Tag Archives: crime

Daggers, lances, secrets, puzzles

(CW: sexual offences, rape)

The issue summarised

There are occasional late-medieval allegations of sexual offences – rapes in modern terminology – which include references to what appear, on the surface, to be weapons, but this talk of weapons may have been understood as a metaphorical way of referring to male genitalia. It is hard to be certain, at times, whether we are looking at an allegation of rape (modern sense) plus additional assault with an actual weapon, penetration with a weapon (probably not, but just about possible) or rape with a penis described in metaphorical weapon terms. The whole business is made more complicated by the fact that one medieval weapon was actually called a ‘ballock-hafted dagger’ or ‘ballock dagger’, because it was thought reminiscent of the obvious (the hilt – you can imagine …). I have written a couple of previous posts on this topic, but it’s time for another one, as I have found yet another relevant indictment.


Where I had got to with this …

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

I did, at first, question my reading of the carnal lance/ ballokhaftitdagher’: could the lance perhaps have been some sort of butchery implement? Was the dagger just an actual dagger regarded as having a genital-like appearance? But both terms being used together made a pretty strong case for seeing the ‘carnal lance’ and ‘ballock hafted dagger’ as evoking not actual weapons but metaphorical weapons, and, given the context, to refer to male genitalia. It is worth noting that a resort to metaphorical language is unusual within the generally unfanciful context of medieval plea rolls, but that the use of weapon-imagery is a well-known practice in literary sources.[iii] Obviously, I am not a scholar of literature, and it seems to me that there is a definite need for some interdisciplinary discussion of this, but this is where I am at the moment …

I had come across the ‘carnal lance’ image on its own in a very small number of other cases.iv] Sometimes there is additional information linking the lance to specific parts of a woman’s body which appear to make a sexual penetration meaning most likely (though these might be interpreted as penetration with an actual weapon, just about). For example, a case going back to the 1440s shows a Kent jury swearing that Richard Kay, parson of the church of Hartley, on 20th November 1439, broke into and entered the house of Thomas Cotyer in Hartley, with force and arms, and, in a barn, assaulted Rose, Thomas Cotyer’s wife, beat and wounded and mistreated her, and hit her so severely with a certain carnal lance between her thighs, that she fell to the floor onto her back, and then he lay with her, against the king’s peace. They added that Richard was ‘a common adulterer etc.’[v]

A ‘carnal lance’ reference, in a 1483 Devon indictment,[vi] does seem to separate the attack with the lance and the sexual penetration, so did make me wonder once more whether I might be talking fanciful nonsense, but yet another, from the same county and roll, mentions the use in an attack on a female servant of both ‘carnal lance’ and two ‘stones’.[vii]

Another reference to carnal lances and stones, from Devon, from an indictment file for Hilary term 1482 – does, I think, confirm that carnal lances were not actual lances, and stones were not actual stones, in some legal records. It is a deeply unpleasant sexual assault accusation, in which a certain William Gamon, clerk, was accused of what would now be called  a rape (though no ‘rape term’ is used, and neither are words of felony) on Joan, wife of John Stonehewer, on two separate occasions.[viii] A rough-and-ready translation of the case would be:

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

A metaphorical link between testicles and stones was certainly present in the medieval period, and appears, for example, in the Mirror of Justices, in a discussion of mayhem (Book I c. 9). It is, of course, still hard to be sure that this was not a real lance and real stones, but the more examples I find of the link between weapon-talk and sexual offence cases, the less likely that seems.

