Discord, fraud and an attack of conscience? Some dodgy dealings with land in the fourteenth century 

As I prepare materials for modern Land Law teaching, it is interesting to think of the potential difficulties medieval people might have in guarding against losing their rights in land, in a world without the sort of registration and record-keeping which my students love hearing about so much …

The source: a 1339 King’s Bench plea roll. KB 27/315 m. 13d (AALT IMG 262)

The scene: mid-fourteenth century Cambridgeshire (and, as all pretentious reviews of films and books say, the land itself is a sort of character too. And the law. And the plea roll. Enough – on with the alleged facts …)

In Michaelmas 1338, jurors of various hundreds presented that John Allberd and his wife Nicolaa[i] held 20 acres of land in Hokyton, in right of Nicolaa, but there was discord between them, and Nicolaa went away from her husband and the area. [Alas, as our esteemed PM would say] John then died. [At this point, Nicolaa should have had the land back, or, if she had died, as seems to have been the case, then it should have gone to her heir, BUT… there was a conspiracy between an observant/nosy local and some ‘incomers’, from Norfolk, and even that London]: John son of John Riston of Hokyton, John Godefeld, citizen of London, and a certain Margaret of Norwich conspired together and in 1334, Margaret was passed off as Nicholaa (de Kelm, wife of John Allberd of Hokyton) and, acting as Nicolaa, Margaret had a false charter drawn up in favour of John son of John Riston, transferring the land to him, not to William de Kelm, nephew and heir of Nicolaa. John Riston entered by virtue of this false feoffment. [And he would have got away with it, if it hadn’t been for her meddlesome conscience]. Confessione ducta, she had gone along to the church of Hokyton and coughed to her misconduct. After this, William de Kelm had got the land as the result of a concord (no details), and the law was put on to the two male alleged conspirators.

The sheriff was ordered to bring the parties into court to hear about the misconduct. John Riston and John Godefeld pleaded not guilty (and things are still rumbling on, trying to get these two into court in 1347 – KB 27/348 m.32d (AALT IMG 1590) – I am yet to get to the end of the matter.

So what?

I know – just another unfinished case, but …

Well, you have to admire the cunning of such a plan, if it happened. It does rather point to a weakness in the system of land holding: identifying individuals who had not been seen for some time. Presumably it was plausible that one woman might be passed off as another, even in relatively close-knit areas with small populations.

I am also quite taken by the throwaway line that there was discord between the spouses and Nicolaa just exited the scene. Seems somewhat at odds with what we think we know about conjugal debts and the need to get a divorce a mensa et thoro before doing this. I suppose we would have to presume that women could leave if men were not bothered. As this case shows, though, there might be a cost to them, in terms of the risk of losing rights to the land they left behind.

(All rather far away from the bureaucracy and formality of modern Land Registration schemes, to which, I suppose, I had better return …)




[i] A moment of appreciation, please, for this fabulous medieval spelling, and I take my hat off to anyone who is able to resist pronouncing it pirate-style as NicholAAAAAAH!

Livestock and a laughing stock? Tormenting a medieval Yorkshireman

I claim no expertise in the area of medieval animals, and have usually shied away from medieval human-animal interaction (almost life-long vegetarian … and yes it does feel weird dealing with records written on the skins of dead beasts) but here is a trail to follow for those who work in this area, and/or in medieval violence  …

