Tag Archives: mayhem

Endangering life and making sure of death: lessons from a medieval indictment

Today’s rather late case note comes from the King’s Bench file for Hilary term 1467.[i] A jury in Sussex reported to justices at Lewes a serious assault upon a man called Richard Broun, which was said to have happened in 1465.

The story was that, on Wednesday 16th October, 1465, Thomas Balbyn, lately of Balcombe, Sussex, clerk, along with Ralph Canon, also lately of Balcomne, boatman (I think!) and other unknown malefactors, acting with force and arms, i.e. bows, arrows, bills, glaives, and staves,[ii]  lay in wait to assault, wound, kill and murder a certain Richard Broun, attendant (famulus) of  Thomas [Bourgchier], Archbishop of Canterbury, near Lewes. They took, assaulted, wounded and mistreated him, giving him a very serious (gravissima) head wound, and completely breaking his left arm and his right leg, deeply injuring his head, arm and leg, leaving him lying on the ground, as if dead. Wanting to find out whether he actually was alive or dead, they stuck their daggers in his leg, dreadfully (horribiliter), and, feloniously, robbed him of his goods, worth 3d, i.e. a staff called a ‘warderer’.[iii] Their actions, it was noted, caused the Archbishop to lose the services of his attendant for a long time, i.e. for a year and a half after the attack. All of this was ‘ against the peace of the lord king etc.’

So what?

Well, a few things leap out at me, no doubt based on current research obsessions as much as anything else. Here are the main ones …

The injuries

I am looking at mayhem, so the use of mayhem language in the description of Richard’s injuries drew me in. There may be a point to make about permanent and temporary injury – it appears that Richard recovered (since there is a time limit on the Archbishop’s loss, and since there is no mention of his death) so would that have been a mayhem such as might be appealed? I presume not, and that the word is being used in a more general sense, but I would be happy to take correction, if that is not right. Further thought required!

Whose damage matters?

Of course Richard Broun himself could have brought a trespass action against the perpetrators, and maybe he did, but it is quite hard not to take away from this document the impression that his interests are subordinated to those of others: the general interest of the king in maintaining his peace, and the specific economic interest of the Archbishop of Canterbury, who lost the services of his ‘famulus’, for a time.

Testing for death/life

This prodding with swords is nasty, but interesting in underlining the difficulty of working out whether or not life was present. I have looked at the other end of this quite a bit (the ‘has a child been born alive?’ point) but determination of death was clearly something which could be tricky as well. Presumably, the point of the prodding would be to see whether there would be a reaction. It might seem a slightly risky thing to do – why not just run?

Other medical aspects

It is most interesting that the story is that Richard survived, though he was out of action for 18 months. It does suggest that he might have had access to above-average care, as a member of the household of the archbishop, and perhaps, further, that he was in high favour.[iv]



[i] KB 9/315 m.5 – via AALT

[ii] You know the drill, not necessarily meant to be taken as true, but may have been partly true in this case, if it happened at all.

[iii] I feel unable not to direct you to the additional smutty nuance associated with this word.

[iv] Rather a shame that he has a pretty run-of-the mill name, and would probably be quite hard to track down. Planning to have a look in the relevant C & Y Soc register next week.

Image – just in case anyone does not know … arms of Canterbury impaled with those of Thomas Bourgchier, c/o Wikimedia Commons  – a little fussy, it seems to me – and, yes, I do reaslise that, in choosing this picture, I am lazily emphasising the loss to the Archbishop, just like this case! It’s all planned and not at all through laziness.

Oral mayhem and legal memory: interim thoughts on non-fatal injury

One of the areas which I am investigating this year is the appeal of mayhem, a particular form of ‘criminal’ procedure in English common law, from the medieval period (13th C) to the early 19th C, dealing with non-fatal physical injury. I gave a bit of an introduction to the project in this post. I am still working away at this, and this post is part of the process of making sense of some of the points which are emerging.