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

Recently, I came across a relevant indictment in a file from Yorkshire, from 1454. KB9/149 m. 21 contains the allegation that William Shepley of ‘Wymbursley’ (Wimberley?), Yorkshire,  tailor, on 31st October 1453, came with force and arms (i.e. with swords, bows and arrows), broke the close and house of Henry Smith of Norton nr Campsall, Yorkshire,  feloniously took seven marks in money, and other utensils to the value of six marks, from the goods and chattels of Henry, and (the relevant bit for me) assaulted Agnes Smith, wife of Henry, with force and arms, ‘i.e. with a large instrument of small value called a ballokhafted dagger, of length of approximately one hand and a half (longitudinis unius manip’li & di’) worth one penny, and pierced and entered her ‘secret parts’, raping the said Agnes then and there. William had been outlawed, but, thus far, I have found no further proceedings.

What exactly was the alleged offence against Agnes? There are several mutually reinforcing layers of mud here: the euphemistic reference to secreta, the well-known obscurity or breadth of raptus, the fact that there actually was a sort of dagger with that suggestive name, and the conventional lists of weaponry commonly seen in allegations of assaults or forceful wrongs, but no imagined by anyone actually to have been used.

There are new complications with this new content, relating to the ‘large instrument of small value’ line, the length cited, and the price cited.

While it is usual to include the value of a weapon or item which caused a death (because it, or its value, would be forfeit) and other items are sometimes listed with a price, in allegations of crime, I have never seen this phrase about something being ‘a large instrument of small value’. It seems an unnecessary piece of verbiage, when the price of 1d is also included. Unless it is not an actual dagger, but a penis-as-metaphorical-dagger. But then why include a price – one presumes that there would be no question of a forfeit. Unless this is either satirical, or just an unthinking, instinctive inclusion on the part of the clerk.

On the question of size of the dagger (or not-really-a-dagger), there is also room for debate. The hand, handsbreadth or ‘handful’ as a unit of measurement was certainly ‘a thing’. We know the ‘hand’ as a unit of measurement for the height of horses. There are other overlapping, if not necessarily identical concepts – the handsbreadth, the shaftment, the pes manualis.[ix] A quick, inexpert, survey suggests that these range from about 4 to 13 inches; 10 to 33 cm (so it’s related to an idea of an average – male, adult – hand, but varies in terms of how you measure it, and whether the extended thumb is included or not). This rather large range of possibilities means that, on the hypothesis that the thing being measured is not really a dagger, it is quite difficult to understand whether the ‘instrument’ is really being presented as large (implications of force, damage, perhaps?) or small (implications of ridicule). If the unit of measurement to be understood here is the 13.1 inch pes manualis, then that is on the large side (that conclusion brought to you by some rough sums and quick and possibly dubious internet information). The horse-measuring hand of 4 inches seems rather more likely (giving us an overall length of about 6 inches?). If we are actually talking about a dagger, a quick search brings up lengths of c. 13-14 inches/35-36 cm.[x] Anyway, I don’t think I can say anything very definite here, but others may be able to.  

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


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

Let us assume, for a moment, that the ‘weapons’ are metaphorical. What then?

What are the implications of this weapon imagery in the legal context?  Several things occur to me, all a little tentative just now – I would certainly be interested to know what others think. Here are some of them:

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

As ever with medieval legal records, far more loose ends and questions than concrete findings, but, it does seem to me that one thing the use of weapon-words must have done was to reinforce the connections between the men involved in the legal process (jurors, clerks, those in court) and place them in opposition to the woman against whom, or with regard to whose body, the offence had, allegedly, been committed. The wielding of such weapons was a thing clearly gendered male, and, as such, something drawing men together in exclusion of women. What hints might there be there about gender, law and justice? Apart from anything else, it does suggest great complexity.



This version 20/09/2022


Photo by Annie Spratt on Unsplash (Going for a general idea of fog/uncertainty here – get it?)

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

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

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

[iv] KB 9/359/mm 67, 68 (these two also mention stones); AALT IMG 141 (1482). There are two on KB 9/359 m.3

[v] KB 9/293 m. 2 This also appears on the KB plea roll: KB 27/725 m. 31d; AALT IMG 567 (1442), in which Richard pleaded not guilty, but made fine, ‘in order to save everyone trouble’.[ The fine was 40s, according to the roll.

