Tag Archives: causation

Causing, confusion? A medieval case from the Isle of Wight

[Warning: This post concerns an instance of sexual violence]

Documents in the King’s Bench indictment file for Hilary term 1448, and an entry on the King’s Bench plea roll, deal with the death of a woman, Joan wife of John Couke, and with accusations against a vicar on the Isle of Wight, with regard to Joan’s last few hours.[i]

Joan’s death had been the subject of a coroner’s inquest at Newport on the Isle of Wight, on Tuesday 12th September, 1447. At this inquest, the twelve jurors said on oath that John Hunter, vicar of the chapel of St Nicholas within the castle of Carisbrooke,[ii] came to Newport with force and arms (sample arms specified), against the peace of the lord king, and broke into and entered the close of a certain Edward Brutte, wrongfully, between the hours of nine and ten at night on Monday 11th Sept, 1447. There and then, he raped[iii] Joan, feloniously, and lay with her carnally. On encountering the pair in the act of intercourse,[iv] John Couke raised the hue and cry. At this, Joan fled, for shame and fear,[v] through the street called Holyrodstret, to the stream called Douks Brouke. She was found dead, with her throat cut, in this stream at around 7 a.m. on 12th September, by one John Mabyll of Newport, glover. The jurors did not know who had killed her. ‘Therefore  they said that John Hunter had caused her death.’[vi]

The matter was brought before the King’s Bench fairly swiftly – in late January, 1448, for once, an accused person who did not attempt to delay things. John Hunter said that he did not need to answer this accusation, because the indictment was not sufficient in law: the coroner did not have the power to inquire into such a matter. The court agreed that it was insufficient, and John Hunter was acquitted.

So what?

Following the usual monotonous pattern, we see yet another man (and yet another churchman) accused of sexual misconduct going free. It is important to register that. There are, however, some quite unusual aspects, hints of thinking by those involved in medieval ‘criminal justice’ which seem worth pointing out.

First, there is the narrative around the sexual offence. It features that lack of conformity with modern, consent-based, definitions of rape, and that disturbing tendency towards assigning culpability to the penetrated woman, through linguistic implication of willed action on her part. Joan is portrayed – presumably with some plausibility – as having been shamed as well as afraid, and running from the hue and cry, as if to suggest that she would be held to have been at fault.

Then there is the causation point, and it could be argued that this goes against the ideas of ‘victim-blaming’, or adoption of the rape myth that all or most women actually are complicit in their own violation. Although their attempt to form a workable indictment was, in the end, rejected by the court, the inquest jurors did choose to tell the story of the rape of Joan, in a forum which was, strictly, supposed to be confined to ‘how the deceased came by her death’ – i.e. the immediate context of that throat-slitting which occurred some hours after the rape, and which was perpetrated by person or persons unknown, and they did attempt to place blame for the death on the rapist, John Hunter, not in the sense of saying that he slit Joan’s throat, but in the broader sense that he had been culpable in creating the situation which led to her death. Ideas about causation are often rather hard to discern in the brief records of the medieval common law, so it is very interesting to see them emerging above the surface here. Causation is far from a straightforward issue, and continues to be debated in criminal law, and in tort. In truth, there is a large degree of moral choice as opposed to clear, logical, inevitability, about decisions that A caused B. This does seem to be something of an outlier, in arguing that a person should be held culpable in relation to a death perpetrated by another, on a person he harmed in a terrible but non-fatal way, at some distance in space and time from the scene of his crime. Wouldn’t it be good to be able to see how they arrived at this interpretation?

Of course, it is possible to reconcile these two apparently inconsistent aspects of the case, by imagining that, although the jurors would often in fact have been unsympathetic to a woman who was raped, their allegation that Hunter had caused Joan’s death was caused by the fact that they were really, really hostile to this particular vicar, and wished to do him a bad turn.




[i] Completists may also want to see this.

[ii] As pictured – sort of – the medieval chapel was demolished and rebuilt, as can be seen from  this,.

[iii] It’s a rapuit, with all of the potential uncertainty of that word. It seems appropriate to me to translate it as ‘raped’ here.

[iv] carnaliter communicantibus, I think.

[v] pro pudore et timore

[vi] fuit causa mortis prefate Johanne

Mustard mastered: a tortuously-explained death in medieval Kent

A King’s Bench plea roll entry for Michaelmas 1374[i]  informs us about the legal response to the death of an agricultural labourer, John Mustard, in Kent.

