Tag Archives: legal history

Prosecuting predatory chaplains: an instance of abuse from fourteenth-century Yorkshire

Deeply unpleasant, but worthy of a quick note is this Yorkshire entry from a King’s Bench plea roll, from Michaelmas term 1363.[i]

It states that the jurors of various wapentakes in the county, in the previous Michaelmas term, at York, presented that Thomas de Barkestone, chaplain, recently living at Escrick, took Alice de Hartford,[ii] aged 13 years, recently servant of the same chaplain, and extracted her from her bed in the house of John Gamul of Escrick,[iii] on [25th April, 1362], and conducted her, naked, to his (Thomas’s) chamber, with the assistance of another chaplain. Because Alice did not want to consent to fornicate with Thomas, the two chaplains tied her up, naked, using an iron chain attached to a post there, and kept her there, tied up and naked, until Thomas ‘lay with her’, feloniously and against her will. Thomas and the other chaplain pleaded not guilty, put themselves on a jury, and were bailed until Easter term following this.

Here, the trail goes cold (so far!) and, as ever, we don’t know what facts lay behind this instance, but it is clear that this was considered a plausible story, and that is noteworthy. There are a few points of particular interest, and connections with other bits and pieces I have done. Let’s think about one or two of them.

First, there is the age of Alice, and the fact that it is noted. We find it vile that a (presumably) adult man was predating upon a 13 year old girl, and the jurors seem to have been appalled too – for there is no obvious legal reason to record it. Interesting on attitudes (at least of male, respectable jurors) to women and girls, and offences against them.

Then there is the fact that Alice was formerly a servant of Thomas. This makes the whole thing even grimmer (or concurrently grim?), bringing in considerations of the particular vulnerability of female servants to the slobbering and harassment of their employers.[iv] It is hard not to speculate about why Alice left Thomas’s service, and to construct a particularly heart-breaking story in which she left because of his pressure and abuse, thought she had got away, but was ensnared once more. One of the common images used for marriage was that of the bond or chain: here, allegedly, was a very literal use of chains in a non-marital context, showing that the employer-female servant connection might also be very hard to escape.

In terms of the main offence, the details are, of course, horrific; they are also unusual amongst such accounts. The power of the offenders (two of them, presumably grown-up men, with the means to subdue Alice – and presumably having planned the whole thing) is contrasted with Alice’s youth and nakedness (three times we are told she was naked). The vocabulary around will and consent is also interesting. Medieval records very commonly use the expression of sex ‘against her will’, and I have always thought that there is an important difference between this and ‘without her consent’, although we (both lawyers and historians) tend to fall into modern legal language, based around consent. Here, however, both ‘against her will’ and the fact of her non-consent are mentioned. It seems a particularly strong indication that the jury were sympathetic towards this particular young girl, and that they believed that people like Thomas (men, chaplains) might do things like this. The other vocabulary issue which is difficult, and jarring, though perhaps explained by the need to use Latin, rather than more familiar, less formal, languages, is the use of concubuit for the act itself – its overtones of mutuality, ‘with-ness’ sitting so badly with what was clearly being told as a tale of unilateral and abusive crime.

I hope to find more on it at some point, but this case is certainly one to add to consideration of the complexities of the law on sexual offences in the medieval period, as well as the often weak position of female servants.




Image – well, what do you use for a story like this? I have gone for a road in the general area.

[i] KB 27/412 Rex m. 1d; AALT IMG 0513.

[ii] ? Hartforth: Survey of English Place-Names (nottingham.ac.uk)

[iii] Escrick :: Survey of English Place-Names (nottingham.ac.uk)

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

Of pears and periwinkles: a snippet on medieval torture

I don’t want to go all ‘pear of anguish’ here, and/or play into the lazy and tiresome stereotypes of medieval brutality, but … I did come across a tantalising little snippet on torture devices in a recent search of plea rolls, which I think is worth sharing with anyone who happens upon this.

It came up in an entry relating to an approver (approvers being those who ‘turned king’s evidence’ and accused their former associates, in the – usually forlorn – hope that they would escape punishment themselves).[i] There were relatively frequent assertions by these approvers that they had been coerced into taking on this very dicey role, confessing to their own guilt of a capital offence, probably having to take part in a judicial combat,  and running the risk of immediate execution if they failed to make the accusation stick and their former associate was acquitted. Not a great option, in most cases, we might think (leaving aside the whole ‘confession is good for the soul’ thing). Such instances have been noted by others, including allegations of torture as a method of coercion, but I have not seen reference to the interesting and specific detail provided in one 14th C Yorkshire case.

