Tag Archives: medieval

Bastardy, Presumptions and a Plague of Beatrixes

(Sheldon arms, apparently: see VCH reference, below)

I am writing something about difficult questions at the start of life – determining whether (legally recognised) life is present in a foetus or newborn, and determining legitimacy – from periods before the development of some important medical techniques and instruments (to c. 1900 –  in 10,000 words …). One of the aspects I am investigating is the use of presumptions, to help come to an answer, when everyone accepted that there was a high level of uncertainty. An important presumption in the area of determinations of legitimacy was the common law’s long-lasting and rather strong presumption of legitimacy for a child born to married parents. I have just spent quite some time chasing down a Year Book/Plea roll match for an interesting case from the later years of Edward III, which has a bearing on this, and, since it won’t get more than a short mention, perhaps no more than a footnote, in the paper itself, I thought I’d write it up here.

The Year Book report is Seipp 1370.044 or YB Pasch. 44 Edw. III pl. 21 f. 12b. The Plea Roll record is CP 40/438 m. 370d (AALT IMG 5516). It is a Common Pleas case. As is often the way, the names in YB and PR don’t match up, but I think we can be pretty certain that these documents refer to the same case. There is also  information in other sources which gives some indications about the people involved in the case.[i] This is my reconstruction of the whole story, based on all of this.

There was a need to determine whether or not a girl was to be classed as ‘legitimate’ or ‘a bastard’ at common law, in order to deal with a land dispute. The land in question was in the West Midlands of England, in Warwickshire, centred on the manor of Sheldon, and included different parcels of land and associated rights. Once upon a time, it had been held by Henry de Sheldon and Beatrix his wife (HS and B1) and John Murdak had been granted an interest which would come into play if HS and B1 died without heirs of their bodies.

This had all happened in the 1330s. The central characters in the 1370 dispute were Thomas Murdak, knight (TM), son of John, who claimed that he should hold the land, and  a married couple, (Sir) John de Peyto and Beatrix his wife, who  were in fact holding some of the relevant land and rights. John and Beatrix (JP and B2) argued that they held a tenancy for life in the land, from one Beatrix (B3), eventual successor of HS (as daughter of John de Sheldon, JS, who was HS’s son and heir). When they wished to use B3’s superior right as the foundation of their own right, and against TM’s claim to it, TM made the argument that they could not do so, because B3 was a bastard. (And bastards were outside the scheme of succession at common law).

Why was there a doubt about B3’s legitimacy? Well, it seems that the circumstances of her birth were slightly unusual: she was said by JP and B2 to be the posthumous child of JS, born to his wife after a short marriage (at most fifteen days), though conceived before the marriage. TM told it rather differently: in his version, there had been some very dubious behaviour, which could mean that there was no real marriage, and so no presumption of legitimacy, and also, in fact, B3 was the child of another man entirely. His tale was of a very unwell JS, sick to death with plague, and not in his right mind, being physically carried to the church in Yardley, to marry (desponsare de facto) ‘some woman’ (not named – the odds seem to be in favour of her having been called Beatrix, like everyone else …) who was, at the time ‘grossly pregnant’.  As he told it, this was part of a fraudulent plan, essentially to do him out of his rights, which, remember, would come into play on the death of HS and B1 and their legitimately procreated heirs, and to protect the holding of JP and B2. JP and B2, however, expanded on their version, stating that B3 was in fact the biological child of JS: he and B3’s mother had been lovers (and had had two previous children) and he had promised to marry her, then impregnated her with B3 before going off to Calais for three months, and, on his return, he had fulfilled that promise. Though he had been ill, he had been sane and had married her at the behest of his conscience (presumably wishing to ‘make an honest woman of her’, and secure her future provision). They had lived together for a fortnight, then he had died. B3 had been born afterwards (interestingly, neither a date of birth, nor a gestation period, is included). Essentially, their tale denied both the ‘not JS’s biological child’ and the ‘not a valid marriage’ aspects of TM’s case.

Argument continued, with the aim of narrowing things down to one issue which could go to proof. According to the Year Book report, there followed some back and forth about exactly how pregnancy, espousals and legitimacy worked together, as far as the common law was concerned. TM’s side had a go at saying that the fact that it was accepted that B3’s mother was very pregnant before the espousals meant that Alice was a bastard. This seems to imply an argument that pregnancy had to start, as well as end, after espousals had been made.  This argument did not prevail, but it is interesting that it could be made, since it suggests the possibility of insisting on very exacting standards of continence and of ‘bastardising’ quite a number of children born within a marriage. The orthodox, less exacting, rule was stated by Fyncheden JCP: a child would be found to be legitimate, if the mother was pregnant by the man she then married, and she married him before the birth. Interestingly for my investigation, though, his reported words also suggest that a child conceived in the period between promise to marry and actual marriage (I have been doing too much Land Law because I automatically think of this as ‘conception between contract and conveyance’) does not automatically get the benefit of the strong presumption of legitimacy which would have applied to a child conceived after marriage.

In the end, rather than deciding B3 was definitely a bastard, (either because she was admittedly conceived before marriage, or because the marriage was invalid), or deciding that the conclusion would rest upon her presumed legitimacy as a result of having been born after the espousals, it was decided that the issue to be put to a jury was to be (effectively) whether the biological father of Alice was HS or the ‘other man’. This strikes me as a rather difficult thing for a jury to conclude upon, and it is interesting that it was thought feasible that they could do so. Also of interest is the point that the fact of there having been espousals did not blot out the possibility of B3 being found to be a bastard. My inquiries into later versions of the presumption of legitimacy within marriage show some interesting ups and downs in terms of its strength, and what sort of doubts might be entertained about paternity after the mother’s marriage, but it seems that, at least at this point, challenging legitimacy in these circumstances was a real possibility: if the ‘unloaded’, neutral, question ‘was X or Y the biological father of Z’ could be left to a jury, there would seem to be a fairly even chance of a finding of bastardy or of legitimacy. I am also pondering the issue of there having been a particular fascination amongst common lawyers at this point for the question of bastardy/legitimacy within marriage – another project I have done looked at a case from just before this one, Tyryngton v Beauchamp (1369),[ii]  the report of which saw common lawyers introducing a gratuitous discussion of just this issue (that case did not concern a child whose legitimacy was in dispute, but the report shows lawyers ‘going off on one’ about this).

The reporter loses interest once the issue is identified, as is usual, but the record tells us (some of) what happened in the end. The record includes later stages of procedure, which went on for some terms, and, to cut a long story short, TM dropped out, and so the case came to an end, leaving JP and B2 in possession of the land. There never was a jury verdict. It may be that some deal was struck, or it may be that TM decided that a jury would not have believed that B3 was the biological child of the mysterious ‘other man’.