[vi] KB9/363 m. 2

[vii] KB 9/363 m.3

[viii] KB 9/359 m.2

[ix] See R.D. Connor, The weights and measures of England (1987), esp. at pp. 2, 29.

[x] I am sure somebody can do better – amateur hour. Looked at, e.g. Ballock Knife | Western European, possibly Britain | The Metropolitan Museum of Art (metmuseum.org) Ballock Dagger – Hundred Years’ War – Royal Armouries coll

A Good Samaritan in medieval Lincolnshire?

This one is probably more interesting for its narrative qualities than its legal content, but there is enough of that to justify inclusion here … it’s from the King’s Bench indictment file of Hilary term 1464.[i]

The story which emerges is that – allegedly – Brian Talbot esquire and a group of other men – 20 of them in all, armed to the teeth, beat up John Pynchebek, leaving him for dead, then, when he was found not to be dead, and helped to an inn, threatened him. All of this would have been bad enough, but John was a commissioned justice in Holland, Lincolnshire, and had been on his way to a session of the peace at Boston, at the time of the attack.

The incident had been reported by jurors before the other justices in Holland, including one Richard Pynchebek – a relation of the victim? – at Boston on 1st October, 1463. It was said to have taken place on 20th July 1463, at Algarkirk on the Foss Dyke (Lincs).[ii] Talbot and co. attacked him and pulled him off his horse, threw him to the ground, beat, wounded and mistreated him. I rather like the added colour put in here – they kept going until Brian broke the stave he was using for the bashing, and they thought that he was dead. At this point, they left him for dead in the Wash, (‘where the sea comes in and out’).[iii]   John lay in the Wash in a very bad way (in extremis) until an unnamed stranger (extraneus) who was passing by saw John lying, cruelly beaten and wounded. This man, acting from good motives (ex pietate sua), lifted him up, and with great effort, blew into his mouth and saw, on examination, that he was alive.[iv] The stranger took him to an inn. It was not over, though – Brian’s servants and other malefactors had a go, verbally now, highlight: calling him a ‘horeson’. Then Robert Talbot and other malefactors, on Brian’s orders, pulled John out of the inn, took him to Brian, who threatened his life and/or that his members would be mutilated. To sum up, John’s life was despaired of for a long time, this being to his great damage (obvs) against the peace of the lord king (standard) and also, in a less usual phrase, it amounted to treating the king’s law with disrespect, All of this was greatly frightening both to  John and to the king’s well-disposed people in those parts, and would continue to be, unless such malefactors were punished for their offences (delicts), as an educational example.

So what?

Well, it’s not alone as an affront to royal justice in the mid-15th C, though it is quite interesting to see somebody who was a current justice allegedly treated in this brutal way – so, one for the ‘problems with the enforcement of the law’ file. I am much more interested in a couple of other aspects, though…

Questions of life and death

I have a particular interest in how these difficult issues – determining the start and end of (legally counting) life – were dealt with and described. The allegation that somebody’s ‘life was despaired of’ sometimes seems as if it’s just put in to intensify the allegation of physical damage, and ‘leaving somebody for dead’ may be doing some work in terms of making the accused seem morally bad and culpable, but in this case, the story really is that John was thought to be dead, or perhaps dying, and abandoned in water, presumably with the intention that his body would be taken by the sea. It isn’t, I suppose, a particularly medieval thing to make a mistake about this – we will all have seen sensational ‘person wakes up in body bag’ type stories – but interesting nonetheless.

That stranger

What a fascinating inclusion! I am used to strangers being seen as dodgy, one way or another, in medieval documents, but here we have a proper Good Samaritan, and a skilled one at that. If I am right that this suggests application of ‘mouth to mouth resuscitation’, if not full-on CPR, to the prone body of John, then that is definitely an important intervention. At the very least, it shows somebody taking a lot of trouble to find out whether someone apparently unknown to him was alive (and not in the unpleasant way seen in the last post), How maddening not to have his name, or a clue as to his origins!

