‘Accordyng to the lawes of god and womanhode’: scenes from a late-medieval birthing chamber

Note that a slightly revised version of this has now appeared on the Bristol Law School Blog 

In some work on qualification for tenancy by the curtesy a few years ago, I had occasion to look into cases relating to expectations as to who was present at a birth in medieval households (at least households of some wealth and land). The curtesy cases gave sometimes turned on matters occurring at or shortly after a birth, and thus included some interesting insights on what went on, or was thought to go on at this time. I hope that study added something to scholarship on medieval childbirth practices. Curtesy is not the only sort of legal proceeding in which we might see a description of childbirth or its aftermath however: there are some rather interesting comments on this in a case relating to trespass and ‘riott’, from the reign of Edward IV, which I will note here.[i]

The comments come in the petition presented in 1473 (and repeated in a King’s Bench plea roll of 1476) by a Yorkshire knight, Sir John de Assheton, in connection with his allegation of mistreatment at the hands of a group of ‘riottours’, at about 2 a.m. on 6th November 1470, with one John Myrfeld at the head of the list, who, he said, attacked his home at Howley (Morley, Yorks), took him off to Pontefract castle, and made him seal a bond in their favour. Partly as a strategy to show just how dastardly the ‘riottours’ were, but also partly to ward off any suggestion that he had given in and gone off with them rather too easily, Assheton made great play of the fact that, at the time they had attacked his place, his wife was in confinement (so, you see, his submission was really all noble and all about protecting his wife and others).

Anyway, whatever may be the reason for the mention of the childbirth scene, it does give a few interesting passages, which might be added to our knowledge of this part of medieval life.

So what do we get? Assheton does not bother to name his wife, which, of course, says much about her position in the grand patriarchal scheme of things (and I can’t help but think it’s rather weaselish when he is trying to use her to make himself look better …). He does tell us that she was ‘newely delyvered of child and liyng in childbed with other divers his susters, gentilwomen and frendes accompaigned’ at the time of the attack. Because of the attack, which was said to have involved pulling down walls, flashing of weapons (listed) and the application of ‘fyre’. Assheton did eventually say that he experienced ‘fere’, but only after he had attributed even stronger emotions to his ‘wif’,  described as fearful, ‘in right grete dispare of hir lif’. The ‘gentilwomen’ who were with his wife, were also said to share her feelings.

Here, we also get a nice, almost throw-away comment: they were there with his wife ‘accordyng to the lawes of god and womanhode’. The job these words are doing, in his narrative, is, I think, that of highlighting the goodness, the good order, of the Assheton household, in order to make a telling, condemnatory, contrast with the ‘riotous’ and, perhaps ungodly, behaviour of his adversaries.

As he gets towards his own submission to the attackers, there is some repetition of remarks on the state of his wife, with some additions: she is ‘new in child bed’ but now also ‘in the bandes of our lady’ and cannot be moved without ‘ieop[ar]dy of hir deth’. The ‘bandes of our lady’ are rather interesting: should we be thinking about metaphorical ‘bandes’, or should we be thinking about the use of some sort of birthing girdle, or, indeed, both of the above? This might be a conventional saying, unknown to a simple legal historian, but perhaps not: might it shed some light on perceived workings of medieval delivery-protection practice?

Assheton does list the saving of his own life as well as hers, and those of the others present, as motives for his surrender, but the point has been made – he was really thinking  of his wife (damn, what was her name again?).

Nothing much turns on these childbed allegations, and the case takes off in a different direction, but it is good to get these small clues and pieces of description. While Prof. Monica Green has made a strong case for the moves of male medieval medical professionals into the area,[ii] this case reinforces the idea of conventional childbirth being a women-only event (or at least being held up as women-only, possibly for rhetorical purposes). This women-only quality is given divine backing, as well as the sanction of ‘the lawe of womanhode’ (which I have not seen before). It raises all sorts of questions about ideas of both ‘lawe’ and ‘womanhode’, and about how this concept relates to the more familiar ‘secrets of women’. Much to ponder.