So there we have it – for my immediate purposes, it represents an interesting stage in the development of doctrine around determinations and presumptions of legitimacy. More broadly, it is fascinating both legally and socially. The legal structure is set up so that it is in order – and perhaps it is an early resort – for claimants to land to cast aspersions about the sexual behaviour of non-party individuals. We see insights into a plausible story of a long term non-marital relationship which might be regularised on the point of death, and also a deep-seated suspicion of deathbed marital dealings (generally of the ‘woman as gold-digger’ variety: given the unequal system of real property, such marriages would tend to be for the benefit of women rather than men). If the background to this case was indeed a recurrence of plague, it is also interesting to ponder the effects of such crises of mortality on law and practice with regard to marriage, legitimacy and succession.

[And then of course there is the oblique evidence provided for the otherwise unknown ‘Statute of Beatrixes’ (or should it be ‘Beatrices’?), under which all female children in the West Midlands were required to be called Beatrix.]



(For more on bastardy in common law and canon law, and jurisdictional issues, in medieval England, including a 1364 case which might also support the idea of particular attention on this issue in this era, see, e.g. R. H. Helmholz, ‘Bastardy Litigation in Medieval England’, American Journal of Legal History 13, (1969): 360-83).

[i] VCH Warkwickshire (not going to pretend I can get to libraries at the moment): https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/warks/vol4/pp200-205

[ii] William de Tyryngton and Johanna his wife v. John Beauchamp del Holte and Joan his wife (1369).CP 40/435 m.387, 387d (IMG 773 and 1857(; Seipp 1369.059; YB 43 Edw. III Trin. pl. 5.

Medievalwatch: imprisoned by laziness

Oh dear, yet another muddled bit of journalism, pushing the tired ‘anything bad can be called medieval’ line. Simon Jenkins’s piece in the Guardian today makes a sensible overall point about the pointlessness, at best, of most incarceration. But he can’t help himself from going down the easy, lazy route of calling bad things ‘medieval’.

‘Except for dangerously violent individuals, imprisonment is a medieval hangover, a world of clanging gates, yelling guards and filthy cells, the sole purpose being to “teach ’em a lesson”. ‘


Why is this important? Well calling Bad Things ‘medieval’ insults and ‘others’ the long dead, and annoys academics working on medieval matters. In the case of this particular Bad Thing, It is also just inaccurate, in that mass incarceration as punishment for serious offences, in great big fortressy institutions is more properly laid at the feet of the Victorians than medieval people. Likewise, if the point is about the poor conditions, or solitary confinement, then that is not something which is specifically ‘medieval’. There is a big, important, point that is missed, in labelling such Bad Things medieval, and that is that it plays down the connection between the Bad Thing and a particular, later, mode of societal organisation – capitalism. Prison policy, in the nineteenth century and today, is deeply connected to capitalism.  It helps nobody to ignore that.



Measly Members? Horrible Medieval History in the Houses of Parliament

Our elected representatives (and unelected hangovers in the House of Lords) swan around on a site with huge medieval resonance. From time to time, MPs like to refer to the medieval buildings and heritage of their constituencies, or try and use medieval precedent to do something positive to improve parliamentary procedure.[1] Sometimes, they make a good medieval reference – my heart was warmed to see mention of what medieval churches were actually like,[2] of petty treason,[3] and even weights and measures regulation.[4] More often, they simplify and sanitise medieval events and institutions in a banal and feeble way – I am looking at you Rishi Sunak, with your blether about how great medieval apprenticeships were,[5] and many others fan-boying Magna Carta.[6] More than one, of course, trots out the old ‘how many angels can dance on the head of a pin’ debate, both to show off a dangerously little amount of knowledge, and also to belittle the amazing medieval scholars who would actually WIPE THE FLOOR with many of our governing classes.[7] There are worse things though, and this post will muse upon a few of the many references to the ‘medieval’ which are highly negative and also highly questionable, based on Hansard between 2015 and 2020 (all available online, and as this is a blog post, not a formal article, I am just going to copy the links rather than going for full dress footnotes). This is only partly the grumbling of a medievalist who feels that people should make more of an effort to get things right: I also think that there is a real danger in the tendency to reach for the adjective ‘medieval’ to describe all that is bad and brutal, clumsy and just … other.

At the irritating end of the spectrum, we see these types of dimwittery:


Made that word up. What I mean here is the mistaken labelling as ‘medieval’ of things which occurred at a definite later date. Obviously, there is room for disagreement about the years which should be called ‘medieval’, but conventionally, in England and Wales, they end with the fifteenth century. Henry VII probably sneaks in as the last medieval-ish monarch, but with Henry VIII very few people would deny that we have crossed the boundary into ‘early modern’. So calling the Council of Trent (1545-63) ‘medieval’ would seem to be wrong, as would calling the events of ‘a couple hundred years ago’ ‘medieval’.[8] See also pirates going after Spanish galleons – characteristically early modern.[9] We don’t hear about ‘early modern brutality’ though, do we – even if we should. Torturing Guy Fawkes, anyone? Beheading queens? Capital punishment for hundreds of different offences? Not medieval.


A real word, honestly. This one is the sin of taking something which was arguably a feature of the medieval period, though it could equally be attributed to other periods, and labelling it ‘medieval’, as if that was the only time it happened. A testimony to the snowballing effect of regular precipitation of negative ideas on the idea of the medieval. (Pretentious and wrenching metaphors in the same sentence – good effort). See, for example, ‘medieval’ references with regard to poor treatment of women and sexual minorities.[10] There is a good case for saying that some things at least got worse for these groups after the medieval period. Rape law was not favourable to women in the medieval period, but nor was it greatly altered for centuries thereafter.[11] Likewise, there is a tendency to pick out medieval medicine and science as proverbially backward, though it is not clear that there was a huge improvement in many areas in the early modern period, or thereafter. The description of cholera as ‘medieval’ rather ignores the huge outbreaks in the UK in the nineteenth centuries, and many avoidable outbreaks thereafter.[12] Were squalor, hunger, inequality or cruelty to animals over by 1500? That would seem to be the implication of the references to ‘medieval conditions’, ‘medieval famine’ and the medieval nature of badger-culling, cruelty to dogs and cock-fighting.[13] The idea that the medieval period was less democratic than the sixteenth century is also not obviously correct – both had such a small ‘community of the realm’ that they were outstandingly undemocratic, if democracy is understood in any modern sense, and, as far as women are concerned, no change until 1918.[14] Women’s different experience, of course, is never central to these sloppy grabs at history.

