Tag Archives: Gwen Seabourne

Oral mayhem and legal memory: interim thoughts on non-fatal injury

One of the areas which I am investigating this year is the appeal of mayhem, a particular form of ‘criminal’ procedure in English common law, from the medieval period (13th C) to the early 19th C, dealing with non-fatal physical injury. I gave a bit of an introduction to the project in this post. I am still working away at this, and this post is part of the process of making sense of some of the points which are emerging.

Some of the biggest ‘headlines’ so far are:

  1. The appeal of mayhem emerges in what looks like a rather messy and fitful way, in the 13th C, from a combination of pre-existing ideas about compensation for non-fatal injury and an excuse made by men who were at risk of having to engage in trial by battle, but who were not in a fit state to fight in this way.
  2. Certain sorts of injury were regularly noted as ‘counting’. These included fairly obviously hampering ones – loss of hands, arms, legs … but also (some) teeth and testicles … apparently directly linked to fighting ability.[i]
  3. The roots in fighting struck deep in the legal imagination, with accounts in ‘textbooks’ and judgments regularly featuring a nod to reduction in ability to fight as the thing defining the sorts of injuries covered by mayhem. This was the case down to the 20th C, in criminal cases which purported to summarise the old law. (It was, however, soon forgotten that we were talking about a particular sort of fighting, and this came to be expanded to a ‘defence of the realm’ idea, from the early modern period).[ii]
  4. Despite this persistent link with fighting in accounts of mayhem, plea rolls and law reports tell a different story. Women (who did not have to/ could not fight trials by battle) are occasionally to be seen bringing appeals of mayhem, either alone, or in conjunction with a husband, for injuries to themselves, and there does not seem to be any objection to this.

Adding to point 4, there are some cases from the 14th C which do two interesting things:[iii] They show that it was thought possible to base an appeal upon injuries which could not really be presented as having a link to fighting of any sort, and they were sometimes explicitly linked to some other functional damage. This post will introduce this group of cases: the ‘oral mayhems’.

The wrong sort of injury?

I should say straight off that some oral injuries were included in the standard lists of mayhems in treatises – Bracton, Fleta etc. did say that (some) teeth (i.e. the bitey ones as opposed to the grindy ones) were covered. They definitely did not include tongues, however. This makes a degree of sense in the fighting context: hard to see how a tongue would be particularly useful in combat (except in so far as it enabled the fighter to engage in provocative and destabilising insults, or to ‘cry craven’). Even so, there are 14th C cases involving tongues, including an appeal of mayhem which forms part of the mass of litigation surrounding the alleged attack on Agnes de Haldenby in the reign of Edward II.[iv]

Perhaps this was (or became?) controversial – certainly, there was a piece of legislation from the early 15th C which made intentional/malicious tongue-removal a statutory offence (with ‘the pains of felony’).[v] Nevertheless, it rather muddies that nice, clear, fighting-related list of injuries acceptable as foundations for an appeal of mayhem.


The wrong sort of justification?

I have found a couple of cases so far (both from the 1340s) which move us even further from the mayhem/fighting nexus. These involve men being bashed in the face, and suffering injuries to their teeth and mouths. Rather than attempting to present them as ‘loss of fighting teeth’ scenarios (the wrong teeth, perhaps?) they both reinforce the claim that the injury damaged the claimant by stating that it has impaired his ability to eat and to communicate.

For example, a set of entries relating to a Northamptonshire incident show that John Hunt of Stoke brought an appeal of mayhem against William de Duncote, alleging that William, on 22nd August, 1345, in the fields of Duncote, with a pikestaff. feloniously hit him in the mouth, knocking three front teeth out of his lower jaw  so that he lost much of his ability to chew, eat and talk.[vi] This was, arguably at least, ‘the right sort of injury’ – no doubt one could explore whether or not lower incisors counted, as well as upper ones, but let’s not – but the explanation was not in accordance with an idea of loss or reduction of fighting ability (except in so far as a person who can’t eat very well, or talk very well, will probably be undernourished and may be isolated and depressed – but that is all a bit indirect). I think we are seeing a wider conception of mayhem here – one which, if we extended it into the ‘public’ sphere, would end up looking rather more like a ‘burden on society’ type of damage  as opposed to the ‘loss of a defender of the realm’ line which has been picked up in modern commentary.

The other example so far found is in very similar terms,[vii] suggesting that this claim of impairment of communication and eating was ‘a thing’ in contemporary mayhem. It really does take us some way away from the idea that fighting ability lay behind this category and procedure, as actually used.


So what?

Ah, the eternal question … Well, it does ‘trouble’ the existing encapsulations of mayhem which one encounters in criminal law cases (like R v Brown),[viii] and which trace their roots in early modern accounts which themselves took medieval treatise accounts, as opposed to what actually happened, as ‘the law’.[ix] This matters from a ‘purist’ point of view, and for understanding of medieval history, ensuring it is not misrepresented to make ourselves feel better and less brutal etc. It may also matter from a more instrumental/practical point of view. The way in which the slightly mythologised view of mayhem comes up in modern law discussions tends to be in the ‘back to front’  context of the possibility of exculpatory consent to objectively physically damaging practices such as S & M sex or permanent body alteration. These may use arguments based on old statements that one could consent to low-level injury, but not to mayhem. Leaving aside the fact that some of the injuries involved would not have qualified as mayhems even if the treatise accounts represented ‘the law’,[x] it is notable that the ‘fighting’ line is maintained very strongly. These medieval cases seem to me to show that mayhem was not all about damage to fighting prowess. Now, I am not especially in favour of dredging up historical concepts to support modern policy decisions, but, if you are going to throw them into the mix at all, you should probably avoid over-simplification and comforting othering and contempt of the brutalised past. There was clearly rather more to the medieval law and practice on mayhem than fighting. Or testicles.




Image – OK a bit tenuous: a pike rather than a pikestaff, as is featured in the John Hunt case. But it does have teeth … This is a photograph from the Freshwater and Marine Image Bank at the en:University of Washington. Details here.


[i] That’s a bit glib, I know – definitely need to think about the testicle issue some more. Can’t say it’s one of my areas of expertise.

[ii] Big parallel with Krista Kesselring’s excellent Making Murder Public (2019) to be drawn, I think.

[iii]… well, I think they are interesting, anyway … yes, undoubtedly should get out more …

[iv] SC 8/83/4109A; CPR 1317-21 p. 292 (etc.); KB 27/241 Rex m. 2 (etc.); KB 27/244 Rex m. 5d. For more on this, see my book, Women in the Medieval Common Law – yes, shameless.

[v] st. 5 Henry IV c. 5. Note that the tongue cutting itself is not called a mayhem here – it is seen as more of a thing done after a ‘real’ mayhem, presumably to stop the victim from speaking out about it.

[vi] KB 27/344 m. 18d  (AALT IMG 8893) This trundles on until Michaelmas 1346, when John Hunt was ‘done’ for a false appeal (NB this does not necessarily imply that there was anything wrong with his cause of action, and, had that been the case, it would be odd to find other, strikingly similar, allegations).

[vii] TNA KB 27/346 m. 38d (AALT IMG 9774)

[viii] R. v. Brown (Anthony) [1994] 1 A.C. 212, at 231, 262.

[ix] Yes, I want to make it Coke’s fault again …

[x] Without going into it in detail, the nettles, hot wax and fish-hooks in Brown would hardly work, would they?

Suspicion in Sussex: dower v. ‘petty treason’

Here is another case to add to the bit of my petty treason project which considers potentially instrumental use of allegations of husband-killing, as a way of clearing the widow out of the way of those whose interests would be reduced, if she was alive and able to claim her dower (or analogous interest) in the land he held. It is an early one, from the Curia Regis Roll of Easter term 13 Henry III (1229).[i]

Joscea, widow of Walter Josep sued Robert and Adam, sons of Walter Josep for land in Steyning, Sussex, as her dower. [In a primogeniture-based land system, one wonders why both sons had land, but who knows – perhaps one had alienated to the other in some form. Robert seems to be the elder son. The other thing to wonder about is whether Robert and Adam were Joscea’s sons or stepsons – it would be simpler if they were stepsons, and the way some of this is put might seem to suggest that, but, again, who knows!]. Anyway, so far, so predictable – dower disputes were very common in the 13th C. Happy families, eh?