It’s not clear how ‘strange’ this man was (just not from that part of Lincs, or your actual foreigner?) but, as the UK government distinguishes itself for cruel hostility to those who come here from other places, it was striking to see this little reminder that … gosh … they might be thoroughly decent, ‘neighbourly’ and positive presences amongst us.




[i] KB 9/305 m. 28, via AALT of course!

[ii] Not entirely sure about the geography of some of this – not somewhere I have ever been, nor studied its medieval topography/water features.

[iii] They also beat and imprisoned John’s servants – clearly of less interest to the jurors!

[iv] Do correct me if I have this wrong, anyone who knows about such things, but I think that’s he best interpretation!

Photo by Max van den Oetelaar on Unsplash

Endangering life and making sure of death: lessons from a medieval indictment

Today’s rather late case note comes from the King’s Bench file for Hilary term 1467.[i] A jury in Sussex reported to justices at Lewes a serious assault upon a man called Richard Broun, which was said to have happened in 1465.

The story was that, on Wednesday 16th October, 1465, Thomas Balbyn, lately of Balcombe, Sussex, clerk, along with Ralph Canon, also lately of Balcomne, boatman (I think!) and other unknown malefactors, acting with force and arms, i.e. bows, arrows, bills, glaives, and staves,[ii]  lay in wait to assault, wound, kill and murder a certain Richard Broun, attendant (famulus) of  Thomas [Bourgchier], Archbishop of Canterbury, near Lewes. They took, assaulted, wounded and mistreated him, giving him a very serious (gravissima) head wound, and completely breaking his left arm and his right leg, deeply injuring his head, arm and leg, leaving him lying on the ground, as if dead. Wanting to find out whether he actually was alive or dead, they stuck their daggers in his leg, dreadfully (horribiliter), and, feloniously, robbed him of his goods, worth 3d, i.e. a staff called a ‘warderer’.[iii] Their actions, it was noted, caused the Archbishop to lose the services of his attendant for a long time, i.e. for a year and a half after the attack. All of this was ‘ against the peace of the lord king etc.’

So what?

Well, a few things leap out at me, no doubt based on current research obsessions as much as anything else. Here are the main ones …

The injuries

I am looking at mayhem, so the use of mayhem language in the description of Richard’s injuries drew me in. There may be a point to make about permanent and temporary injury – it appears that Richard recovered (since there is a time limit on the Archbishop’s loss, and since there is no mention of his death) so would that have been a mayhem such as might be appealed? I presume not, and that the word is being used in a more general sense, but I would be happy to take correction, if that is not right. Further thought required!

Whose damage matters?

Of course Richard Broun himself could have brought a trespass action against the perpetrators, and maybe he did, but it is quite hard not to take away from this document the impression that his interests are subordinated to those of others: the general interest of the king in maintaining his peace, and the specific economic interest of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who lost the services of his ‘famulus’, for a time.

Testing for death/life

This prodding with swords is nasty, but interesting in underlining the difficulty of working out whether or not life was present. I have looked at the other end of this quite a bit (the ‘has a child been born alive?’ point) but determination of death was clearly something which could be tricky as well. Presumably, the point of the prodding would be to see whether there would be a reaction. It might seem a slightly risky thing to do – why not just run?

Other medical aspects

It is most interesting that the story is that Richard survived, though he was out of action for 18 months. It does suggest that he might have had access to above-average care, as a member of the household of the archbishop, and perhaps, further, that he was in high favour.[iv]



[i] KB 9/315 m.5 – via AALT

[ii] You know the drill, not necessarily meant to be taken as true, but may have been partly true in this case, if it happened at all.

[iii] I feel unable not to direct you to the additional smutty nuance associated with this word.