General confusion and random ‘medieval’ references

There is some odd talk about the Declaration of Arbroath – it is the ‘oldest medieval text’ (it’s certainly very important, but, unless there has been a secret re-designation of ‘the medieval period’ as beginning the day before its sealing in 1320, not remotely the oldest medieval text).[15] The idea of the immigration detention system as medieval seems odd: it is far more modern, and much was founded in living memory – we can’t ‘historically distance’ ourselves from that one.[16] The idea of a limit on family size is equally peculiarly designated medieval.[17]

There are also some episodes of random period-dropping – such as that of Robert Jenrick, who can remember three periods, medieval, Georgian and Victorian (are these, perchance, the periods of the various residences he just had to visit during the lockdown period?)[18]*, and by God he is going to throw them in, despite the fact that they are, erm, sufficiently separated in time to make no sense as a group.[19] Another pick and mix-up comes from Pete Wishart, talking about the medieval graves of Stuarts, Plantagenets and … Roundheads.[20] See also the pseudo-historical meets literary mash-up of a portrayal of Parliamentary procedure as somewhat Dickensian and reminiscent of Alice in Wonderland, as well as possibly medieval.[21]


Then there are the more serious misuses

‘Medieval’ politics

There is a tendency to describe government action which seems to be unaccountable, or over-reaching powers, as being like that of a medieval monarch.[22] Essentially, what is going on here is a misattribution to the medieval period of later theories of divine right kingship. There were certainly checks and balances on medieval monarchy – just ask Edward II or Richard II.



There is a general sense – made respectable to many by progress narratives such as that of Pinker – that the medieval period was one of a different order of violence and brutality to other, later ages. Medievalists themselves do not tend to support this view. There are obvious contenders for greater bloodshed – the Thirty Years War, WWI, … and more recent contenders for genocidal and religiously motivated violence. Locating brutality in the medieval period, however, pushes it away to a comforting distance. They were not really like us, after all; they were not really us.

To add a twist, the context in which we tend to see this ‘medieval brutality’ idea is in connection with Islam and the present other. It is almost obligatory to describe violence by ISIS, the Saudis or Iran as ‘medieval’. Clearly, there is much to disapprove and oppose, but what is added by calling it ‘medieval’?[23] There are lots of questions about this – whose ‘medieval’ is meant? Is the comparison with medieval Europe or with the medieval period in the Islamic world? If the latter, how does that work, when a strong tendency of historical study of the medieval Islamic world emphasises its advanced learning, culture, and capacity for tolerance? In one particularly muddle-headed statement, ISIS are likened to ‘medieval religious crusaders’.[24] Crusaders? Really? So much going on there.

It is Interesting to note that the only other regimes I saw labelled ‘medieval’ in their brutal behaviour were China and Myanmar – not Islamic – in fact acting against Muslim minorities – but certainly foreign (not even European!).[25] Very bad but very not-medieval, on either their own terms, or in terms of medieval western Europe.


Make ‘History’ History

It is interesting what can be turned up in an hour, with access to a search engine. Without even getting into some obvious additional terms – ‘feudal’, ‘vassal’ or the dreaded ‘Dark Ages’, it is pretty clear that there is some serious abuse of the term ‘medieval’ going on in Parliament. I wish they would stop, and give up the attempts at rhetorical flourish using stupid stereotypes and misinformation about people of the past. Not only do they make our representatives look foolish, and insult scholarship, but they also serve more pernicious purposes, allowing us all to perform ‘historical distancing’, and slough off the guilt of our own times, and the many horrendous things we might have done more to stop.

Wouldn’t it be good if this nonsense could be jettisoned along with the ludicrous ‘This Place’ and ‘The honourable member..’ claptrap. Oh, and the House of Lords. Unlikely, I know – in fact there is probably a whole heap of ill-informed Black Death meets Covid-19 connections ‘oven-ready’ for the next session of Parliament.

[1] See, e.g., https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2018-02-01/debates/7D778066-4A6F-4128-BDA8-69014CEA42C2/BabyLeaveForMembersOfParliament?highlight=medieval#contribution-59D8EA68-A8A0-4AAC-84CA-A7CD6F7391E7

[2] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/2015-07-16/debates/15071641000125/RuralCommunities?highlight=medieval#contribution-15071641000056

[3] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2017-03-02/debates/42672B78-03C7-44B0-9C5C-7582EDEFECDF/InternationalWomen’SDay?highlight=medieval#contribution-08BDD217-E060-4B09-8412-4F313361E9A1

[4] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/2017-07-13/debates/C9D8A1B9-A494-4E16-A147-D501D3AD3B48/DeregulationPublicServicesAndHealthAndSafety?highlight=medieval#contribution-B7400880-9CA0-4738-8561-FAD2487E31D3

[5] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2016-03-10/debates/16031040000004/Apprenticeships?highlight=medieval#contribution-97B47CFE-07F1-436C-9A15-313C249734CC

[6] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2015-05-28/debates/15052828000003/HomeAffairsAndJustice?highlight=medieval#contribution-15052828000637

[7] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2016-10-18/debates/c1c95763-8239-42db-bb86-44135e63fe62/HigherEducationAndResearchBill(FourteenthSitting)?highlight=medieval#contribution-C7B96EB6-9012-45CC-81FD-B5DA55D5BD14

[8] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/2019-07-01/debates/41580300-A9FE-4FAB-9CCE-16FC196E38AD/Inflation?highlight=medieval#contribution-8304E9F2-116E-436E-A0C8-8245785DEF68 16th C as medieval https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2017-03-20/debates/2E21C4BD-BC87-4E2B-9E3D-2844214108F6/AdvisoryCommitteeOnBusinessAppointmentsMinisterialCode?highlight=medieval#contribution-796386D8-9CF2-4D21-83B1-6D4DEAB33529


[9] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2019-02-27/debates/9C80605C-FF04-45EE-B587-70457FA80814/FutureOfDFID?highlight=medieval#contribution-BB135479-D36A-4834-AA5B-2765DF8F1EC7

[10] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2020-03-12/debates/777B5A80-B736-40A2-8EF4-9ACD218F37FB/BusinessOfTheHouse?highlight=medieval#contribution-72B71126-57AF-4724-8B68-261F44188925


[11] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2017-03-15/debates/4A88339E-0EE2-445A-BA4C-EF51ACAC7F17/PointOfOrder?highlight=medieval#contribution-B18D88F0-74B1-485C-9EF8-5229DDC96442 https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2016-12-14/debates/3CBE0975-23DD-486C-8244-ADBFF23CBF02/EqualityAutumnStatement?highlight=medieval#contribution-4054FCB8-806E-4BCF-9F6C-21956DC932C9 https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2017-01-25/debates/0D1725C7-23E3-4968-986B-CE07B013D361/PointsOfOrder?highlight=medieval#contribution-41E4D168-4802-4229-841D-8C589145DC72

[12] See, e.g., (on disease) https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2019-05-23/debates/FAA76D92-33F3-45AA-A835-6D38C8F60A32/YemenPeaceProcess?highlight=medieval#contribution-88CC8497-D97D-45E8-B28A-D9EBCC315518 https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2017-11-30/debates/1C24E14B-85C7-4C5C-9013-091AC89936F1/Yemen?highlight=medieval#contribution-D1974D34-89FA-4887-8663-CE70B12281B9 https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2017-11-30/debates/1C24E14B-85C7-4C5C-9013-091AC89936F1/Yemen?highlight=medieval#contribution-A52672BB-60D3-4DD5-8B80-9BEE69EEB588 ;

