Tag Archives: medieval crime

Total eclipse of the hearth: a characteristic medieval method of low-level extortion?

Something which has caught my attention when working through many, many accounts of alleged violent offences in medieval court records is a particular method of extorting money by torture, which is specifically ‘pre-modern’: making the unfortunate victim sit on a burning tripod until he or she stumps up. See, e.g., cases from rolls of: 1332, 1337, 1348, 1355, 1381, 1406, 1407 (& same incident). There is also a similar case involving burning somebody with a griddle or grate, to get them to say where some jewels were, from 1433).

I suppose that it first struck me as interesting because it sounded so odd – and so specific (and, as a kid, tripods had a special, troubling, place in my heart, both as a required construction of a ‘gadget’ for the guide Camper badge, and as the terrifying villains of the John Christopher books and TV series). A moment of reflection, however, and I realised that a tripod, and a hot tripod at that, would be a common feature of medieval homes, supporting cooking vessels in the hearth. No sci-fi or uniformed organisation reminiscing required.

I find myself asking why this appears to have been a relatively plausible tactic for those trying to get a person to cough up money or do something else to benefit the offender. Why not just use a knife to threaten? Everyone seems to have had a knife, judging by the number of deaths by stabbing on the rolls, after all. Perhaps the answer is a combination of factors:

  • the ‘sit on a tripod’ practice caused pain as well as exerting mental pressure, perhaps speeding the whole process up; might there also have been something humiliating for the victim about being injured on the buttocks?
  • as long as it wasn’t prolonged unduly, it probably wouldn’t cause death – whereas waving a knife about could always end in a stab wound, blood, death.

There are certainly signs that it was regarded as potentially very damaging, though: an unsuccessful allegation of 1330 saw three people (two men and a woman) indicted for having, at ‘Burnecestre’ (really!) , taken and tied up one Alice Garlicmonger and put her on a burning hot tripod, naked, until she made fine with them, burning her ‘enormiter’ and ‘usque ad ossa’ (the latter is interesting from an anatomical point of view – coccyx? femurs?). The three were found not guilty anyway, so no prospect of further interrogation of medieval ideas of the construction of a backside.

Some of these, e.g. the 1337 case, mention a causal connection – here, the ‘enormous’ or ‘outrageous’ burning was done in order ‘to get more money’.  ‘The entries don’t always have the burning as connected to the taking, but I think that must be the idea. Can’t rule out gratuitous cruelty, I suppose.

I am not sure that there is anything obvious to do with these, but perhaps I will find something some day. For now – it’s a little curiosity to share asynchronously with anyone who ever stumbles along this way. Pray for me, and you are welcome.

 

GS

18/9/2021

Image – sort of hearth. No, not medieval. General idea …Photo by Zane Lee on Unsplash

‘Lunacy’, lucidity and the extent of exculpation

Continuing my off-and-on consideration of ‘lunacy’ and mental incapacity in the medieval criminal law, I’d like to note another case which expands a little on our knowledge in this area (or mine, anyway).

The case comes from a 1315 gaol delivery roll, from a session at Norwich castle (see it here). It is a grisly double homicide – and there seems to have been no argument about the basic facts: a man called Robert Angot had killed two others, William Maille and Thomas de Riston. Nevertheless, Robert pleaded not guilty, and all the signs are that he was not going to suffer the standard penalties for convicted felonious killers.

The jury gave a comparatively lengthy account to explain why this was not an appropriate case for capital punishment – Robert was a lunatic. More specifically, they explained, he enjoyed lucid intervals, but, for twenty years and more, he had become ‘furious’ at the start of a new moon. Over this long period, his family and friends had worked out a way to cope, and regularly confined him. On the fateful date of 3rd December (1314), at the beginning of a new moon, Robert was in Thomas’s custody. Somehow, he got hold of Thomas’s knife and stabbed him in the hand. Thomas (understandably) cried out. The noise brought William to his aid, and there was an attempt to restrain Thomas. This failed, however, and Thomas stabbed William in the breast and Thomas in the testicles. You know the outcome – both Thomas and William died. The jury, however, saw the fact that, at the relevant time, Robert was detained by fury, as exculpating him (though he was sent back to prison to await a royal decision – I am yet to find a pardon, but it would seem unlikely that this would not have been forthcoming).

There is much that is interesting here. We see the extension of a merciful/ understanding attitude to very serious offences against more than one person, committed by the defendant. I was also struck by the lengthy provision of care – or at least containment – of this man by those in his community, and also by what the record reveals about contemporary understanding of the causes of ‘lunacy’ and ‘fury’. There may be something to probe in terms of just which part of the lunar cycle was thought to be the problem – other cases mention waxing, whereas this pinpoints the new moon – I have to confess I am not quite sure whether those would have been understood to be different things, or how long such a condition would be expected to last. I will, I hope, at some point, get round to checking (there must be a way to do this!) what the state of the moon actually was on the date given. I assume that Robert’s friends and neighbours would have had to be more than usually conscious of the moon’s phases, so my guess is that this the assessment here is probably accurate.

