Tag Archives: medieval law

Discord, fraud and an attack of conscience? Some dodgy dealings with land in the fourteenth century 

As I prepare materials for modern Land Law teaching, it is interesting to think of the potential difficulties medieval people might have in guarding against losing their rights in land, in a world without the sort of registration and record-keeping which my students love hearing about so much …

The source: a 1339 King’s Bench plea roll. KB 27/315 m. 13d (AALT IMG 262)

The scene: mid-fourteenth century Cambridgeshire (and, as all pretentious reviews of films and books say, the land itself is a sort of character too. And the law. And the plea roll. Enough – on with the alleged facts …)

In Michaelmas 1338, jurors of various hundreds presented that John Allberd and his wife Nicolaa[i] held 20 acres of land in Hokyton, in right of Nicolaa, but there was discord between them, and Nicolaa went away from her husband and the area. [Alas, as our esteemed PM would say] John then died. [At this point, Nicolaa should have had the land back, or, if she had died, as seems to have been the case, then it should have gone to her heir, BUT… there was a conspiracy between an observant/nosy local and some ‘incomers’, from Norfolk, and even that London]: John son of John Riston of Hokyton, John Godefeld, citizen of London, and a certain Margaret of Norwich conspired together and in 1334, Margaret was passed off as Nicholaa (de Kelm, wife of John Allberd of Hokyton) and, acting as Nicolaa, Margaret had a false charter drawn up in favour of John son of John Riston, transferring the land to him, not to William de Kelm, nephew and heir of Nicolaa. John Riston entered by virtue of this false feoffment. [And he would have got away with it, if it hadn’t been for her meddlesome conscience]. Confessione ducta, she had gone along to the church of Hokyton and coughed to her misconduct. After this, William de Kelm had got the land as the result of a concord (no details), and the law was put on to the two male alleged conspirators.

The sheriff was ordered to bring the parties into court to hear about the misconduct. John Riston and John Godefeld pleaded not guilty (and things are still rumbling on, trying to get these two into court in 1347 – KB 27/348 m.32d (AALT IMG 1590) – I am yet to get to the end of the matter.

So what?

I know – just another unfinished case, but …

Well, you have to admire the cunning of such a plan, if it happened. It does rather point to a weakness in the system of land holding: identifying individuals who had not been seen for some time. Presumably it was plausible that one woman might be passed off as another, even in relatively close-knit areas with small populations.

I am also quite taken by the throwaway line that there was discord between the spouses and Nicolaa just exited the scene. Seems somewhat at odds with what we think we know about conjugal debts and the need to get a divorce a mensa et thoro before doing this. I suppose we would have to presume that women could leave if men were not bothered. As this case shows, though, there might be a cost to them, in terms of the risk of losing rights to the land they left behind.

(All rather far away from the bureaucracy and formality of modern Land Registration schemes, to which, I suppose, I had better return …)




[i] A moment of appreciation, please, for this fabulous medieval spelling, and I take my hat off to anyone who is able to resist pronouncing it pirate-style as NicholAAAAAAH!

Blood and Brothers


One of the matters I touch on in the forthcoming Women and Medieval Law book is the basis for the right to bring an appeal – an individual prosecution – in the medieval period. Appeals are important in a consideration of women and the common law, because they were a way that women could initiate a ‘criminal’ case, though they were shut out from participation in other methods – especially presentment/indictments. To cut a long story short, there are various statements which purport to set out accepted limitations on the matters women could appeal (most prominently mentioned as allowed are homicide of a husband and rape) but there are also many, many examples of women bringing other appeals; and a little study makes it apparent that the ideas about why women can ever bring appeals (in a system which prevents them from other routes of prosecution) are not at all clear. There are a number of different ideas floating about, including revenge, particular damage and likely physical proximity to the offence.

Because the book was about women, I did not get into a related issue: if a single man is killed, who has the right of appeal? This is an interesting one, partly in terms of the ‘answer’, but mainly in terms of the way arguments are made about it, so it deserves a short exploration here (no doubt to be updated as and when I find new cases on it).