On treatment of those with mental health issues or learning disabilities: https://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/2019-11-05/debates/9627E94E-0754-4959-85F0- 5E35A4B2971A/MentalDisorderAutismAndLearningDisabilities?highlight=medieval#contribution-792EDDFC-2316-4CCB-A74D-207F3BD68356 https://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/2019-06-06/debates/82EC353D-FB47-456F-BFC2-528618277852/PeopleWithLearningDisabilities?highlight=medieval#contribution-CBEB34FF-6EDB-4248-B0DB-03411D221E84

On science https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2016-12-19/debates/292C9A19-9A13-482A-961B-F893AEE899E9/ExitingTheEUScienceAndResearch?highlight=medieval#contribution-A1DB9719-D106-4FE3-940E-57A403EE08E0

[13] Squalour: https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2017-10-12/debates/A20CF46E-116A-47B2-BA33-11CAA47B3FC0/UNConventionOnTheRightsOfPersonsWithDisabilities?highlight=medieval#contribution-504D426E-A94E-41B9-82C4-2CB7680BA06C




Hunger: https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2019-06-18/debates/5C4FC6AD-EC73-4BC7-8943-C61E25BF332B/InternationalHumanitarianLawProtectingCiviliansInConflict?highlight=medieval#contribution-04BDC428-1564-4F37-811A-141F446D57F7

Inequality https://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/2015-11-19/debates/15111930000820/TradeUnions?highlight=medieval#contribution-15111930000255

Cruelty to animals: https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2019-07-23/debates/0d31dfe7-20d9-41b9-8c8f-704ba942fb06/AnimalWelfare(Sentencing)Bill(SecondSitting)?highlight=medieval#contribution-36F9E2EE-D6EB-4100-9FC8-539494913CA7 https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2016-09-07/debates/98FFCE19-439C-4F5D-A274-ADFCB7795217/BadgerCullingBovineTB?highlight=medieval#contribution-0138A27F-7BFC-4F4E-B034-0B9A23228C69


[14] Medieval and undemocratic https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2016-04-13/debates/16041336000001/TaxAvoidanceAndEvasion?highlight=medieval#contribution-B81DEFB9-D387-4DC0-A2A8-98E7C68EE556

[15] See https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2018-10-25/debates/B6DDA10A-5B99-494F-81D6-395DB298CB73/InternationalFreedomOfReligionOrBeliefDay?highlight=medieval#contribution-7FFAEDB2-3C7C-471B-9E24-822F800E2E79 https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2019-02-20/debates/993F895E-D215-4773-A464-1A6320523B0E/AntisemitismInModernSociety?highlight=medieval#contribution-9B5EBA88-ED54-4E93-922F-6C5DAFB72CDC

[16] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/2015-12-22/debates/15122250000363/ImmigrationBill?highlight=medieval#contribution-15122253000022

[17] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2018-02-05/debates/0AFDB64F-5B9D-4710-9853-2B945896D79F/SocialSecurity?highlight=medieval#contribution-36B9BC63-919A-4B50-9EC3-E655A507A019

[18] https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/politics/cabinet-minister-robert-jenrick-breaks-21844275

[19] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2016-10-17/debates/6F19E4B9-7D75-437C-ACD3-6215D5D0D3DB/Savings(GovernmentContributions)Bill?highlight=medieval#contribution-4B249659-2107-4BEA-9A10-D2379777AD3B

[20] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2019-07-24/debates/6B8555D9-C899-4EA7-A843-A0C9DADB654F/KewGardens(Leases)(No3)Bill(Lords)?highlight=medieval#contribution-361D9E99-1A13-412A-8DE5-7F4BD7F7F7B3

[21] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2016-01-14/debates/16011449000002/HouseOfLordsReform?highlight=medieval#contribution-16011449000677

[22] See, e.g., https://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/2016-06-27/debates/8CB4EC8E-411F-4045-92E4-446F13516817/OutcomeOfTheEUReferendum?highlight=medieval#contribution-CBF4D322-B20C-4C10-ADE0-AD891A28F8AC https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2016-04-13/debates/16041336000001/TaxAvoidanceAndEvasion?highlight=medieval#contribution-28FEA400-200F-4182-984A-4DBD7430AF3B https://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/2016-03-10/debates/FD21A151-46BF-4A03-911E-37994CF73EAF/BBCCharter?highlight=medieval#contribution-DB00D49A-0C51-4EF6-BA9E-3AB296E3048C https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2016-10-19/debates/CA0685E2-6A97-43EE-8524-94C27A53AB25/HouseOfLordsReformAndSizeOfTheHouseOfCommons?highlight=medieval#contribution-34A75F18-1C6F-49DD-80AF-11254F40E1B8

[23] See, e.g. https://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/2015-06-10/debates/15061061000109/Charities(ProtectionAndSocialInvestment)Bill(HL)?highlight=medieval#contribution-15061073000009 https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2019-02-18/debates/69E286BB-03A2-4467-AB65-B3059436CD53/UKNationalsReturningFromSyria?highlight=medieval#contribution-7B804965-408E-4982-B521-A7A931CA1DD4 https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2016-12-20/debates/FF51202E-34FA-48C7-B002-28DB6AF473AA/ChristmasAdjournment?highlight=medieval#contribution-842395D3-D9ED-49EB-ADC2-60A8CEB8B31A ‘medieval monsters’ https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2015-12-02/debates/15120254000002/ISILInSyria?highlight=medieval#contribution-15120254000141

Saudi Arabian punishment: https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2015-07-21/debates/15072129000001/HumanRights(SaudiArabia)?highlight=medieval#contribution-15072129000011 Saudi Islam https://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/2016-10-13/debates/E8C50118-7D12-483C-9DA3-CA0D48BA2AC2/Yemen?highlight=medieval#contribution-3DD47A5E-AF9B-47B7-A06C-29DFDE0FB6D7

Iran v Saudi Arabia: a ‘medieval-off’: https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2016-10-12/debates/E2AD1EFE-3C20-4387-967C-D7F976530F05/Britain-IranRelations?highlight=medieval#contribution-F12256FA-2B29-4BC2-898F-86D6AA293174

[24] Isis as medieval religious crusaders https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2015-11-30/debates/1511303000001/MiddleEast?highlight=medieval#contribution-1511303000338

[25] brutality https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2017-10-17/debates/85ADE193-5E40-4798-B15F-F916C81CD87D/TheRohingyaAndTheMyanmarGovernment?highlight=medieval#contribution-679DB413-861C-4F22-A461-48A13DD7B05B

Medieval behaviour https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2019-01-22/debates/F7CFB3DD-5089-44EB-8EB2-E291EA9BC8C9/TopicalQuestions?highlight=medieval#contribution-68576A47-A567-47C2-8955-3773043828C9

‘Medieval’ watch: a Mirror of Injustices?