A Yorkshire trailbaston roll from the end of the reign of Edward I contains, at JUST 1/1107 m. 2 (AALT IMG 8501), a record of a case brought before the royal justices in 1305. The jury of Hang (N. Yorks) had presented that, on a date in 1304,  a group of men, (Thomas de Colevile, Nicholas de Holteby, Adam Skakelok, William son of Emma, Richard Des, Robert Cote, John Forestar and Richard Forestar) broke into an enclosure belonging to William Des of Great Fencote and took away cattle which William was keeping in that fold, which he seems to have acquired as a result of a judgment in a local tribunal. So far, so banal – unpleaseant, but nothing out of the ordinary. Nor was the fact that they beat William up (apparently also grabbing him by the hood and half-throttling him. What was extremely odd and interesting was the other allegation – that Thomas de Colevile and company had made William Des kiss the mare’s backside[i] – specifically its anus (yes, checked my translation – it really does say in ano osculari coegerunt, and, in one of the three retellings in the report, enormiter in ano osculari coegerunt). William Des said that they had also committed ‘other enormities’ against him, which may just be a bit of verbiage, but it does raise questions as to whether things might have got even odder and more unpleasant. Anyway, William Des said that he had suffered damage to the tune of 100 marks, the defendants denied everything, and it went to a jury. I was all ready to read a big old ‘not guilty’, but no – the jury thought at least some of this really happened, and although William Des was only awarded 20 marks, there were some substantial fines to the king as well.

So what?

Well, I will confess the reason that I zoned in on this entry was that I thought it might be a rare case of male-male sexual assault being recorded, but I soon saw that that wasn’t it at all. Intriguing in its own unpleasant way though. The usual ‘who knows what really happened’ caveat applies, but the idea that this was a conceivable way of behaving to somebody being ‘done over’ is very interesting. It suggests links with all sorts of other ‘obscene kisses’ – Chaucer, accusations against the Templars and Cathars, and, broadening out from kisses to other sorts of familiarity with animals, my mind goes to the goings-on between Greek and Norse gods and animals. What was the symbolism, the mockery, here? I also wonder about it in another sense – how did such a thing come to light, and, given that one presumes the idea of making a man do this was supposed to be a deep humiliation, how would William have felt about it all coming out like this? No answers, just a lot of questions and musings. Plea rolls really do have all human (and animal) life in them.


Pictured below, a cow (no relation) – c/o Wikimedia Commons

See the source image

[i] There is a minim counting issue here. I think it’s iumentum, though if I’m wrong and it’s iuvencum, we would be in the bovine rather than the equine world. Slightly comforted to realise I am not alone in my uncertainty here – see, in the context of French, J.M. Kaye (ed.), Placita Corone, SS Supp. Ser. (1966), 16-17.

Rape: conviction and ideas

My two ‘forthcoming’ (well, one ‘forthcoming’ and one ‘forthcoming???’) publications deal with rape in medieval common law: it is a small part of Medieval Women and the Common Law (due out in April)  but the whole point of a chapter in an edited collection, (chapter title: ‘Rape and Law in Medieval Western Europe’, long since written, and the book is due out … well, let’s just say one day … ). There is already a lot of scholarship on rape/raptus in the medieval world, but still, I think, a great deal more to work out, and I keep finding new, relevant, entries in the plea rolls. One of these days, I will get around to doing a proper study of the changing nuances of formulae of accusation, for example. Anyway, here are a couple of nuggets which I don’t think I am going to work into these ‘forthcoming’ things, but seem as if they might be of interest to someone, some time, if they stumble across this.

The first one is a rarity – an actual conviction and hanging. It is hardly a new observation that almost nobody ever seems to have been found guilty of rape, and executed, in later medieval England. The plea rolls are full of the most detailed and horrendous allegations, and then an unexplained finding of ‘not guilty’. (And I have noticed that nobody ever seems to confess rape and abjure, or, as an approver, appeal another person of rape – further signs that conviction was fairly unlikely). Here, though, from the Rex section of a King’s Bench plea roll from Trinity term 1339 is a case of somebody hanged (or at least ordered to be hanged) for rape.  In KB 27/317 m. 10d (AALT IMG 297) an entry notes a case from a Norwich gaol delivery in 1339. Richard Kiriolf(?) of Holverston had been indicted that he and others on a night in 1338 broke into the house of Alice Newman in Rockland and robbed her of goods worth 12d, and then feloniously raped with her and lay with her against her will. He pleaded not guilty of ‘rape, robbery and felony’, but the jury found him guilty (it is specified in the record that they found him guilty of all three). He was ordered to be hanged, and it was stated that the vill of Holueston would answer for his chattels – worth 18d, which would be forfeit, because he was found guilty of a felony.

