Tag Archives: curtesy

‘Stillbirth’ or fleeting life? Beyond curtesy

I recently published an article on tenancy by the curtesy in medieval England:

Gwen Seabourne (2019) ‘It is necessary that the issue be heard to cry or squall within the four [walls]’: Qualifying for Tenancy by the Curtesy of England in the Reign of Edward I, Journal of Legal History, 40:1, 44-68, DOI: 10.1080/01440365.2019.1576359

Curtesy is a topic which touches upon traumatic and tragic childbirth, and the difficulty in determining whether or not a baby was ever alive (in order to decide whether or not a man had produced ‘live issue’ with his wife, and thus qualified for curtesy. As is not uncommon, I have now come across something I’d love to have included in the article: linked chronicle accounts of a birth ending in the death of mother and baby, with some interesting inclusions and omissions of information.

The narratives are mentioned in L.E. Mitchell, ‘The most perfect knight’s countess: Isabella de Clare, her daughters and women’s exercise of power and influence 1190-c. 1250’, in H.J. Tanner (ed), Medieval Elite Women and the Exercise of Power 1100-1400 (2019) c.3, p. 61, citing Matthew Paris,  English  History  tr. J.A. Giles (3 vols HG Bohn, 1889) I:255.

The unfortunate mother was Isabelle countess of Cornwall (wife of Richard, earl of Cornwall, and daughter of William Marshall and Isabella de Clare). Her demise was noted to have occurred in 1240, along with that of her baby, named Nicholas. She was said to have been ill with jaundice, and to have been sufficiently forewarned of her impending death to make her confession. The birth itself was skated over, and there is an interesting disparity with regard to the state of her offspring: Mitchell notes that ‘the nurses hoped that the child would be born alive, but it was dead’, whereas the child was said, elsewhere to have been born alive, but not lively or not active (vivo, sed non vivido – H. Luard (ed.), M. Paris Chron. Maj. vol 4) and there is no particular mention of the nurses, who, in Giles’s version, named the child despite the fact that it was dead. I would like to check the MSS on this, since the state of the child is potentially crucial in terms of both common law (child born dead does not ‘count’ in the same way to give father property rights – though in this case, Richard had already ‘passed’ this test, with previous live births) and canon law/theology (a dead child can take no benefit from baptism, and the ‘nurses’, though they could perform emergency baptism, had no right to perform this sacrament on what modern parlance would term a stillborn child). Vincent’s account of Richard of Cornwall in the ODNB also says that the child was ‘stillborn’. Perhaps it seems a ‘picky’ point, and it did not seem to have any immediate practical consequences for Richard, or anyone else, whether the baby was ever alive. In relation to curtesy, and the roughly  contemporary accounts of curtesy, such as those in Bracton, however, the possibility that a dead baby may have been baptised is important, since it feeds into Bracton’s suggestion of the likelihood of fraud and mis-reporting by those present at a birth of the state of the baby.

Matrons, medicine and maternity

This morning, I have been listening to a podcast of a late-2017 seminar paper from the Institute of Historical Research Late Medieval seminar:

Zosia Edwards (Royal Holloway), ‘Pregnancy diagnosis in the later Middle Ages: medical methods and courtroom procedures’


This was of interest to me in relation to two projects/areas of on-going research: my monograph on women in the medieval common law and my work on curtesy and live birth/still birth.

Its central focus was the divergence between a rich textual tradition of learned medical writing on techniques of diagnosing pregnancy and the common law’s approach, apparently scorning such learning, or the use of (male) ‘medical experts’ in favour of the judgment of ‘lay persons’: mainly ‘matrons’, though with some involvement of knights (in land cases). It includes some very good examples of both medical diagnosis and common law practice.

The divergence between learned texts and common law practice is striking divergence, and has been commented upon to some extent (e.g. by S.M. Butler). There is much to be said about the common law’s emphasis on jury findings as opposed to those of ‘experts’, not just in the medieval period and not just in medicine. In addition, it seems to me that there are also other particular  explanations for the difference in procedure in relation to pregnancy which would be worth consideration. First, the medical texts and the investigation in common law felony cases were directed at slightly different questions. In the case of the medical texts, the search (however dubious we might find the methods) was for the presence of any pregnancy. At least in the case of the ‘pregnant felon’ cases, it was a search for confirmation of a woman’s claim that she was pregnant with a ‘quick’ child: thus a less ‘expert’ and sensitive test might be thought to suffice. In addition, there does not seem to have been a desire to avoid all possible killings of pregnant women: witness the approach to those claiming a second pregnancy, the possible presence of a foetus not being sufficient to defer execution. Views on the value to be accorded by the law to the foetus at various phases of existence were in a state of development/flux in the medieval period, and trying to bring together the attitudes encapsulated by legal texts and plea rolls relating to foetuses in homicide, abortion, curtesy and other land cases is a task with which I am wrestling. A paper on determinations of live birth in relation to curtesy temp. Edward I is on its way to publication, but I would love to expand into a more general overview of ideas about the foetus/newborn in different categories of legal case. One of these days.


Curtesy and crying

A Year Book note on curtesy, and the requirements which a man must meet in order to claim to hold by the curtesy of England (proof of a live birth to his wife – specifically a baby’s cry being heard) YB Trin. 20 Edw I pl 39; Seipp 1292.88 refers to the case of Richard Danyel v Richard de la Bere (Herefordshire Eyre 1292) JUST 1/303 m. 6.  Richard Danyel, claiming the land formerly held by his mother, argued that Richard had not had qualifying issue with Cecily. De la Bere claimed that Cecily had given birth to his (qualifyingly noisy) child at Bishopston. A jury was summoned (the Year Book has some comments on the appropriate place from which to draw a jury when the alleged birth was in one place and the land in another). The jury told a sad tale of a very sick baby and an emergency baptism at home, then a brief visit to the church, after which it died, without having qualified, in auditory terms, as the right kind of offspring to give the father a right to curtesy. The crying test for curtesy is being taken seriously – and, as this case shows, could be used to exclude severely unwell children, even if they appear to have been viewed alive by at least a priest. Richard Danyel did not pursue the case, and should have been amerced for this failure, but was forgiven because he was a minor. Exactly what his role was in this story is unclear, but it does not suggest a happy family.