[iv] Rather a shame that he has a pretty run-of-the mill name, and would probably be quite hard to track down. Planning to have a look in the relevant C & Y Soc register next week.

Image – just in case anyone does not know … arms of Canterbury impaled with those of Thomas Bourgchier, c/o Wikimedia Commons  – a little fussy, it seems to me – and, yes, I do reaslise that, in choosing this picture, I am lazily emphasising the loss to the Archbishop, just like this case! It’s all planned and not at all through laziness.

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

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

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

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

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

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

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



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

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

Feathers flying at a medieval Gloucestershire talent contest (?)

(Or, ‘Oh for the wings of several doves’)

Here’s a story which doesn’t end well, for at least one man and probably for several medieval birds, but which nevertheless has a certain charm, and affords some interesting glimpses into women and gender as well as fighting.  It comes from the crown pleas section of the rolls for the Eyre of Gloucestershire, 1287.[i]

Jurors of the vill of [Chipping] Campden reported that there had been a bit of a fight there one Sunday in 46 Henry III (1261-2) as a result of goings on at a singing and dancing event for women. Now, the entry does not quite say this, but I assume that this was in some sense a competitive event, with the prize being … pigeons! (Or ‘doves’, if we want to buy into pro-columbidae propaganda strategy…). To be absolutely honest, there is no ‘competition’ word, it just says that the women were singing and dancing ‘for pigeons’. So it could be some weird pigeon-pleasing event laid on by the women of the area, or something of semi-religious significance (doves, Holy Spirit and all that)[ii] or general carolling.

Whatever was going on exactly,[iii] it all turned rather unpleasant. Just like the judgment of Paris, only more … pigeony … it seems there was some dispute as to who should get the pigeons. A certain Walter de Campden wanted to give them to one woman with whom he was connected (I am assuming she was a Campden lass), but others, including Henry [le Parker], groom of Simon le Barber, came and took the doves and gave them to another woman, of their affinity. Thus, the fight was sparked off. Henry shot a man in the belly so that he died at once. Henry then ran away, but was followed by the men of Campden and caught, taken back to  Campden and imprisoned. He was only detained there for two days, however, before a mob of supporters broke him out and took him to Tewkesbury.  The fighting seems to have escalated from that point, and the men of Campden and Tewkesbury clearly had a bit of a beef, and the whole thing was still on their minds in 1287.  Some of those involved had died by 1287. Henry still seems to have been alive, but had fled, and was outlawed.

Of the pigeons and the rival singers and dancers we hear no more, very sadly.

The homicide and the Campden – Tewkesbury rivalry are, of course, interesting, but it’s the nuggets about women singing and dancing in the hope of going home with a pigeon or two that intrigues me. All and any information about social activities beneath the elite level is valuable, and I rather like to think of the excitement that women must have had preparing for this sort of event. Even if it did end in a homicidal bloodbath from time to time …




Image: some pigeons, obvs. Photo by Zac Ong on Unsplash

[i] For other records of the same case, see here, here and here.

[ii]  – though I note that we are not told that it was some special festival – it’s just ‘some Sunday’ in a particular year – and surely if singing for pigeons was attached to some particular feast, surely we would be told what it was …

[iii] [And if anyone thinks I have got this wrong, do let me know – it’s always possible. May well be that every medievalist should know that singing for doves was very much a thing, or meant something utterly different to what I am imagining here … but I have never come across it before.]

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

If I could Tourn Back Time: Jurisdiction in the Fifteenth Century (Again)

Another little bit of Year Book/Plea Roll matching – this came up tangentially in a bit of petty treason research today, and seemed worth a quick word and thought.

When I say matching … it is not quite an ‘X = Y’ situation: more of an X probably = Y, Z or A.

The Year Book case is YB Trin. 6 H VII f 5 pl 4 (Seipp 1491.020). The plea roll entry is one of three possibles on the King’s Bench roll for Trinity 1491.