True, it is not an execution for rape alone, and the break in at night and theft would presumably have been enough to justify an execution, but it is of interest that rape was included in both charge and verdict, and is some evidence that capital punishment for rape was not a completely unimaginable outcome.

My blog, my rules – uninhibited by academic tutting, I also want to say something about the conflicted feelings this sort of thing gives rise to in me as a researcher and a human. To some extent, and no doubt bound up with all sort of thoughts about the deep and long history of difficulty in seeking accountability and some sort of justice in this area, there is satisfaction to see evidence of rape being seen as a serious offence. That, though, hits up against my utter horror of capital punishment (always) and also the wish not to see capital punishment, in this period, as having been a much ‘better’ outcome for the woman, or the only indicator of something being taken seriously. So it’s interesting, but not an ‘air punch moment’.

The other interesting case to mention here is on the plea roll for Easter 1335, at KB27/300 Rex m.11 (AALT IMG 309). It is a record of an indictment before the KB at Wigan in 1334, and it states that Richard son of Adam son of Alan of Mondesley and others on a date in 1315 (it definitely says this is in the reign of Edward II, so quite a long time before) came to the home of Cecilia widow of William son of Robert de Heskyn, broke in and feloniously raped her de corpore suo, contrary to the form of the statute etc. and against her will.  The dorse of the membrane shows that Richard was found not guilty (surprise!) but that is not the thing which struck me as interesting. Instead, it is those words ‘of her body’. They are stuck in just where, in many felonious rape cases, we would find the words ‘of her virginity’, and, I think show an interesting wish to include an idea that something was taken away. This opens up all sorts of cans of worms about women, bodies, (perhaps) property, and the idea that something tangible is removed when one is raped. I have no more than that, for now, but it seemed worth noting, and I will be both mulling it over, and also looking for other such phrasing in my endless, and endlessly fascinating, searches through the plea rolls.



Blood and Brothers


One of the matters I touch on in the forthcoming Women and Medieval Law book is the basis for the right to bring an appeal – an individual prosecution – in the medieval period. Appeals are important in a consideration of women and the common law, because they were a way that women could initiate a ‘criminal’ case, though they were shut out from participation in other methods – especially presentment/indictments. To cut a long story short, there are various statements which purport to set out accepted limitations on the matters women could appeal (most prominently mentioned as allowed are homicide of a husband and rape) but there are also many, many examples of women bringing other appeals; and a little study makes it apparent that the ideas about why women can ever bring appeals (in a system which prevents them from other routes of prosecution) are not at all clear. There are a number of different ideas floating about, including revenge, particular damage and likely physical proximity to the offence.

Because the book was about women, I did not get into a related issue: if a single man is killed, who has the right of appeal? This is an interesting one, partly in terms of the ‘answer’, but mainly in terms of the way arguments are made about it, so it deserves a short exploration here (no doubt to be updated as and when I find new cases on it).

At least in 14th and 15th C cases, a definite ‘pecking order’ was understood, as between the brothers or sons of a slain man, and somebody accused by the appeal of a younger brother could legitimately say that this was invalid, because this was the wrong person to be bringing the appeal: the right lay in the older brother.  In a case in 1314, for example, (KB27/218 Rex m. 10 (IMG 24)) from Worcestershire, a woman, Margery, wife of John I,  and John II, were accused by one William of killing his brother, Thomas. Margery was accused of killing Thomas by hitting him in the head with a stone, while John II held him by the throat. Apart from denying wrongdoing, Margery argued that she should not have to answer the appeal, because William had an older brother, John III , and it was this John III  who should have brought the appeal. It ‘naturally pertained’ to John III to prosecute it, and he was ‘nearer in blood etc.’  It seems to have been another point on which the appeal failed, but it was at least an outing for this idea about ‘the wrong brother’.