Very satisfying – I have matched this case to the Year Book report, which is Seipp 1476.015. This, incidentally, puts the (still unnamed) wife in the forefront of the allegation in the case, making it one of Mirfield (or ‘J Marsel’) having ousted W and Ashton’s servants from P’s house. Interesting change of emphasis, effacing John Assheton’s capitulation and fears. What to conclude from this, other than a reinforcement of the need for caution in deducing attitudes to gender from just one medieval legal source?


Image – yes, I know this is a later ruin, but still, vaguely appropriate.

[i] KB 27/858 m. 66 ff.  The petition comes from 1473.

[ii] See, in particular, M. Green, Making Women’s Medicine Masculine: The Rise of Male Authority in Pre-Modern Gynaecology (Oxford, 2008).

The ad-vocate (or, nice honest lawyers)

I do like early newspaper advertising, and here is a gem I couldn’t keep to myself: check out this interesting strategy, found in an 1899 edition of Papur Pawb (‘everyone’s paper’).

We have a Sheffield watch-seller, co-opting the image of a barrister to flog merchandise and finance deals. So, unlike the much more common negative/humorously mocking use of the image of a lawyer, we have to assume that this is thought to be something which will increase trust in the seller and product. And maybe an overtone of it being a posh accoutrement of the sort a privileged professional might sport?

I imagine that this was a campaign throughout Britain, but there are extra dimensions when it is placed in a Welsh-language title. How would this audience have viewed the London-dominated bar? And could pawb really afford to blow 50 shillings on a watch?

See also this from 1908, working a bit of verb/noun humour with ‘counsel’:



Got to laugh (no, not really)

A quick historical legal ‘joke’, or passage of what was seen as witty dialogue, anyway, from a 1915 edition of Y Dinesydd Cymraeg: my mental warm-up translation this morning …


A hard-headed judge

Judge: Was the stone you threw bigger than my head?

The prisoner: Yes, your honour, but not quite as hard!


How those Welsh citizens must have laughed! Possibly proving that humour does not really translate, across the language/time continuum. I do find myself fascinated, though, by the wise-cracking judicial persona that comes out in these things, and can’t help but see connections with some of the ‘humour’ I found some years ago, when researching an article on jokes and wordplay in medieval common law reports.



Keeping them laughing … or possibly not

And here is another piece of proof that legal humour does not really travel, from an issue of Tarian y Gweithiwr from 1887.

The judge and the constable

Judge: What sort of man did you see committing the assault?

Constable: For certain, your lordship, he was some foolish little creature – about your size, your lordship’.

This time, I suppose that the humour is working on an assumption that lawyers are weedy and policemen burly and not very diplomatic …which makes more sense when we reflect that ‘Tarian y Gweithiwr’ was explicitly targeting ‘gweithwyr’, i.e. labourers.


You want more court-room humour from Welsh newspapers? Oh, very well.

Here we are, loosely translated from a Tarian y Gweithiwr from 1886: a side-splitting dialogue between a judge and a witness …

The judge asked the witness if he understood the meaning of the oath he had taken. “Yes, sir”, answered the witness, “I am sworn to tell the truth”. “What would happen”, asked the judge then, “if you did not tell the truth?”. “Well, I suppose”, said the witness, “our side would win the case”.

Ho ho!


And, since everybody loves an amusing, animal-related, incident in court, what about this, from an 1897 Gwalia?

In the quarter sessions in New Ross, presided over by Judge Kane, there was an exciting and very peculiar incident. A tom cat of dignified appearance made an appearance in the court, and, chased from one place to another by some people, he jumped onto the [witness box].[i] Whilst gliding lightly over the papers and black bags of the solicitors, one of the men of law threw a thick volume on the Land Acts at the animal, but the cat was too quick for the lawyer, and, like a flash, jumped onto the bench beside the judge.  With fire in his eyes, he jumped for the wig on the judge’s head. His Honour, somehow, managed to dodge him, and the cat fell down. The judge took the matter in the best possible humour, while the lawyers and the public laughed heartily.

[i] Or ‘table’.

Photo by Tim Mossholder on Unsplash

Gwilym Carreg Ddu, or Blackstone in the Welsh press

 I enjoyed reading this little curiosity in an edition of the Welsh-language paper, Y Drych, from 1886. Here it is, in my best effort at a translation.

