Tag Archives: magic

The charms of Cambridgeshire? An indictment for ignoble quackery

Here’s an interesting little story which caught my attention this morning …

It comes from the record of a gaol delivery at Cambridge castle, on Monday 25th February,1387, and the narrative emerges from an indictment before justices of the peace. The story was that a certain John de Toft had, on Thursday 26th April, 1386, come to Elsworth (apparently a ‘small and lovely south Cambridgeshire village’) to the house of a man called John Cowhird. John Cowhird was probably not able to hird any cows at that point, as, we are told, he was very ill (maxima infirmitate detentus fuit). John Toft allegedly said that he could and would cure John Cowhird of this illness. What was more, he would do this ‘for the love of god and for charity’. A good deal, so John Cowhird probably thought … all he had to do was let John Toft borrow two golden nobles (coins as opposed to those with inherited titles, you understand …). These were not for John Toft’s personal use – perish the thought – but to make a charm. He said that he had enclosed the two nobles in a sheet of lead, and made a charm which he hung around John Cowhird’s neck. In reality, it was said, John Toft had taken the nobles.

The jury found him not guilty, so matters end abruptly, and we hear no more of poor John Cowhird and his malady (nor of how it was that a ‘cowhird’ – if, indeed that was JC’s actual job – had gold coins lying about the place). Did John Toft ‘get away with it’ and live to cheat another day? As ever, we can’t know.

We legal historians are used to such frustrations, and have to be fairly ‘glass half full’ types in research, taking what we can from the provoking records left so us. In that spirit, here are a few quick observations:

  • On offences: this seems a rather interesting example of indictment for an offence of dishonesty beyond the usual mundane robberies and breakings and entries which are ten a (stolen) penny in these rolls. It is not dressed up as felony, despite the fact that two golden nobles would undoubtedly take it over the line into capital punishment territory: worth considering what that says about the contours of the various theft/fraud-adjacent offences in medieval common law.
  • On ‘medicine’: well, there is a lot going on here! We don’t find out what poor old John Cowhird’s illness was, but we do see something about beliefs and practices relating to medicine at a fairly low social level. It is not hugely surprising that it was thought plausible for serious illness to be cured by charms and masses, or the intervention of an individual who is not described as having any sort of ‘professional’ qualification. The complaint here is not that JC was tricked by a clearly fraudulent promise, it is that JT did not create the charm in the way he promised, and in fact made off with the nobles. It would seem to have been seen as a plausible method of securing a cure, to hide away some valuable for a period of time. This sort of trick has come up in another 14th C magic/fraudulent practice case I spotted a while ago – and clearly this sort of ruse depended on people accepting the idea of a ‘hide something valuable’ route to a (miraculously!) positive outcome. From an amateur psychological point of view, that seems fascinating – in the context of this case, it tells us something about medieval ideas relating to ill health and recovery from it, doesn’t it? It seems to me as if the idea is that the supposedly temporary renunciation of contact with one’s valuable chattels  is thought to have some influence over the course which the illness will take. Is this because it is a sacrifice/offering, or a demonstration of faith, both, neither? It also, perhaps, says something about medieval people’s attitude to their personal property: if being separated from it for a period, being unable to touch or see it,  was a significant sacrifice, then doesn’t that tell us that they felt a very strong link to it? One of the things in legal history about which I often wonder is whether we underestimate the intimacy of the loss felt by those of past societies whose personal property was stolen: it is easy to read back the strict distinction now felt between offences against the person and against property, but is that accurate, when we travel back to earlier periods? I do wonder about this for various reasons. This case may well demonstrate a blurring of the border which modern lawyers and others would see between bodily harm and harm to property: somebody like John Cowhird might well accept that his  physical wellbeing was linked to chattels, and, of course, there is a sense in which bodily survival and thriving is linked to the chattels which can be traded for food and shelter, even leaving aside the whole question of charms, magic and religion.





Image: more relevant than my usual efforts, isn’t it? It’s your actual noble, from the time of Richard II, courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

Peas, grass and battle beyond The Last Duel

Lots of interest in the merits, and historical accuracy, or otherwise, of the big new film The Last Duel. I hope to go and see it, though feeling a little unsure as to whether I want to sit in a cinema with a load of strangers during current circs. I have the book though, so planning to read it this weekend.