Time for a new ‘-watch’, I think. Not exactly a new peeve, but, like many of those who spend a lot of time trying to get to grips with the world of c.500-1500, I do tend to recoil at the frequent, lazy, and inaccurate descriptions of things regarded as brutal or primitive as ‘medieval’ (possibly also throwing in the ‘Dark Ages’, to compound the sloppiness). Today’s description in the Mirror, of Chinese ‘wet markets’ as ‘medieval’ ( https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/world-news/turtles-butchered-alive-medieval-wet-22037914 ) has prompted a bit of an investigation of how the modern press is (mis)using ‘medieval’. When I say investigation, I mean search on the website of the Daily Mirror, having persuaded the search engine that I do indeed want to look up ‘medieval’ and not ‘Meghan’ or ‘Megxit’. Still, it’s a start.

It seems to me that there are two main categories of misuse:

First, we have the straightforward type 1 ‘detached slur’ instances – in which ‘medieval’ is thrown in, as a synonym for all that can be thought of as backward. The ‘wet markets’ example is a classic type 1 case. While it is true that butchering practices in medieval England were not concerned with animal welfare, and were seen as a matter in need of regulation to avoid nuisance to cities, it is the scale of modern animal-exploitation which is the most dangerous thing in terms of disease-promotion. Were people to go back to medieval levels of meat-consumption, we would be likely to see a fall in many problems, including disease. I am a vegetarian, and would be glad to see an end to all sorts of animal slaughter, but focusing on ‘foreign’ practices, and labelling them ‘medieval’ feels very wrong. There is more than a touch of racism in it, as well as its inaccuracy from a historical point of view.

Then there are the type 2 cases in which there is a bit more of a chain of connection – the comparison is with a particular (supposed) aspect of medieval life, though either the connection is questionable, or the aspect of medieval life is represented inaccurately. A case of this type from the Mirror was their description of a deadly ‘duel’, allegedly set up to decide which of two potential love-interests would acquire a woman, as ‘medieval’: https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/divorced-mum-arranged-medieval-fight-21034911 ; https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/mum-who-arranged-fatal-medieval-21249149 Yes, there was such a thing as the judicial duel in medieval England, but, in the age of recorded legal history, it was not frequent, not necessarily deadly, and certainly not employed to decide between suitors. Had the paper wished to risk going a little closer to actual history, it might have thought about later duelling culture, from the early modern period. (You don’t often see contemporary behaviour described as ‘early modern’, do you?) Also worth noting that the facts here were about ‘foreigners’ as well: those involved were originally from Lithuania. In slight mitigation of the the paper’s offence, we might note that the ‘medieval duel’ idea seems to have originated with one of the trial lawyers. Presumably not one with good training in legal history.

Perhaps there is a third type, the ‘innuendo by juxtaposition’: a report of contemporary violence, in a situation which is portrayed as having a medieval connection, thus reflecting back on the medieval period an idea of violence. Such a ‘type 3: juxtaposition’ case can be seen in https://www.mirror.co.uk/news/uk-news/pancake-day-medieval-football-match-14093383 – an event dating from ‘medieval times’ (unexplored) resulted, in the present day, in violence. Readers are, arguably, being encouraged to conclude that there is something ‘medieval’ about the violence.

So, there is a lot of rubbish being spouted about the ‘medieval’. It is worth, finally, thinking about why I dislike it so much. Partly it is discomfort at unashamed ignorance: when there is such wonderful scholarship on the medieval world going on throughout the world. A larger part, however, is high dudgeon (not dungeon) at the contemptuous dismissal of people as human as ourselves as blundering, brutal idiots, and the concomitant self-congratulatory implication that we are doing so much better. Not so sure about that.

To be continued …

GS 17/5/2020

Ctd: Unsystematic ‘feudalism’ – use of ‘feudal’ by Parliamentarians

I was a little surprised to see that ‘feudal’ scored a mere 27 mentions in the 2015-20 debates.

The biggest cluster of references came in debates around leasehold reform in England and Wales.[i] Using ‘feudal’ here is intended to suggest that landlords are abusive, in the manner of medieval lords. There are two problems, though. First, leases are not feudal arrangements – check your Baker, Introduction to Legal History. Secondly, we have the ‘historical distancing’ thing again: the abuses perpetrated by modern landlords are a feature of capitalism, not feudalism. Calling them feudal lets capitalism off the hook. Using ‘feudal’ in discussing an unequal employment relationship falls into the same difficulty: abuses and power differentials are deeply embedded in relationships in the market economy, and throwing the f-word around distracts from that.[ii]

It comes up a bit in some of the same contexts as ‘medieval’, especially in lazy attempts to jazz up an argument that the government is behaving in an absolutist way.[iii] Look it up, people – autocracy and divine right kingship are not the same as ‘feudal’ monarchy.Sometimes, greater accuracy breaks out, e.g. unless you are a hardline medievalist who will not countenance any reference to the ‘feudal’, you are probably OK with Keir Starmer’s distinction between historical royal roles as sovereign and feudal lord.[iv]

On the whole, a poor haul. (Mind you, I have seen a few ‘feudal’ references recently in the press coverage of the Dominic Cummings ‘essential 250 mile trip during Lockdown’ episode – those terrible envious socialists suggesting that dear Dom was behaving somewhat unaccountably in crossing the country during a time of pandemic isolation – so we may see a bit of a resurgence …)

GS 23/5/2020

Ctd.: Magna Carta

Magna Carta

Since 2015 was a big anniversary, I would expect some MC-drivel in this section of Hansard. Mostly rather ‘samey’ though. There are predictably lazy suggestions that Magna Carta involved barons insisting on the ‘rule of law’ as if what they were after was remotely like the modern concept that goes by that name, as opposed to ‘their privileges’.[i] Some have had the intelligence to distinguish the charter and its myths.[ii] MC is ‘signed’ quite frequently (rather than sealed), but that is a relatively minor inaccuracy.[iii] It is a worse error to get its date wrong,[iv] or to identify the MC barons with the House of Lords.[v]

There are some generous/far-fetched interpretations of the narrow and self-interested chapters of MC as founding general ‘democratic’ rights. Thus, it seems a bit questionable that c.12 on scutage and aid can be scaled up to ‘no taxation without representation’,[vi] or that c.41 really supported a modern idea of free trade.[vii] Beyond exaggeration and straightforwardly wrong, however, is David Lidington’s statement that Magna Carta ‘mentions the importance of maintaining fish weirs in the river Thames’ – oh dear, cl. 33 is all about getting rid of these from rivers![viii] Obviously well qualified to be Lord Chancellor (later), with that impressive attention to legal detail.

