Tag Archives: Devon

Medieval monastic mental disorder: an ‘insanity plea’ from Tavistock Abbey

A few more ‘insane felony’ cases have come up in recent trawls of gaol delivery rolls, in the last part of the fourteenth century, bringing with them some variations on vocabulary, procedure or facts, which seemed worth noting.[i] At some point, I will get around to pulling all of this together, but, until then, these occasional posts will at least put them ‘out there’ for anyone with an interest.

Today’s intriguing entry is in a gaol delivery roll for a session in February 1369. It involves the tale of a monk, said to have killed a cook. Walter Thynnewode, a monk of Tavistock Abbey, had been arrested for the killing of Stephen Lyoun, a cook from the abbey kitchen. The killing was reported to have occurred in Tavistock on Sunday 5th February 1368, and Walter had been indicted before a coroner for the deed. Walter pleaded not guilty and put himself upon a jury. The jury said that, on the relevant day, Walter had been a lunaticus and insane memorie. He had left the Abbey at night (the implication is, I think, that he wanted to depart on a more than temporary basis). He encountered Stephen, who tried to bring him back to the abbey. Walter, being, at that time, non compos mentis, stabbed Stephen in the abdomen with a knife, and Stephen died. Walter was to be sent back to prison ‘until the next &c’.[ii]


So what?

Well, it’s the first time I have seen a monk in this context, so that is a little bit interesting. On the whole, the legal stuff is nothing particularly new: we know that insanity of particular kinds worked to avoid the consequences of actions usually deemed felonious. We might wonder, though, at the willingness of the jury to overlook the fact that Walter does seem to have been able to form an intention to leave the abbey, though they decided his mental disorder explained the killing of poor Stephen the cook. It is noteworthy that it is assumed that Walter had, by the time of the case, made a  recovery from his serious mental disorder: he is now pleading competently, for himself, and care is taken to restrict the ‘madness words’ to his past self. Another piece of evidence suggests that he was re-integrated into the community at Tavistock Abbey quite quickly, and not held in any sort of confinement there, since (unless there were two men with the same name) he was accused of illicit hunting on Dartmoor, in the company of his abbot, two other monks and various other local men, in 1371.[iii] Of the cook, Stephen, whose apparent attempt to enforce monastic discipline on the erring Walter (or, perhaps, to restrain him in his disordered state), no further trace appears to remain.






[i] For previous posts on this topic, see: Mental incapacity | Bracton’s Sister (bristol.ac.uk)

[ii] AALT Page (uh.edu) JUST 3/156 m. 36 (AALT IMG 83).

[iii] See G.H. Radford, ‘Tavistock Abbey’, Report & Transactions of the Devonshire Association 46 (1914) 119-45, 128; CPR 1370-4, p. 172.

Prophecy, ‘pagan’ magic and promises of wealth in medieval Devon

Here’s a colourful tale from fourteenth century Devon, showing an apparent scheme to fleece the locals using exotic claims to magic power, and playing on their greed.

The story comes out in the King’s Bench plea roll of Michaelmas term 1374,[i] though it refers to events of quite some years earlier – in 1345, and a presentment before justices in Devon in 1354. The tale was that  Gervase Worthy, Geoffrey Ipswich and William Kele had come to the home of Rouland Smallcumbe at Barnstaple, and had spun a yarn to his wife. Their patter was that they were rather more exotic than the sort of people she was likely to have met, being converted pagans (pagani – I’ll have to look into just what that word signifies at this period, but it’s clearly some sort of ‘non-Christians’). Presumably as a result of their claimed questionable past religious status, they were believed when they claimed special powers: they could tell fortunes, including how long a person would live. They also said that they had other gifts, and worked on Rouland’s wife in such a way as to get her to believe that they could make precious items reproduce themselves. They got her to give them all her gold, silver and jewels, and other valuables. When she handed them over, Gervase convinced the gullible woman that he had put these in a chest, but in fact, it would seem using some sleight of hand and misdirection,  he had made off with them. Getting her ‘invested’ in the magical process in a way modern magicians (or fraudsters) would appreciate,  Gervase locked the chest, and took away the key, instructing Rouland’s wife that every day for nine days she should go to the church for three masses, and that she should not open the chest, When he returned, as he promised to do after that, with the key, her jewels, in the box, would have doubled! The rogues did not come back though, and the desperate woman broke open the chest. Sadly, she did not find the promised increased hoard, but a piece of cloth full of lead and  (non-precious) stones. The presentment did not stop with this, however, but ascribed to the gang’s fraud another serious outcome: as a result of this deception, the woman became ill and soon died.  It was also noted that the gang had made 200 marks across Devon by similar ruses. There does not seem to have been a conviction, however, and who knows whether there was any truth in any of this, but there is always something to take away from these unusual entries.