The unusual thing about this dower dispute was the argument made for why Joscea should not have her dower. Given the topic I have trailed, it is probably obvious – Robert and Adam said that Joscea and her two brothers had killed (occiderunt)  Walter. To back this up, they said that Robert had appealed Joscea of this death in the county, and this had led to her arrest. This was a big claim, obviously, and there was a need to check it out. The sheriff was ordered to produce the record of this alleged appeal before the king’s justices at Westminster.  He did not do so, however, and Robert did not go ahead with his appeal. Was he ever serious about it, or was it just a way of hassling Joscea and disrupting her dower claim? If it was a ‘tactical appeal’, Robert and Adam might have thought that they were being clever, but the tactic backfired, because of the ‘rules of the game’ of medieval legal pleading. They had founded their case on the ‘she killed our dad’ plea, but to do that, they had effectively conceded that Joscea was Walter’s wife (something they could have challenged – this was a more common approach) and that the land in question was the right land for her dower. Once the appeal pleading fell apart, then, they had to lose, because they had conceded the things Joscea had to show, in order to get her dower. Joscea, therefore, got the rights in land which she claimed. Adam was taken into custody and Robert was in mercy for not prosecuting his appeal.

The allegation of husband-killing might still have caused Joscea some problems – the plea roll entry orders that it should be inquired into before the justices in eyre. I am not quite sure how to interpret this: was it the alleged killing which was to be investigated, or was it the bringing of the appeal?[ii] Something to think about and investigate before my summer paper on all of this.

One thing I do note is that there does not, at this point, seem to have been any difficulty with an heir bringing an appeal against his father’s wife, for (participation in) the killing of his father. Another one to throw at the puzzling issue of the relationship between the wife’s right to bring an appeal in relation to the death of her husband and the right of the heir to bring such an appeal, which I have written about in relation to later cases, e.g. here.



Image: St Andrew’s Church, Steyning.

[i] CRR vol 13: 1227-30 no. 2091; CRR 101 E 13 H III (1229) m 12.


Bumbling, Bitchiness and Cruelty at Queen Victoria’s Court

This is dangerously late for my tastes, but a serendipitous choice of podcast to accompany me on a walk the other day (something by Lucy Worsley on Queen Victoria) brought me to a story I had never known. Undoubtedly those who work on the 19th C know all about it, as may others with a better all round general knowledge, but I had not heard of the episode, and, as it happens, it has some relevance to a project I am just finishing (the one on ‘unknowns at the start of life’, inc. bastards and the beginnings of human life).

The episode involved a young(ish) aristocrat, Lady Flora Elizabeth Hastings (b. 1806), who occupied the position of Maid of Honour to the Duchess of Kent (Queen Victoria’s mother). She died in 1839, after something of a scandal, which does not make Queen Victoria and her court look at all good.

Briefly, the problem arose because Flora had a swollen abdomen, and of course it was rumoured that she was pregnant (no doubt euphemistically whilst being – shock – unmarried …. She denied it, but the rumour went round the court, and was enjoyed by those – including the Queen – who were at odds with the faction represented by the Duchess of Kent, and so, by extension, by Flora. A physical examination was insisted upon, and Flora agreed to it, despite the humiliation, because she wished to end the scandal and rumour attached to her name. The examination came back negative (though there is some suggestion that the doctors, despite having certified non-pregnancy, were suggesting to Queen Victoria that Flora might still be pregnant). Flora got very ill and died, however, and public opinion was against Victoria and her doctor. After Flora’s death, it was made clear that she was not pregnant, but had had cancer. The matter was much discussed in the press, and it did nothing for the reputation of court or medical profession.

Using a letter she had written to her uncle, Mr Hamilton Fitzgerald, published in the Morning Post (2) supplemented as to dates from the other sources below, the following timeline can be constructed:


  • January 1839. Flora comes to London, and has already ‘been suffering for some weeks from bilious derangement, … pain in the side and swelling of the stomach’
  • 10th January, 1839. she consults Sir James Clark, who, physician to the Duchess of Kent and the Queen. Clark’s treatment is unsuccessful, but Flora’s self-care remedy of ‘walking and porter’ results, she reports, in an increase in strength amd reduction of the abdominal swelling.
  • 16th February 1839. Clark comes to Flora’s room, accuses her of being pregnant and tries to get her to confess that this is the case. His sources are ‘the ladies of the palace’. Flora denies being pregnant. Clark says that the only way Flora can ‘remove the stigma from [her] name’ is to ‘[submit] to a medical examination’. The Queen was in on this plan, and effectively ordered the examination. Flora named some other ladies of the court as having been particularly active in setting this up, though the Duchess of Kent is exonerated.
  • 17th February 1839, the examination went ahead (interestingly, the consent of the Duchess of Kent was required, while Flora ‘submitted’ in order to clear her name.  What followed she described as ‘the most rigid examination’, at the end of which ‘her accuser’, Sir James Clark, and Sir Charles Clark, signed a certificat ‘stating, as strongly as language can state it, that there are no grounds for be[1]lieving that pregnancy does exist, or ever has existed’.
  • 8th March 1839 Flora writes to her uncle, setting out her story.
  • 5th July, 1839. Flora dies. Post mortem examination, at Flora’s request, by Sir Benjamin Brodie and Sir Astley Cooper,  which published its findings officially, and found that she had died of ‘long standing disease of the liver’, and that ‘The uterus and its appendages presented the usual appearance of the healthy virgin state.’ (1)

As the Lancet put it,

 ‘The publication of this post[1]mortem examination is the best reply which could have been given to the slanderers of an illustrious personage, and of a distin]guished physician. No mental emotion could have produced, or even considerably accelerated the progress of the diseaae from which Lady FLORA HASTINGS died ; and if the symptomatic swelling of the abdomen were, by some, mistaken for pregnancy, it could not have been by one who knew that in pregnancy the swelling is developed from below upwards.’ (1)

There were, shall we say, differences of emphasis in terms of whether it was an outrage or a rational scientific thing to insist on examining Flora’s abdomen. Guess which side the Lancet was on … want a clue?

 ‘Had Lady Flora Hastings permitted her physician to have made an accurate external examination of the abdomen, at an eurly stage of her complaint, she would probably have been spared the pain and humttiation to which she was subsequently exposed. Many a female has undermined heutth and compro[1]mised existence, through similar feelings of mistaken delicacy’ (3)

(translation: ‘The ladies, eh – what are they like! It was her own silly fault!’]


The resonances this episode has for me, and my projects, concerns detection of pregnancy and the role of medical expertise in this. One of the things which comes out of an examination of the history of pregnancy detection in the more strictly legal context (for deferral of execution, or for the purposes of succession disputes) is that there was quite a difference between England and Wales on the one hand, and the rest of western Europe, on the other, in terms of who was given the task of saying whether a woman was, or was not pregnant. In England and Wales, the use of women – the jury of matrons, or jury de ventre inspiciendo – continued long after it was phased out in other jurisdictions, in favour of (male) medical professionals. Instinctively, we may see the medical professional model as preferable. This case troubles those waters somewhat – since it seems to bring home the questionable nature of medical expertise (and ethics?). It certainly damaged the reputation of Sir James Clark himself. It does make me wonder whether, at that stage in the history of medical research and education, there might have been some over-claiming of expertise.

To somebody coming from a modern Law School, the case also, of course, raises the hackles, in that it seems to amount to the forcing upon a (very sick) woman of an unpleasant and humiliating examination. For all that Flora agreed to the procedure, after her initial horror, this appears very much to have been something she thought she had no real option not to suffer: the rumours and scandal were bad enough, but she was also told that she would not be allowed to attend court functions if not ‘cleared’ of being pregnant (and thus a total, hopeless, sinner …) Neither Flora nor contemporaries seem to have gone down a ‘coerced consent’ line in their objections, but there was certainly outrage at the gossip and the persecution of this poor woman, and the rough, questionably competent and generally unpleasant conduct of the doctor.