I am not going to presume to comment on the film’s medieval French context, since I am definitely not an expert on that, but, since I suspect that there will be some general wondering about the idea of trial by battle, a little bandwagon-jumping and a couple of quick musings on this from a common law point of view might not go amiss.

For many years, in my Legal History classes, I have included something on proof, including trials by ordeal and by battle. It tends to capture the attention of students just a touch more than the development of the strict settlement and the Bill of Middlesex, for some reason. It is one of the useful areas to push students’ imagination a little, and to try and get them to see beyond the Whiggish distinction between ordeals and battles (stupid) and juries (great and totally unproblematic). With ordeals, there is the fantastic article by Kerr et al.[i] to give them to read, and a case to be made for there having been something of value in the so-called ‘irrational’ mode of proof, when compared to contemporary alternatives. Battle is rather a harder sell, and I confess that I tend to send students off to read the articles by M.J. Russell,[ii] and then in class go for cheap shock value and do Ashford v Thornton in a slightly Horrible Histories way … There is obviously more to say than general agog-ness at the late extirpation of the possibility of TBB though. The gender aspect is, of course, important – women were not supposed to engage in TBB, and do not seem to have done so (though there is one slightly bizarre 15th C story about a duel being ordered between a female accuser and a Franciscan friar, who was supposed to fight with one hand tied behind his back![iii] I have spent vain hours trying to track that one down …) Then there are the accounts, in chronicles and legal sources of battles themselves, and the procedure which they followed, or should follow. Some of these are extremely impractical and ritualistic – with weird weapons, a lot of formulaic language and rules. I was reminded, the other day, when looking for something completely different, that another thing which is really fascinating is the fact that those fighting a TBB took an oath against sorcery.

I stumbled on this version in The Boke of Justices of Peas (printed 1506),[iv] in its little ‘how to’ guide to holding a trial by battle, and was enchanted (!). It’s prescribed for an approver (man who had ‘turned king’s evidence’ and was trying to save his skin by accusing another man of felony and then beating him in a TBB):

‘This here you iustice that I have this day neither ete ne dronke nor haue upon me Stone ne Grasse ne other enchauntement sorcery ne witchecrafte where thoroughe the power of the word of God might be enlessed or demenysshed & the deuylles power encresed and that myn appele is true so help me god and his sayntes and by this boke &c.’

[Justice, hear this: I have not eaten nor drunk today, nor do I have upon me stone, grass or other enchantment, sorcery or witchcraft which might serve to diminish the power of the word of God, and increase the devil’s power, and that my appeal is true, so help me God and his saints and by this book etc.’]

Seems a bit harsh not to let the poor devil eat or drink, but fits with the general religious ritualism of this sort of thing. What about the magic though … what ideas does that reveal about ideas as to how TBB worked, and how it could be derailed. It does seem to suggest that God could be foxed by a magic stone or grass (magic grass – new to me – I assume it is the green lawn stuff, and not some special other early modern meaning – sure somebody will tell me if I am wrong …), which is a rather interesting theological position, when you think about it. Belief in magic is one thing, thinking it could actually transcend the human world and put God off his stride, when intervening to say where the truth and right lay in a trial by battle is several steps further on, I would say. It just seems a really fascinating meeting of two sorts of supernatural belief. And it is made all the more striking as the formula for the duel goes on to bar human intervention to help one side or the other – by advice to take advantage of the opponent, or  physical help. It is as if the magic thing and the weighing in of spectators are on a par, equally likely![v] Possibly the supernatural issue can be rendered a little less blasphemous by thinking that the idea behind it must be that the magic grass etc. could skew the result by acting on the bodies of the combatants, rather than on God. Seems a bit weaselish, but maybe that works.  Feeling once again as if I have a lot to learn! It’s certainly something to think about as we enjoy the big film (or book …) and as we approach Halloween.



[i] Kerr, MH, Forsyth, RD, and Plyley, MJ, ‘Cold Water and Hot Iron: Trial by Ordeal in England’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History 22.4 (1992): 573-95.