The candidates are:

  1. KB 27/920 Rex m. 5 (AALT IMG 209) This is a case from Berkshire before John Horne, in which Richard Patte of Sulhamstead, clerk, was alleged to have raped a widow, Margaret Huys, lately wife of John Phelippe.
  2. KB 27/920 Rex m. 3d (AALT IMG 463) This also comes from Berkshire, from John Horne’s tourn. John Hyde, recently of Sonning, clerk, was alleged to have raped Elizabeth, wife of James Trell.
  3. Yes, it’s Berkshire and John Horne again! KB 27/920 m. 3d (AALT IMG 465): Stephen Bregyn, clerk, was accused of raping Alice Robyns, wife of John Robyns.

Or perhaps it is an amalgamation of all of them – since they are all saying the same thing.

The YB case is not about petty treason at all – though there is a passing reference to that in the reported argument – it is a case about jurisdiction over rape. Who could hear rape cases? Could low-level criminal courts hear them? Let me be up-front about one thing: there is a difference between YB and PR in terms of which courts are mentioned – the YB is interested in courts leet, whereas the PR entries are all about sheriffs’ tourns. Since there is nothing on the roll specifying courts leet, I think I have to assume that one of these is the best match. Possibly these tourn cases prompted a wider discussion of low-level jurisdiction.

The successful argument against lower courts having jurisdiction in this area, as it appears in the YB, is that they only have jurisdiction over felonies if they existed at common law rather than having been created by statute, and rape as a felony was a creature of statute. A choice had been made to limit such jurisdictions, and/or that it was seen to be fitting to keep them to the things they had been able to do ‘since time immemorial’, or at the time of the (certain or assumed) grant of jurisdiction.

The issue about sheriffs and rape jurisdiction was not new – I wrote a blog post about this issue as it arose in 1482, in the not-too-distant past (it’s here). A bit odd, then, that tourns are still being used in this way, and it’s still thought worth reinforcing via YB reports that this is not OK. Suggests something of a lack of influence of common lawyers on practice in the low-level criminal jurisdictions, I think (though, as ever, I am ready to be told that I am missing something important …). I do wonder what was going on with John Horne’s tourns in Berkshire.

As far as the rape cases themselves go, well, nothing very surprising. the accused  all ‘walked’ after having paid a fine to the king (to save the bother of a trial for the trespass element of the charges).Each of these fines was 5s – a pretty common amount, according to the list of fines in the plea roll – and, according to the National Archives currency converter that represented about 8 days of wages for a skilled tradesman. Moderately costly then, I suppose. Whether or not there was any other settlement, compensating the women themselves, will remain a mystery.




Image – to fit in with my contrived title, it’s a medieval clock! From Salisbury Cathedral. Yes I do know that isn’t in Berkshire, but best I could do. From Wikimedia Commons.


A ‘Petty Treason’ Oddity

This really is a snippet, but, I think, worth mentioning as a little footnote to various recent posts on wives being treated as ‘petty traitors’ for killing their husbands.

A gaol delivery entry for a session at Bedford on 30th July, 1439 (JUST 3/210 m. 31) noted that William atte Halle of Bromham in Bedfordshire, labourer, had been indicted for the felonious killing of his wife, Alice. On 7th May the same year, at Bromham, he had allegedly posioned her food with ‘some deadly poison called arsenic and resalgar’. She had died on the 18th May. William’s not guilty plea was unsuccessful. He was found guilty and was ordered to be drawn and hanged.

So what?

The marginal note here, ‘distr’ & sus’ is not the usual expression of punishment for an ‘ordinary’ felony – we would expect just the ‘sus’ – referring to the hanging. ‘Drawing and hanging’ is usually only seen in cases of ‘petty treason’ convictions of men (so, servant kills master cases and counterfeiting). A husband killing his wife was not petty treason, since this was a category which related to offences against hierarchy, so there was no conjugal symmetry here. So was this a mistake? Was this particular case seen as particularly heinous for some reason? Could it have been the poison? A mystery – perhaps somebody can enlighten me.

