Tag Archives: lunacy

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Plague, fire and ‘lunacy’: arson and acquittal in medieval Yorkshire

Here is another record which has something of interest to say on lay and legal ideas about mental capacity and responsibility.

We are in 1349 – all a bit plaguey, not though you would always know it, since the rolls are still rolling, with many of the usual sorts of litigation – in the King’s Bench. On the Rex section of the roll, there is a case of arson, from a gaol delivery at York, in which mental state becomes crucial. (KB 27/355 Rex m.29d; AALT IMG 8327).

The jurors of Harthill wapentake presented that John son of William son of Henry of Nafferton was indicted before Thomas de Rokeby, sheriff of Yorkshire, that on 10th January 1349, he feloniously burned the house of Robert Dreng of Driffield, along with 40s worth of goods which were inside it. He pleaded not guilty and put himself on the jury. The jury stated on oath that John was a lunatic, and that, three or four times a year, he was troubled (vexatus) by a disease of the mind (infirmitate demencie), and that he had been affected by it on the day in question, and for eight days before and eight days afterwards, so that he was not aware of the difference between good and evil, nor of his own actions. They found that he had burned the house in question during this period, and had not done so feloniously or by ‘malice aforethought), as was alleged against him, and nor had he fled. And because the jury held that John had been non compos mentis at the relevant time, he was acquitted. Four named men came forward as security for his good behaviour.

So what?

It is not unexpected that somebody with a severe mental problem, defined as lunacy’, would avoid the severe penalties for felony, and that, by this period, this would not be by the cumbersome method of waiting for a royal pardon, but would be a straight acquittal. There is, though, some interesting detail here, in terms of the apparent understanding of mental capacity and the conditions which might affect it. John’s disordered states appear to have been noted, and their frequency was a matter of community knowledge. We do not have the link to the moon made in other cases of ‘lunacy’, but there is a suggestion that the disorder recurred on a more or less regular pattern (was it almost seasonal?). There is also a good explanation of the effect of the disorder on his responsibility – specifically, it diminished his ability to tell right from wrong, and even his awareness of his own acts. The jurors were making a very strong case for his acquittal. The fact that they mentioned that the incapacity had lasted from eight days before the incident to eight days after it could almost sound as if they want to leave no room for argument that John might, in fact, have been experiencing a lucid interval (though I wonder whether this information was elicited by questioning by the court, or whether it was volunteered).

Finally, it is interesting that this is not – as most ‘lunacy’ cases seem to be – a homicide, but a case of arson (in which nobody died). What role might have been played by the nature of the offence? I found myself wondering whether it took more preparation and forethought to burn down a medieval house, or to stab or beat somebody to death, but I am not sure that an answer to that could be obtained easily. As with so much else on medieval ideas of mental capacity and disorder, our understanding is very incomplete, and needs to be built up piece by piece. I find, in this area as a whole, it is a big challenge to think myself back into a world in which mental disorders were not seen as a matter for ‘expertise’,  but one on which ordinary, respectable, jurors could be expected to make a definite judgment. That, though, is my problem rather than theirs.

GS

3/2/2021

‘Lunacy’ and legal records

Deep in ‘the Before Times’, back in 2019, I posted something on a medieval ‘criminal’ case with a specific and detailed ‘defence’ of lunacy, that of Alice Brytyene, from 1309. Since I have just found another one, it seemed a good opportunity to revamp and update the post, adding in the new case.