At least in 14th and 15th C cases, a definite ‘pecking order’ was understood, as between the brothers or sons of a slain man, and somebody accused by the appeal of a younger brother could legitimately say that this was invalid, because this was the wrong person to be bringing the appeal: the right lay in the older brother.  In a case in 1314, for example, (KB27/218 Rex m. 10 (IMG 24)) from Worcestershire, a woman, Margery, wife of John I,  and John II, were accused by one William of killing his brother, Thomas. Margery was accused of killing Thomas by hitting him in the head with a stone, while John II held him by the throat. Apart from denying wrongdoing, Margery argued that she should not have to answer the appeal, because William had an older brother, John III , and it was this John III  who should have brought the appeal. It ‘naturally pertained’ to John III to prosecute it, and he was ‘nearer in blood etc.’  It seems to have been another point on which the appeal failed, but it was at least an outing for this idea about ‘the wrong brother’.

It is not proximity, but ‘worthiness’ of blood which is the justification given for preference of the elder over the younger brother in cases from the 1330s:  KB 27/310 Rex m. 6d (AALT IMG 333), KB 27/311 Rex m. 1d (AALT IMG 245)  and KB 27/312  m.3 (AALT IMG 290). (KB 27/311 Rex m. 1d (AALT IMG 245) features an argument as to whether the alleged elder brother exists (was inventing an elder brother a tactic which might, or buy some time?). The matter was raised in some later Year Book reports too. Seipp 1467.041 and 1468.007 – and Markham J was apparently concerned about whole blood and half blood relationships (only the former would do, so must be mentioned, tracing the blood of victim and prosecutor in the appeal).

An earlier fifteenth century case showed a difficulty which could arise for younger brothers – what if there was an older brother, but he was not interested in bringing an appeal, or not able to do so? Seipp 1412.047abr notes a case in which the older son of an allegedly murdered man was a monk, and the upshot seems to have been that there was nothing to be done – the younger son did not have a right to appeal here.

So what?

Well – as a younger sibling, I am not happy at the idea that the older sibling has ‘worthier blood’ (though would that work with women, or would they have some coparcenry-equivalent pattern, with any sister being as good as any other?).

Less self-centredly, it has got me thinking about blood, and how it figures in different areas of law (free/unfree status, bastardy, succession more generally, attainder and ‘corruption of the blood’, rape, assault and ‘drawing blood’ as a threshold or evidential requirement… probably more).  And how does ‘blood’ relate to ‘flesh’: how do lineal and matrimonial relationships interact one with another? Maybe one day this will all fall into place in my mind and end up as a paper on ‘The Law of Blood’. Interesting, anyway to try and work out what ideas about blood were present here. Clearly it would need to bring in theological and medical ideas too. But probably not vampires.



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.



Almaric, (not quite) the Champion of the World

A Year Book report of a Common Pleas case of Easter term 1364 YB Pasch. 38 Edw. III pl. 16 f. 10b (Seipp 1364.046) can be identified with the plea roll record: Abbot of St Peter of Gloucester v. Almaric le Botiller CP 40/ 417 m. 111. Here, Almaric was accused of having trespassed against the Abbot’s rights by going into some of land in Gloucestershire in which he had rights of free warren (a species of exclusive property right in certain animals located there), and taking away his rabbits, hares, partridges and pheasants.

Almaric denied most of the accusation, and made an interesting defence in relation to the hunting and retrieval from the Abbot’s land of a pheasant, saying that the pheasant had originally been on Almaric’s own land, when the falcon (in the record, it’s a sparrowhawk) was loosed to chase it, but the pheasant had retreated to the Abbot’s land, and the falcon had followed and killed it there; Almaric had gone in to retrieve his falcon’s prey. This defence seems to show that there would only be a warren trespass offence if the hunt had begun within the Abbot’s warren. The Abbot’s next plea seems to confirm that, since it argues that the pheasant was within the warren when the falcon was set on it. It was this issue of the pheasant’s starting point which was arrived at as the matter to put before a jury,although Knyvet, a Common Pleas judge, observed that, wherever the unfortunate pheasant had begun, Almaric’s entry into the land to retrieve it would have put him in the wrong.

Clearly, the answer would have been further training of the sparrowhawk to get it to bring its prey back to the falconer. Almaric could then have stood outside the warren, waiting for the abbot’s pheasants to stray, hunt them with his trusty sparrowhawk and cause no end of annoyance to the man of God.

GS 31/5/2017

Adultery and violence in the medieval West Midlands

Here’s a case I found in a roll relating to theWorcestershire trailbaston sessions of 1306 (JUST 1/1032), when looking for something else entirely – so interesting it deserved a blog post.