Some of the biggest ‘headlines’ so far are:

  1. The appeal of mayhem emerges in what looks like a rather messy and fitful way, in the 13th C, from a combination of pre-existing ideas about compensation for non-fatal injury and an excuse made by men who were at risk of having to engage in trial by battle, but who were not in a fit state to fight in this way.
  2. Certain sorts of injury were regularly noted as ‘counting’. These included fairly obviously hampering ones – loss of hands, arms, legs … but also (some) teeth and testicles … apparently directly linked to fighting ability.[i]
  3. The roots in fighting struck deep in the legal imagination, with accounts in ‘textbooks’ and judgments regularly featuring a nod to reduction in ability to fight as the thing defining the sorts of injuries covered by mayhem. This was the case down to the 20th C, in criminal cases which purported to summarise the old law. (It was, however, soon forgotten that we were talking about a particular sort of fighting, and this came to be expanded to a ‘defence of the realm’ idea, from the early modern period).[ii]
  4. Despite this persistent link with fighting in accounts of mayhem, plea rolls and law reports tell a different story. Women (who did not have to/ could not fight trials by battle) are occasionally to be seen bringing appeals of mayhem, either alone, or in conjunction with a husband, for injuries to themselves, and there does not seem to be any objection to this.

Adding to point 4, there are some cases from the 14th C which do two interesting things:[iii] They show that it was thought possible to base an appeal upon injuries which could not really be presented as having a link to fighting of any sort, and they were sometimes explicitly linked to some other functional damage. This post will introduce this group of cases: the ‘oral mayhems’.

The wrong sort of injury?

I should say straight off that some oral injuries were included in the standard lists of mayhems in treatises – Bracton, Fleta etc. did say that (some) teeth (i.e. the bitey ones as opposed to the grindy ones) were covered. They definitely did not include tongues, however. This makes a degree of sense in the fighting context: hard to see how a tongue would be particularly useful in combat (except in so far as it enabled the fighter to engage in provocative and destabilising insults, or to ‘cry craven’). Even so, there are 14th C cases involving tongues, including an appeal of mayhem which forms part of the mass of litigation surrounding the alleged attack on Agnes de Haldenby in the reign of Edward II.[iv]

Perhaps this was (or became?) controversial – certainly, there was a piece of legislation from the early 15th C which made intentional/malicious tongue-removal a statutory offence (with ‘the pains of felony’).[v] Nevertheless, it rather muddies that nice, clear, fighting-related list of injuries acceptable as foundations for an appeal of mayhem.


The wrong sort of justification?

I have found a couple of cases so far (both from the 1340s) which move us even further from the mayhem/fighting nexus. These involve men being bashed in the face, and suffering injuries to their teeth and mouths. Rather than attempting to present them as ‘loss of fighting teeth’ scenarios (the wrong teeth, perhaps?) they both reinforce the claim that the injury damaged the claimant by stating that it has impaired his ability to eat and to communicate.

For example, a set of entries relating to a Northamptonshire incident show that John Hunt of Stoke brought an appeal of mayhem against William de Duncote, alleging that William, on 22nd August, 1345, in the fields of Duncote, with a pikestaff. feloniously hit him in the mouth, knocking three front teeth out of his lower jaw  so that he lost much of his ability to chew, eat and talk.[vi] This was, arguably at least, ‘the right sort of injury’ – no doubt one could explore whether or not lower incisors counted, as well as upper ones, but let’s not – but the explanation was not in accordance with an idea of loss or reduction of fighting ability (except in so far as a person who can’t eat very well, or talk very well, will probably be undernourished and may be isolated and depressed – but that is all a bit indirect). I think we are seeing a wider conception of mayhem here – one which, if we extended it into the ‘public’ sphere, would end up looking rather more like a ‘burden on society’ type of damage  as opposed to the ‘loss of a defender of the realm’ line which has been picked up in modern commentary.

The other example so far found is in very similar terms,[vii] suggesting that this claim of impairment of communication and eating was ‘a thing’ in contemporary mayhem. It really does take us some way away from the idea that fighting ability lay behind this category and procedure, as actually used.


So what?