Blackstone and the Welsh

Sir William Blackstone was born in London on the 10th July, 1723. Although he lost his parents while he was a child, he received a good education and had every opportunity to develop his various talents. When he was young, he studied architecture and composed poetry. In 1741, he started to study law, and did so with moderate  success, until he was elected to the chair in law at Oxford University. It was the course of lectures which he gave there on the common law of Great Britain [sic] which immortalised his name. He died at the age of 57.

In his lectures on the sources of the laws of England, and influences on their formation. Although he did not devote much space to the British/Brythonic influence, what he said about the Cymry, their land and their laws, was entirely respectful.

Perhaps he was not inclined to think thoroughly about the likely effects of the unwritten laws of the druids on the large corpus of the common law, or unwritten law of the kingdom, after the Saxons and the Normans occupied the island.

When talking about the complete union of Wales and England, in the 27th year of the reign of Henry VIII, he said of our ancestors:

“Thus were this brave people gradually conquered into the enjoyment of true liberty.”

The learned lecturer admitted that the Welsh were the first of the peoples of Britain to share a deceased father’s land equally between all of his sons, as continues to be done in Kent.  The more recent and more unfair rule of the invaders made the eldest son heir to everything.  There was also the ‘Welsh mortgage’, a remarkably kind arrangement, and a just one. Its peculiarity was its ban on foreclosure, and the transfer of property to the creditor: any time he paid the money, the borrower could have his property back. In the meantime, the creditor could take all profits.

These examples of the old laws of our fathers are enough to make us regret greatly that we do not know more of them. They suggest that the Welsh had, from the time of the druids until Hywel Dda, strong ideas of fairness. It would have been a great blessing to the United Kingdom today if there had been fewer traces of the Normans, and more of the Celtic principles had remained in all of its institutions.



Well, it starts off with Blackstone, doesn’t it, but it ends up somewhere rather different and quite a lot more nationalistic. UK, be more Celtic! A fair number of druids floating around (though Blackstone does in fact get a bit druidy at times with some of his origin stories, e.g. in relation to burning women at the stake). Hywel Dda naturally present and correct. Perhaps more interesting is the enthusiasm for some more arcane aspects of Welsh property law. Very much of its time.




Photo by Catrin Ellis on Unsplash


Return of ‘the eunuch maker’

For those of us following the ‘Eunuch Maker’ case (briefly discussed here), there have been some more proceedings and reports in newspapers and other news sources.[i]

Still, as far as I can see, no explicit reference to mayhem, but it is interesting to see the focus of some reports on the fact that ‘the Eunuch Maker’ himself, Marius Gustavson, claimed some disability benefits after having various bits of himself removed. It does not seem to be suggested that he undertook the procedures in order to collect the benefit, but, still it does rather chime in with the story told by Edward Coke, of having presided over a trial in which a fit and healthy beggar had himself ‘maimed’, all the better to beg. Not livestreamed for profit though.

GS 13/1/2024

[i] Mail, Guardian,

Update: report mentioning consent with regard to sentencing, but so far no mayhem references.

Update: others involved in the conspiracy in court, sentenced, late January 2024: see newspaper report here

Further sentences due 4/5 March 2024.

Starting some fake history …

This, just now, when looking up the site …

I seem to have launched two new fake women into the vortex of untruth: Henry’s sister and Dr Judith Bracton, legal historian.



… And on we go …

Continuing my inadvertent journey into flummoxing AI, this has now added Eleanor of Brittany and Toni Braxton to the mix …

Only a matter of time until we hear that king John’s real beef with Arthur of Brittany was that he didn’t like his legal writing/compilation, and that Eleanor’s version of ‘Unbreak My Heart’ was far superior to Toni Braxton’s cover version …


OK, I may be coming around to AI, since this turned up when I was trying to find my research profile … Look, I am esteemed!