It is not proximity, but ‘worthiness’ of blood which is the justification given for preference of the elder over the younger brother in cases from the 1330s:  KB 27/310 Rex m. 6d (AALT IMG 333), KB 27/311 Rex m. 1d (AALT IMG 245)  and KB 27/312  m.3 (AALT IMG 290). (KB 27/311 Rex m. 1d (AALT IMG 245) features an argument as to whether the alleged elder brother exists (was inventing an elder brother a tactic which might, or buy some time?). The matter was raised in some later Year Book reports too. Seipp 1467.041 and 1468.007 – and Markham J was apparently concerned about whole blood and half blood relationships (only the former would do, so must be mentioned, tracing the blood of victim and prosecutor in the appeal).

An earlier fifteenth century case showed a difficulty which could arise for younger brothers – what if there was an older brother, but he was not interested in bringing an appeal, or not able to do so? Seipp 1412.047abr notes a case in which the older son of an allegedly murdered man was a monk, and the upshot seems to have been that there was nothing to be done – the younger son did not have a right to appeal here.

So what?

Well – as a younger sibling, I am not happy at the idea that the older sibling has ‘worthier blood’ (though would that work with women, or would they have some coparcenry-equivalent pattern, with any sister being as good as any other?).

Less self-centredly, it has got me thinking about blood, and how it figures in different areas of law (free/unfree status, bastardy, succession more generally, attainder and ‘corruption of the blood’, rape, assault and ‘drawing blood’ as a threshold or evidential requirement… probably more).  And how does ‘blood’ relate to ‘flesh’: how do lineal and matrimonial relationships interact one with another? Maybe one day this will all fall into place in my mind and end up as a paper on ‘The Law of Blood’. Interesting, anyway to try and work out what ideas about blood were present here. Clearly it would need to bring in theological and medical ideas too. But probably not vampires.



Archival Amour

It’s not quite the season of compulsory romance, but Valentine’s Day, and, for those lucky enough to be Welsh, the problematic Dydd Santes Dwynwen (Jan 25th – none of your Burns Night here, thank you very much)[i] will soon be upon us. There is, therefore, half an excuse to write about the online National Archives online exhibition about documents relating to love, which can be found at  With Love – The National Archives

It includes:

  • one of Ramsay Macdonald’s love letters (nice handwriting, no obv. LH content, though suggestion of fantasies of husbandly chastisement – rather questionable);
  • one of Robert Dudley’s letters to Elizabeth I (scratchy-quilled Early Modern writing, bit grovelling tbh, and no LH);
  • a letter of 1851 by a man called Daniel Rush, to the Poor Law Board (Law! Here we go! An absolute corker – commentary on the cruelty of those administering the law, and also citing the 1847 Consolidated General Order, ruling that there is no requirement to separate ‘pauper’ married couples to put them into the workhouse – really interesting on ‘lay’ knowledge of the law);
  • the Instrument of Abdication of Edward VIII (constitutional law, I suppose, but, oh, what appalling people);
  • a 1966 letter by Harry Houghton to Ethel Gee (perhaps ignorantly, I had not heard of these two – they were found to be Soviet spies, part of the Portland Spy Ring. This was a very kind letter consoling Ethel when her mother died, written from prison).
  • a 1541 letter from Catherine Howard to Thomas Culpeper (obvious LH link – treason charge etc. It signs off with ‘Yours as long as life endures’ – not that long, as it turned out.)
  • two anonymous letters from the 1740s (seeking ‘Romantick happiness’; an argument as to where this lies, with a particular woman or with L.H. – clearly, to my mind, not another woman but Legal History!)
  • a love letter from the 1930s, from Cyril to Morris, from (LH!) a period when homosexual relationships were likely to fall foul of the law (awkward and intense and very English)
  • a love song from the later 15th C or 16th C (The song itself doesn’t do anything for me, other than making me hum ‘Alone’ by Heart under my breath, but it’s apparently on the back of a document about a riot which – LH – would float my boat rather more)
  •  a letter from James Gillespie to the Prime Minister, Lloyd George, from 1919 (terrible circumstances – following race riots in South Wales – this black resident of Barry wanted to leave, but not without the family he had started there).
  • Wills – obvious LH interest just in the nature of the documents. We have Anne Lister’s will (1841) (She of ‘Gentleman Jack’ fame –interesting bit about provision disappearing if Ann Walker should marry – but some such idea was often present in provision for ‘widows’, certainly in local jurisdictions) and Nelson’s will (1803).