Ah, the eternal question … Well, it does ‘trouble’ the existing encapsulations of mayhem which one encounters in criminal law cases (like R v Brown),[viii] and which trace their roots in early modern accounts which themselves took medieval treatise accounts, as opposed to what actually happened, as ‘the law’.[ix] This matters from a ‘purist’ point of view, and for understanding of medieval history, ensuring it is not misrepresented to make ourselves feel better and less brutal etc. It may also matter from a more instrumental/practical point of view. The way in which the slightly mythologised view of mayhem comes up in modern law discussions tends to be in the ‘back to front’  context of the possibility of exculpatory consent to objectively physically damaging practices such as S & M sex or permanent body alteration. These may use arguments based on old statements that one could consent to low-level injury, but not to mayhem. Leaving aside the fact that some of the injuries involved would not have qualified as mayhems even if the treatise accounts represented ‘the law’,[x] it is notable that the ‘fighting’ line is maintained very strongly. These medieval cases seem to me to show that mayhem was not all about damage to fighting prowess. Now, I am not especially in favour of dredging up historical concepts to support modern policy decisions, but, if you are going to throw them into the mix at all, you should probably avoid over-simplification and comforting othering and contempt of the brutalised past. There was clearly rather more to the medieval law and practice on mayhem than fighting. Or testicles.




Image – OK a bit tenuous: a pike rather than a pikestaff, as is featured in the John Hunt case. But it does have teeth … This is a photograph from the Freshwater and Marine Image Bank at the en:University of Washington. Details here.


[i] That’s a bit glib, I know – definitely need to think about the testicle issue some more. Can’t say it’s one of my areas of expertise.

[ii] Big parallel with Krista Kesselring’s excellent Making Murder Public (2019) to be drawn, I think.

[iii]… well, I think they are interesting, anyway … yes, undoubtedly should get out more …

[iv] SC 8/83/4109A; CPR 1317-21 p. 292 (etc.); KB 27/241 Rex m. 2 (etc.); KB 27/244 Rex m. 5d. For more on this, see my book, Women in the Medieval Common Law – yes, shameless.

[v] st. 5 Henry IV c. 5. Note that the tongue cutting itself is not called a mayhem here – it is seen as more of a thing done after a ‘real’ mayhem, presumably to stop the victim from speaking out about it.

[vi] KB 27/344 m. 18d  (AALT IMG 8893) This trundles on until Michaelmas 1346, when John Hunt was ‘done’ for a false appeal (NB this does not necessarily imply that there was anything wrong with his cause of action, and, had that been the case, it would be odd to find other, strikingly similar, allegations).

[vii] TNA KB 27/346 m. 38d (AALT IMG 9774)

[viii] R. v. Brown (Anthony) [1994] 1 A.C. 212, at 231, 262.

[ix] Yes, I want to make it Coke’s fault again …

[x] Without going into it in detail, the nettles, hot wax and fish-hooks in Brown would hardly work, would they?

A few gems from a morning’s mayhem-ing

Recently, I have been doing some work on the appeal of mayhem – it’s one of my research leave projects (for a brief intro., see this post). The main content of this will be a survey of medieval material, but I am also very interested in seeing later attitudes to it, and what became of the appeal, and the concept of mayhem/maim after the medieval period. This morning turned up the following little gems …

  1. You can maim a wall. My interest is mayhem in the sense of particular sorts of damage to human bodies, though of course I am aware that there are less specific uses of the word than that encountered in appeals of mayhem. One comes across more general ideas of physical injury to humans in various places, and the ‘maiming’ of animals, in legal sources. Still, I was a little surprised to see that some leasehold covenants include promises by the lessee not to ‘maim’ walls – see Creative Foundation v Dreamland Leisure Ltd and others [2015] EWHC 2556 Ch. This certainly goes back to the 19th C. Don’t suppose I will be able to stop myself seeing how far back I can chase it …
  2. Disappointingly, there was not a judge called Mayhem J. Got very excited when a Lexis Library search suggested the existence of such a person – wouldn’t that have been splendid? Sadly, following the link to Sheffield Masonic Hall Co Ltd v Sheffield Corpn [1932] 2 Ch 17, I saw that it was in fact Maugham J.
  3. Much of criminal law found to be tedious … I do love the ambition and casual attitude of collections of the whole common law in one book, and was looking up a few references in Every Man His Own Lawyer (1776) when I came across the following passage:Since rather a lot of serious crime is statute-based, I suppose that’s you told, Criminal Lawyers!