In the King’s Bench plea roll for Michaelmas term 1343,[ii] we find a presentment by jurors of several wapentakes[iii] in Yorkshire regarding treatment of one William Cholle. William had, so they said, been in a prison (not specified where), and William de Rymyngton and John de Nessefeld, cleric,[iv] in whose custody he was, had taken him to the tower of York castle, and, once there, had drawn him on a rope and ‘on his fingers, put certain torments called pyrewynkes’ in order to force him to become an approver. He did not, however, become an approver.  The jurors then went from specific to vague and general, stating that the accused had made many prisoners in their custody become approvers by the use of such tortures (though the jurors did not know the names of these unfortunates) and that William caused a number of men to be accused in sheriffs’ tourns, for profit (using false testimony and oaths, and then extorting money from them to have them let off).

I was expecting a quick ‘not guilty’, but no – the law caught up with William R, and he seems to have accepted his guilt (I trust, without the use of torture). He made fine with the king – the tariff was 20s. This, however, was offset by the expenses William declared for repairs to the doors and windows, and other repairs to the king’s hall of pleas at York castle. William was keen for this to be enrolled – presumably to protect him from any further action and/or attempts to recover the 20s fine.

So what?

Well, an interesting tale in relation to the two Williams. William C is, so far, a mystery: there may well be more to be found out, but it is at least interesting that somebody was known to have withstood torture. William R does not come out of it well, does he, but it is interesting that this was not treated as a massive abuse. What does that say about royal attitudes to the approver system? I think it supports the suggestions of earlier scholars that this was a fairly merciless thing, and also something seen as necessary for achieving an acceptable level of prosecution of offenders. If somebody like William R went a bit far, well, it wasn’t the end of the world.

Finally, what about those ‘pyryewynkes’? Others may have come across this term in the past: I have not. They don’t seem to feature in the work of Musson, Hamil or Summerson. I can only speculate about their nature – they are plural: was there one for each finger? We will all be familiar with the thumbscrew – was this something like that, only multiple, and not just for thumbs? I assume that it was some sort of crushing or stretching device, but that may be a lack of imagination on my part. What is suggested by the name – it looks rather like ‘periwinkle’, so could it be a device which looked like small seashells? Or flowers? Or a word garbling Latin elements indicating tight binding? The flower seems more likely than the shell, given easily accessible definitions and etymologies.[v] Hard to imagine quite why the device was like a flower, if that is the idea. Probably a dead end, and perhaps more interesting anyway are two other things: first that it is named in English by the jurors, and, second, that it has a specific name at all.  Both of these suggest, it seems to me, that this was something people in the wider community beyond the legal system knew about, talked about. So maybe, just maybe, it is a tiny signal that we medievalists should not take the defensive attitude towards ‘our patch’ too far, and be so quick to bat away all torture horror stories as ignorant modern nonsense, or shunt them forwards to the early modern period (that’s a favourite move with anything negative, isn’t it?). There may not ever have been a ‘pear of anguish’, other than in the minds of later fantasists,  but a fair number of medieval people in York at least believed in the existence of ‘the fearsome pyrewynke’ …





Image – pretty, inoffensive, non-torturing, flower, vinca minor by Lydia Penrose, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.


[i] See, in particular, A. Musson, “Turning King’s Evidence: The Prosecution of Crime in Late Medieval England.” Oxford Journal of Legal Studies 19 (1999), 467–79; F. C. Hamil, ‘The King’s Approvers’, 11 Speculum (1936), 238-58; H. R. T. Summerson, ‘The Criminal Underworld of Medieval England’  17 Journal of Legal History (1996). 197-224; And I found this one useful on torture: L Tracy, ‘Wounded Bodies: Kingship, National Identity and Illegitimate Torture in the English Arthurian Tradition’, in D.E. Clark, L. Robeson, M. Nievergelt et al. (eds) Arthurian Literature XXXII (Woodbridge: Boydell & Brewer; 2015) 1-30. No doubt there is more I could read. My internet search engine did express concern, though …

[ii] KB 27/334 m. 17; AALT IMG 0320.

[iii] Wapentakes are jurisdictionally-relevant geographical subdivisions: this term is specific to the northern part of England.

[iv] He comes up now and again in official documents, e.g. here there’s a man of that name, county and time who has a job as keeper of the hospital of the Holy Innocents – and see the end of the next note.