A very nice idea, and well presented. Sadly, I must report that it is inflaming rather than soothing my own particular pining – for the archives themselves. Very much looking forward to The After Times when I can get my hands on some MSS once again.

[i] All is explained here: How St Dwynwen wrongly became known as the Welsh Valentine… – Blog Ysgol y Gymraeg / School of Welsh blog – Cardiff University

Great Historical Escapes

I have a heap of notes, long laid by, on the subject of escape. Many of them were collected as ‘by-catch’ in trawls for other matters to do with the history of crime, and imprisonment, and I can’t entirely explain why I have never done anything much with them. Partly it was knowing that there wasn’t really an academic book in it all, but perhaps there was also a certain unease with my own liking for these stories. The problem with them, of course, is that, exciting as they are, there is a discomfort in identifying with the escapee, who may also have committed serious offences.

Anyway, now seems to be the time – as I come out of a long term relationship with another project, I am in a mood for a bit of adventure, without too much deep thinking or commitment. I just like them, and if there is something deeper and more psychologically concerning about an enthusiasm for escape stories, I do not care to explore it. I hope that they bring some entertainment to someone, somewhere, sometime, and it’s rather nice to be chucking them out into the great webby void without worrying  about vicious reviews or proofs, or proper referencing … all of which is, I suppose, another sort of escape. I think my inspiration here is less F.W. Maitland, more one of my childhood favourites The Day it Rained Mashed Potato. 

So: enjoy, or ignore, as you wish. I, at least, will get some pleasure from bringing this all together at last. And I have no doubt I will keep tinkering away with it, as I find new material, and feel the urge to academic it up.

As befits all adventure stories, it will be coming out as a serial, as I get each section into some sort of shape.


10th October, 2020.

First instalment:

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Second instalment

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Third instalment

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And while I sort out the later notes – here is a BBC podcast on top 18th C escaper, Jack Sheppard, which is a lot of fun.





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

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

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

Points of interest

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

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

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

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






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

A place of safety? Unconventional use of a convent in medieval Lincolnshire

I am supposed to be checking proofs and engaging with the horrors of the online proof-reading tool, but somehow am not, because I found something maddeningly fabulous and tantalising in a plea roll, which just needs a quick comment. I don’t think I can sneak it into the book (Women & Medieval Common Law – out scarily soon – dread, dread) at this stage – definitely no more than a surreptitious additional reference, if it doesn’t mess up the page layout – though it could be relevant in a couple of ways (and indeed also links up with both my last book and also a couple of blog posts for more respectable places which I have ‘on the go’ at the moment).

The entry is on the Rex roll of the KB for Trinity term 1331,[i] and it relates to the case of a woman called Agatha, who was indicted for the homicide of her husband, William del Cote. So it looked as if it might have been going in the direction of several ‘petty treason’ cases which I have found, and would end with a laconic little ‘comburr’ in the margin, indicating that the woman had been sent off for burning, but no! There may well be an entry which says just that – I have not tracked down the relevant gaol delivery roll entry, if it exists – but this King’s Bench roll is at one remove from the homicide case itself, and is a presentment by jurors from Kesteven in Lincolnshire of an alleged conspiracy to stop ‘justice’ being done.