Image: a wall, in perfect health. Photo by Joe Woods on Unsplash

Musing on mayhem

Unable to get settled into marking after the excitement of this morning’s ‘French trip’, I have spent an hour or two this afternoon doing a little bit of preliminary reading for next year’s project on mayhem. May have been slightly distracted by references to Norwegian black metal and a film about loss of inhibition, but the actual relevant legal material is also interesting – the changing nature of an offence which was never quite pinned down, and then faded into a strange twilight, overtaken by various statutory provisions, and civil actions of trespass. My initial interest in it came from the very gendered early statements about it, which came to be ignored, allowing women to proceed for mayhem, and with the relationship between ‘crime’ and ‘tort’ here. Today’s reading, though,  has also got me thinking a little bit about categories of offence, and the weight of labels. ‘Mayhem’ feels more condemnatory than ‘trespass’, or wounding, or ‘an offence against statute X’. There’s something about its venerability, something about its … I don’t know … presumption of discrete existence … which demands attention and care. I am sure that a better way of articulating that will emerge as I read on.

In the end, more tightly drawn offences and processes seem to have fitted the needs of the law and those turning to it rather better than mayhem. But was anything lost when the category was de-emphasised and allowed to dwindle? I wonder whether there were victims who would have wanted to see their assailant labelled a mayhem-er (is there even a labelling noun like that?). Questions, questions! But … marking …



(Later re-musing: the more I ponder, the more it seems as if this might end up as something like ‘Mayhem: the long decay of an always-ailing concept’ … with or without the sick body imagery).

Photo by Charl Folscher on Unsplash

Stabbing stories: a Lincolnshire brawl

Travelling justices in Lincolnshire in 1287 dealt with a complaint of violent misconduct brought by Robert Salemon or Saleman, against Hugh de Mixerton (Misterton?).[i] This rough translation [Covid, no access to the big Medieval Latin dictionary …] gives an idea of how matters proceeded.

See the source image

Robert’s story was that, on a particular day just before the hearing,  he had been on the royal highway in the parish of St Benedict, Lincoln, when Hugh had got in his way and first abused him,  then he had taken out his knife and given Robert a really large wound in the arm, in contempt of the king and his justices, who were in the town, against the king’s peace and damaging Robert to the tune of £40.

Hugh denied that he had done anything which amounted to force and injury, anything in contempt or against the king’s peace, and any trespass against Robert. He said that it was in fact Robert who blocked his way and abused him, rather than the other way round. Robert, he said, had threatened to kill him and had drawn his knife, knocked him to the ground and attempted to stab him in the neck, but the knife thrust had failed to hit flesh, instead ripping Hugh’s hood. Hugh said that while he was being held down on the ground, he stabbed Robert to avoid being killed, this stab being quick and barely scratching Robert. He insisted that he could not have avoided his own death in any other way.

Both men put themselves on the jury.

The jurors (including, it is noted, some who had seen and heard the brawl) gave, on oath, a third version of the events in question. They said that Robert was on the high road and found Hugh’s wife standing with Hugh, that Robert lifted this woman’s clothes up, part of the way up her lower leg (usque ad dimidiam tibiam). At this, Hugh asked him to stop, and Robert grabbed Hugh by the arms, threw him to the ground, slashed at him with his dagger and ripped his hood, but did not wound him. Hugh, getting up, wounded Robert with his own dagger, but he could have got away without using his dagger on Robert, if he had wanted. The justices examined the wound in court and decided that it did not amount to a mayhem, and could easily be healed.

For this reason and also because the jury found that Robert had started the fight, it was decided that both Robert and Hugh should be custodiatur for a trespass done while the justices were present in town. Afterwards, both Hugh and Robert made fine with a mark (each).


And this is interesting because ….?