[v] The trusty Middle English Compendium gives three meanings for ‘pervinkle’, including the shell. The flower seems to be the earlier ‘periwinkle’ though, and there is an intriguing association between the flower and execution, from Lydgate, in the MEC:  pervink and pervinke – Middle English Compendium (umich.edu) ‘Thou hast … crowned oon with laureer hih on his hed upset, Other with peruynke maad for the gibet’- J. Lydgate, Fall of Princes (Bod. MS 264) vi. 126. I am not pretending I have read this – I haven’t – but intriguing nonetheless. And let me just go all-out conspiracist … there is an ecclesiastical document relating to a John de Nessefeld which is decorated with … flowers … Coincidence? I think not!

(And a quick ‘pear of anguish’ update … I am currently working through the complete ‘box set’ of detection drama, Bones (don’t judge: I find the puzzle solving very cathartic) and was intrigue/disappointed to see the POA featuring as a murder weapon in 4:15, with no correction about historical accuracy by Dr Brennan. It’s making me doubt the total authenticity of other aspects of the show …)

Most recent publication: touch and pressure

New publication here: 

‘Touch and Pressure:  Sensing Sexual Harassment in Medieval Common Law Sources’

Glad to see this out – a short piece on trying to get at something which medieval common law records are not inclined to disclose: sexual harassment which is not rape. It came out of an invitation from a Paris-based project, the AVISA project, and a paper delivered in the depths of Covid lockdown, and I think that the invitation came, directly or indirectly, from the things I have published on this blog – so, nice to know that somebody out there is getting something from it!

I am sure there is more to say about this, and maybe I – or others – will turn up further relevant things in common law records. I was left with two abiding thoughts, though:

  1. It is far from ahistorical to look for this sort of material in legal sources – it’s not as if there was no concept of it as wrong, or not a fit subject for legal intervention, before the 19th or 20th C (check out the English pre-Conquest stuff, and the Welsh stuff);
  2. It is worth taking a bit more seriously those actions of males for damage to ‘their’ women through rape or harassment etc. – I know that the immediate visceral response is negative – it’s about a man having property rights in a woman – but, just as the better view in legal history is now that the ‘women were property’ encapsulation is inaccurate, so, I think, we might consider the (small) upside of seeing harm to a woman as not just something she is left alone to deal with in the legal context – as remains the case with modern English rape etc. trials – and we know how badly that works. Obviously patriarchal in terms of who it is, but … worth a thought? It struck me, when ‘launching’ the very recent book by Joanne Conaghan and Yvette Russell, on Sexual History Evidence, which is positive towards the idea of giving an independent legal representative to rape victims/survivors, that the older pattern, of giving some responsibility to another person might be seen as having a little in common with this: making it all less one lonely woman against a defence lawyer trying to tear her reputation and credibility apart, and ‘backed’ by the impersonal force of the police and CPS. Not that I am a ‘coverture apologist, or suggesting that husbands and fathers should take the lead, but, looking at the independent legal adviser/representative suggestions might cast a new light on the way we consider these actions which do not leave the woman quite so exposed. One to think through, anyway.



‘Frenzy’ and Fatality in Fourteenth Century Flore

Here ( JUST 1/635 m. 38 (1MG 0745)) is an interesting case from the Eyre of Northamptonshire, 1329-30, which I saw in passing today, and which seems worth noting for that niche demographic of people who are interested in women, things medieval and things legal. Somebody may have discussed it, but in case they have not, this is what the record says, in quick and dirty translation …

The jurors of the hundred of N[ewbottle Grove], Northants, presented to the eyre the following story: Walter Bunt, who was not in his right mind, as a result of frenzy [infirmitate frenetica detentus], hit Leticia Bellawe at Flore in the head, and she died fifteen days later. Walter was arrested and brought to trial. He pleaded not guilty. The jury said that, on the day in question, which was very recent, Walter was affected by this ‘frenzy’ [infirmitate frenetica laborans], and he was alone in his house at Flore with Leticia, who had charge of him [que ad custod’ ipsius Walteri extitit deputata]. Walter, in his madness [in furiositate sua], grabbed Leticia by the head and threw her to the ground, then took up an iron candlestick, and hit her on the head with it, while so afflicted [in infirmitate sua predicta], and she died of it in this way, not through felony nor malice aforethought. Walter was sent back to prison, in the custody of Thomas Wake, to await the king’s grace.