On m. 4d (AALT image 2700), we are told that Johanna, wife of Edmund Sneed was indicted for having gouged out (extraxit) the eyes of Christiana daughter of Thomas de la Twychene at Hampton Lovett. The sheriff of Worcestershire had been ordered to have Edmund and Johanna before the Justices ‘to respond to the King for this trespass’, but he had to report that Edmund had not been found. The coroner and several credible members of the county community gave evidence that Edmund was on his way to the Curia in Rome. Johanna came, though, and was asked how she wished to plead to the trespass. She said that she was not guilty and submitted to a trial by jury.

Many medieval records are less than expansive after this point in proceedings, but, here we get some interesting material from the jury, rather than the all-too-frequent blank ‘guilty’ or ‘not guilty’. It is reported that the jury said Edmund Sneed had been involved in an adulterous liaison with Christiana (tenuit … in adulterio) and often withdrew himself from  Johanna, beat and mistreated her, and moved her from the house in Worcestershire to another house he had in Warwickshire. There seems to have been a partial reconciliation, since they said that Johanna came back to Edmund and lived with him at Hampton Lovett, but Edmund was still involved with Christiana. Johanna was said to be aggrieved and provoked (gravata et commota) by this state of affairs (as it were) that, on a day which the jury could not specify, but which was in the year 30 Edward I (i.e. 1301-2), she asked Christiana around to Edmund’s house to discuss the adultery. Christiana came as requested, but rather than a civilised discussion of their situation, a fight broke out between them. Johanna is said to have hit Christiana and put out her eyes. (I am a bit puzzled as to exactly how to imagine that happening: surely actually removing somebody’s eyes requires something other than a blow? How inappropriate would it be to ask about this next time I am at the Eye Infirmary?)

The jury also felt moved to say that Edmund and Johanna had always provided for Christiana, and continued to do so, (which would indicate a fairly long term commitment, considering the date they said the eye-gouging had occurred) but noted the insecurity of Christiana’s position. This is certainly an interesting passage in relation to provision of care for those with disabilities and impairments. It suggests some form of informal taking of responsibility by Edmund and Johanna, outside legal proceedings. We might wonder, however, just how desperate Christiana must have been, to accept help from the very person who had caused her very serious injuries.

There seem to be traces of sympathy for Johanna (and lack of sympathy for Christiana as no better than she ought to be?) on the part of the tribunal, and perhaps an effort to find a way to excuse Johanna’s actions. The report tells us that the jury was asked how old Johanna was at the time of the eye-ripping, and whether she had been in her right mind. The jury, however, did not take the opportunity to engage in a bit of ‘pious perjury’ to let her off the hook: they said that she was twenty years old, and sane. Johanna was therefore committed to jail, with the instruction that the case was to be heard at Westminster on Monday in Pentecost week.

Most unfortunately, I have found no trace of the case in the relevant plea roll, so, unless and until some other evidence turns up, the story ends there, with no answer as to how the justices at Westminster would have handled it. Nevertheless, there is a lot to think about here. There is a fair amount of reported sexual misbehaviour in medieval legal records, but the story of the supposed summit meeting between two women who had been involved with the same man, and then the extreme violence, is very unusual. In relation to Johanna’s violence, there is thinking to be done about what was expected, and countenanced, in terms of the behaviour of a wronged wife towards ‘the other woman’. Interesting that the medieval Welsh legal triadic literature suggests some leeway for wives hitting ‘the other woman’ (though certainly not eye-gouging).

Then there is also the report that the married couple were in some sense looking after the ‘other woman’ in her impaired state, and the intriguing story of Edmund’s trip to Rome – not, we might note, some sort of repentance pilgrimage to Rome in general, but specifically to the Curia. Something matrimonial seems most likely – though going in person to the Curia would not be standard practice.

So – lots of loose ends, but, apart from anything else, this record shows just how useful trailbaston (and plaint) rolls of this period can be in giving glimpses of a world of facts and legal ideas often effaced in the increasingly standardised forms in King’s Bench and Common Pleas rolls.



Allegations of women being hit so that their eyes are said to fall out can be seen in S.M. Butler, The Language of Abuse: marital violence in later-medieval England (Leiden, 2007), e.g. at 161 and 177-8. While some descriptions of such extreme and horrifying episodes may have been somewhat exaggerated attempts to portray a woman in conformity with saintly models, this case, with the subsequent apparently impaired and needy state of Christiana, probably records a genuine incident of eye-gouging.


8th May, 2017.