Well, it is always instructive to see records in which we actually get a flavour of opposing cases being put. Here, the two protagonists presented opposed versions of events (Hugh attacked Robert, Robert attacked Hugh) but neither told a tale much resembling that of the jurors. Both men left out the involvement of Hugh’s wife and Robert’s apparently predatory behaviour towards her. It is easy to see why Robert left it out – he wanted the story to be about a totally unprovoked attack. Perhaps the reason why Hugh left it out is a little less obvious – it would seem that he felt it was a safer bet to construct a story of self defence against Robert’s attack on him, rather than suggesting that he was acting in defence of his wife’s reputation. The law on self-defence pleas in homicide was by no means settled at this point (see, e.g., Green, Verdict According to Conscience), and it seems likely that the contours of self-defence as a saving plea in other areas was at least as unsettled. The simple, two-man, story may have seemed the best tactic. Alternatively, we might speculate as to whether the jury might have considered Hugh’s wife to be ‘no better than she ought to be’ one way or another. In any case, it was a bold strategy to tell a story contrary to events which had taken place in the sight and hearing of jurors.

I also find interesting the way in which the wound is discussed here. One of my projects for next year’s study leave will involve mayhem offences, so I am on the lookout for references to it. Here, we have an inspection in court, in which judges seem perfectly happy that they can determine whether or not a wound will easily be cured (no idea of ‘expert’ assessment) and a sense that the borderline between mayhem and trespass is defined partly in terms of permanence, as well as seriousness, of injury.

Finally, it shows the difference in outcome, depending when an offence occurred: Robert and Hugh were in particular trouble because all of this happened while the royal justices were in town, and was therefore worse than an everyday low-level brawl, since it was taken to be a contempt of the justices, and, through them, the king whose law was being administered.




[i] JUST 1/503 m. 37 (IMG 7961). Mettingham’s Lincolnshire assize roll 1285-9, hearing in 1287.

Medieval mayhem: the correction of wives, rather hard bread and ‘stupid jumping’

Here is a striking story from the plea rolls of the time of Henry IV, which throws a few glimmers of light on several shadowy areas of medieval law and social history: the law of mayhem, domestic relations and domestic violence, and the consistency of medieval bread.

Alexander Dalton v. John Barnaby  is an appeal of mayhem (private prosecution for infliction of certain sorts of wound) appearing in the King’s Bench plea roll for Easter term 1400. The parties were both described as tailors, and the location is London (more precisely, ‘in the parish of St Gregory in the ward of Baynard’s Castle’). The other character appearing in the record is John Barnaby’s wife, whose name is not given.

Dalton brought the case against Barnaby in relation to an injury to his (Dalton’s) right eye. The accusation was that Barnaby had hit him in the eye, leaving him with complete lack of sight in that eye. Thus far, this is all quite standard: true, most mayhem actions seem to be about injuries to arms and hands (with no end of ‘mortified nerves and veins’), but loss or diminution of sight fits within the overall idea of a mayhem as a serious injury, perhaps to be understood as centring on the concept of damage to a man who might potentially fight for the king. Things swiftly become a bit odd, however, as the ‘weapon’ which Dalton alleges Barnaby used against him was not the usual knife, sword, pole-axe etc., but … half a loaf of white bread. Dalton said that Barnaby had thrown this at him, hitting his right eye and causing his injury.

Barnaby told things somewhat differently, denying that he had done anything felonious. He described events from a slightly earlier point, saying that, on the day in question, Dalton and Barnaby’s unnamed wife had been in the city together. As soon as they got back to Barnaby’s house, Barnaby ordered his wife to sort out the dinner, which involved laying out a tablecloth, and putting the bread (and presumably other items) out. Barnaby said that he intended to chastise his wife for having been out in the city, and away from home, for a long time. This chastisement was supposed to take the form of Barnaby throwing bread at his wife’s head, and this was what he was trying to do. He threw the bread at his wife, and Dalton stupidly got up and jumped in the way of the flying half loaf, so ending up with his injury, through his own stupidity (rather than through Barnaby’s wrongdoing, as had been alleged).

Predictably, we do not get a straightforward conclusion to the case – a jury was to be summoned, matters dragged on for another couple of terms, and then we see Dalton being fined for failing to turn up and press on with his case.  Nevertheless, what we have in the record is quite interesting in a number of ways.

As far as the law relating to mayhem is concerned, Dalton v Barnaby provides: a good example of a defence of ‘your own stupidity caused the injury’and an unusual weapon. Unfortunately for medical historians, there is no questioning about the medical care which was, or could have been provided after Dalton was hit by the loaf-projectile, but the rules of medieval common law procedure meant that Barnaby had no need to go into that.