I am also interested in the ‘cause of death’ aspect. Those who have ever done me wrong will be pleased to know that I have no expertise in the art of arsenic poisoning, so I do not know whether a death 11 days after ingesting arsenic would be likely to have been caused by the arsenic. Either way, it is interesting that a medieval jury would think so, and it’s one for my ‘post attack lingering deaths’ spreadsheet.



(Photo by Raphiell Alfaridzy on Unsplash – OK it’s a bit random, but generally suggesting meal preparation …)

The grim tale of a Lincolnshire tailor: sin and crime in a medieval gaol delivery roll

Well, this one’s very nasty (be warned – violence, and abusive sexual behaviour), but also interesting from a legal history point of view, so worthy of a quick note.

It’s in the gaol delivery roll for a session at Lincoln castle on 1st August, 1392, which contains a series of allegations against Robert de Spalding, tailor, living in Horbling.[i] Sadly, the roll has a big chunk missing from the right hand side, but there is still enough to reconstruct the charges.

In July 1391, Robert had been arrested for homicide, in relation to a newborn (and unbaptised) child, in a house in Horbling. That in itself is pretty horrible, but there was more. The entry notes that Robert had two (apparently living) wives, the first somewhere in Holland (Lincs, not Netherlands) and the second at Folkingham (also Lincs), but even so, on a Sunday in November 1390, he had taken his biological daughter Agnes, shut all of the windows and doors and raped her [the entry on the roll mentions force and the fact that this was conttrary to Agnes’s will]. It goes on to say that he  continued in this sin [it’s definitely singular] with the result that Agnes became pregnant. When the time came for the baby to be born, on Wednesday 28th June, 1391, in a house at Horbling, Robert shut all the windows and doors again, and drew his knife on the prostrate Agnes, swearing by the body of Christ that if she made any noise, he would kill her (so that nobody would learn of his misconduct). In this way, Agnes gave birth to the ‘creature’ which on that day, Robert killed and buried at the same house.

Robert was found ‘guilty of the felonies’ with which he was charged, and was hanged.

Points of interest

It often seems to me that the most surprising and interesting material comes out of situations like this, when we are dealing with a bit of ‘freestyling’ on the part of those who drew up the accusations. There is a fair bit here which goes beyond what was legally necessary – if we strip it all down, all that was needed for a capital trial in this case was the allegation that Robert had killed the baby, or a charge that he had raped Agnes (though, if you’ve spent any time with medieval records, you’ll know that that does not tend to end with a conviction). The rest of it – the two wives, the incest, the swearing and the threats – was not really needed. For some reason, though, those drawing up the indictment, and the clerk recording the session, decided to give us the whole story, granting us unusual access to the thoughts of medieval laymen. We see disapproval of bigamy and incest – and despite the fact that there seems to have been continuing sexual activity, only Robert, and not Agnes, is blamed for it (I don’t think that would have been the case in non-incest situations, and it is rather at odds with other statements in common law sources in which pregnancy was said to be impossible without the woman’s consent/pleasure).

Although the bigamy and incest were not strictly the felonies which ended up ending Robert, it is interesting that they were brought up. Each year, rather glibly perhaps, in the part of the Legal History unit dealing with sexual offences, I tell my students that bigamy and incest weren’t within the scope of the medieval common law: they were left to the church. It looks as if medieval people did not always make that neat jurisdictional distinction. Certainly something to think about.

From a human point of view, I do hope that things improved for Agnes after this – but rather fear that she would have been left in a poor position. She did not even get Robert’s property, for his chattels (1 mark) were forfeit, as was usual after a felony conviction.