The Kesteven jurors stated that John de Camelton, until recently prior of Sempringham, John de Irnham and Hugh de Swafham, fellow canons of the said prior, and John de Nevill of Stoke, had conspired together in relation to Agatha. She had been indicted, arrested and held in Lincoln prison, until she was brought before the justices of gaol delivery at Lincoln castle. (There are no dates for any of this – helpful!) At the gaol delivery session, she remained ‘mute’ – i.e. did not plead. She was remitted to prison by order of the justices, presumably to be ‘encouraged’ to speak via the harsh regime imposed upon such accused as ‘stood mute of malice’. It was at this point that the conspiracy allegedly sprang into action. John de Camelton and the others brought a writ to have the indictment and Agatha brought before the king’s court, and, in the meantime, she was taken to Sempringham, amongst the nuns, and the jurors reported that she was still living there, and the crime remained unpunished. They had some thoughts on why the intervention had occurred: John de Camelton had been paid 200 marks and two bottles of wine.

The sheriff was ordered to summon the alleged conspirators. John de  Irham and Hugh de Swaffham came and pleaded ‘not guilty’, and put themselves on the country. The jury of knights and others said that Hugh was not guilty, so he was acquitted, but they said that John de Irnham was guilty, so should be committed to prison. (Logically, this meant that one of the others had to be guilty as well, as John de irnham could hardly conspire with himself). The new prior of Sempringham came and made a fine for John de Irnham.

Still pretty much locked down, and supposed to be doing other things, there is a limit to how far I can take this at the moment, but it does seem interesting, in at least two respects. First, there is the possibility of it representing a show of sympathy with a woman facing the awful prospect of being burnt for the killing of her husband, and who had not managed to speak for herself at her trial. Assuming that the Kesteven presentment is not a complete lie, it may be interpreted as an instance in which the accused decided, for noble, family-saving reasons – not to co-operate with the trial, in the knowledge that she might die a mistreated prisoner, or else as a situation of such trauma that it left her unable to speak up or make a defence. Alternatively, if they are right about the money and wine, it might just have been a case of corruption (albeit one with an outcome which modern readers are likely to prefer).

The second reason for my particular interest in this is that the action allegedly concerned the priory of Sempringham, a Gilbertine house in Lincolnshire, which, at this very time, was the place of effective incarceration of a figure of my obsession –Gwenllian ferch Llywelyn, daughter of Llywelyn ap Gruffudd, ‘banged up’ in this flat-land, English, convent, at a distance from her father’s power-base in Gwynedd. I delved into her history in my last book, Imprisoning Medieval Women, and have always hoped to find out more. (I also have a ‘very back-burner project’ about the many and various ways in which clerks writing records for the English crown managed to mangle ‘Gwenllian’ – the inability to handle the magnificent Welsh LL has a long history).[ii] This entry, of course, does not touch her directly, and yet it is an interesting hint both at the possibility of dubious security at Sempringham (in the sense of the crown, or royal justice, not being entirely in charge), and also at the sort of company she might have been keeping in the small community there.

The limited poking about that I have been able to do suggests that John de Camelton was an interesting fellow. He comes up in complaints and petitions suggesting further undutiful behaviour.[iii] And there seem to have been various disputes involving the priory and its (male) officials, at this point, and earlier in the century.[iv] By the time the 1331 entry was made, however, ex-prior John was described as debilis, so perhaps his rebellious days were over.[v] As for the silent centre of the story, I wonder whether I will ever find out what happened to the unfortunate (or fortunate?) Agatha. Proofreading has to come first for now, then marking, and writing other things on the January ‘to do’ list, but I will definitely be making further efforts to flesh out this story.




[i] KB 27/285 Rex m. 14 (IMG 461).

[ii] The account of Sempringham in the in VCH calls her ‘Wencilian’.

[iii] TNA SC 8/34/1671; CPR 1330-34, p. 60.

[iv] See, e.g., Joyce Coleman, ‘New Evidence about Sir Geoffrey Luttrell’s Raid on Sempringham Priory 1312’ (1999) The British Library Journal; KB 27/278 Rex m. 27 (IMG 403); KB 27/285 Rex mm. 6, 14 (IMG 444, 462).

[v] KB 27/285 m. 12 (IMG 456-7).

‘Lunacy’ and legal records

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

See the source image

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

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

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

So what?

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

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

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

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


Untruth in wine: a snippet of medieval medical thinking


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

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

And …?

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





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

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