There is no particular surprise in the fact that Walter’s mental disturbance was regarded as likely to result in a pardon from the king, nor in the jury’s apparent determination to move the authorities to mercy in this case, with their repeated insistence that actions were done whilst Walter was not mentally competent.[1] (We will leave the interesting distinction between an ‘infirmity’, ‘frenzy’ and ‘fury’, and the linking verbs about being ‘detained/held’ by a condition of the mind, labouring under such a condition and just being in a condition). What I want to draw out is, rather, the role of the unfortunate Leticia. I am intrigued by the description of her as deputata – assigned, ‘deputed’ – to take care of Walter. This strikes me as a rather official-sounding description: she was not merely looking after him, but she had been appointed to do so. If we take it at its most formal, could this be an example of a woman having some sort of court-mandated appointment? We know that those with mental disturbances were committed to their families at times, but it is not apparent that Leticia was related, or married, to Walter (and this is the sort of detail which is usually mentioned, in relation to women). So – an intriguing possibility with regard to women’s legal roles, even if far from clearly proven. Even if this is not any kind of official appointment, it does look as if somebody thought that Leticia was capable of taking care of a man suffering from some sort of mental health problem, which probably says something about wider ideas of women’s capacities. I am left wondering how such positive views might have been affected by the tragic outcome of this particular case of a woman being put, or left, in charge of a male detainee?





[1] There are other references to the effects of insanity on liability – including some interesting material on the effect of fluctuating insanity – in Sutherland’s Eyre of Northamptonshire 1329-30 (1981), 188, 196, 215-6. Note also what might have been a less kind attitude to those with mental disturbance in the same eyre, here: JUST 1/632 m.40d IMG 0926 – a man who was accosted by a woman who was not in her right mind, whose attack seems only to have been verbal, and who was accused of throwing a stone at her head, killing her, was found not guilty. Of course, perhaps the whole thing was untrue, but if not, interesting.

Judges, character and credibility

We legal historians have occasion to look at an array of different sorts of reports and records of cases, from the terse medieval plea rolls, via Year Books with their play-like format, through the slightly anarchic years of printed reports of varying standard and reliability, to the fuller, somewhat more easily understandable, reports of the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. There have been developments in recent years, however, which will one day need to be considered as part of a full history of the communication of legal decisions, via ‘official record’ and report. I am thinking of the huge expansion of material relating to cases which is now recorded and published in an easily accessible way. I think that it is arguable that the advent of the prepared essay style judgment, published online, has brought with it legal historically important changes,

One development which has impacted upon my professional world is the practice of publishing fuller and fuller judgments. This expansion is very noticeable in my main ‘day job’ legal subject, Land Law. I presume that, in the case of judges at lower levels in the hierarchy, the trend to longer judgments is prompted, at least in part, by a wish to ensure that, should a case be appealed, the lower-level judge would not be accused of having dealt with some point inadequately. Clearly, we are not the main consideration of judges, in their decisions to be more or less verbose, but it is something of a pain for those of us who want to encourage students to read cases (good luck with some of the massive proprietary estoppel ones in particular!).

It is not just length and the problems that presents for law professors and law students which is worthy of note, though: it is what is included. An issue I have mentioned before is that of judicial comment on witnesses, and the practice of judges including in written judgments and putting out into the public domain their views on the witnesses who appear before them. While judges in cases in which they sit alone, and in which there is a need to decide between different versions of the facts, must clearly make a decision as to which witnesses to believe, and should, in order to give a reasoned judgment, state which witnesses they regarded as more accurate, I am not convinced that it is necessary to go further into character assessment, publishing to the world comments on parties and non-party witnesses which might be hurtful, offensive or damaging to the individuals who have given evidence, and may well (I imagine) not have been expecting this sort of material to be disseminated.

Yesterday, I was reading a particularly interesting example of the genre: Gilpin v Legg [2017] EWHC 3220 (Ch). In this case, which concerned leases, licences and beach huts, the judge (HHJ Paul Matthews, sitting as a Judge of the High Court, in Bristol) commented in the following way, on various witnesses:

The father of a claimant was a ‘careful witness, who gave clear evidence. He accepted on occasion that his memory was at fault and accepted correction when it was shown that he was mistaken. He was doing his best to assist the court.’ (7)

A male claimant (a doctor) was ‘a slightly nervous but clear and straightforward witness. His memory appeared to be good. Once he got into his evidence he became more relaxed and comfortable. He was obviously truthful in the evidence he was giving.’ (8)