Copilot, I bet you say that to all the legal historians …


Prosecuting predatory chaplains: an instance of abuse from fourteenth-century Yorkshire

Deeply unpleasant, but worthy of a quick note is this Yorkshire entry from a King’s Bench plea roll, from Michaelmas term 1363.[i]

It states that the jurors of various wapentakes in the county, in the previous Michaelmas term, at York, presented that Thomas de Barkestone, chaplain, recently living at Escrick, took Alice de Hartford,[ii] aged 13 years, recently servant of the same chaplain, and extracted her from her bed in the house of John Gamul of Escrick,[iii] on [25th April, 1362], and conducted her, naked, to his (Thomas’s) chamber, with the assistance of another chaplain. Because Alice did not want to consent to fornicate with Thomas, the two chaplains tied her up, naked, using an iron chain attached to a post there, and kept her there, tied up and naked, until Thomas ‘lay with her’, feloniously and against her will. Thomas and the other chaplain pleaded not guilty, put themselves on a jury, and were bailed until Easter term following this.

Here, the trail goes cold (so far!) and, as ever, we don’t know what facts lay behind this instance, but it is clear that this was considered a plausible story, and that is noteworthy. There are a few points of particular interest, and connections with other bits and pieces I have done. Let’s think about one or two of them.

First, there is the age of Alice, and the fact that it is noted. We find it vile that a (presumably) adult man was predating upon a 13 year old girl, and the jurors seem to have been appalled too – for there is no obvious legal reason to record it. Interesting on attitudes (at least of male, respectable jurors) to women and girls, and offences against them.

Then there is the fact that Alice was formerly a servant of Thomas. This makes the whole thing even grimmer (or concurrently grim?), bringing in considerations of the particular vulnerability of female servants to the slobbering and harassment of their employers.[iv] It is hard not to speculate about why Alice left Thomas’s service, and to construct a particularly heart-breaking story in which she left because of his pressure and abuse, thought she had got away, but was ensnared once more. One of the common images used for marriage was that of the bond or chain: here, allegedly, was a very literal use of chains in a non-marital context, showing that the employer-female servant connection might also be very hard to escape.

In terms of the main offence, the details are, of course, horrific; they are also unusual amongst such accounts. The power of the offenders (two of them, presumably grown-up men, with the means to subdue Alice – and presumably having planned the whole thing) is contrasted with Alice’s youth and nakedness (three times we are told she was naked). The vocabulary around will and consent is also interesting. Medieval records very commonly use the expression of sex ‘against her will’, and I have always thought that there is an important difference between this and ‘without her consent’, although we (both lawyers and historians) tend to fall into modern legal language, based around consent. Here, however, both ‘against her will’ and the fact of her non-consent are mentioned. It seems a particularly strong indication that the jury were sympathetic towards this particular young girl, and that they believed that people like Thomas (men, chaplains) might do things like this. The other vocabulary issue which is difficult, and jarring, though perhaps explained by the need to use Latin, rather than more familiar, less formal, languages, is the use of concubuit for the act itself – its overtones of mutuality, ‘with-ness’ sitting so badly with what was clearly being told as a tale of unilateral and abusive crime.

I hope to find more on it at some point, but this case is certainly one to add to consideration of the complexities of the law on sexual offences in the medieval period, as well as the often weak position of female servants.




Image – well, what do you use for a story like this? I have gone for a road in the general area.

[i] KB 27/412 Rex m. 1d; AALT IMG 0513.

[ii] ? Hartforth: Survey of English Place-Names (nottingham.ac.uk)

[iii] Escrick :: Survey of English Place-Names (nottingham.ac.uk)

[iv] See, e.g., this post.

Of pears and periwinkles: a snippet on medieval torture

I don’t want to go all ‘pear of anguish’ here, and/or play into the lazy and tiresome stereotypes of medieval brutality, but … I did come across a tantalising little snippet on torture devices in a recent search of plea rolls, which I think is worth sharing with anyone who happens upon this.

It came up in an entry relating to an approver (approvers being those who ‘turned king’s evidence’ and accused their former associates, in the – usually forlorn – hope that they would escape punishment themselves).[i] There were relatively frequent assertions by these approvers that they had been coerced into taking on this very dicey role, confessing to their own guilt of a capital offence, probably having to take part in a judicial combat,  and running the risk of immediate execution if they failed to make the accusation stick and their former associate was acquitted. Not a great option, in most cases, we might think (leaving aside the whole ‘confession is good for the soul’ thing). Such instances have been noted by others, including allegations of torture as a method of coercion, but I have not seen reference to the interesting and specific detail provided in one 14th C Yorkshire case.