GS 25/5/2020

[i] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/2019-03-11/debates/48DA63DB-B1E1-4427-AAEA-4197441184D9/FurtherDevelopmentsInDiscussionsWithTheEuropeanUnionUnderArticle50OfTheTreatyOnEuropeanUnion?highlight=runnymede#contribution-1453B54D-84C2-4211-A0A1-F3AA8EB99106


[ii] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2015-05-28/debates/15052828000003/HomeAffairsAndJustice?highlight=magna%20carta#contribution-15052828000532 https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2015-06-30/debates/15063035000001/HumanRightsAct?highlight=magna%20carta#contribution-15063035000045

[iii] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2015-06-03/debates/15060324000002/DevolutionAndGrowthAcrossBritain?highlight=magna%20carta#contribution-15060324000528

[iv] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/2018-02-26/debates/6C8A5D63-CA0F-4393-B028-B914B7F4F495/EuropeanUnion(Withdrawal)Bill?highlight=magna%20carta#contribution-950B417D-90BB-4EA4-9D96-58C37B42D404

[v] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/2018-02-26/debates/6C8A5D63-CA0F-4393-B028-B914B7F4F495/EuropeanUnion(Withdrawal)Bill?highlight=magna%20carta#contribution-950B417D-90BB-4EA4-9D96-58C37B42D404

[vi] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Lords/2019-10-21/debates/56AF9C6F-59F6-4F48-9A7D-C03AEEEF7EB7/Queen’SSpeech?highlight=magna%20carta#contribution-B11431F5-6429-4A48-8789-E429E2BA0341

[vii] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2019-02-28/debates/43B3BCE8-E19A-47EC-AAA6-588F13697380/TopicalQuestions?highlight=magna%20carta#contribution-5EA86517-2B1D-475B-9440-95621BBD84BA

[viii] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2017-03-23/debates/21613DF3-90F7-4CE7-B62E-D23583C8366E/BusinessOfTheHouse?highlight=magna%20carta#contribution-7BCCF3C7-041E-486C-9B6B-7CE17D4211B5 http://magnacarta.cmp.uea.ac.uk/read/magna_carta_1215/Clause_33

[i] See, e.g. https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2018-04-30/debates/74C70C7C-8A72-4710-996D-6B266212735C/TopicalQuestions?highlight=feudal#contribution-5818858B-2BB8-471B-809B-8F89DDB35F9F



[ii] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2015-06-29/debates/1506308000001/PostOfficeHorizonSystem?highlight=feudal#contribution-1506308000027

[iii] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2017-09-11/debates/B10868CD-F096-47A2-84EE-A902C8A271BE/EuropeanUnion(Withdrawal)Bill?highlight=feudal#contribution-259D7E72-2BBB-4F75-9D89-CB7C8B2E9CF4

[iv] https://hansard.parliament.uk/Commons/2016-10-12/debates/F327EC64-3777-4D40-A98D-BEC2E11763A2/ParliamentaryScrutinyOfLeavingTheEU?highlight=feudal#contribution-29ED1899-E810-4057-A369-AE3941958732

Done or in dereliction of duty? A medical dispute in medieval Sussex

Well, looking at this sort of thing during the awful events of the present does make me feel as if my skill-set qualifies me for Golgafrinchan Ark Fleet Ship B* (*If you don’t know what that is, you are not my friend. Read The Hitch-hiker’s Guide to the Galaxy at once!) but I hope it does something for general morale and the gaiety of nations. It’s certainly keeping me going today.

Join me for another little tale from the Plea Rolls and Year Books – this time with a medical theme.

Master Simon of Bredon v. Prior of Lewes (1367)

Back we go to 1367, reign of Edward III (characterised by some terrible sweeps of infectious disease, but that’s not where this is going). England and France at war, off and on, all sorts of chivalrous things happening. Down in Lewes, in Sussex (site of a big 13th C battle, later to be home of a dubious Guy Fawkes parade), there is a house of Cluniac monks. They are much aggrieved to be taken to court by a medical man (or former medical man) called Simon, who claims that they owe him money.

Simon is Master Simon of Bredon, a doctour de physick, and he is bringing an action of annuity. He claims that the monks are in arrears with payment of sums they had undertaken to pay him, to the tune of £30. The prior (who I take to be John de Caroloco) and monks, however, argue that they should not have to pay the money. Both sides accept that there was an agreement to pay Simon some money – £20 per year, in two tranches – but there is disagreement as to whether this came with strings attached. The prior argued that it was a sum in recognition of Simon’s obligation to offer medical assistance to the house and its brethren, and Simon had utterly failed to do so, in the case of a former prior, Gerard (Gerald Rothonis was prior in 1363, according to the Victoria County History entry). Gerard had fallen ill, and Simon, who was at Mayfield (?), not regarded as too distant, had been sent for. He had refused to come.

Simon appears to have tried more than one line of argument for his position that the money should be paid. According to the Plea Roll, he argued that the money had not been conditional on his medical attendance or advice, and that he was, and had been, in poor health, having been struck by an illness called ‘gutta’ (I am tempted to say ‘gout’, but, in current circs, can’t get to a dictionary of medieval medical terms to check that; whatever it was, it made him helpless at some times, but able to function at other times). The same source also shows him claiming that the annuity was not a payment for future medical services, but a ‘reward’ for having given up to the prior the church of which he had previously been parson. The Year Book account includes additional technical pleas (to do with ‘doubleness’ of some of the other side’s pleading, and the wording of the original deal – did it oblige Simon to come in person and give medical advice, or something less than this; did it require medical advice or some more general counsel, since it did not specify). There is more detail on the prior’s pleading, including the idea that what was expected for a private, or internal, ailment like Gerard’s was examination of the urine – a classic medieval diagnostic procedure. There is a lot of interesting debate on the place of medical professionals, and the nature of expertise (of medics and lawyers). Simon gets into difficulties because his case about giving up the church does not have the sort of gold-standard evidence that the priory can produce: it is not mentioned in the parchment-work, while he is described as a doctor of physic in that document, and has not denied that he is one.

There is less difference between plea roll and year book than is sometimes the case, but the vocabulary and detail varies, so that those interested in this sort of arrangement will find it rewarding to look at both.

In the end (and, for once, we do have a result) Simon lost. He did not recover the ‘arrears’, and, what is more, had to pay for having brought a false claim. As ever, it’s impossible to know the truth – was Simon a poor infirm former medic who had given up his church and was supposed to be supported by this annuity, out of which the priory managed to weasel, or was he an arrogant and negligent doctor who would not attend his monastic clients? If he really was old and infirm, and needed to be looked after in his final years, he would probably not have chosen to approach the Priory of St Pancras for charity.






Plea Roll: CP 40/426 m. 433, 433d http://aalt.law.uh.edu/AALT4/E3/CP40no426/aCP40no426fronts/IMG_0635.htm


Year Book: see Seipp 1367.014 http://www.bu.edu/phpbin/lawyearbooks/display.php?id=13743 for the case, and a link to the ‘black letter’ report.