A female claimant was ‘a quiet and nervous witness, but rather prickly and apt to put up a barrage of words, often putting matters obliquely, and shying away from confrontation. Whilst I do not think that she told me any deliberate untruths, indeed was trying to help the court, I think she has convinced herself that she has been hard done by, that she is in the right, and so she interprets everything in that light.’ (9)

Another male claimant ‘gave clear and straightforward evidence, and was obviously trying to assist the court.’ (10)

A male defendant was ‘an intelligent and quick, even feisty, witness who saw the point of the question immediately, and gave clear evidence in response. Although he too believes strongly that he is in the right, and that does colour his evidence to some extent, he sometimes gave evidence against his own interest. On one occasion his tone became rather aggressive, perhaps through exasperation. I accept that he was otherwise trying to help the court and that his evidence was truthful.’ (11)

A male solicitor (the defendant’s litigation solicitor) ‘was a professional but slightly excitable, even enthusiastic witness.’ (12).

Another witness was ‘an elderly lady’. (13)

Though there was a need to express a view on the parties’ evidence, I am not sure that anyone needed the comments about a defendant’s ‘feistiness’ or why he might have adopted an ‘aggressive tone’ at some point’ or a claimant’s ‘prickliness’. I have to say that I would be fairly nervous – and quite possibly ‘prickly’ – if I had to speak in court, and knew that comments about me were going to be published in this way. And I am not sure that the ‘elderly’ or ‘excitable’ comments, in particular, were at all useful.

It does not seem to me that this sort of material helps anyone involved in modern legal practice, or that proper transparency and reasoning requires it. Of course, I am not just thinking about the present, and whether this is a good way of handling the assessment of credibility. There are legal history angles! The inclusion of this sort of material makes for an interesting comparison/contrast with some of the early reports of medieval common law cases, in which there are personal comments, but these relate to serjeants pleading before the Common Pleas or King’s Bench, rather than witnesses or parties. I do wonder what legal historians of the future will make of this sort of commentary. It does strike me that they might find it interesting to survey this sort of comment, cross-matching with characteristics of the commenting judge, and such matters as gender, age and professional status of the witnesses being subjected to these published assessments. They might well conclude that early 21st century judges were – in the formulaic incantation – ‘doing their best to assist’ legal historical scholarship.



Image – I am going with ‘prickly’ …. Photo by Klara Kulikova on Unsplash

Judge Owen and the Business of Bees

Today, I went to a nice event at the University of Bristol Botanic Garden, a Bee and Pollination Festival – lots of honey, hives, demonstrations etc. Inevitably, it got me thinking about the bee in legal history. Now, scholars of Roman law[i]  and Irish law in particular have taken an interest in property in bees, but, fascinating though that is, I am not going to go in that direction. No. I am going to my old mental stamping ground, the South Wales of the turn of the 19th-20th centuries, and to another case featuring one of the characters in whom I have taken an interest in recent years – Judge Owen.

The Weekly Mail 14th October 1899 under the thrilling headline ‘Are Bees A Nuisance?’ notes that the good judge, at Cardiff County Court, had to decide a ‘fine point’ on this, but was not going to decide it straight away. The case of the buzzing peril had arisen between Juan Cascago, ship broker, of Valladolid, but resident, less glamorously perhaps, in Radyr (plaintiff) and Benjamin Davies clerk, Coedwyn, Radyr. Cascago wanted £20 in damages, plus an injunction to restrain Davies from keeping bees (or bees which caused a nuisance, anyway).

Judge Owen, as was his little way, made a joke of the case, reportedly causing laughter by his remark, ‘Ho, ho, ho! Here is some one wanting an injunction to restrain some one from keeping bees!’. Another report has him exclaiming that it was the funniest case which had been brought before him. Which seems a little strong. But, anyway, Owen thought it was ‘absurd’ to think an order could be made against keeping bees so as to be a nuisance, because it would be impossible to enforce, and there was discussion of an even weaker joke about the muzzling of bees, and of whether they could sting more than once.

It was pointed out that there had been a similar case recently, at Bath,[ii] but Owen persisted in thinking that the whole thing was a bit mad, and adjourned the case for a month so that the parties could come to an agreement.