Picture: Lincoln Castle, Lincoln © Dave Hitchborne cc-by-sa/2.0 :: Geograph Britain and Ireland

[i] JUST 3/177 m. 83 (AALT IMG 179) which you can see at AALT Page (uh.edu)

Less of a ‘honey trap’, more of a cake trap? Bakes and fakes in fourteenth century Essex

Possibly due to the presence of all sorts of lovely baked goods and confectionery in the post-term exhaustion/lead up to Easter, this intriguing little allegation jumped out at me today – from the Rex section of the King’s Bench Michaelmas 1367 Plea Roll. For once, it’s not some piece of egregious and grievous violence – violence there is, but that’s not the main thing to think about: this is one to direct the mind towards far more interesting things –  love and relationships, vocabulary …  and cake.

The allegation in question was one amongst several indictments against a certain Robert Sterlyng or Starlyng of Essex,[i] also, in this case, involving the participation of his wife, Margery.

According to the indictment, back in 1362, Robert had had his  wife secretly get Roger, rector of the church of Little Birch, to come to Robert’s house, also in Little Birch, to eat a turtellum or cake [there are different wordings in different versions of the charge] pro amore. There was not much amor for the foolish Roger, however. He came as he was bidden, and once he was in the house, in the company of Margery, Robert popped up, waving a sword, and beat Roger. He also menaced Roger into cancelling a debt which Robert owed him, and handing over to Robert and his wife the 40d which Roger had on him. It was also alleged that Margery, on Robert’s order, asked Roger to come to a secret place called ‘Everardesdossous’ [one to think about – tempting to think ‘doss house’, but surely that’s far too late]  in the vill of Copford, that Roger came along and surprise, there was Robert! The latter drew his sword and attacked Roger. Roger, fearful of death, agreed to pay Robert 40s. [There were also other, unconnected allegations against Roger, of a more normal beating and robbing type.]

It is all fairly low-level, small town bullying by the sound of it, but there are a couple of interesting points. First, there is this business with cake, tarts and love. Was it just an offer of free cake (tempting enough, obviously)? Was the suggestion that Roger was being invited for some sort of sealing or mending of friendship ceremony, with Robert (in the manner of a ‘love-day’ – but with cake)? Was there a particular tradition of cake-sharing at the Feast of the Invention of the Holy Cross, which was the nearest big holiday to the first alleged incident, or is the ‘pro amore’ thing about something a bit steamier (yes my mind did just go to steamed puddings) between Margery and Roger? Obviously, it would also be good to know what sort of baked item it was supposed to be, and what difference there might be between a ‘cake’ and a ‘turtellum’ (tart? tartlet?). The other thing which interests me is the role of Margery. We may note that the indictment is brought against Robert alone, despite the fact that Margery seems to have taken a quite active role, at times including taking action when Robert was not present. This choice, bringing the indictment against Robert alone, is a tiny piece in the puzzle of the development of the ‘doctrine of marital coercion’, something I dealt with to some extent in Women in the Medieval Common Law, and which was still very much under construction (or being baked?) in the fourteenth century. On that front, this is a good example of the husband’s orders (as opposed to his immediate presence and active pressure) apparently sufficing to shield the wife from joint responsibility, as far as those drawing up indictments were concerned. There is definitely room for further work on this issue. (My working theory is that there were rather different ideas in different sorts of offence, rather than one general doctrine, at this point in time).

We should return to the adventures of Robert Starlyng. Eventually, the Plea Roll entry tells us, Robert was acquitted on all charges, via a combination of jury verdicts and technical failings in the indictments. So, I can’t help but wonder, did Robert and Margery get away with extortion (have their cake and eat it?) or were the accusations a lot of ‘half-baked’ nonsense?



[i] KB 27/428 m17, AALT image 249.

Image: Reconstruction – a cakey/tartletty thing with raspberries. No idea what sort of tempting foodstuff I should have in my mental picture of this case, but this one looked rather desirable. Photo by Alexandra Kusper on Unsplash