In the King’s Bench plea roll for Michaelmas term 1343,[ii] we find a presentment by jurors of several wapentakes[iii] in Yorkshire regarding treatment of one William Cholle. William had, so they said, been in a prison (not specified where), and William de Rymyngton and John de Nessefeld, cleric,[iv] in whose custody he was, had taken him to the tower of York castle, and, once there, had drawn him on a rope and ‘on his fingers, put certain torments called pyrewynkes’ in order to force him to become an approver. He did not, however, become an approver.  The jurors then went from specific to vague and general, stating that the accused had made many prisoners in their custody become approvers by the use of such tortures (though the jurors did not know the names of these unfortunates) and that William caused a number of men to be accused in sheriffs’ tourns, for profit (using false testimony and oaths, and then extorting money from them to have them let off).

I was expecting a quick ‘not guilty’, but no – the law caught up with William R, and he seems to have accepted his guilt (I trust, without the use of torture). He made fine with the king – the tariff was 20s. This, however, was offset by the expenses William declared for repairs to the doors and windows, and other repairs to the king’s hall of pleas at York castle. William was keen for this to be enrolled – presumably to protect him from any further action and/or attempts to recover the 20s fine.

So what?

Well, an interesting tale in relation to the two Williams. William C is, so far, a mystery: there may well be more to be found out, but it is at least interesting that somebody was known to have withstood torture. William R does not come out of it well, does he, but it is interesting that this was not treated as a massive abuse. What does that say about royal attitudes to the approver system? I think it supports the suggestions of earlier scholars that this was a fairly merciless thing, and also something seen as necessary for achieving an acceptable level of prosecution of offenders. If somebody like William R went a bit far, well, it wasn’t the end of the world.

Finally, what about those ‘pyryewynkes’? Others may have come across this term in the past: I have not. They don’t seem to feature in the work of Musson, Hamil or Summerson. I can only speculate about their nature – they are plural: was there one for each finger? We will all be familiar with the thumbscrew – was this something like that, only multiple, and not just for thumbs? I assume that it was some sort of crushing or stretching device, but that may be a lack of imagination on my part. What is suggested by the name – it looks rather like ‘periwinkle’, so could it be a device which looked like small seashells? Or flowers? Or a word garbling Latin elements indicating tight binding? The flower seems more likely than the shell, given easily accessible definitions and etymologies.[v] Hard to imagine quite why the device was like a flower, if that is the idea. Probably a dead end, and perhaps more interesting anyway are two other things: first that it is named in English by the jurors, and, second, that it has a specific name at all.  Both of these suggest, it seems to me, that this was something people in the wider community beyond the legal system knew about, talked about. So maybe, just maybe, it is a tiny signal that we medievalists should not take the defensive attitude towards ‘our patch’ too far, and be so quick to bat away all torture horror stories as ignorant modern nonsense, or shunt them forwards to the early modern period (that’s a favourite move with anything negative, isn’t it?). There may not ever have been a ‘pear of anguish’, other than in the minds of later fantasists,  but a fair number of medieval people in York at least believed in the existence of ‘the fearsome pyrewynke’ …





Image – pretty, inoffensive, non-torturing, flower, vinca minor by Lydia Penrose, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


[i] See, in particular, A. Musson, “Turning King’s Evidence: The Prosecution of Crime in Late Medieval England.” Oxford Journal of Legal Studies 19 (1999), 467–79; F. C. Hamil, ‘The King’s Approvers’, 11 Speculum (1936), 238-58; H. R. T. Summerson, ‘The Criminal Underworld of Medieval England’  17 Journal of Legal History (1996). 197-224; And I found this one useful on torture: L Tracy, ‘Wounded Bodies: Kingship, National Identity and Illegitimate Torture in the English Arthurian Tradition’, in D.E. Clark, L. Robeson, M. Nievergelt et al. (eds) Arthurian Literature XXXII (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer; 2015) 1-30. No doubt there is more I could read. My internet search engine did express concern, though …

[ii] KB 27/334 m. 17; AALT IMG 0320.