One other tiny snippet is less to do with ‘lunacy’ and more to do with lay (in the sense of non-lawyer) understanding of ‘criminal law’: I note that the jury refer to the killings as ‘felonies’ even though are also saying that Robert was not really culpable. Is that a little sign of an instinct to focus on damage rather than the guilt or innocence of the mind? Many fascinating puzzles – I am sure I will be coming back to this.

GS

9/7/2021

Photo by Sanni Sahil on Unsplash

To Marry and to Burn: punishing domestic treachery in medieval England

(A version of this was posted on the Bristol Law School Blog on 24th May 2021.  I will continue to update this version, including adding to the ‘grand total’ mentioned in the sixth paragraph below, as I find new instances).

One of the less enthusiastic endorsements of marriage is to be found in the words of St Paul’s first letter to the Corinthians: ‘it is better to marry than to burn’. His point was that celibacy was the best way to live, but those too weak to resist the temptations of the flesh could take the second best option of monogamous marriage. Before the Protestant Reformation in England, there were those who followed what this passage portrayed as the higher path, dedicating themselves to a life of celibacy and the service of God in monasteries and convents, but for most people, the expectation was marriage. Marriage and fire were, however, not as distant, one from the other, as St Paul’s words would imply.

Marriage in medieval England was understood to be hierarchical, with the husband expected to control and correct the wife, and the wife to obey the husband. He was (again in words attributed to St Paul), ‘the head of the wife’.  No doubt, as a great deal of historical research over the past few decades has shown,  there were many variations in practice, with more and less amicable situations, more and less mutual respect.  Even so, the husband’s authority over the wife was a fundamental principle, with real consequences; and one of these was connected with fire.

We can see an example of this connection between marriage and fire in an entry on a medieval legal record from the late fourteenth century. This notes a case from Essex, dealt with by John Cavendish and others, sent to the county as royal justices, in 1378. An indicting  jury of twelve men had said that, when John Trilly junior was lying in bed one Saturday night, his wife, Margaret, and a certain  John Robat of Walden, killed him with an axe or hatchet. The suspects were arrested, brought to court, pleaded not guilty, and accepted jury trial. Unfortunately for them, the trial jury said that they were both guilty, as well as noting that, at the time of the killing, Margaret was John Trilly’s wife. It was ordered that John Robat should be hanged. Margaret, however, was to be burned.

From at least the first half of the fourteenth century, and probably from the thirteenth century, the accepted punishment for a wife who killed her husband was death by burning. This was an unusual mode of execution: most convicted felons (including husbands convicted of killing their wives) faced the rope rather than the fire. For those of us for whom capital punishment of any sort is entirely abhorrent, it may be difficult to feel particularly exercised about the use of one method of ending a life rather than another, so long ago. (We may, though. note the reference, in a document relating to the execution of Anne Boleyn, of the move from burning to decapitation as a matter of royal mercy, as some sort of indication that there was seen to be a difference, at least in the sixteenth century), and it is certainly the case that, for a legal historian, it is important to try to look into the flames, and see what can be learned from past law, past practice.

Why burn husband-killers? Three overlapping factors were relevant: sex/gender, marital status and nature of the offence. This was not, in fact, the only type of offence in which a woman might be burned while a man would face a different penalty. The same applied to counterfeiting offences, and to killings of one’s employer, and there are occasional, earlier, examples of women being burned for other felonies. The use of burning for husband-killers is, however, clearly connected with a wish to make a particular example of those who transgressed against the hierarchical understanding of marriage. For a wife to kill her husband was not simply homicide, but a form of rebellion against her natural superior. It was mentioned in the Statute of Treasons 1352, and from the fifteenth century onwards, it came to be called ‘petty treason’.

The burning of husband-killers has tended to be minimised in classical accounts of legal history, and is sometimes assumed to be associated with the Statute of Treasons. My research in this area has, however, highlighted both the longer, deeper association of husband-killing and fire, and also the greater number of examples of women consigned to the flames for this offence than had previously been suggested. While they were never numerous, there were certainly enough of them to confirm in the minds of lawyers and the population more generally, that this was the expected outcome, in the event of a conviction for husband-slaying. I have discussed the matter in a chapter of my recent book on women and common law in medieval England, and continue to collect examples of women sentenced to death by burning, from the vast corpus of medieval legal records which remain to us. The current total on my ‘spreadsheet of doom’, compiled from work on records of late medieval criminal sessions (13th-15th Cs, the majority being from the late 14th C and early 15th C), stands at 65 burnings ordered for women convicted of husband-killing. While it is not possible to elicit comprehensive, reliable, statistics from such searches, it may be of interest to note that this is considerably higher than the number of executions for rape which I have seen in the same records, though considerably lower than the number of executions for theft, for example. It is certainly high enough to be worthy of attention.