There are also some interesting nuggets with regard to marriage, domestic relations, domestic violence. It is well known that husbands were allowed and, indeed, expected to correct their wives’ misbehaviour, but this episode, at least as Barnaby tells it, shows something a little different to the standard examples of beating (with fists, sticks, clubs). If Barnaby was telling anything like the truth (and that’s debatable – I can’t stop thinking that this was all a food fight which got out of hand) then he thought it a plausible view of ‘reasonable chastisement’ that it might include throwing bread at his wife’s head – was this humiliatory and.or regarded as humorous? Within his story, there is also the germ of a contradictory idea – perhaps Dalton, if he did jump in front of the loaf, was demonstrating that he thought Barnaby was going beyond appropriate husbandly correction. Also on the marriage front, it is interesting that Mrs Barnaby and Dalton appear to have been out and about in London together – the more suspicious reader might wonder whether there was something going on there, and if there was an extra-marital relationship, it might make Dalton’s ‘stupid jumping’ seem rather less of a general intervention to stop a colleague from abusing his wife, and more of a personal  defence of somebody to whom he was devoted. Much to ponder. ‘The wife’ of course, apart from not being named, is not allowed much action in either man’s version of events.

And finally, there is that bread! It was part of a white loaf – the more expensive type of wheaten bread – rather than the poor person’s darker fare. Nevertheless, it clearly can’t have been a light and airy creation, if it was thought plausible that it was capable of causing this sort of injury. Again, however, the ‘rules of the game’ would have meant that nobody would have had the opportunity to ask questions about this: since the argument was framed as ‘You injured me with bread’ v. ‘You may have been injured with bread, but it was your own fault’, there was no space within which to test the question of whether that loaf could have caused that injury, or whether, in fact, it did cause the injury. Such are the joys and frustrations of medieval legal records.





Alexander Dalton v. John Barnaby KB 27/556 m.12d (The National Archives); see this online, AALT image 0163 via the Anglo-American Legal Tradition website at http://aalt.law.uh.edu/AALT.html ). Further stages of proceedings can be seen at: KB 27/557 m. 54 and KB 27/557, fine roll.

On medieval domestic violence, see, in particular S.M. Butler, The Language of Abuse: Marital Violence in Later Medieval England  (Leiden, Boston, 2007).

Those whose appetite for medieval bread has been whetted may wish to see (ahem), G.C. Seabourne, ‘Assize matters: regulation of the price of bread in medieval London’, Journal of Legal History 27 (2006), 29-52.


Finding myself wondering whether that proverb about half a loaf being better than no bread was current in medieval London …

Year Book/Plea Roll matches: Mayhem and medical evidence

Reporters in the King’s Bench in 1354 seem to have been interested in defining mayhem and refining the rules relating to proving and pleading in this area. There are three reports in the Seipp database.

Seipp 1354.043 is probably KB 27/376 m. 10 [AALT IMG 3179], Robert de Yakesle v. Thomas de Ribbeford  (KB 1354T). In both roll and report, there is a request that the wound in question should be looked at by two London doctors, to see whether or not it amounts to mayhem. The Year Book makes it clear that this is at the defendant’s risk – he is putting himself entirely on this issue.  This does seem to put quite a burden on the defence, and is worth thinking about with regard to the balance between accusers and accused. The facts of 1354.099ass also deal with medical evidence in a mayhem case, though with some more details, and suggesting a degree of recognition by the court of its own lack of expertise in terms of assessing the fresh wound. Might this be the same case?

Seipp 1354.044 looks to me like KB 27/376 m.10 (AALT IMG 2925), John, parson of the Church of Stowe v Hugh the Ironmonger of Daventry (KB, 1354T). since both cases involve injury to the finger next to the little finger. The Year Book suggests a querying by D of whether this could amount to mayhem, followed by a clear ruling that it could, and an alternative plea of self-defence. The Plea Roll, as one would expect, only records the self-defence plea actually relied upon.  My immediate thoughts on seeing this pleading were that mayhem seems to have been a slightly ill-defined concept at this period, and that this is something of a contrast with all those specific penalties/ sums due in conpensation for different injuries which are listed in the Leges Henrici Primi.