[iii] Wapentakes are jurisdictionally-relevant geographical subdivisions: this term is specific to the northern part of England.

[iv] He comes up now and again in official documents, e.g. here there’s a man of that name, county and time who has a job as keeper of the hospital of the Holy Innocents – and see the end of the next note.

[v] The trusty Middle English Compendium gives three meanings for ‘pervinkle’, including the shell. The flower seems to be the earlier ‘periwinkle’ though, and there is an intriguing association between the flower and execution, from Lydgate, in the MEC:  pervink and pervinke – Middle English Compendium (umich.edu) ‘Thou hast … crowned oon with laureer hih on his hed upset, Other with peruynke maad for the gibet’- J. Lydgate, Fall of Princes (Bod. MS 264) vi. 126. I am not pretending I have read this – I haven’t – but intriguing nonetheless. And let me just go all-out conspiracist … there is an ecclesiastical document relating to a John de Nessefeld which is decorated with … flowers … Coincidence? I think not!

(And a quick ‘pear of anguish’ update … I am currently working through the complete ‘box set’ of detection drama, Bones (don’t judge: I find the puzzle solving very cathartic) and was intrigue/disappointed to see the POA featuring as a murder weapon in 4:15, with no correction about historical accuracy by Dr Brennan. It’s making me doubt the total authenticity of other aspects of the show …)

Matching mayhem

A spot of plea roll-Year Book matching as I ease myself into 2024. YB Pasch. 25 Edw III f. 85a pl. 22 seems to be this 1351 plea roll case. There are no names or places in the short YB note, while the plea roll tells us that it was a London case, an appeal brought by John de Hardyngesthorne, saddler, against John White, pouch-maker, for maiming the middle finger of his right hand with a baselard. There is a pretty clear match – both are about injuries to fingers, and both show a self-defence plea.

A point of legal interest is that self-defence might work here, as well as in homicide cases. That was not self-evident, since there were some important differences between the two, especially in the sense that a successful appeal of mayhem did not result in capital punishment.

The plea roll tells us that John White claimed that John de Hardyngesthorne had come, mob-handed, and attacked him in his home. The jurors weren’t having any of the self-defence story, however: there was a conviction and a jury award of £10 to the injured saddler. Interestingly, the judges inspected and considered the injury, and then raised the sum to be paid, by 40 s.

There are all sorts of things to think about here, including this last assessment of injury and compensation point. It is also potentially a telling case in terms of one of the questions which has been buzzing around my head, as I work on a larger problem on mayhem: what role was this offence playing in medieval society, and why are so many of the cases about arms, hands and fingers? In this case, our injured saddler was undoubtedly concerned not so much for his fighting prowess (the original domain of mayhem) but for his ability to perform his craft and earn a living. I am no expert but I would imagine that a hand/finger injury would be a big problem in a skilled and fiddly task like saddle-making. Any attempt at reconstructing the facts behind the allegation is necessarily speculative, but it’s hard to resist – possibly a basic brawl, but I find myself wondering about the possibility of a squabble over supplies for the creation of saddles and pouches: was there little love lost amongst the leather-workers?



Epiphany, 2024.

Image – your actual baselard. A later German one, but you get the idea. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Your guess is as good as mine …

A quick bit of medieval smut for the new year … I recently found a very interesting name, in a King’s Bench plea roll of 1349 – William Wassheballok[e] … which raises all sorts of questions about how William ended up with that label. (Was his personal hygiene unusual … did it stem from some practical joke … and why the apparent singular?)

I cannot say that I have ever seen the name before, so assuming that, mercifully, it didn’t carry on down the generations.



And another one …

Not rude in the anatomical sense, but also a bit of an interesting name is the surname of Simon Godesbones, appearing in the KB plea roll for Easter 1368. He would seem to have been named after a theologically questionable oath (‘by God’s bones’!) So was it the result of him (or some predecessor) using that oath regularly, or did somebody exclaim it when they saw him? Or something else?



Image: courtesy of the wonderful AALT which was not set up for such unscholarly smut …