The entry notes that there had been an inquest on the body of one John Mustard, which resulted in the indictment of Simon de Kegworth. The inquest was taken at Earde, Kent, on 3rd August, 1374, and the inquest jury said that events had unfolded as follows…

The scene: John Mustard, who was one of Simon’s workers, along with others of Simon’s servants, was at work tying up sheaves of peas (not quite sure of my agricultural correctness there – sheaves of peas sounds a bit odd – but it’s what the words say!) at the hour of vespers in a field called Priestfield in the hundred of Litley, and vill of Earde…

Action #1 – things get a bit tasty:  Simon came to his servants and as he arrived, John Mustard, who was drunk, spoke to Simon in contemptuous words (which, of course, the record-creators felt the need to preserve for us …). John said that Simon was an idiot (fatuus) and [rough translation!] was no more use than pigshit.

John continued the insults as everyone went on with their agricultural tasks (gathering things up before an expected rain-soaking). Sadly, these ‘even more contumelious’ words are not recorded. It is a shame, because it seems to have been these unrecorded words which tipped Simon over the edge.

Action #2 – Simon loses it, but absolutely doesn’t wish to harm John, and doesn’t cause his death: Simon had a willow staff or club – we are told that this was something he carried in the autumn – and he threw it at John. This, it is pointed out, was meant to frighten John out of continuing his disrespectful words. It may have stopped the words, but it did not knock the fight out of John – he took the staff in his hand and threw it back at Simon. After this, Simon was apparently scared of John, he being so drunk, and drew out his knife, throwing it at John. This, we are told, was to make John want to flee, rather than to do him any harm, but  by misfortune the  knife ‘fell’ onto John’s back, wounding him. This wound was ‘small, neither deep, nor wide, nor mortal. John did die, but this was because the wound was widened and opened by his agricultural work, done afterwards. The jurors insisted on pointing out that John was, at the end, not drunk, and that he did not die of the (initial) wound.

Simon, presumably confident that he would not really be in danger of being hanged for this, turned himself in at once.

So what?

Well, this is interesting to me in a few ways. I do love a good insult – it feels like a real connection to the speech of the past, despite the omissions, and the translation. There is a fair helping of ‘humans don’t change that much’ in my instinctive response to reading the sort of verbal mud (and worse) they allegedly fling at each other in such cases. It gives us some useful information about what was seen as acceptable and unacceptable conduct in the master-servant relationship There is more to late 14th C labour relations than the Ordinance and Statute of Labourers. I suppose it also tells us something about medieval inebriation and attitudes to it (though I have to say I don’t quite understand why we need to know about John’s level of intoxication at the time of his death – is this to do with the state of his soul?).From a legal point of view, iIt is also instructive to see fairly obvious fiddling with the path of causation assigned to the death, in order to avoid serious consequences for a favoured killer. Here, Simon responds to drunken insults with physical force – there is no way that throwing things, including throwing them at a man’s back, fits the usual stereotyped formula for self defence, but the jurors here clearly thought that John Mustard was ‘asking for it’, and did their best to soften the conduct of Simon, to explain it and to put the best possible spin on his intentions.

In the end, Simon’s confidence was well placed: though indicted for the death of John, he received a royal pardon, on 7th November, 1374, and so was sent off ‘without day’ by the King’s Bench,[ii] to return to his pea-gathering in Kent, presumably.





[i] KB 27/455 Rex m.32, AALT IMG 348

[ii] Pardon CPR 1374-7, p. 34.

Photo by Avinash Kumar on Unsplash

Between cause and effect: the length of lingering deaths

There is an interesting (if, obviously, horrible) local murder case in the press today, for anyone looking at the issue of causation, and the potential time-gap between offending action and death, which action may still be amenable to prosecution as homicide. Rather than simply being a matter of later discovery of, and prosecution of, a murder, the death of Jacqueline Kirk was relatively recent (2019), but the criminal action being assigned as its cause (setting her on fire) occurred 21 years before that. This leapt out at me today, quite apart from its horror and human interest, as connecting to an academic interest which I have long had in ideas about causation of death, and the issues surrounding ascribing criminal culpability in cases of ‘lingering death’, in so far as we can gather them from medieval legal records – and on which I plan to work in 2021-2. There are differences, of course, in that there can now be considerably greater certainty about factual causation than would have been the case in the ‘premodern world’, but causation in the law of homicide is never just a matter of fact, but mixes in all sorts of judgments about blame and appropriateness of bringing belated legal proceedings, so this recent case, and the discussion which it will no doubt encourage, will be an interesting lens through which to examine my material (though I have to say that, while there are certainly some very belated prosecutions, I have not found any attempts to argue for a ‘lingering death homicide’ of anything like this length, in older materials – no doubt to a great extent because people subjected to serious violence such as being set on fire would be unlikely to survive long, without modern medical interventions, but there are fascinating changes in ideas about the moral/legal aspects of causation to track as well).