Queen Victoria not at all nice – official.




Image – Flora, from source 4, below. Not a very good drawing, I must say.



  • ‘Lady Flora Hastings’, Lancet, 32, no. 828, 1839, pp. 587–587
  • ‘The Late Lady Flora Hastings’, Lancet, vol. 32, no. 833, 1839, pp. 762–763.
  • ‘Sir James Clark’s Statement of the Case of the Late Lady Flora Hastings’, Lancet, vol. 33, no. 842, 1839, pp. 126–126.
  • Horace Wyndham, The Mayfair Calendar : Some Society Causes Célèbres. (Hutchinson, 1925).
  • D. Reynolds, ‘Hastings, Lady Flora Elizabeth (1806-1839) courtier, ODNB.

‘No Freman …’: Frank Herbert’s Dune Novels, the Updated Unofficial Legal Historical View


It has long struck me that science fiction/fantasy is an interesting source for submerged ideas about the legal past. Many of them have ‘sort-of-medieval’ societies, which are set up using assumptions and constructions about medieval law, and other legal ideas can be detected too. The Dune novels of Frank Herbert[1] cover a great sprawl of imagined time and space, in a far-future in which there are multiple planets with human(oid) civilisation. There are various massive changes over the six books in terms of forms of government and social organisation, and focus changes between various groups and individuals. They include numerous references and clues to the legal underpinnings of the various societies involved. These come from a particular perspective – that of the ‘western’ male of the mid-twentieth century, and from a society in which Anglo-American law is a formative influence. Whatever is the equivalent of the ‘Overton window’ for imagination is limited for all of us by such a background, and it is possible to see numerous debts to ideas about law which are clearly based on popular perceptions from Herbert’s own time, as well as that time’s popular perceptions of the legal past. I have enjoyed thinking about this, and I think that there is scope for much further consideration of sci-fi/fantasy as a source or prompt for Legal History.

Here, for what they are worth, are my thoughts.

In the period of the first book, the main systems of law/norms which we see are (i) what I would call the ‘general law’ – overarching rules applying to the Imperium and its constituent parts; and (ii) the specific laws/customs of the Fremen of Arrakis, a.k.a. Dune, a desert-living people, the conception of whom owes much to a 1960s US conception of Arab peoples, viewed through the lens of the film Lawrence of Arabia (1962).

The basic constitutional set-up is that there is an emperor, and a set of hereditary rulers of planets, or planetary systems, owing allegiance to the emperor (leaders of the Great Houses and the Minor Houses). We don’t hear much about the lower orders – though there are definitely slaves.[2] In Dune, the ‘basic law’ governing relationships here is the Great Convention (GC), a ’universal truce enforced under power balance maintained by Guild, Great Houses and Imperium’.[3] It is not quite clear how detailed this is: is this a ‘codified’ legal world’ – should I be thinking of sometihng the length of Magna Carta or something more like the Code Napoléon? Another source of law is legislation by the Landsraad, which seems to be a sort of parliament.[4] There are also imperial Orders in Council.[5]  And public law fans everywhere will be thrilled to learn that there is some rumbling about wanting a proper written constitution.[6] After the first book, things get a bit messier, and there is much more tyranny, much less in the way of widely-agreed rules.

An aspect of the system-building in Dune that I like is the mixing of ideas of hereditary rule with those of corporate law and structure. The relationship between the emperor and the Great Houses is complicated by the presence of a corporate vehicle, CHOAM. Shares, and corporate roles, in this huge development company go along with position in the hereditary structure. I suppose what appeals to me about this is the idea that the crown and hereditary power organisational model is not some sort of high-minded ‘noble’ thing, above the fray capitalist structures: it is all about the money, and employs whatever legal vehicles maximise profits for a limited group of people.[7]

Law and tyranny:  ‘Law is the ultimate science’[8]

It would be safe to say that there is not a particularly positive view of law, overall. We have various statements to the effect that law does not work, or is counter-productive (often, it must be said, from those who would rather not be fettered by any silly rule-of-law nonsense …) Thus, once he is emperor, Paul Atreides is not very keen on the idea of a constitution (which would of course, tie his hands somewhat): ‘Constitutions become the ultimate tyranny’.[9] Convenient. Just begging for a ‘discuss’, isn’t it?  Jessica and Alia agonise over the law/religion/government relationship.[10] The Bene Gesserit Sisters also have an idea that they are above the law, obeying a higher morality.[11]

More general and unfocused law-slagging-off can be seen, e.g. here: ‘What is law? Control? … Law – our highest ideal and our basest nature/ Don’t look too closely at the law. Do and you’ll find the rationalized interpretations, the legal casuistry, the precedents of convenience. You’ll find the serenity which is just another word for death’.[12]

Often, a dim view is taken of the utility of law (which, in a slightly inexact/lazy twentieth century view seems to mean positive, statutory, criminal, law): ‘Laws to suppress tend to strengthen what they would prohibit.’[13] This is coupled with a slur against the legal profession (otherwise notably absent) which seems a bit lazy and out of place – ‘…This is the fine print on which all the legal professions of history have based their job security’.[14]

The rather limited view of law on display clearly does not involve any room for discretion, mercy, equity. These things have to be supplied from without: ‘Laws are dangerous to everyone – innocent and guilty alike… They have no human understanding in and of themselves … Laws must always be interpreted. The law-bound want no latitude for compassion. No elbow room. The law is the Law!’[15] Apparently legal history scholarship on mercy, pardons, equity, will not survive into the time of the Duniverse …

The God-Emperor Leto II rather gives up on law as a tool of control, preferring religion as a way of keeping people occupied and in order.[16] He sees a need for (civil) law in cities, where ‘many injuries occur’, but there is a significant ‘downside’: ‘ The law develops its own power structure, creating more wounds and new injustices’.

On a more technical legal-scholarship level, I am not sure what public lawyer colleagues would make of the attempts to differentiate ‘law’ and ‘regulation’ in a discussion between a BG sister and the chief Honoured Matre in the last book: ‘If you do not see the difference between regulation and law, both have the force of law/’[17] (Eh?) The following account definitely does not fit in with ideas about Law in historical context: ‘Laws convey the myth of enforced change. A bright new future will come because of this law and that one. Laws enforce the future. Regulations are believed to enforce the past’.[18] Another relevant distinction is that between law and custom. In the first book in particular, we see customary law amongst the Fremen (more below). There is even the odd bit of jurisprudence – an undead philosopher trashes natural law and has a go at classic seminar question ‘What is justice?’.[19]

Substantive legal rules

Many of these are alluded to through the series. I will note just a few here.

In terms of content, the GC includes rules, each beginning ‘‘the forms must be obeyed’.[20] The chief rule is that no atomic weapons to be used against a human target. The penalty for transgression is planetary obliteration.[21] A much later summary of the rule is ‘You blast anyone and we unite to blast you’.[22] Some weapons appear to be on the edge of legality under this rule, particularly the ‘stone-burner’ (radioactive, deadly, blinding …).[23] There is also the Dictum Familia – setting up the rules on non-prohibited assassination (because informal treachery would be really bad …) and strict rules about kanly (feud or vendetta), involving swearing kanly, and then being entitled to kill all agents of the House against which it has been sworn.[24]

The general thrust, then, seems to be an agreement which does not aspire to genuine peace, but tries to keep a lid on excessive disorder by setting a few rules. The kanly idea has certain resonances with ideas about the early medieval period, and the assumed ubiquity of the ‘blood feud’, but with no real central effort to channel people’s grievances towards compensation rather than vengeance (as we see in many compensation-tariff codes set out by central authorities across western Europe in this period).[25]

The GC also includes rules against computers (artificial intelligence having somehow sparked off the ‘Butlerian jihad’, a major upheaval …) and there is an exhortation to ‘Make no device in the likeness of the mind’.[26] Rather of its time in terms of Legal History – the genie is rather too far out of the bottle for this to be a possibility in our future.