See the source image

Alice’s case is in a Suffolk Gaol Delivery Roll,  JUST 3/63/4 m.6 (AALT IMG 136). The record tells us that Alice Brytyene of Lawshall appeared in a session in Suffolk in September 1309, before William de Ormesby and William Inge, royal justices. She had been arrested because, so it was said, she had: (i) feloniously burnt the home of Simon Brytyene, her husband, in Lawshall, meaning to burn Simon in the house; (ii) broken into the barn of Pymme Brytyene in Lawshall and taken away sheaves of wheat worth 13d; (iii) broken into the oven of Ralph del Peke and taken away seven loaves of bread worth 6d. Alice pleaded not guilty to these charges, and accepted jury trial. The jurors said on oath that she was not guilty of the burglary of the barn or of the oven, nor of taking away the wheat or bread. As for the burning of the house, they said that, for seven years and more, continuously,  Alice had been furia vexab[atur] in incremento lune so that lunatica[m] infirmitate[m]  patit[ur], i.e. she had been tormented/bothered by madness with the waxing of the moon so that she had suffered from the disease of lunacy. And they said that on the seventh of July last past, Alice had been suffering from this condition [predicte infirmitate vexabatur] when she burnt down the house in question, in her insanity and not feloniously [furiose & non per feloniam] as had been charged against her. Alice was therefore acquitted of the burglaries, and (presumably in respect of the arson, though this is not stated) was to be returned to prison, (presumably in the expectation that she would be pardoned by the king).

The second case comes from the King’s Bench plea roll of Trinity term 1328 – in the ‘Isabella and Mortimer’ period of Edward III’s reign. It is to be found at KB 27/273 Rex m. 29d (AALT IMG 318), and is from a gaol delivery session at York castle, on Monday [13th June, 1328].

The report tells us that Agnes, wife of Roger Moyses was on trial for the killing of Adam son of William Moyses, at Harwood [Dale?] on Monday [16th May, 1328], having been indicted for this at a coroner’s inquest. She was asked how she would defend herself, and said that she was not guilty, putting herself on a jury. The jurors said that, for a long time before the incident, and after, and at the time, Agnes had suffered from a mental illness linked to the waxing and waning of the moon, which caused her to lose her mind to such an extent that she acted without being able to tell the difference between right and wrong (sepius prout luna crescit & decrescit tali infirmitate consueta est gravari quod ipsa amens sepius devenit penitus ignorans quid agit non discernendo malum et bono). They said that on the day in question, Adam, a 12 year old, came into the house in Harwood where Agnes was on her own, and she was suffering from the condition at that time. (laborans in infirmitate). When Agnes became aware that Adam had come in, she grabbed him by the throat and held him so tightly that he died. Afterwards, Agnes simply remained in the house until the constable and bailiffs came and arrested her. The jurors were asked whether Agnes had killed Adam felioniously and with malice aforethought, or without intention (ex amencia … vexebatur), and responded that Adam was killed through per amenciam and not through felony or malice/intention. Agnes was therefore to be sent to prison to await the king’s grace.

So what?

It is already well-established that medieval common law and communities did not hold those with obvious and serious mental disorder responsible for their actions as a matter of felony, I have not turned up a pardon for either Alice or Agnes, but I am reasonably hopeful that they would indeed have been pardoned. This would not necessarily mean a ‘happy ending’, however, since closer confinement by family members might well have been their fate after these grisly episodes.

Medieval criminal records referring to ‘lunacy’ as an explanation/excuse for violent or otherwise offensive activity are not hard to find, but usually they do little more than stating that the accused is deemed a ‘lunatic’, and it is easy to assume that the word is regarded in a mundane way, as a general label for people with some obvious mental disorder, and was rather cut off from its etymological association with the moon. These two records, however, show at least some people going further into the matter, and emphasising the lunar explanation of (some, episodic) mental disorder, explaining odd, violent, behaviour on the moon’s baleful influence upon the mental state of susceptible individuals. They make the definite and dramatically or poetically satisfying link between the waxing moon and the growing disorder, and the (sophisticated and observant) comments about the killers having suffered over a long period with a fluctuating condition.

There is food for thought about the place of the ‘insane person’ within the community as well. In the case of Alice, her community, which was conscious of Alice’s long-term disorder, would appear to have allowed her a degree of freedom, before the incident in question. Agnes was alone in a house – was this some sort of precautionary confinement, or did she live alone?) It is interesting to note that a woman was assumed capable of throttling a twelve year old male, and that Agnes’s condition must have been well enough known and accepted for it to be regarded as having persisted during the killing of Adam, despite the fact that it would appear that there were no immediate witnesses (since we are told she was alone in the house).