Image (and yes I know this is not the court where the accused appeared yesterday, but the new one is a bit ugly: also good to see a statue in Bristol which is not obviously in need of a toppling): Stone statue of Justice by Edward Sheppard, the old Magistrates Court, Bridewell St., Bristol, dated 1879

Untruth in wine: a snippet of medieval medical thinking


See the source image

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.

Lucky escape of a Nottinghamshire hot-head

All sorts of interesting questions arise in the case of a Nottinghamshire man who ‘got off’ (eventually) after being presented for his involvement in the death of his mother, not least what actually happened in the confusion which led to her death.

The record is at JUST 1/676 m.2 (image via AALT at: http://aalt.law.uh.edu/AALT4/JUST1/JUST1no676/IMG_4752.htm ) This is a roll from a judicial session in Nottinghamshire in 1305-6.

The person who came under some suspicion, William under the Appelton of Harworth, was an angry young man. We are told about the ‘angry’ part, and his actions bear out the description of him as ‘iratus’ that night at least. We do not know his age, but he was young enough to have a mother still living, and, until the events of the night in question, still active enough to run. On the other hand, he was old enough to have a wife. ‘Angry young man’ seems about right.

Those from his area, Bassettlaw,  given the job of reporting offences and unnatural deaths to the session said that Agnes mother of William under the Appelton of Harworth, on a date in 1304, ran onto a sword which was held by her son William and killed herself. This way of presenting the facts ascribed causation of the death to Agnes herself: she moved, took the active part, while William did nothing but hold a sword. He could not possibly be held responsible, to any extent, for his mother’s death. Even without more, one might ask whether holding a sword in such a way that somebody might collide with its point might possibly be worthy of some criticism, but in fact there is more. The jurors told a story which suggests that the death was entirely avoidable, and was mostly or entirely the result of William’s aggressive and reckless behaviour. That they chose not to interpret it in this way tells an interesting story of its own.

According to the trial jurors, on the day in question, as evening fell, William was angry (iratus) with Richard, one of his servants, and wanted to hit him with his drawn sword. Was this to be beating with the flat of the sword – unconventional, but masters did have the right to chastise their servants, up to a point – or was the intention more murderous? This is not explained, and, in any case, Richard was saved from William’s attack when Avelina, his wife, restrained William physically, helped by Thomas, William’s brother, and Isolda, his sister, who came in because of Avelina’s shouting.

Next, the scene was plunged into darkness, because a candle lighting William’s home went out. Agnes enters at this point. She had been getting ready for bed in her dower house, located nearby,  in William’s court, when she heard the noise, and came over to William’s place in the dark, to investigate and calm things down.  She did not see that William was (still) holding a drawn sword in his hand, and ‘suddenly’, ‘by accident’  she ran onto it, and was injured by her own movement, and died some hours later.

Concluding their account of the episode, the jurors reinforced the point that this fatal injury happened by accident, and also chose to say that the stupidity (stulticiam) of Agnes had contributed. This seems rather unjust as a judgment on Agnes’s conduct. It was, as the story shows, hardly stupid to come and try to defuse a situation caused by her aggressive son, which was clearly causing alarm to a number of people in the household. The point of defaming Agnes in this way might show some contempt for women, but the main reason to do it was to make sure that the death was not ascribed to felony or malice on William’s part. William, still alive, could soon not be, if he was found to have killed his mother feloniously, whereas Agnes was now beyond hurting, except in the most metaphorical sense.

The jurors had done their best to exculpate William, but he still had something of a wait in gaol, until a royal pardon was obtained. The pardon was forthcoming, however, and it appears in Calendar of Patent Rolls 1302-7, 421. So William was free to rage another day, now also presumably enjoying the part of his inheritance formerly assigned to his mother as dower.

Points of interest

There are, as ever, many of these. In social history terms, it might get us thinking about relations between masters and servants, husbands and wives, mothers and sons. In legal terms, it is an interesting illustration of the interaction of ideas about causation and culpability and the stretching of causation ideas to bolster a case for non-culpability. Mostly, though, I am left wondering just how reckless men were allowed to be with deadly weapons before it would be regarded as their fault that somebody was killed. The efforts of the jurors to distort the likely facts (e.g. the business with Agnes running so fast, in the darkness, onto a motionless sword, that she gave herself a fatal wound, with seems much less likely than a confused struggle involving William not remaining entirely still) appears to suggest that they knew they were pretty near to the limit in this case.