Other aspects of organisation are not explicitly tied to the GC or particular legislation, but seem to have the status of law. Family law and succession are clearly important. There is an idea of monogamous marriage, but also other forms of relationship amongst the ruling classes. Baron Harkonnen seems to favour young male partners, and nobody seems to be bothered.[27] The series generally portrays heterosexual pairings, which, I suppose, is characteristic of limits on imagination at this period, as well as being tied to its disturbing obsession with breeding (eugenics really).[28] There is a hint of rape-myth thinking in a statement about submission ‘to a form of rape at first only to convert this into a deep and binding mutual dependence’.[29] Don’t think so, though such views can certainly be dredged up from any study of the history of rape. Probably the most disturbing aspect of sexual behaviour which appears in the series is the not-really-condemned ‘initiation’/ abuse of a male child by an older woman in book VI – perhaps we are supposed to think that this is not wholly abusive and grim because the child is a reincarnated version of somebody who was previously mature. Clearly terrible. A reminder that there were some very wrong ideas about this sort of thing floating about in the not-too-distant past.

Powerful men may have a concubine, and this is a relatively respectable position. Jessica is described as the concubine, or formal concubine, or bound concubine  of Duke Leto (who is unmarried, for political reasons).  As concubine, Jessica has a degree of power and respect, and her son, Paul, is regarded as legal heir to the Dukedom, and then rightful Duke, and Alia Leto’s legal daughter.[30] Still, it is a bit of an unsatisfactory position, even if Leto charmingly tells her that she is actually better off because he hasn’t married her (it seems to be his choice …) as that means she doesn’t have to eat formally with him every night.[31] The pattern is repeated in the next generation: Paul is ‘with’ his Fremen woman, Chani, but is going to marry the Emperor’s heiress, Princess Irulan. It’s OK though, because ‘this is a political thing … [and] that princess shall have no more of me than my name.’ [no sex, no kids – and the name thing shows that gender trumps rank …][32]

There are a few statements about property which are worth noting, in particular in the last book. In a fascinating exchange between the BG Mother Superior, Odrade, and a ghola (much reincarnated being), Teg, the view is expressed that ‘Ownership is an interesting question’, and it is asked  ‘Do we own this planet, or does it own us?’[33] Not a million miles away from some of the discussions arising in modern, thoughtful, Land Law work, which takes in the perspectives of indigenous peoples. Likewise the interpretation of the relationship between the BG and the planet they inhabit as one of ‘stewardship’.[34]


We are invited – implicitly – to contrast the laws and treachery of the rest of the universe with the honour and law of the semi-nomadic Fremen. There is more than a touch of orientalism/romanticising the ‘primitive’ about this (and before we dismiss the latter as a term we would never use now, I did notice ‘ancient and primitive law’ as a heading within the classification system at a library last week). The laws and customs of the Fremen are strange to outsiders at first, but the suggestion is that they are logical responses to their unforgiving environment, with its extreme shortage of water. I don’t think we are supposed to see the Fremen as misogynist, but some of their rules definitely show the perspective of a man of the mid-20th C. No hint of Frewomen’s Liberation …

They may be Fre, but the Fremen are not individualistic. It is all about the group’s survival, and getting and retaining water.  The overall rule is: ‘A man’s flesh is his own; the water belongs to the tribe’.[35] Leading on from this, those who are net takers of water without providing anything to the group may be sacrificed, and rendered down for their moisture,[36] and the blind ought to be abandoned in the desert, presumably for similar reasons.[37] Taking it a step further, in a sense, it was, at least at one time, the case that ‘someone caught outside the sietch without a stillsuit was automatically killed. To waste water was to endanger the tribe.’[38]

Despite the whole group thing, there is also some sort of individual property right in water. Paul is entitled to the water of a defeated adversary, and Jessica retains rights in the bottled water she brought with her. Giving some of it up to the others whilst in the desert will be compensated tenfold when they get to the Fremen settlement.[39] There are also tokens for water from the common stock, which are involved in courtship (I love you so much I am giving you the moisture captured from somebody’s squished flesh ..). There also seems to be a limited idea of property in chattels – so things belong to people, but are shared out by the leader when somebody dies.[40]

Keeping one’s word is a big deal, and there is a consciousness of being especially honourable in this respect. Contracts are, of necessity, oral.[41] [No specialty rule for the Fremen …]

The Fremen use trial by combat not (just?) for things we would think of as legal, but to determine truth, under the ‘amtal rule’.[42]  Combat seems to be an all male affair,[43] and is to the death. Intriguingly, there is an echo of medieval trial by combat procedure, in that it has to be ensured beforehand that Jessica, who has the special powers of a Bene Gesserit ‘witch’, will not put a spell on a combatant.[44] There is also some form of ordeal – as when Jessica shows she is fit to be a Reverend Mother (this ordeal rather resembling the ordeal of the bitter waters, Numbers 5:11-31).[45] Ordeals are not confined to the Fremen: Paul is also tested by a Bene Gesserit Reverend Mother, to check his humanity (didn’t quite get that …) in a fancy process involving a poison needle and a box of (artificial) pain (if you can have artificial pain ..physiological/philosophical rabbit hole there …). Bit of a step up from hot iron, ploughshares and holy morsels of medieval European ordeals. Interestingly this is not founded on an appeal to God, but on psychological understanding of what humans and animals would do differently.[46]

Anyway, back to the Fremen. Combat is also the way one leader takes over from the last. The Fremen do not have hereditary leadership, but rather the strongest person (well, man) leads: ‘the one who brings water and security’.[47] Paul manages to change the rule, so he doesn’t have to kill Stilgar to lead. Instead, he has Stilgar go through what looks like a homage ceremony, kneeling, handing over his knife, swearing fealty.[48] Hmm – doesn’t sound that Fre to me …

Except there is relatively Fre love. For the men anyway. And assuming that they like women. At least there is a convention that women ‘are not taken against their will’.[49]  Nevertheless, there are certainly situations in which men get to do the choosing as to relationships – we see this after (15 year old) Paul beats Jamis in combat, and gets to decide whether to have his widow as his woman or his servant, or free her.[50] And families appear to decide who a Fremen woman will marry (relatively young).[51] So – not as fre-ly consensual as all that. Another aspect of Fremen Family Law which emerges is that there is a rule against incest: the death penalty (hanging on a tripod) applies to incest.[52] Exactly what amounts to incest is unclear, beyond the example of brother and sister which is the matter in hand in the passage relating to this law. One would have thought that the structure of society would have meant quite a lot of in-marriage within tribes, so the rules would have to be restricted to a small number of banned relationships.

One practical issue which is not addressed is how exactly initmacy works – I don’t mean the complex business of getting into somebody’s stillsuit, but the water issue. They are all so cautious about losing moisture, but there is the issue of, well, fluids involved in ‘the huddlings of sex’,[53] isn’t there?

Law, religion, witchcraft and eugenics: the Bene Gesserit

One of the groups involved in power and overthrow of power is called the Bene Gesserit. Not quite clear to me why that name would have been chosen – it alludes to good behaviour, and for legal historians has resonance with the commission to judges that they shall keep their role as long as they do not misbehave (as opposed to serving as long as the monarch pleases, the older, pre-17th C, rule which made it simpler to remove them). This has been taken to be important for judicial independence (though it can be exaggerated, because it does nothing to ensure that those who are appointed in the first place are independent types rather than subservient ones). I am not quite sure what that has to do with the Bene Gesserit in the Dune books, who are an order of women with highly trained physical and especially mental capacities. They are associated repeatedly with another rather 17th C-resonant thing, though: witchcraft. They are forever being called witches, and we even get a very witch-hunty citation of ‘Thou shalt not suffer a witch to live’ at one point.[54] They have a sort of ‘evil twin’ organisation – the Honoured Matres – in later books, these women being possessed of various skills including deadly foot-fighting abilities and extraordinary sexual abilities, but not particularly interesting from a legal/historical point of view. The BG are supposed to be sort-of sympathetic, but manipulative in terms of religion and mad-keen on eugenics (even though the little ladies don’t always get this right …and it is slipped in that their massive breeding programme apparently involves killing some children).[55]



Some glimpses of modern popular attitudes to history come through as well. There is a nice episode involving the emperor/tyrant/ weird wormy slug man, Leto II and some historians: he executed them, he said, ‘because they lied pretentiously’.[56] This was not your actual vivicombustion[57] though, so that was better than it might have been, he tells us. Not quite clear what was wrong with their work, but I might be able to think of one or two historical works which might conceivably fall into the category ‘pretentious’ … will say no more.