On the Priory of Lewes, see https://www.british-history.ac.uk/vch/sussex/vol2/pp64-71#anchorn99

‘Lunacy’ in a Legal Record

A ‘supermoon’ is due tonight: https://www.timeanddate.com/moon/phases/

Reading about this has reminded me of the old idea of the moon’s baleful influence upon the mental state of susceptible individuals. Medieval criminal records referring to ‘lunacy’ as an explanation/excuse for violent or otherwise offensive activity are not hard to find, though usually they do little more than stating that the accused is deemed a ‘lunatic’, and it is easy to assume that this is simply a rather general label for those who are obviously disordered (perhaps specifically in a violent sense). Recently, however, I came across a case which went somewhat further into the matter, emphasising the lunar explanation of mental disorder. It is not one I have seen discussed elsewhere, so is, I think, worth a quick note.

The case is in a Suffolk Gaol Delivery Roll,  JUST 3/63/4 m.6, which can be seen on the AALT site at:



Alice Brytyene of Lawshall appeared in a session in Suffolk in September 1309, before William de Ormesby and William Inge, royal justices. She had been arrested because, so it was said, she had: (i) feloniously burnt the home of Simon Brytyene, her husband, in Lawshall, meaning to burn Simon in the house; (ii) broken into the barn of Pymme Brytyene in Lawshall and taken away sheaves of wheat worth 13d; (iii) broken into the oven of Ralph del Peke and taken away seven loaves of bread worth 6d. Alice pleaded not guilty to these charges, and accepted jury trial. The jurors said on oath that she was not guilty of the burglary of the barn or of the oven, nor of taking away the wheat or bread. As for the burning of the house, they said that, for seven years and more, continuously,  Alice had been furia vexab[atur] in incremento lune so that lunatica[m] infirmitate[m]  patit[ur]m i.e. she had been tormented/bothered by madness with the waxing of the moon so that she had suffered from the disease of lunacy. And they said that on the seventh of July last past, Alice had been suffering from this condition [predicte infirmitate vexabatur] when she burnt down the house in question, in her insanity and not feloniously [furiose & non per feloniam] as had been charged against her. Alice was therefore acquitted of the burglaries, and (presumably in respect of the arson, though this is not stated) was to be returned to prison, (presumably in the expectation that she would be pardoned by the king).


It is already well-established that medieval common law and communities did not hold those with obvious and serious mental disorder responsible for their actions as a matter of felony, but it is interesting to see glimpses of the reasoning behind such determinations by lay-people, in the legal context. Here, we have the definite and dramatically or poetically satisfying link between the waxing moon and the growing disorder, and the (sophisticated and observant) comments about Alice having suffered over a long period with a fluctuating condition.  There is food for thought about the place of the ‘insane person’ within the community as well: this community, which was conscious of Alice’s long-term disorder, would appear to have allowed her a degree of freedom, until a recent time. (I am also musing about the effect of a widespread theory of lunar influence – to what extent would people have internalised that idea and to what extent might it have had an effect on their behaviour? One for transcultural psychiatrists/ historians of psychiatry, I think).


I have not turned up a pardon for Alice, but I am reasonably hopeful that she would indeed have been pardoned. This would not necessarily mean a ‘happy ending’, however, since closer confinement by family members might well have been her fate after this episode.



Matrons, medicine and maternity

This morning, I have been listening to a podcast of a late-2017 seminar paper from the Institute of Historical Research Late Medieval seminar:

Zosia Edwards (Royal Holloway), ‘Pregnancy diagnosis in the later Middle Ages: medical methods and courtroom procedures’


This was of interest to me in relation to two projects/areas of on-going research: my monograph on women in the medieval common law and my work on curtesy and live birth/still birth.

Its central focus was the divergence between a rich textual tradition of learned medical writing on techniques of diagnosing pregnancy and the common law’s approach, apparently scorning such learning, or the use of (male) ‘medical experts’ in favour of the judgment of ‘lay persons’: mainly ‘matrons’, though with some involvement of knights (in land cases). It includes some very good examples of both medical diagnosis and common law practice.

The divergence between learned texts and common law practice is striking divergence, and has been commented upon to some extent (e.g. by S.M. Butler). There is much to be said about the common law’s emphasis on jury findings as opposed to those of ‘experts’, not just in the medieval period and not just in medicine. In addition, it seems to me that there are also other particular  explanations for the difference in procedure in relation to pregnancy which would be worth consideration. First, the medical texts and the investigation in common law felony cases were directed at slightly different questions. In the case of the medical texts, the search (however dubious we might find the methods) was for the presence of any pregnancy. At least in the case of the ‘pregnant felon’ cases, it was a search for confirmation of a woman’s claim that she was pregnant with a ‘quick’ child: thus a less ‘expert’ and sensitive test might be thought to suffice. In addition, there does not seem to have been a desire to avoid all possible killings of pregnant women: witness the approach to those claiming a second pregnancy, the possible presence of a foetus not being sufficient to defer execution. Views on the value to be accorded by the law to the foetus at various phases of existence were in a state of development/flux in the medieval period, and trying to bring together the attitudes encapsulated by legal texts and plea rolls relating to foetuses in homicide, abortion, curtesy and other land cases is a task with which I am wrestling. A paper on determinations of live birth in relation to curtesy temp. Edward I is on its way to publication, but I would love to expand into a more general overview of ideas about the foetus/newborn in different categories of legal case. One of these days.


Mysterious goings-on in Clerkenwell

The revival of mystery plays, and a more visual form of religious practice, is in the news today: https://www.theguardian.com/world/2018/jun/24/england-cathedrals-back-to-middle-ages-mystery-plays-pageants-chester-st-albans .

Anyone with an interest in things medieval will probably have had to deal with the various surviving mystery plays at one point or another – they have something to contribute to many fields beyond medieval literature/drama/popular theology, even to my rather technical work on legal history. They crop up so regularly that it is easy to assume that everyone in the middle ages thought mystery plays were great. Recently, though, I came across a case which suggests otherwise. I had filed it under the rather un-academic title ‘PrioressGrumpyPants’, I am afraid. Time to share it.

The scene:

Clerkenwell, Middlesex, somewhere in the (Augustinian) priory of St Mary

The cast:

The prioress

The king (probably Edward I, but dating is not certain)

The people of London (various, noisy and unruly, according to the prioress, who calls them sauvage gent)

The modern reader

The plot:

The prioress of Clerkenwell is not happy. She is in charge of the priory’s finances, and, like virtually all medieval nunneries, Clerkenwell’s finances are always a bit insecure. A particular annoyance is that she is not getting as much in the way of crops from her fields as she ought to – mainly because of the habit of people of London of coming onto the land and trampling the crops, with their fights or wrestling matches – and their mystery plays (lur miracles & lutes). She petitions the king to ask him to do something about it, saying that the common law has been no help. The response is a bit mealy-mouthed, suggesting that there has been some sort of instruction to a local official, the constable.

