Tag Archives: medieval Kent

Buckets and causation in medieval Kent

Here is an interesting record from a crown pleas roll from the Eyre of Kent 1313-14:

JUST 1/383 m. 28d, which can be seen at AALT IMG 1763 http://aalt.law.uh.edu/AALT4/JUST1/JUST1no383/bJUST1no383dorses/IMG_1743.htm

It involves the unfortunate demise of a man called Augustine. These rolls contain endless examples of unfortunate deaths (frequently involving falls, fires and vicious pigs) but they way in which they are recordsd often makes it hard to see how a decision was made as to whether somebody should be held responsible, or whether the death was an unfortunate accident (look for infort’ in the margin). In particular, it is often impossible to know whether a death has been ruled accidental because of ideas about the (lack of) intention of another person who was potentially culpable, or because it was not, in fact, thought that this other person caused the death. This case, however, has an interesting and unusual little statement about causation, which might be of value to those wrestling with the outlines of ideas about culpability in medieval law and thought.

The facts were unglamorous enough: Augustine, son of Richard de Holeweye, wanted to fill his well, but it was full of mud. He went down into the well and told Alice his wife to set up and lower the bucket hanging over the well, in order to remove the mud from the well. When the bucket was full of mud, Alice began to pull it up. Sadly, the rope holding the bucket broke as she did so, and the bucket, full of mud and presumably heavy, fell down the well and hit Augustine’s head. He suffered an injury which was not immediately fatal. We are not told how (or whether?) he was brought up from the well, but in any case, he died (we are told, from this cause) within fifteen days. Alice was arrested. Evidently, she was seen as potentially culpable in this situation. ‘Afterwards’, however (and we do not know how long afterwards) it was held that the deed was a sort of act of nature [quasi factum naturam] and Alice was not the efficient cause [causa efficiens] of Augustine’s death, and the  Justices regarded this as an accident. [So Alice was cleared].

The language of ‘efficient cause’ is interesting – hints of Aristotle, perhaps? – and the whole episode suggests some doubt about the distinction between human agency and the workings of ‘nature’. In what sense was ‘nature’ engaged here – was it in the breaking of the rope, the falling of the bucket of mud, or both? We might wonder why there is no mention of the bucket (with or without mud, as the deodand – the object regarded as ‘moving towards’ the fatal convergence which, in most cases, would have been demanded by the crown. Does the idea of efficient causes and acts of nature cancel out the idea of causation based on the ‘fault’ of objects? And, if there was blame to be given out,  why was Alice the obvious person to think of blaming rather than Augustine himself? As ever, the plea rolls leave us with a bucketful of questions.