Tantalisingly, no end is reported, so I am not able, at this point, to say whether Mr Davies was restrained, and his bees muzzled, or not. We are, of course, missing important aspects of context – what was the location of the hives, the size of the properties, the number of bees? It is not too difficult to imagine a situation of bee-keeping which might amount to a tort. Judge Owen, however, does not seem to have seen this – or at least he did not see the possibility of making an order which would stop the defendant from keeping bees which were causing a nuisance (as opposed to injunctions against individual bees). So – interesting on bees, but also telling on attitudes to what neighbours could do, and what they must tolerate. Injunctions were granted in similar situations in the 20th C (see, e.g., Halifax Evening Courier, 15th February 1939, p. 8) And, of course on the wit and wisdom of South Wales’s newspapers’ favourite Victorian/Edwardian judge.

The story also made it into the Welsh language press, (see Y Cymro, which, I note, does not translate ‘nuisance’, clearly a nasty English concept unworthy of being rendered in the old language … ).




Image: a bee, though this bee wants it made clear that it is not implicated in any bee-nuisance activities. Photo by Tania P on Unsplash

[i] See Paul du Plessis, Borkowski’s Textbook on Roman Law 6th edn, and Kearry v Pattinson [1939] 1 KB 471).

[ii] This is confirmed by other reports of an injunction against bee-keeping in a ‘congested district’, which had caused the plaintiff not to be able to use or tend her garden.

Assize (still) matters (?)

Clearing out a lot of stuff from my house, as times are very much a-changin’ … came across a cache of overhead projector slides from some long-ago talk on price regulation (odd how that has just hit the news again …). Time to get rid, seeing as I don’t think OHPs are actually going to be coming back. But these are great, so I thought I would snap them for the blog.

Both images come from the Liber de Assisa Panis, a London MS about bread price/quality regulation. That sort of thing was an important part of my PhD thesis, and also formed the basis of an article with the main title ‘Assize Matters’. Not sure whether the editor of the Journal of Legal History at the time did, or did not, get the smutty joke, which owed something to these suggestive car ads … A career high in any case: can’t beat a good pun.

Smut aside, I do love the fact that the top image shows a bit of a space-planning fail. The artist seems to have made everything a bit too big, so that the horses pulling the sledge had to be squashed in (or were the horses drawn by somebody else?) The second one is much more rough and ready, and they decided not to bother with the horses at all. Very ‘relatable’ – horses are hard. I remember that my big sister used to arrange any drawings featuring horses in such a way that she only had to draw the horse’s backside, tail and back legs, because horse heads were so difficult. We are a very artistic family … Also love the fact that this cruder drawing has a label, so we can be in no doubt that it is John de Stratford, whose transgression appears in the entry beside it.  Just in case the likeness was not absolutely apparent.

Enough reminiscing – time to move on (though not dragged on a sledge, I hope ,,,)



From ‘forthcoming’ to ‘coming forth’: a long chapter in academic life

A chapter I wrote quite a while ago, on the legal history of rape in western Europe, has just come out in a collection about medieval crime and deviance.

‘Rape and Law in Medieval Western Europe’ looks at the ways in which different medieval jurisdictions approached rape. The records on which it is based are not straightforward (languages, handwriting, changing meanings of words, and more …), but, carefully examined and considered, they do give at least a sketch of the ways in which rape was thought about, and treated, in medieval law.

There are comparisons and contrasts to be made with regard to the ways in which a case might be brought before a court, the factors which would make sexual misconduct seem to those [men] trying a case more or less serious, and the consequences of a finding of guilt. It is easy to find statements about the serious nature of rape, but often – and this is certainly the case in English records – difficult to find examples of completed, ‘successful’, prosecutions of offenders. This should lead us to ask why that might have been the case, but also to question what we mean by ‘success’ in this context. In medieval English law, if felonious rape was prosecuted through to a conviction, the consequence would be a sentence of death by hanging, and forfeiture of property. The vast majority of rape cases stalled or were diverted at some point before this fatal outcome, however. It seems likely that a significant proportion of them were settled, so as to give some financial assistance to a woman who would now, perhaps, face significant difficulties. No doubt in some cases a complainant simply gave up.

Jurisdictions showed variation in terms of who was seen as a possible victim of rape (Only women? Only or particularly certain sorts of women/girls?) in terms of procedures and in terms of the consequences of a finding of guilt. As we might expect, there were some very negative attitudes towards women embedded in law and practice, though there are also intriguing occasional examples which seem to show sympathy and significant support for women and girls who had been raped. Much of what we would probably like to know lies hidden behind the terse records of cases which remain, and some insights can be gained by considering medieval literary treatments of rape (even though somebody like me, with no real expertise in literature, should tread very warily here). The one law-literature matter which I was, sadly, unable to treat here was the recent developments in the Geoffrey Chaucer-Cecily Chaumpaigne case, which became big academic news long after I actually wrote the chapter (which, I think, was in 2018 … academic publishing can be slow …) and too close to the date of publication to allow for an addition to the text. I intend to write a little more about that soon, as I think there are a couple of ‘legal historian’ points which people might find helpful/interesting).