There is some more general comment on history. Partly it’s a bit trite (and borderline Toryish grumbling about historians revising things …in the wrong way):

‘Historians exercise great power and some of them know it. They recreate the past, changing it to fit their own interpretations. Thus they change the future as well.’[58]

I do think that there is a nice bit of insight/prescience about the way a lot of popular history has gone in a quotation put into the Chronicles of the Bene Gesserit Chapterhouse, which seems a fitting place to end:

‘The ease with which historians can be captivated is explained in part by the fact that bloody events exert a magnetic attraction on humankind. Historians … cater to that ancient human desire you see manifested in the mobs gawking at executions or pepople stopping to stare at the scene of an accident. Historians have the added incentive that catering to this bloody attraction often produces wealth and power. It is popular. Digging deeply into obscure events and the secret machinations of unknown people is not only more difficult, it is observably dangerous to careers’.[59]

I cannot say that working on some of the more grisly aspects of medieval law has brought me wealth or power, but there is some truth here, and it is certainly worth bearing in mind, as I return to the other thing I promised myself I would finish off today, on medieval petty treason (ft. burning at the stake) …


A Better New Year to us all: repeat it with me …

“I must not fear. Fear is the mind-killer. Fear is the little-death that brings total obliteration. I will face my fear. I will permit it to pass over me and through me. And when it has gone past I will turn the inner eye to see its path. Where the fear has gone there will be nothing. Only I will remain.”


31st December 2021.



Photo by Ryan Cheng on Unsplash (Disclaimer – I admit that this is not actually the planet Dune …)

[1] I have read only the six novels by Herbert himself: Dune (1965) = I, Dune Messiah (1969 = II); Children of Dune (1976) = III; God Emperor of Dune (1981) = IV; Heretics of Dune (1984) = V; Chapterhouse Dune (1985 = VI). One day I may get around to reading the various sequels and prequels by others, but there is a limit to my current capacity for nerdery.

[2] I: 39. And obviously he does say ‘slaves’ rather than ‘enslaved people’. 1960s.

[3] I: 596.

[4] II: 75

[5] II: 76.

[6] II, 76.

[7] CHOAM rather fades from view in later novels, I am afraid, fans of company law/legal history.

[8] I: 252 ‘Thus it reads above the Emperor’s door’.

[9] II: 76.

[10] II: 252.

[11] VI: 154, Lucilla.

[12] II: 249.

[13] VI, 119.

[14] ibid. ‘Bene Gesserit Coda’. Sounds more like a grumpy, easy, 20th C thing to say, lashing out at ‘the lawyers’ .. might do as an exam question though!

[15] VI: 154, Lucilla. See also Odrade, 237.

[16] IV: 225.

[17] VI: 152, Lucilla, not really answering the question, it seems to me …

[18] Ibid., and Lucilla again.

[19] II: 151 – Duncan Idaho, a fighter turned zombie type of thing (generally positive character) says of natural law that it is a ‘myth’ that ‘haunts human history’. II: 156 is his go at justice. Fair to say he has no problem with dictatorial power.

[20] I: 596.

[21] I: 514.

[22] VI: 134.

[23] II, 55.

[24] I: 100, 161, 517.

[25] See, e.g. Lisi Oliver, The Body Legal in Barbarian Law (Toronto, 2011).

[26] IV:32.

[27] Duncan Idaho is a big old homophobe though: IV:321.

[28] Limits on the imagniative treatment of scientific development are always interesting – it seemed more likely that a massive, slow, eugenic breeding programme obsessed with ‘Atreides traits’ would be allowed to develop, rather than the ability to alter people more quickly, once born, to get desired characteristics, apparently. The development of living furniture (the ludicrous and unnecessary ‘chairdogs’ was more imaginable than gene-editing …).

[29] IV:209.

[30] I: 54, 57, 589.

[31] I: 54.

[32] I: 561.

[33] VI: 14.

[34] VI: 15.

[35] I: 241.

[36] I: 238, 316-7.

[37] II: 242. Cue a nice bit of legal tricksiness from Paul – he loses his eyes, but initially argues that because he can see with his mystical powers, he doesn’t have to be desert-ed. In the end though, he surrenders to the law, to become properly Fre (though also, to be fair, properly dead). The Fremen Law about sending the blind off into the desert is expressed as consigning them to Shai-Hulud (the great worm) in III:39.

[38] III: 286.

[39] I: 349, 351.

[40] I: 354.

[41] I: 320.

[42] I: 337.

[43] Possibly a little inconsistent with the existence of Fremen amazons – II: 111?

[44] I: 340.

[45] I: 401.

[46] I: 6-9.

[47] I: 328.

[48] I: 489.

[49] I: 330.

[50] I: 389.

[51] III:290.

[52] III:113.

[53] I: 332.

[54] III:58.

[55] V:29.

[56] IV, 70, Year 3508 of reign of Lord Leto, BG Chronicle reports execution of nine historians ‘who disappeared into his Citadel in year 2116 of Lord Leto’s reign… the nine were rendered unconscious then bound on pyres of their own published works.’ See also V:6.

[57] Yes, I have all the vocab – a result of my petty treason work …

[58] V: 403.

[59][59] V:6, Bene Gesserit Chronicles of the Chapter House, from Mother Superior Darwi Odrade’s Argument in Council.

Bleeding Legal History

Rather later than many people, I have finally had a chance to have a good look at the latest delivery from the Selden Society – A.H. Hershey (ed.), Special Eyre Rolls of Hugh Bigod 1258-60 Selden Soc vols 131 and 133. These have been waiting for me in my pigeon hole at Bristol for a while, but I have only just been able to get into the Wills Memorial Building, after returning from my travels, to get my paws on them. As you will see from the image above, in my clumsy eagerness, I managed to injure myself during the ‘unboxing’ process. I managed to leave some blood spatters on one of the books, so my DNA is now on them, I suppose. Hard core legal historian or what?

The volumes are editions (and translations) of some eyre records (JUST 1/1187, JUST 1/1188 JUST 1/1189, National Archives fans) from sessions by Bigod, the justiciar, just after the big King-barons upheavals of Henry III’s reign, and they are well worth a look for anyone interested in this period, or in legal history generally.  From the point of view of my research, there are some interesting entries on non-fatal injury, and on pregnancy/foetuses, and, as ever, I remain interested in seeing the extent to which women are dealt with in the commentary, index etc.