The modern reader is not convinced that one constable would be able to do much against the weight of Londoners wanting to use this land for their terrible unruly dramas. She understands the prioress’s financial worries, and is, of course, interested in her as a medieval woman with exceptional power and influence, testing the boundaries of medieval gender constructions, but does feel that grumbling about the unwashed hordes engaging in religious drama might be a little at odds with the idea of religious people as, you know, interested in promoting religion and suchlike. She also wonders if the Londoners might have made a good case for the religious orthodoxy of wrestling matches, based on Jacob’s bout noted in Genesis 32:24-32.




References and reading

The record is SC8/98/4858 and you can see a summary (and even a scan of the document) on the National Archives website: http://discovery.nationalarchives.gov.uk/details/r/C9149425

If you want to read more on medieval nuns (and who wouldn’t?), the best place to start is still E. Power, Medieval English Nunneries c. 1275-1535 (Cambridge, 1922)  (and see her point at p. 36, that ‘[T]he dry-as-dust pages of the medieval law-books hide many jewels for whoever has patience to seek them …’ I would have disputed the dry as dust dig, but it’s broadly pro-legal history, so she is all right by me.)

A good entry into medieval mystery plays is: P. Happé, English mystery plays: a selection (Harmondsworth, 1975). Or go and see them – seeing the York cycle long ago was one of the things that started me off on this whole medieval thing …



Medieval Sporting Memories

The (male, football) World Cup started today. I am not much of a sport fan (missed out on the team-supporting gene and seriously disliked Fever Pitch – but will refrain from going off on a ‘New Opium of the People’ rant…) but by weird coincidence, football cropped up in my medieval legal history reading today too. There I was, reading an interesting article about 15th C proof of age inquests, and whether they were all a pack of made up nonsense (M. Holford, ‘”Testimony to some extent fictitious”: proofs of age in the first half of the fifteenth century’, Historical Research 82 (2009) 632-54 at 637) when some instances of football-related injury jumped out at me. Thought they were worth a quick blogging.

In Inquisitions Post Mortem vol. 22, inquisitions no. 189, 360, 361 and 364, all relating to Essex, some of the men who were confirming the date of birth and baptism of different, younger, men, with a view to showing that the young men were old enough to inherit land, did so by reference to injuries sustained while playing football, (ad pilam pedalem) more than two decades previously. Now, it may be that the stories were untrue, or ‘boilerplate’, but perhaps they can still show us/ remind us of a couple of interesting things:

  1. They are all (left) leg injuries. The tibia is mentioned. That seems noteworthy. Football medieval style always seems to be portrayed as something a bit more like rugby/American football, without the rules (or, in the latter case, the shiny trousers). But shin injury does suggest that the game they are talking about is actually something a bit more like your actual football.
  2. These are all men of a certain age – forty-somethings, talking about their glorious sporting exploits when they were young things in their early twenties. (Possibly, off-parchment, they regaled the assembled throng with tales of having had trials for Arsenal or medieval equivalent, and how their promising careers were ended by the aforesaid injury).
  3. It seems to be accepted that having a game of football (with or without shin-splitting) after a baptism was ‘a thing’, which is a nice little detail about medieval birth celebrations. Possibly, if mixed with celebratory alcohol, the apparent frequency of shin injuries (‘shinjuries’?) is explained.

Perhaps I am coming round to football after all. To be continued, if I find any other good football/legal history/medieval cross-over material …

14th June, 2018.

Football is a bad thing – official

World cup still on then …

There were statutory provisions against football in the later medieval period (see particularly 2 Richard II, c. 6: Statutes of the Realm II, 57, 11 Henry IV, c. 4, SR II,163). It is more complicated than that, of course: there was not a clear objection to football itself (despite its apparent danger to the shins of the English): the ‘beef’ was mainly with the fact that it distracted the lower orders of men from their archery practice, and, perhaps, that it might be the occasion for disorder. Legislation also hit out against those dreadful disrupters of society, quoits and bowls. And an investigation of many lower court rolls shows a reluctance to report and punish men for playing football (see McIntosh, Controlling Misbehavior in England, 1370-1600 (Cambridge, 1998), pp. 98, 133).

18th June, 2018.

St Winifred and the Shrewsbury captives

I am currently working on a paper which focuses on rather hostile intervention by the Welsh in the medieval English borderlands (on William Herbert and associates, and their foray into Hereford in the 1450s) but, while looking at the King’s Bench plea rolls for 1456, came across a case which highlights a rather different sort of cross-border intervention, namely the help said to have been given by St Winifred to a Shrewsbury man, (allegedly) held captive and tortured by extortioners in North West England.
There is a petition in the National Archives (SC 8/96/4769) relating to this incident, presented by or on behalf of Shrewsbury men, William Bykton and Roger Pountesbury, but I don’t think the related KB document has been collated with this before – so I’m claiming it as a ‘find’. KB 27/781 m. 110 is also quite a lot clearer than the petition (even though it is in Latin rather than the petition’s English) which helps with working out the story.

Bykton and Pountesbury alleged that they had been seized, carried off to various lairs of Robert Bolde and his associates in Lancashire, tortured in creative and prolonged ways, and made to promise and hand over large sums of money. St Winifred comes in in the story of Roger Pountesbury, who gave a particularly detailed narrative about being hung up in specially constructed stocks – he put his eventual escape down to the saint’s intercession.

St Winifred (in Welsh, Gwenfrewi, and in the KB roll, it’s ‘Wenefride’) was, according to the ODNB entry by T.M. Charles-Edwards, around in the mid-7th century. She was a nun, and the most memorable part of her story involves being decapitated by a prince, incensed that she would not give in to his sexual desires, followed by the miraculous rejoining of head to body and subsequent virtuous nunnish life. Needless to say, where the head dropped, a miraculous well sprang up (with, of course, healing powers), and there were many posthumous miracles.

It is interesting in terms of my current article that there is this positive story about a Welsh saint in English records, relating to English people. It may not be hugely surprising that a Shrewsbury man held Winifred in high regard – since her relics had, by the time of these events, been in Shrewsbury for more than 300 years (see ODNB), but it is interesting to see mention of her in a document intended to have an impact on ‘national’ authorities. Even in a century which had seen Welsh rebellion and highly discriminatory laws, as well as a Welsh-English (or Welsh-Marcher-English) dimension to lawlessness, it is assumed that talking about a Welsh figure is a good move for an Englishman in want of a favour from Englishmen. Just another ingredient in the fascinating bara brith of the Welsh borderlands.

There is a lot more to think about here: no doubt the underlying incidents need to be fitted into a wider English political context too – I’m on the trail of Robert Bolde and his associates, who seem interesting. Also, from a more purely legal-historical point of view, this raises issues about the on-off inclusion in legal records of accounts of the divine and supernatural, about the petitioning process and the efficiency or otherwise of justice at this difficult period for ‘central government’. My ‘to do’ list has just expanded by several lines: thanks a lot, St Winifred.

28th April, 2017.