Looking through medieval legal records involves a lot of very formulaic entries, so it is always a treat to come across something a little out of the ordinary. A bit of English sneaking in amongst the Latin is good, and, for some reason I can’t quite pin down, always seems a little funny as well. Not funny, but definitely interesting is the occasional bit of unnecessarily flowery description – something that somebody just couldn’t hold back from including, even though it was not required as part of the allegation being made. There is such a phrase in the material relating to the abduction/ravishment and mistreatment of Elizabeth, widow of John Barentyn, which first appears in a King’s Bench Indictment File for Michaelmas, 1475.
KB 9/340 m. 88 notes the allegation that John Smyth, recently of London, gentleman, on 5th August 1475, got together a gang of ne’er-do-wells and used force to seize Elizabeth from the parish of St Mary le Strand, with felonious intent, beating her up and half-carrying, half-dragging her away. This is all bad enough, and there is the usual listing of weapons, which, in this case, may have been a bit more likely that it sometimes is. But somebody felt the need to make the contrast between Elizabeth and her abductors even more stark, describing her situation as being like ‘agnus innocens inter avidos lupos’, i.e. like an innocent lamb amongst ravenous wolves.
(A lamb, not medieval, innocence a matter of conjecture: Photo by Bill Fairs on Unsplash)
Clearly, no animal metaphors were required for an effective accusation of felony – so how interesting that this crept in, and was, indeed, repeated in other documentation relating to the same case. What should I make of that? Was Elizabeth Barentyn seen as especially lamb-like and innocent? Was the point that those said to have been ravished were often not believed, and it was felt to be a good idea to make clear that Elizabeth was not like all the other, lying and scheming minxes, who really wanted to be carried off by a real man … Who can say?
Anyway, what more can be said about the particular image? Lambs gambol through all sorts of Scriptural and religious sources. You’ve got your straightforward sacrificial lambs, calculated to bring in a bit of sympathy, show helplessness etc. You’ve got your actual Lamb of God, but I don’t think this was an attempt to suggest that Elizabeth was likely to take away the sins of the world. No, I think we are in the territory of Luke 10:3, and the disciples being sent out like lambs amongst wolves, or maybe Isaiah 11:6, wolves and lambs living together, or Isaiah 65:25, feeding together. True enough, we don’t get those groovy adjectives in this verse, but it is my best match after a (rather amateurish, let’s be honest) skim through the Bible. There are a few other wolf or wolf-lamb references, like Genesis 49:27, , Ecclesiasticus 13:17, Jeremiah 5:6, John 10:12 But is there a closer match, I wonder? A proverb? Something literary? A medieval pop song?
Whatever the exact derivation, the inclusion of such a snippet as this does raise in my mind the possibility that this sort of material might have been a lot more common that we know, it was just that it was not usually written down. Perhaps medieval court-rooms were brimming with colourful animal-based comparisons, indicating subtle gradations of approval and disapproval of parties, but clerks could not, or would not, work their quills quickly enough to keep up. I would like to think so.
Main image: some wolves (who deny any involvement) Photo by Yannick Menard on Unsplash