So, a few points …

  1. There is some interesting stuff here about the use of querela procedure – complaints without the usual formal requirements. These are always really interesting, in that they feel like a bit of a window on to what people actually want the law to do. Obviously not unmediated, but less mediated. I have noted in the past that they are particularly useful for women, whose routes to justice were generally rather more constrained (e.g. I have mentioned this in relation to sexual abuse of various sorts, see here). The introduction to SS 131, at xxvii makes a good point about the limits to the freedom which was allowed when bringing this sort of action – clearly not possible wholly to contradict common law rules by going down the querela route. Still, they can be pretty informative.
  2. The introduction does also make special mention of women’s use of this process – see xlv – which is good to see. Dower/freebench features pretty heavily, and I found particularly interesting the section at xlvi relating to  Cecilia widow of William son of Roger of Hatfield and her freebench claim. Her case – no. 24 – engages with a manorial custom relating to freebench in Hatfield. The ‘upside’ was that it was relatively generous in extent – a qualifying widow became ‘life tenant’ of all of the lands her husband had held in the manor. The ‘downside’ was that the qualifying test was pretty strict. Not only did the widow have to remain chaste (which Cecilia claimed she had) but there had to be a surviving legitimate child with the dead husband. This is where Cecilia fell down: her son had died. Conceptually, I suppose I ‘get’ the rule: freebench was something of a ‘dower meets child maintenance’ concept here, it would seem. Still, though, it would presumably mean compounding the tragedy of a woman who had lost both husband and child. Interesting to see that in this case, she seems to have cut a deal with the other claimant to the land, and was not left with nothing. Manorial equity?
  3. There is some very interesting material relevant to pregnancy and foetuses. Intro p. xlvii and entry no 141 relate to a Bucks complaint of Sibil, wife of Roger Grey, knight, that she had been assaulted, in an attack on her husband, leading her to miscarry the child she was carrying, and to be unwell enough to have to stay in her bed for some time afterwards. There is a lot which is interesting about this case. First of all, the blows she suffered were alleged to have happened while she was trying to protect Roger, the main target of the beating – interesting from a gender roles POV, even if the editor is not convinced it is realistic in this particular case. Secondly, the miscarriage was alleged to have happened not at once, but three weeks after the attack. Very interesting in terms of causation, which is one of my current concerns. Apparently that was thought to be a plausible claim, despite what one imagines would have been the relative frequency of pregnancies ending badly. As Hershey notes, this is all quite interesting in terms of its relationship to the sorts of cases women were allowed to bring by appeal, but there is also more to unpack, I think, in terms of what it means for our understanding of contemporary views on pregnancy and the foetus. I am wondering what to make of the ‘confined to bed’ claim – was there a doubt that loss of the foetus in and of itself was the sort of harm which ‘counted’, and it felt safer to emphasise the harm to the woman?
  4. Also fascinating (and horrible) on pregnancy, foetuses etc is no. 126 at p. 120 ff: amongst the accusations against William of Rushton of Oxfordshire (and some henchmen) is the accusation of wrongful execution of a woman. Sarah of Islip was said to have been hanged for theft, without proper judgment, when she had a good explanation for her possession of the allegedly stolen goods (cloth) and when she was very pregnant. All sorts of interest here. Hershey concentrates in the introduction on the wrongful execution point, but the entry itself has some really useful passages describing late pregnancy, and, incredibly chillingly, on the idea that a woman facing execution might be resigned to her own death, but plead for those threatening her to cut her open (presumably after death?) and save her child. What an appalling scene that conjures up – and what a priceless insight into more than one issue relating to law, medicine and the (plausibly set forth) emotions and attitudes of a medieval woman.
  5. There is also some useful stuff on the mayhem/non-fatal injury front, including a case of partial blinding with, shall we say, an interesting alternative portrayal of causation (woman alleges she is thumped, causing her to lose sight in one eye; jury alternative explanation is that fumes associated with her brewing blinded her in one eye, and only one eye …am I wrong to be unconvinced at their good faith?) – p. 297 no 349.


(There are also lots of general land cases, procedure etc, for those who like that sort of thing, preferring their legal history a little less bloody …)




Medieval petty treason: complexities of common lawyers’ own creation?

The species of ‘petty treason’ concerning women who were accused of killing their husbands is something which has interested me for some time, and I have included a number of notes on particular cases on this blog. At the moment, I am trying to think slightly more broadly, as I prepare a paper for a conference in 2022. The theme for the British Legal History Conference 2022 in Belfast is ‘Constitutional Change’, and it struck me as not too much of a stretch to do something on ‘petty treason’ there, because of the specific link which was made by the Statute of Treasons 1352 between acts against the King and his realm on the one side (which we might, slightly anachronistically, call ‘high treason’) and acts against smaller-scale ‘constitutions’, in the home, the workplace, the religious house (which come to be called ‘petty treason’, from the fifteenth century onwards). At the moment, I am working on two particular sub-issues in this area, which, though they may seem to be rather separate, do have a certain connection (to my mind at least) in that they involve complexities which are the product of choices made by common lawyers in their construction and positioning of women within the rules and procedures of the common law.

The first of these areas is that of understanding of ‘petty treason’ itself: was it ‘really’ a sort of treason, or a sort of homicide? That is not simply a problem of abstract classification, but something with potential practical effects, in terms of procedure and pleading. Looking at other systems, which did not take the slightly metaphorical route of extending treason (wholly or partially) to the ‘petty treason’ offences,[i] I do find myself questioning whether doing this may have been an unnecessary complication. What, really, was thought to be gained by partly assimilating the ‘non-regal/regnal’ offences to high treason? It was not necessary to do this, in order to punish offenders in a particularly distinctive way – since this was already happening well before the legislation. At least one of the categories (the religious one) does not seem to have been a real concern (I am yet to find any examples of charges based on it), and there do not seem to have been floods of master-servant cases (impressionistic – I need to do more digging here, but there do not seem to have been too many). Moving offences between treason and homicide might have some justification in terms of removing the possibility of benefit of clergy, but that would not explain the inclusion of wives who killed their husbands – since they could not claim clergy anyway. So, unless it is to be dismissed as ‘all talk’ and posturing, lashing out of ‘the authorities’ after the Black Death etc., etc., this is a bit of a puzzle. I think I need to see where else the extension of treason followed a similar pattern.

The second area of possibly unnecessary complexity involves the interaction between husband- killing and a series of rules and attitudes about women which had been laid down, or were being laid down, in the common law by the later medieval period. These were: misogynist views about women’s nature and capabilities; ‘property law’; rules about principal and accessory; and rules about the bringing of appeals. None of this arose by accident, and nor was it inevitable, and yet common lawyers felt themselves unable to choose not to allow it to cause complications and distortions in particular sorts of case. This is particularly evident in cases involving more than one person, including a wife, being accused of involvement in the killing of a married man. It is hard enough to decode those cases in which a wife is accused of participation with another or others, in one legal action: we cannot get much purchase on questions as to whether her participation is being exaggerated or underplayed, whether to assume or believe allegations about her sexual entanglement with other participants. Even more difficult, however, are the cases in which the wife accuses one person, and then somebody else with a decided interest in getting her out of the way, but also a likely personal interest in the deceased – his brother or heir – accuses her of having been involved. There are a couple of these mentioned in posts here, and I remain uncertain as to exactly what was going on in some such cases, as I have mentioned. I do have theories, some of which I ran past a seminar in October (you can hear something of them here if you are interested), but there is certainly room for more thought. Perhaps the most intractable sort of case was that which also brought in complications involving an heir who was the child of both the deceased husband, and also the allegedly homicidal mother – how should property questions and forfeitures be handled in such a case. There are signs that the common law was not thought up to handling these at all, in a later fifteenth century case relating to the Chaworth family,[ii] in which there was a resort to petitioning. The case is considered in Payling, S.J.,’Murder, Motive and Punishment in Fifteenth-Century England: Two Gentry Case-Studies’, EHR CXIII (1998) 1-17 (and I am trying to integrate into my account now, and to see how it relates to the several slightly inconsistent things which common law sources say on the subject of rights to bring an appeal for the death of a murdered married man).

All in all, it is hard not to see some of the complications in this area as deriving from the unresolved tension between different constructions of women: capable and incapable; persons and not-persons; objects of particular pity and protection and objects of particular fear. I would not say that this tension was unique to the common law, but perhaps – to change my physical metaphor – greater balance than some systems between the binaries I have just set up made things particularly difficult. And perhaps the common lawyers’ metaphors themselves – coverture and petty ‘treason’ and the rest – also made their own contribution to the whole complex business of legal response to intra-familial violence.  Onwards I go …





[i] I have been spending some time looking at Scots law in particular – very interesting and different law of  treason from that found in the common law, followed by very abusive imposition of the English rules after Jacobite scares. I think the contrast with Scotland would work well in my paper, though I am a little hesitant about blundering in as an outsider and non-expert…

[ii] KB 27/816 m. 70 (1465); KB 27/817 m.105; KB9/308 m. 82.