The idea that the offence was particularly heinous and should be punished in this spectacular and symbolic way was not something which was being imposed on communities by ‘the powers that be’: it was something much more pervasive. In some contrast to other areas of crime, in which jurors were willing to bend facts to let defendants avoid punishment, trial jurors, and those men in local communities in a position to initiate prosecutions by indictment or presentment, seem to have been keen to ensure that husband-killers would be burned. On occasion, we see them making it clear that a woman charged with homicide was married to the deceased at the time he was killed, though this might be obscured by the fact that she was now married to somebody else. This was done so that conviction would lead to burning, not hanging. There seems to have been no doubt in the minds of the leading men in medieval communities that it was right to mark out husband-killers in this way.

The fact that the penalty was used, and accepted as appropriate by men at different social levels, over a long period of time, would seem to make it likely to have exerted an influence on the minds and behaviour of married women. This is particularly so, if we add in other things which I have noted emerging from my archival work: accusations were sometimes made on what looks like a relatively slender basis, with rather quick leaps to an accusation that a woman whose husband was killed by somebody else was ‘in on it’, and even over-zealous prosecution when the husband was not, in fact dead at all. These findings do tend to suggest that the threat of fire as a judicial penalty, as well as an eternal punishment, is something which should receive further consideration in studies of medieval marriage and gender, as well as law.

As well as telling other people what they ought to think is worthy of investigation,  a post on a research blog  is a good place to include a little reflection on the process of conducting research. I began looking at this area as a result of being unconvinced by the accounts I had read in secondary sources, and suspicious that they were over-simplifying matters, in a way which played down the importance of the executions of women by burning. To understand what more there was to say, and how accounts might need to be adjusted, it has been necessary to trawl through a very large number of pages of medieval manuscript (in recent times, this has been via the magnificent Anglo American Legal Tradition collection of scanned images), looking for accusations of husband-killing, and orders that somebody should be burnt. Finding a needle amongst the fields of haystacks does sometimes feel like a bit of a ‘win’, each instance strengthening the emerging argument. Nevertheles, each time I come across one of the Latin abbreviations indicating that a burning has been ordered, in the margin of a roll, there is the realisation that it indicates a terrifying end to a real person, as human as the rest of us. I have come to recognise that that feeling, that discomfort, that connection, is itself important in an investigation of the people whose lives and deaths are noted in the rolls.

 

Here endeth the lesson.

GS

1st May, 2021.

(Photo by Zachary Kadolph on Unsplash)

Fatal peacemaking: a self-defence story from medieval York

Human minds being the odd, pattern-seeking, things they are, I expect that this one leapt out at me today because I am a little preoccupied with a recorded interview I am doing on Monday, for a podcast about rape and sexual consent. The entry is not just about sexual offences, though, but also about the composition of defences to homicide, and, perhaps, master-servant and more positive male-female interactions as well.

The entry relates to a case at a York gaol delivery session on Sat 27th July, 1364.[i] John de Skydbrok of York, had been indicted and arrested for having feloniously killed John Dees, tailor, on the night of Monday 17th July 1363. in Goodramgate, York. He pleaded not guilty and the case was tried by a jury. The jury said that things had gone like this on the day in question: John Dees came to John de Skydbrok’s house, in order to have sex with a female servant (ancilla) of JS. She had made a great noise, which had brought JS into the room where it was happening, and there ensued a classic ‘self defence fight’ in which JS ends up in a corner, and with a choice between being killed by JD’s knife, or defending himself with his own knife (having done nothing at all aggressive up to this point). Having drawn his knife, JS struck JD once in the chest, and JD died. The jury stated that the killing had occurred in self defence rather than with malice aforethought, so unsurprisingly, JS was sent off to prison to await a pardon (and this duly came).[ii]

The self defence story is all very stereotyped, but the prelimnary events are a bit more interesting. The description of the encounter between John Dees and the ancilla is not termed a rape or attempted rape, but volition is mentioned on JD’s side and objection on the ancilla’s side. I think we can rule out the idea that the noise mentioned was enthusiastic participation – it is clamor, which is exactly what a respectable woman is supposed to emit, when protesting against a rape or other attack. Note the response of John de Skydbrok: the jury says that he came in, from his part of the house, ‘to make peace’, or ‘to calm things down’. No doubt things are put this way in order not to contradict the self-defence narrative of one-sided violence. This, perhaps, is an instance of the accepted narrative of self-defence in fact effacing what we would see as commendable behaviour – intervening to help a servant, whether protecting her as a person or as an asset. If there was not any force on JS’s part, it does not really make sense that JD would attack him. If JS was so very pacific, surely making a run for it would have been the sensible option.

Medieval gender relations and sexual misconduct meeting the distorting filters of legal procedure and jury practice; intriguing and frustrating as ever.

GS

23/4/2021

[i] JUST 3/95 m. 43 (AALT IMG 97)

[ii] CPR 1364-7 p. 27.