Tag Archives: language

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

Gender in word and deed

Law is, as we all know, a wordy thing. Its rules, pronouncements, rulings, are bound up with the words in which they are expressed. Working across the different languages of English and Welsh legal history involves engagement with some issues which are properly in the domain of the linguist, which should encourage caution, but at times they cannot be avoided. One of these issues is that of gender. The convention of linguistic gender is widespread. Perhaps it is often not particularly important, but when one is studying medieval women, it deserves attention.

The issue comes up in different ways. One is disputes about whether a masculine word should be taken to apply to women as well as men. In the unattractive phrase found in 19th and 20th C writings, does ‘the masculine embrace the feminine’? Thus the disagreements as to whether women should have been considered to be within the protections given to a liber homo in Magna Carta, and wrangles as to whether ‘heirs’ should be understood to ‘embrace’ ‘heiresses’[i]  Another way in which linguistic gender v. sex/gender in reality arises relates to the ‘feminisation’ (or not) of texts and provisions. I have been pondering this lately, in the context of pardons.There are two interesting, and contrasting, aspects of pardon formulae to mention here,[ii]  one relating to sorts of offence (specifically, rape), and the other to roles within the criminal justice system (specifically, approvers).

From at least the late fourteenth century, pardons which cover more than one specified offence commonly exclude from their ambit treason, homicide and the rape of women.  These offences are, one presumes, held up as too serious to be pardoned as a ‘job lot’ with any other transgressions an offender might have committed in a particular period. I have noted that ‘rape of women’ might still be included when the person receiving a partdon was a woman. This seems interesting because felonious rape was, at this point, and until very recent times, a ‘male on female’ offence. Women might be accessories, to felonious rape, or to ‘ravishment’, but not principals. Had the formula been devised with female offences in mind, it is hard to believe that it would have included this particular exclusion. I find it interesting, and telling in terms of the relationship between women and the law, that the formula was adopted, unchanged in this respect, when the ‘pardonee’ was a woman.

One gender-adjustment is made in these same pardons, again from at least the later fourteenth century.  In the original, ‘male’ version of the wording, mention is made of the possibility of the potential ‘pardonee’ acting as an approver – one who confesses an offence, but hopes to avoid execution by inculpating others, appealing them and obtaining a conviction.[iii] When the ‘pardonee’ is female, this word is feminised – so ‘probator’ becomes ‘probatrix’.[iv] Fair enough, according to the linguistic/legal rules of the day, one might think, since ‘misgendering’ might cause an indictment to be held insufficient. The odd thing is, though, that acting as an approver was a ‘men only’ thing. All the evidence suggests that, because approvers had to be able to engage in trials by battle, and because women were not thought capable of fighting such judicial duels, they were never approvers of this sort. Thus, the feminised word had no attachment to the reality of legal process. It is unanswerable, of course, but I do wonder what was going on in the minds of the clerks drawing up these pardons. Was it an automatic translation (the medieval in-language equivalent of Google translate?)? Is it evidence of a rather radical (even performative?) disinterest in women and the ways in which the law positioned them as different and unequal?  And does this have anything to say to existing scholarship on gender roles in the pardoning process (queens interceding, mercy as a bit on the effeminate side etc. etc.)? Gendered food for gendered thought.



[i] I have a bit of a go at these in c.1 of Women in the Medieval Common Law.

[ii] On later medieval pardons, see especially Helen Lacey, The Royal Pardon: Access to Mercy in Fourteenth-Century England. (Woodbridge, Rochester NY: Boydell & Brewer, 2009).

[iii] For a masculine version, see, e.g., this one.

[iv] See, e.g,, this one.

Picture – well, if you have to ask…, it’s a quite brilliant reference to Lynn Anderson’s Country and Western classic ‘(I beg Your pardon, I never promised you a) Rose Garden)’ – one of the great rhymes in popular song….

Photo by Max Berger on Unsplash

Semen and semantics – considering legal metaphors[i]

A little reading this morning on law and metaphor, as I think about the paper I need to write for the SLS conference in September,[ii] which is going to look at bastardy, legitimacy and law/legal methods (a bit more on it here). Not surprisingly, others – lawyers and legal academics – have considered the issue of metaphorical talk in law, though, luckily, not the precise issue I mean to discuss.

Metaphor is an important theme for those of us interested in the history of women and law – especially in relation to coverture, so it is something which has been on my mind quite a bit in recent years. The bastardy angle is slightly different though – I want to think a little more expansively about the links between some of the problematic metaphors and expressions used in relation to bastardy and legitimacy (especially the ‘born within the four seas’ tag, in relation to adulterine bastardy,  but others too) and the process of ‘legitimate’ legal development, considering metaphors of (male POV) reproduction (and its impossibility), ‘father figures’ in law and legal history.[iii] In 20 minutes. Will it work, or will I end up getting too far into areas (language, jurisprudence) of which I know very little? We shall see.

My general reading so far has highlighted the sheer number of doctrinal tests which ‘get metaphorical’ – in all areas, but perhaps especially on the ‘civil’ side). Writings highlight their utility or problems, but there is probably quite a lot to say about their use as display within the legal profession and to/by its academic associates.

One thing I have noticed in my reading up to now is the difficulty people seem to find in writing about legal metaphor without using metaphors in that discussion itself. For example, this one at 257 states that  ‘[l]egal discourse is pregnant with metaphor., ’[iv]  this one (at p. 8) discusses metaphors ‘taking root’ in legal and other language, while this one, is generally wary of legal metaphors, but can’t resist (at 19) referring to a ‘seminal judgment’. That last one is a term I dislike – I know that semen-seminal could be interpreted generally, as ‘seed’/seedy (OK, I know, ‘seed-related’), but let’s be honest, sunflower seeds are not the first sort of seed that comes into anyone’s head in relation to those words. (And quite apart from the gendered sperminess of it, it has a rather uncritical aspect to it, justifying the process of legal development as somehow inevitable).[v] I certainly need to do some more thinking about how the apparently morally-neutral biological idea of the ‘seminal’ judgment relates to the morally-inflected legitimate procreation metaphors seen in some other places.

(And a final random thought – what would we call an ‘Ockham’s Razor’ for metaphors?).



[i] (I know – tabloidy title: never claimed to be classy …)

[ii] (seems a long way off but I already know I am going to have a large batch of marking in August, and, well, a break after the current lot might be quite nice/necessary if I am not going to collapse)

[iii] Thinking about this now, the main rivals to the fatherhood metaphor for legitimate legal development are probably that of botanical growth, that of rivers  and that of orthodoxy/heresy. Also n.b. the absolute ‘metaphor bingo line’ would be refs to fatherhood + ‘seminal’ + legitimacy.

[iv] Ah – takes me back to the ‘negative pregnant’ in medieval pleading …

[v] Maybe it’s compound metaphor as well, since presumably semen came to be used for … well … semen … before the motility of sperm was observed (otherwise, clearly, the people who choose words would have gone with something a bit more tadpoley). I can see I have work to do …

Photo by Erik van Anholt on Unsplash