Tag Archives: fire

Total eclipse of the hearth: a characteristic medieval method of low-level extortion?

Something which has caught my attention when working through many, many accounts of alleged violent offences in medieval court records is a particular method of extorting money by torture, which is specifically ‘pre-modern’: making the unfortunate victim sit on a burning tripod until he or she stumps up. See, e.g., cases from rolls of: 1332, 1337, 1348, 1355, 1381, 1406, 1407 (& same incident) and 1423. There is also a similar case involving burning somebody with a griddle or grate, to get them to say where some jewels were, from 1433).

I suppose that it first struck me as interesting because it sounded so odd – and so specific (and, as a kid, tripods had a special, troubling, place in my heart, both as a required construction of a ‘gadget’ for the guide Camper badge, and as the terrifying villains of the John Christopher books and TV series). A moment of reflection, however, and I realised that a tripod, and a hot tripod at that, would be a common feature of medieval homes, supporting cooking vessels in the hearth. No sci-fi or uniformed organisation reminiscing required.

I find myself asking why this appears to have been a relatively plausible tactic for those trying to get a person to cough up money or do something else to benefit the offender. Why not just use a knife to threaten? Everyone seems to have had a knife, judging by the number of deaths by stabbing on the rolls, after all. Perhaps the answer is a combination of factors:

  • the ‘sit on a tripod’ practice caused pain as well as exerting mental pressure, perhaps speeding the whole process up; might there also have been something humiliating for the victim about being injured on the buttocks?
  • as long as it wasn’t prolonged unduly, it probably wouldn’t cause death – whereas waving a knife about could always end in a stab wound, blood, death.

There are certainly signs that it was regarded as potentially very damaging, though: an unsuccessful allegation of 1330 saw three people (two men and a woman) indicted for having, at ‘Burnecestre’ (really!) , taken and tied up one Alice Garlicmonger and put her on a burning hot tripod, naked, until she made fine with them, burning her ‘enormiter’ and ‘usque ad ossa’ (the latter is interesting from an anatomical point of view – coccyx? femurs?). The three were found not guilty anyway, so no prospect of further interrogation of medieval ideas of the construction of a backside. A roughly similar attack on a male may be seen in the case entered on the KB roll of 1423. Here, a chaplain was allegedly given the hot tripod treatment, whilst naked (at least in the relevant area) – contact was made with his nude members and fundament. ‘Members’ could just about be limbs, but ‘fundament’ is pretty clearly bottom-related.

Some of these, e.g. the 1337 case, mention a causal connection – here, the ‘enormouL gs’ or ‘outrageous’ burning was done in order ‘to get more money’.  ‘The entries don’t always have the burning as connected to the taking, but I think that must be the idea. Can’t rule out gratuitous cruelty, I suppose.

I am not sure that there is anything obvious to do with these, but perhaps I will find something some day. For now – it’s a little curiosity to share asynchronously with anyone who ever stumbles along this way. Pray for me, and you are welcome.




Image – sort of hearth. No, not medieval. General idea …Photo by Zane Lee on Unsplash

Is this burning an eternal flame? Probably not, no, or: the shearman’s mysterious appeals

A case to round off January, which turned up in today’s file sorting. I think I came across this when I was writing about dwale a few years ago, and have never found a place for it, so here’s a bit of a weird one, from a King’s Bench roll of 1346: KB 27/343 m. 28 and m. 28d (AALT IMG 8042, 8397)

It’s a record of the accusations made by an approver – i.e. a man who confessed his own felony, but brought accusations (appeals) against another or others, in the hope that he could secure a conviction and be spared execution. Clearly, this process is likely to have encouraged a certain degree of untruthful accusation, so that, even more than usual, we can make no deductions about truth in these cases. Nevertheless, in an ontological-argument-for-God’s-existence fashion, there is something of value to learn in accounts of what the human mind could imagine.

Our approver was William de Ludham, shearman, and he was doing his approving in Bishop’s Lynn (now King’s Lynn) in Norfolk. Before the coroner, he recognised that he was a thief and a felon, and made a number of accusations – some fairly run of the mill robberies, But William’s appeals also included accusations against a clerk called Robert of Leicester, clerk, and Bertram of St Omer, Fleming. They had, he said, been part of a gang wandering about, in London, Bristol, Sandwich, Norwich, and elsewhere in cities and boroughs of England, and in Norwich at Trinity 1346, they had planned to follow the king as he went abroad, to burn him and his household, when an opportunity arose, either in England or abroad. Perhaps in connection with this fiendish plan, William said that Bertram carried with him sulphur and other materials to set off an inextinguishable fire, and Robert carried with him two containers, one full of poison, and another full of a powder which would make men sleep for three days, or else kill them, at the user’s choice.

[As so often, the ending is delayed – I am yet to find any sort of resolution]

So what?

Come on – treacherous plots, eternal flames and three day sleeping powder: obviously interesting. Working out what the flamey bit might have been does not seem impossible (firearms/artillery were just coming in at this point, remember … Greek fire … etc.), the sleeping/killing powder is a bit more mysterious. At first, I was thinking along the lines of blowing it under a door (clearly reading too many mystery novels) but I suppose it is more likely to mean something to put in a drink. What would that be? Some poppy product, perhaps? Processed dwale? I am intrigued at the idea of expertise implicit in William’s accusation – he assumed that a dodgy clerk would be in a position to understand the dosage which would work to cause sleep (and for how long) or death. All a bit wizardy, isn’t it?

Very much hoping to come across William, Robert and Bertram once more, and see whether this did ever go to proof.