It is also worth pondering the fact that these were both women. My impression has been that ‘violent insanity words’ are more usually found in relation to males – furiosus, freneticus etc. are more commonly found than their female equivalents. These two ‘violent insanity’ cases which bring in the moon, are, however, about women. Now, two cases hardly amount to a basis for a theory, but it is hard not to start going off on a train of thought concerning ideas about women, the moon, menstrual cycles etc. Worth bearing in mind, and seeing whether future finds fit in with it at all. [Oh, and if we want to get really spooky and conspiracy theoryish about it, we might note that … everything seemed to happen on a Monday in these cases, that I am writing about it on a Monday, and I am .. OK, too far. But interesting, no?]

28/12/2020

‘Lunacy’ in a Legal Record

A ‘supermoon’ is due tonight: https://www.timeanddate.com/moon/phases/

Reading about this has reminded me of the old idea of the moon’s baleful influence upon the mental state of susceptible individuals. Medieval criminal records referring to ‘lunacy’ as an explanation/excuse for violent or otherwise offensive activity are not hard to find, though usually they do little more than stating that the accused is deemed a ‘lunatic’, and it is easy to assume that this is simply a rather general label for those who are obviously disordered (perhaps specifically in a violent sense). Recently, however, I came across a case which went somewhat further into the matter, emphasising the lunar explanation of mental disorder. It is not one I have seen discussed elsewhere, so is, I think, worth a quick note.

The case is in a Suffolk Gaol Delivery Roll,  JUST 3/63/4 m.6, which can be seen on the AALT site at:

http://aalt.law.uh.edu/AALT7/JUST3/JUST3no63_4/IMG_0136.htm

 

Alice Brytyene of Lawshall appeared in a session in Suffolk in September 1309, before William de Ormesby and William Inge, royal justices. She had been arrested because, so it was said, she had: (i) feloniously burnt the home of Simon Brytyene, her husband, in Lawshall, meaning to burn Simon in the house; (ii) broken into the barn of Pymme Brytyene in Lawshall and taken away sheaves of wheat worth 13d; (iii) broken into the oven of Ralph del Peke and taken away seven loaves of bread worth 6d. Alice pleaded not guilty to these charges, and accepted jury trial. The jurors said on oath that she was not guilty of the burglary of the barn or of the oven, nor of taking away the wheat or bread. As for the burning of the house, they said that, for seven years and more, continuously,  Alice had been furia vexab[atur] in incremento lune so that lunatica[m] infirmitate[m]  patit[ur]m i.e. she had been tormented/bothered by madness with the waxing of the moon so that she had suffered from the disease of lunacy. And they said that on the seventh of July last past, Alice had been suffering from this condition [predicte infirmitate vexabatur] when she burnt down the house in question, in her insanity and not feloniously [furiose & non per feloniam] as had been charged against her. Alice was therefore acquitted of the burglaries, and (presumably in respect of the arson, though this is not stated) was to be returned to prison, (presumably in the expectation that she would be pardoned by the king).

 

It is already well-established that medieval common law and communities did not hold those with obvious and serious mental disorder responsible for their actions as a matter of felony, but it is interesting to see glimpses of the reasoning behind such determinations by lay-people, in the legal context. Here, we have the definite and dramatically or poetically satisfying link between the waxing moon and the growing disorder, and the (sophisticated and observant) comments about Alice having suffered over a long period with a fluctuating condition.  There is food for thought about the place of the ‘insane person’ within the community as well: this community, which was conscious of Alice’s long-term disorder, would appear to have allowed her a degree of freedom, until a recent time. (I am also musing about the effect of a widespread theory of lunar influence – to what extent would people have internalised that idea and to what extent might it have had an effect on their behaviour? One for transcultural psychiatrists/ historians of psychiatry, I think).

 

I have not turned up a pardon for Alice, but I am reasonably hopeful that she would indeed have been pardoned. This would not necessarily mean a ‘happy ending’, however, since closer confinement by family members might well have been her fate after this episode.

 

19/2/2019.