The overall message of the chapter, I suppose, is one of competing, sometimes contradictory, ideas at play, coming out in different ways in different systems, and even within the same system at different times. Fitting the chapter into a book on the construction of crime and deviance, I would say that the job I hope it does is to warn against seeing medieval rape law as something which can be understood as showing a contrast between ‘the law’ – something stark, simple and clear – and ‘practice’ – which very frequently departs from ‘the law’ so as to let men off with their sexual misconduct. Certainly, a lot of rapists (in our terms) will have ‘walked’, but the ‘escape routes’ were not wholly external to legal doctrine, and legal doctrine was far from the clear, ‘worked out’ and comprehensive thing it is sometimes assumed to have been. Here, as in several other areas of ‘criminal’ law, ‘the law’ is, at least in part, constructed by practice.

Stepping back from the chapter itself, it strikes me that it would have surprised my past self, starting off in the 1990s as a new lecturer and trainee legal historian, that I was working on this area at all. My Ph.D. was on economic regulation, and my early research projects were not focused on women, nor on matters of gender. Not looking into women’s history was a very self-conscious choice, stemming from the opinions of others, influential in the world of legal history, and also from my own thoughts about what it meant to be an academic. The ‘opinions of others’ point was that the legal history tradition in the institutions where I had taken my first steps in the discipline was not given to much consideration of such matters, regarding them as peripheral, trivial, ‘trendy’. The internal inhibitor was that I had drunk in the idea that academics were supposed to be neutral, completely external to the material which they studied. Taking such an approach was the way to win the pat on the back of a good exam grade at school, and at university, and the way to avoid the sniggers and suggestions of ‘stridency’ or ‘special pleading’ from a predictable portion of the department, should there be any suggestion that a woman was focusing her attention on women. To get past that internal inhibition took me quite some time, and the kick up the backside of a combination of  factors.

One shaping factor was where I ended up working. After leaving full-time study, I got a job at Bristol. Arriving here, I was treated with great generosity by the resident co-ordinator of both Roman Law and Legal History, Andrew Borkowski. He made room for me and my interests in the Legal History unit, and the unit he had developed was already rather less private law focused, and rather more open to issues of family law and gender than were those which most undergraduates would have been taught (and still are taught in some places). Initially, I came on a one-year teaching contract, and had every intention of going back to study full time for a Ph.D., in a Law department, where, I would imagine, I would have been immersed once more in the traditions of internal, ‘classical’ legal history, never more to look to matters dismissed as (shudder) ‘social history’ . Bristol made it hard to leave, however, offering both a permanent contract and assistance with doing my Ph.D. part time. A particularly important aspect of this offer was that I could seek supervision from the School of Historical Studies. This, I think, was crucial for the path I have taken. While my Ph.D. thesis was not about anything particularly gender-focused, it did, incidentally, lead me to acquire an additional set of skills and perspectives, which, I think, helped me to break down my own inhibitions against ever, in any way, talking in my academic work about things which were connected to myself. On a less positive note, another factor in the path from economic regulation to a focus on women came in the form of personal experiences of various kinds, including being taken aback by the ways in which institutions and their senior management treated those who took maternity leave or had childcare responsibilities (not so long ago as all that …). (And yes, saying that ‘out loud’, I see how far I have come from the ‘got to look objective’ stance: hinting at some of the less-than-optimal experiences I had with university promotions procedures and those who operated them at key points in my career …). My second monograph, about the many and various ways in which medieval women might be confined marked something of a shift of orientation, as well, perhaps, as something of a burning of bridges. A very influential law-department-based ‘classical legal historian’ was incredulous that I could plan to write a book which would place women to the fore. What about the men?! It felt, though, like something I had to do. Then there were a couple of lucky archival finds (on ‘drug rape’ and ‘work-based sexual harassment) and I began to be known (in certain small and dusty academic corners) as somebody who ‘did women’, and to be asked to write things in this area, including the chapter which has just come out.  So there we are: I am now proud to embrace it, but I think today’s lesson is that it isn’t just academic publishing that can be …

a bit slow.