[ii] Russell, M. J., ‘I Trial by Battle and the Writ of Right’, Journal of Legal History 1.2 (1980): 111-34 ; ‘II Trial by Battle and the Appeals of Felony’, Journal of Legal History 1.2 (1980): 135-64; ‘Trial By Battle Procedure in Writs of Right and Criminal Appeals’, Tijdschrift Voor Rechtsgeschiedenis 51.1 (1983): 123-34.

[iii] Bellamy, John G,  The Law of Treason in England in the Later Middle Ages (Cambridge, 1970), 145; Eulogium Historiarum, III, 389.

[iv] Glazebrook, P. R. The Boke of Justices of Peas, 1506 : With an Introduction by the General Editor (London, 1972). It’s a book which sounds slightly unpleasant if you are a Scot (add the peas and it is all a bit graphically vomity). It is a collection of various ‘templates’ for legal proceedings which might have seemed useful to somebody acting as a JP, or one of his officials. The material is not particularly new – it’s 15th C stuff, perhaps quite a bit from the reign of Henry VII, but earlier than that too.

[v] The no sorcery rule appears in  older sources too– see Russell (1983) above, p. 132.

Photo by Artie Kostenko on Unsplash

Prophecy, ‘pagan’ magic and promises of wealth in medieval Devon

Here’s a colourful tale from fourteenth century Devon, showing an apparent scheme to fleece the locals using exotic claims to magic power, and playing on their greed.

The story comes out in the King’s Bench plea roll of Michaelmas term 1374, though it refers to events of quite some years earlier – in 1345, and a presentment before justices in Devon in 1354.[i] The tale was that  Gervase Worthy, Geoffrey Ipswich and William Kele had come to the home of Rouland Smallcumbe at Barnstaple, and had spun a yarn to his wife. Their patter was that they were rather more exotic than the sort of people she was likely to have met, being converted pagans (pagani – I’ll have to look into just what that word signifies at this period, but it’s clearly some sort of ‘non-Christians’). Presumably as a result of their claimed questionable past religious status, they were believed when they claimed special powers: they could tell fortunes, including how long a person would live. They also said that they had other gifts, and worked on Rouland’s wife in such a way as to get her to believe that they could make precious items reproduce themselves. They got her to give them all her gold, silver and jewels, and other valuables. When she handed them over, Gervase convinced the gullible woman that he had put these in a chest, but in fact, it would seem using some sleight of hand and misdirection,  he had made off with them. Getting her ‘invested’ in the magical process in a way modern magicians (or fraudsters) would appreciate,  Gervase locked the chest, and took away the key, instructing Rouland’s wife that every day for nine days she should go to the church for three masses, and that she should not open the chest, When he returned, as he promised to do after that, with the key, her jewels, in the box, would have doubled! The rogues did not come back though, and the desperate woman broke open the chest. Sadly, she did not find the promised increased hoard, but a piece of cloth full of lead and  (non-precious) stones. The presentment did not stop with this, however, but ascribed to the gang’s fraud another serious outcome: as a result of this deception, the woman became ill and soon died.  It was also noted that the gang had made 200 marks across Devon by similar ruses. There does not seem to have been a conviction, however, and who knows whether there was any truth in any of this, but there is always something to take away from these unusual entries.

The elaborate ruse, with the idea that people (women in particular?) might be bamboozled by tales of exotic magic,  says a lot about popular ideas of the existence of magic, but also its association with trickery. The combination of ‘pagan’ magic with Christian practices (note the masses), and the fact that the rogues claimed only to be former pagans – they were now safely Christian, so had the powers of the exotic pagan, but not the untrustworthiness – gives clues about ideas on non-Christians, and also their limitations. The idea of precious things breeding more precious things puts me in mind of usury (money breeding money – which was bad). And finally the idea that the poor woman’s death was thrown in as a bit of an afterthought – caused by the fraud in a sense, but not the main complaint – and the deceased never is named beyond the labelling as some absent man’s wife –  is something of a comment on the place of women in the medieval common law, isn’t it? If only somebody would write a book about that …



[i] KB 27/455 Rex m.29 (AALT IMG 340). The earlier presentment is at JUST 1/198 m. 8 (IMG 3622).



Photo by Roman Kraft on Unsplash