Tag Archives: lambs

Lambs and wolves in late-medieval London: the abduction of Elizabeth Barentyn

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

Just when you thought it was safe to go back into a volcano … or the law reports

Inspired by the recent ‘Sharkano’ story (hammerheads surviving in an acidic volcanic crater – clearly a bad horror film waiting to happen – I am thinking Shannen Doherty in the lead role of misunderstood voice of reason, following her turn in the Killer Lampreys film: http://www.mirror.co.uk/news/technology-science/science/terrifying-heat-proof-sharks-found-living-6057016 ), I felt compelled to check out the role of sharks in legal history.

Hard to believe as it may seem, they do not feature in the Year Books (though there are many cases on fishing rights). I had been hoping for a neat Magna Carta link-up with a shark being caught in an illegal fish weir, but sadly no joy. So on to the English Reports. Not surprisingly, there is a ship called the Shark (most ER searches turn up at least one ship-name case for whatever is placed in the search engine) – Neptune the Second (1814) 165 ER 1380, the Shark coming in on p. 1381); see also 143 ER 303, 312; 144 ER 212; 156 ER 463 for this ship, or a similarly named one. There are also a number of parties to cases with the surname Shark.

At last, an actual shark appears in In re the ‘Eleanor’ (1809) 165 ER 1058, an appeal against condemnation for breach of the navigation laws. The shark is mentioned in the ship’s log book as having been caught by the sailors, and this is part of the case against the claim that the ship was forced into port by distress. No further details of our fishy friend, sadly.

More recent cases from England and Wales feature plenty of ‘loan sharks’, an idea which seems to go back some way – see e.g. the similar usage of ‘land sharks’ (and harpies) in a case of a sailor duped into signing a disadvantageous agreement: Taylour v Rochfort 28 ER 182. There are many tired metaphors involving ‘shark-infested waters’ and ‘swimming with sharks’ (for bullying business practices of various kinds, probably not involving sleek top-of -the-food pyramid predators), an intrigung disputed invention called the ‘flying shark’ (sounds a bit Sharknado to me), a shark trade-mark row, Then there is a family case in which part of the evidence was a child’s drawing of his father being eaten by a shark – W v. T [2007] EWHC 2312, and the spoilsport refusal of planning permission for a fibre-glass model of a shark crashing into the roof of a suburban house- Oxford CC v Heine 91992) 7 P.A.D. 481. There is one ‘murder by shark’ case, R v Clarke and King [1962] Crim. LR 836, in which the victim was thrown into shark-infested waters and not seen again. Looking further afield, there is an amazing murder case with a crucial role for a shark: the Sydney Shark case in S. Smith, Mostly Murder (1959) p. 222 ff. I won’t spoil it, but it involves a vomiting shark, and a theory that a man was murdered and his remains cast out to sea, only for some of them to come back inside the said vomiting shark.

To return to the shark as a metaphorical beast, one well-known association is, of course, between the shark and the lawyer – see the well-worn joke about sharks, lawyers and professional courtesy. This has long roots as well – a poetic guide to pleading of 1803 has characters called Hawk and Shark: J.J.S, The Pleader’s Guide (1803) Lecture III – and I am sure there will be earlier antecedents. Another one for the ‘to do’ list.

Photo by Jonas Allert on Unsplash

Addition, 9/4/2022

This is not very legal, and a bit of a non sequitur, I suppose, but rest assured there is a connection in my mind …

I am a huge fan of daft monster films, and especially enjoyed the extremely silly Sharknado ones. Bringing together a weather event and a monster/scary animal is a fabulous format for unchallenging entertainment (see also Ice Spiders …). Today, there was a story on the news about a tornado in Wales with consequences which really should be made into the Welshest horror film of all time – the wild weather lifted aloft not sharks but … lambs. Very nasty for the real farmer involved, of course, but imagine the potential fictitious chaos which could be plotted. Could also bring in a live action version of the fabulous Welsh idiom about raining old women and sticks. S4C, what are you waiting for?