Image: running out of ideas for petty treason images, so going with a general ‘Confusion, seeing trees as opposed to wood’ vibe. Photo by Evan Dennis on Unsplash

Childish tricks and chastisement: a few hints from a fourteenth century trespass case

My own childhood was in the dwindling twilight of the age of corporal punishment: officially banned in England and Wales, it was nevertheless alive in the memory of schools. There was a thin, whippy, cane in the office of one headteacher – a slightly threatening relic – and there was one teacher in secondary school who, entirely illegally, but without anyone ever daring to report him, used an ancient dap (gymshoe!) on the backsides of offenders (boys only, in front of the class, and not in the trousers-down private school fashion: some sort of attenuated performance of former rituals, I suppose). My father, though, certainly had tales of school canings, and, for his generation and many before it, that was a normal part of educational technique. I was smacked as a child, for some of the worst of my many misdemeanours, and cartoon heroes like Dennis the Menace and Minnie the Minx certainly took their share of parental slipperings. All of this now seems very foreign indeed, but those just-about-retrievable memories help a little in thinking about historical cases like one I came across yesterday.


The case is a trespass case from the King’s Bench roll of Easter 1325. It is not in the educational context, though it seems to involve a young person of what we would consider school age – technically, I suppose, it is an ‘employment beating’ case rather than a ‘scholastic beating’ case. It is not earth-shatteringly different or new, but there are some interesting little snippets of information as to attitudes and assessment of behaviour in the area of reasonable chastisement and correction of children. It felt worthy of a quick note.


The marginal note tells us that the case is from Hertfordshire. It involved a complaint by Thomas, son of Edmund de Mareford, against William de Salesbury, parson of the church of Wheathampstead, and another man, William Rayemund. Thomas alleged that the two Williams, along with one other man, had assaulted him. They had, he said, in the usual, stereotyped formula, done this with force and arms and against the king’s peace: they had beaten and wounded him, and mistreated him, and done him other enormities, to his great damage (he claimed this amounted to £60). The apparent date assigned to the assault was 31st January, 1323, though there might be a slip here. In any case, the Williams did not make a thing of that. Instead, they denied that they had done anything wrong or against the king’s peace. Their version of events was that, on the day in question, Thomas was a garcio (groom or servant) of William de Salesbury, and was ‘within age’. (Quite what age this means is a bit vague, isn’t it, as there was not one ‘age of majority’ at this point). The Williams said that Thomas had been naughty, in some childish way, and had been guilty of some childish prank (quandam transgressionem puerilem).  (Again, it would be good to know more – I am still stuck in Beano mode and am thinking about buckets of water on doors or sneezing powder…). Because of this naughtiness, William de Salesbury had beaten him as a punishment (causa castigacionis) with a pair of small rods or sticks (virgula). It had not been a trespass, and was not against the king’s peace.


Thomas, however, stuck to his story. Both sides agreed to put the matter to a jury, which was duly summoned, deliberated, and came down on Thomas’s side. Thomas was to recover damages – not quite what he had claimed, but still a fair bit: £20. (How nice to have an actual outcome!)


There is a bit more about moves to get the money paid, and fines to the King, but  my main interests here are (1) what is said about the beating and (2) the pretty large award which is made by the jury.


The excuse

The excuse which the Williams tried to use obviously didn’t work, but, equally obviously, they thought it was ‘a runner’ – something which sounded plausible and which might get them off the hook. What does their attempted argument tell us? Well … it tells us that a beating might be regarded as reasonable chastisement and not contrary to the king’s peace, when and if:

  • the person beaten was under age
  • the person beaten was in the employ of the defendant
  • the person who was beaten had done something wrong – even a ‘childish transgression’
  • the beating was done with particular instruments regarded as reasonable/restrained (here, we have ‘a pair of small rods’ – whether that is a particular, specialised, instrument for spanking, or just some useful things which were to hand, I am not sure: further investigation needed here!)



The award

I am collecting figures for various sorts of physical injury damages, but haven’t got enough material to say anything much as to comparison (and sadly, of course, the record of Thomas’s allegation doesn’t specify quite what injuries were done to him).  Using the currency calculator from the National Archives website, however, tells me that Thomas could probably have bought 44-54 cows or 23-28 horses for this amount, so not bad at all, presuming he was not injured in some permanent way.



I am not sure that the case is going to be hugely useful to my current project on mayhem – I found it when looking for mayhem cases, but it is insufficiently detailed in terms of the injury suffered, to be helpful in understanding the borderline between trespass and mayhem/wounding. It is, though,  interesting to see small hints about what were perceived to be the boundaries of legitimate corporal punishment of children. They are only hints – as there is frustrating vagueness about a few key points – but still, it may contribute to wider understanding, when put together with and compared with other material about parental beatings, teacher beatings and adult employment-beatings.

I do find myself cheering on young Thomas here  and hoping that things improved for him after this case.






Image: St Helen’s Church in Wheathampstead, Herts. I have never been to Wheathampstead but I am sure it is a little piece of home counties paradise (How poorly-travelled I am – like the great and problematic Charlene, I have I never (knowingly) ‘Been to Me’, but nor have I been to Paradise … nor Wheathampstead …)

Edges and points: code-switching and weapon metaphors in a medieval sexual offence indictment

The King’s Bench plea roll for Easter 1435 contains an entry relating to proceedings against a clerk, Thomas Harvy, for alleged offences in Norfolk. Along with others, he was accused of ambush, assault and robbery, and, alone, he was accused of a sexual offence. He pleaded not guilty to all of the accusations, and, after some delay, a jury found him not guilty.[i] There is nothing unusual in any of this: experience with these sources has taught me that, despite that bloody reputation of medieval law-enforcement, acquittal rather than conviction and grisly punishment, was the norm in such cases.  The way in which the allegation is put, however, is unexpected, and, it seems to me, something worth drawing to the attention of scholars outside the small world of medieval legal history.

As will be obvious from my title, the unusual aspect to the entry is in its description of the sexual offence with which Thomas Harvy was charged.

Here it is, in free translation:

On Monday 11th January, 1434, at Bishop’s Lynn (now King’s Lynn) before William Paston, William Godrede and William Yelverton, and their colleagues, justices of the peace, the jurors presented that, on 1st October 1433, Thomas Harvy of Testerton, clerk (clericus) … broke into the house of  John Serjeant of Colkirk, at Colkirk, and attacked Margaret, John’s wife,  wounding her shamefully 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.

What is going on, and why do I think that these few words are worth anyone’s time?

This part of the allegations against Thomas Harvy involved sexual misconduct, but was not on the usual spectrum of felonious rape and ‘ravishment’ charges seen in medieval common law records. It does not follow the pattern of rape charges, in that there is no allegation of ‘felony’, nor of ‘carnal knowledge’ against the will of the woman. It does not follow the pattern of ‘ravishment’ charges, in that there is no reference to abduction, nor any mention of the removal of the husband’s goods. The complaint is, rather, that the misconduct took place on (and continued to take place on) the husband’s premises. Despite the talk of wounding and weapons, there is every chance that this would have been understood by the (all male) jury, judges and the scribe who wrote the matter up on the King’s Bench plea roll, not to have been an allegation of rape (as they understood it) but an allegation of sex which was problematic only in that it was between parties who should not have been having sex, as opposed to being problematically violent or problematically non-consensual.