Photo by Melissa Keizer on Unsplash – tortoise, slow, etc etc.

Roman castration pliers

Thoroughly modern mayhem?

There is a story in the UK news[i] which is of potential interest to those of us who like a bit of mayhem. One Marius Gustavson appeared in Westminster magistrates court on Wednesday 22nd March, charged with offences including GBH for removing body parts from other men (those parts including penises, testicles,[ii] nipples, as well as damaging legs beyond healing, requiring amputation …). Other men, allegedly involved in the same activities, appeared in other courts. The chopping of bodies is portrayed in reports as perhaps being consensual, and part of a ‘nullo’ subculture (a new thing to me), and the whole process also involved filming, streaming and charging people to view the footage.

It is the suggestion of consent which caught my attention. It is unlikely that a defence based on consent could succeed in this situation, following, in particular, the decision with regard to less extreme injuries in R v Brown back in the 1990s (gay S & M-inflicted injuries, Lancs; consent defence to offences under ss. 47 and 20 of the Offences Against the Person Act 1861 – ABH and wounding – does not work)[iii]. However, I wonder whether it will reignite people’s interest in the law which lies behind Brown, and, in particular, its discussion of mayhem/maim. Whether or not there is a full, discursive, judgment to pore over, I think we can probably anticipate some commentary which takes a bit of a wander through the weird and wonderful world of mayhem.

It does strike me that the injuries in this new case are actually much more clearly within the traditional bounds of mayhem than were those in Brown (or indeed the tongue-splitting etc. in  R v. BM).[iv] Statements on the law of mayhem, and its application, required permanent damage, loss of function or total loss of a ‘member’, which I am not sure was present in Brown, though it certainly is here.[v] They are also very much tied to the male body – so damage to testicles in particular is specifically mentioned in the masculine-focused medieval definitions of mayhem. Leg-removal would also be a clear mayhem. Nipples I am less sure about. And Bracton completely failed to anticipate live-streaming, though it did predict one other aspect of this case – keeping the removed bits

We await the next part of the legal process – apparently due for the 19th April – and further enlightenment.


19th April: further proceedings: two men plead guilty to removing the nipple and penis of the alleged ringleader (GBH); there is also information about the procedure, in that lidocaine seems to have been used for anaesthesia, and about other offences,

There are set to be further court dates in May and June, and a provisional trial date in March 2024.





[i] See, e.g. the Guardian report, though it is in many other places.

[ii] Apparently this is done with something called a ‘burdizzo’. I now know 100% more about how this all works than I did 15 minutes ago. I am not sure that that is a good thing. None of the reports make it clear whether anaesthesia was involved. For castration in Bracton, see this post.

[iii] [1994] AC 212.

[iv] [2018] EWCA Crim 560.

[v] Some of the journalism also draws us into a story from Japan of a man who had his genitalia removed, cooked and eaten … Definitely beyond my mayhem-centric remit. I don’t think this was what Bracton had in mind in its passages on castration and mayhem.

Image: Roman castration pliers, obviously. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

The case of the Southwark sorcerer

Now here is an unusual case from the King’s Bench plea roll for Michaelmas term 1364. (I was looking for mayhem, but found … magic and madness).

And it goes a little something like this …

Surrey. Richard, son of Nicholas Cook of Southwark (by attorney) sued Nicholas le Clerke of Southwark, asking him to explain why he had taken and imprisoned Richard at Southwark, and kept him imprisoned until Richard lost his mind [sensum suum amisit], as a result of seeing evil spirits, diabolically summoned up by Nicholas, [per visum malignorum spirituum per coniuraciones diabolicas per prefatum Nicholaum factas suscitatorum] and other outrages, to his great damage, against the peace etc. Nicholas did not turn up, so the entry descends into procedural things, and I am yet to find any resolution.

Whatever happened, the point is that this case was brought, and entertained by the court. It is, I think,  quite interesting to see  the use of malign magic as part of a trespass case, and the idea that spirits could be raised and deployed in a way which could cause a man to lose his sanity. To be absolutely fair to Nicholas le Clerke, it is not quite clear that the allegation was that he was deliberately setting out to use the spirits to make Richard lose his mind. That might have been an unfortunate side-effect of his fiendish antics.

It all seems a bit matter-of-fact and low-key, doesn’t it – certainly when compared with early modern treatment of harm caused by the summoning of spirits?  A good one to use as an illustration in future legal history classes on witchcraft laws, I think.



Photo by Patrick Hendry on Unsplash