pins and presumed relative prosperity after the demise of her apparently unlamented spouse.

GS

7th May, 2021.  

(Image, Photo by Lisa Woakes on Unsplash – and yes, I know they aren’t medieval – just going for a general essence of pin).