It would, in fact, almost be possible not to spot that this is a sexual offence: after all, with the attacking, wounding, and reference to lance and dagger, it sounds rather like a serious ‘general’ assault with authentically medieval weapons. I am fairly sure, though, that those weapons are not what they seem. Apart from the fact that a lance or spear would be an unusual weapon in a case of breaking, entry and assault, there are sexual/anatomical overtones to both ‘weapons’ mentioned. I would be inclined to question my reading (and perhaps wonder whether the ‘lance’ was some sort of butchery implement)  if there was only one of these suggestive ‘weapons’, but seeing both together makes a pretty strong case for seeing the ‘carnal lance’ and ‘ballock hafted dagger’ as evoking not actual weapons but metaphorical weapons, and to refer to male genitalia. Such a resort to metaphorical language is unusual within the generally unfanciful context of medieval plea rolls, but the use of weapon-imagery in relation to sex will not be unfamiliar to scholars steeped in literary sources.[ii]

I have come across the ‘carnal lance’ image on its own in a very small number of other cases.[iii] It is consistent with an idea of sex as a battle, or a joust, with the understanding that weapons were profoundly masculine items, and with the view that normal, un-transgressive, heterosexual sex was thought (at least by those who were in a position to leave clues to their views) to involve an active man and a passive woman, and a degree of force. The reference to the ‘ballock hafted dagger’ can be fitted into a similar pattern, but it is both less familiar and more fascinating. Some rapid research on a term I had never encountered revealed that ‘ballock-hafted daggers’ (more commonly just ‘ballock daggers’) were real weapons,[iv] with a characteristic guard, featuring two swellings clearly thought to resemble testicles. The sexual symbolism of the ballock dagger may be considered to have been enhanced by the fact that they were thrusting rather than  cutting weapons, and by the fact that they appear to have been worn hanging outside the clothing in the general area of the genitals.[v] No contemporary, surely, would have failed to ‘get’ the reference.

I am aware that I have blundered into the territory of the literary scholar. Having arrived here, however, I will, tentatively, note two further points of interest with regard to the ‘ballock dagger’ reference. First, it does seem to me to be a slightly different sort of imagery to that of the ‘carnal lance’. The material dagger is named after male genitals, and male genitals are suggested by the reference to the dagger. This strikes the non-expert at least as crude, in more ways than one. I wonder if my second amateur lit. scholar point is also connected with the ‘crude’, in a sense: while the rest of the record is in the high-status, learned language, Latin, this word is in the people’s language, English. There is considerable scholarship on the issue of ‘code-switching’ in the literary context, though less has been done on this practice in the context of the records of common law.[vi] It seems likely that use of an English word here would have had an effect – it is certainly arresting now, to come across it after line upon line of Latin – but speculation about just what effect that would have been is, I think, something to leave to those with deeper knowledge.

Retreating (more or less) to the home turf of the legal historian, it also seems worth noting a possible impulse from medieval common law’s own formulaic nature towards thinking and talking about interactions in ‘weaponised’ language. Those of us who spend long periods of time looking at plea rolls probably tend to filter them out, but in fact entries on these rolls are full of weapons. It was necessary to specify the exact sort of axe, knife or pike used to inflict a homicide, for example (and to set out its value). It was also usual to allege that a trespass was carried out with swords, bucklers and knives (even when it definitely wasn’t). The common law records fairly bristle with armaments, real and fictional, and that is another context within which these metaphorical expressions should be placed. I wonder if it is possible that the lance and dagger images were intended to perform a legal, jurisdictional function, moving Thomas Harvy’s misconduct from being the sort of illicit sex which would have fallen to the jurisdiction of the church to being the sort of peace-breach which sounded like the business of the royal courts.

This case did come to an end, as far as the process of the common law was concerned. Whatever the truth of the matter, Thomas Harvy was found not guilty. I am not going to offer anything so neat as a conclusion to this post. It is, after all, one of the advantages to blog posts that they do not have to follow the rules of the formal academic article game. Besides that, I do not want to conclude, suggesting that I have said the last word on any of this – I am sure that I have not, and nor do I want to. Another of the advantages of the blog post format is that it increases the chances of coming to the attention of scholars outside one’s own little niche, and this one will have accomplished something if its short and basic remarks can encourage a wider body of scholars – particularly scholars of language and literature – to think that there might be something of worth for them in the records of the medieval common law.

The inclusion in these records of the unusual form of expression which I have been discussing raises many questions. We may wonder whether, perhaps, this way of talking about sex and anatomy was widely to be heard in legal proceedings, but usually weeded out before the final plea rolls were produced. The relationship between speech and record in medieval court proceedings is, unfortunately, almost entirely unknowable. Those involved in the administration of common law were, of course, men of their world, and absorbed and reflected back contemporary literary trends and thought on the relationship between men and women. We can only speculate as to the effect on any women who did find themselves involved with this sort of clubby, ‘bantering’, hostile environment (and, though we cannot come to any firm conclusion, such as might be suitable for submission to a traditional academic journal, I think that it is rather important that we do speculate about this).



3rd November, 2021


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

[ii] 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’.

[iii] KB 27/725 m. 31d; AALT IMG 567 (1442); KB 9/359/mm 67, 71; AALT IMG 141 (1482). The latter is mentioned in M. Mate, Daughters, Wives and Widows after the Black Death : Women in Sussex, 1350-1535, (Woodbridge, 1998), 48.

[iv] 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.

[v] Noettveit, 143.

[vi] See, e.g., G. Dodd, ‘Languages and Law in Late Medieval England: English, French and Latin’, In C. Barrington & S. Sobecki (eds.), The Cambridge Companion to Medieval English Law and Literature (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2019), 17-29.

Image: daggers (reproduction) including, on the left, a ballock dagger. Photograph curtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Why not let the women try?

Today’s searching in old law books for references relevant to my mayhem project took me to a book, and an author, I’ve not encountered before (though he has made it onto HeinOnline, and was, apparently, the author of some other, cracking-sounding reads on agricultural holdings, land and contemporary criminal procedure): John Wynne Jeudwine (1852-1928).[i] He was a barrister, a fellow of the Royal Hist. Soc., and clearly had a sideline in law and history books. The one I was looking at was his Tort, Crime and Police in Mediaeval Britain (1917) (a snip at 6/- !). I picked it up on an open shelf, but it is in fact also there on archive.org.  It did have a little bit which will come in handy in relation to mayhem and the tort/crime borderline, but also some excruciating views about one of the big issues of the day – the possibility of women becoming barristers like him (p. 239 ff, stop before you get to police and clairvoyance …)

I suspect that our John thought himself quite a wit and stylist, and he came up with the following killer (and in no sense self-satisfied) argument about the issue:

  1. Being a barrister (like him) is, like, super hard (Elle Woods would, later, get this so wrong)
  2. Most men can’t do it, coz, like, you have to have a really good personality (like him)
  3. Even fewer women would be able to do it, obvs, (‘not one in ten thousand’) because, like, to do that, they would have to have a weird, unwomanly, sort of personality (battleaxe, shrew, hag, etc., only really quiet?) ‘the rather hard, rather mediaeval [what??] temperament essential for the advocate [like him!]: a combination of courage, judgment and silence’. Those ladies! They can’t keep quiet, now can they?
  4. So why not let them try? Might be a laugh, eh?
  5. In any case, they could be useful for the rubbish bits of barristering, and go to the police court. There they could do things which ‘intimately concern’ women – bad mothering and having verminous children, and, it is implied rather than set out explicitly, being a ‘common prostitute’, soliciting etc. This would be good for them, and for the law, because, apparently, men didn’t know about women’s stuff and women don’t know about ‘the conditions attending a life of poverty’ (well, apart from the ones with vermnous children or being accused of soliciting, I suppose …). Excellent!
  6. And obvs they shouldn’t have to wear a wig. [This is really important, and I am sure Helena Normanton and her sisters would have been glad to take up the suggestion that ‘[surely] their artistic sense [women are naturally artistic, innit?] could be trusted to design some academic headgear suitable to the woman lawyer…’ [I mean, wigs are stupid, but possibly better than a woman’s hat of that period would have been… think of the classic early women barrister pictures like this one without those wigs!).
  7. Or charge the male going rate (the dears were not to be ‘tied down’ to charging the same as men – clearly that would be ridiculous!).


Sorted! Thanks Mr Jeudwine!

Wonder how he reacted to the entry into the profession of women. I suspect some of the trailblazers would have made mincemeat of him [when not suppressing a desire to talk loudly about the best design of hat, and how great it is not to have to get paid the same as other barristers!]

[i] Times, Tues 1st Jan, 1929, p. 1.