The elaborate ruse, with the idea that people (women in particular?) might be bamboozled by tales of exotic magic,  says a lot about popular ideas of the existence of magic, but also its association with trickery. The combination of ‘pagan’ magic with Christian practices (note the masses), and the fact that the rogues claimed only to be former pagans – they were now safely Christian, so had the powers of the exotic pagan, but not the untrustworthiness – gives clues about ideas on non-Christians, and also their limitations. The idea of precious things breeding more precious things puts me in mind of usury (money breeding money – which was bad). And finally the idea that the poor woman’s death was thrown in as a bit of an afterthought – caused by the fraud in a sense, but not the main complaint – and the deceased never is named beyond the labelling as some absent man’s wife –  is something of a comment on the place of women in the medieval common law, isn’t it? If only somebody would write a book about that …



[i] KB 27/455 Rex m.29 (AALT IMG 340).



Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash

Not sparing the rod: a fifteenth century schoolmaster’s defence

The King’s Bench plea roll for Trinity term 1410 has a trespass case which sheds a little light on ideas about discipline in medieval education.

John Bolter v John Fferlogh (1410 KB 27/597 m. 44d; AALT image 0382) is a Devon case. John Bolter alleged that Fferlogh had assaulted and beaten him in Ottery St Mary, on Monday after the feast of All Saints in the first year of Henry IV (Monday 3rd November, 1399). Fferlogh’s attorney denied any wrongdoing, saying that, at the time in question, Bolter had been ‘of tender age’ and had been his pupil, learning grammar, living with him at Ottery St Mary. Bolter, he said, had frequently got himself into the company of bad boys, and company which did not befit his status, was not learning either grammar or good morals nor obeying Fferlogh. Fferlogh had taken action to chastise and inform Bolter, had removed him from the bad company he had been frequenting, told him off and had chastised him with a small rod on a number of occasions, and it was stressed that he (Fferlogh) had not beaten him through malice, but only in this way.   Bolter stuck to his story that this was a trespass and Fferlogh to his excuse, and so the matter was sent out to proof.

As ever, it is impossible to say whether or not Fferlogh was telling the truth that he had acted only in the manner he stated, or whether he might have acted with a different intention, or more violently. It is interesting, however, to see what both sides presumably regarded as appropriate chastisement. Fferlogh’s story would not have been stated in this fashion, had such chastisement, for such causes, at such a level, been regarded as inappropriate. Note in particular the insistence that the rod in question was ‘small’ – suggesting a degree of thought about what was legitimate practice in informal corporal punishment, and the construction of a test in terms of size of weapon as opposed to damage to the person being punished. Such a rule would later be said to have applied in the context of marital chastisement.

Finally, it is interesting to note that the former pupil had waited so long to bring this action – perhaps only doing so once he was of an age to start his own litigation. No limitation principle operated to stop him doing so.

GS 31/1/2014

For an earlier ‘school corporal punishment’ case, see William Cornewalle of London, taverner,  v. Adam Aas, vicar of the church of Oakley (Beds) CP 40/430 m.241d (1368). This is also an allegation from some time before – from 25 Edw III (1351-2). Adam claimed that William was his pupil, and he had his him as was customary, with a rod, (no size specified) for his faults. The jury did not agree with Adam’s defence, and William was awarded damages.  Both cases are quite illuminating on the subject of what was regarded as ‘reasonable chastisement’ in the educational context, and show that grudges could be borne over long periods for perceived brutality. Also, it is interesting to note that the jury here found it perfectly plausible that a cleric might be brutal to his pupil.