Tag Archives: medieval

A vicious beating or a vicious lie? A fifteenth century Somerset case

Content warning: infant death

Carrying on the occasional posts relating to medieval ideas about the foetus, and about pregnancy (you can follow back from here to see earlier ones, should you so desire), here is an accusation within an accusation, which might have a couple of things to say to us on this topic.

There is an entry on the King’s Bench plea roll for Michaelmas term 1412 (KB 27/606 m. 20d – here via AALT – which concerns an alleged piece of malicious prosecution, in which a group of people, including Thomas Morle and his wife, Elizabeth, accused John Cokkes and others of having taken the opportunity of Thomas’s absence on business in Bristol to break into his house in Milverton, Somerset, drag Elizabeth, who was pregnant, out by the legs and then beat her up. This beating was said to have injured her ‘so that her life was despaired of’, a detail so common as to be ‘boilerplate’. Far from ‘boilerplate’, however, was the elaboration of the damage said to have been caused: some time after this, she gave birth to her twins, who were severely injured by the beating (the back of one, and the legs of the other being broken), and died shortly after they were born. For good measure, perhaps, it was also alleged that a significant amount of property had been taken from the house, and that there had been threats against Thomas and Elizabeth, so that they dared not go about their business.

Back to the pregnancy/foetus/newborn angle, however … let’s note some interesting aspects of this…

  1. Language

There is a ‘backdating’ of terminology here: before the birth, the twin foetuses are described using a word usually associated with post-birth life: infans. They are infantes in utero suo existentes. This does give a sense of blurring of pre- and post-birth life, I would say.

  1. Ideas about gestation

This may not be terribly surprising, except to those who have seen the sometimes preposterous ideas about the length of human gestation in later cases on adulterine bastardy, but medieval people had an idea of the right length for a pregnancy – and it was said that the twins were born before their time. It would be nice to know if they had any idea about how a multiple pregnancy would affect length of gestation, or likelihood of survival, but, of course, that would be expecting a lot of such records.

  1. Suggestion of post mortem examination

We know from coroners’ records that there could be an examination and description of a deceased baby or foetus, at least in terms of size, but this seems to suggest some touching and feeling to ascertain that bones were broken, which is grimly informative.

  1. ‘Spin’ strategy

We cannot, of course, know what was the truth of this tale. Was it a complete fabrication, entirely true, or something in between? If it was made up, then we must assume that throwing in the details about the damage to the foetuses, and loss of viable foetuses, would have been seen to make John Cokkes and his associates look more culpable. So – not something confirming ‘personhood’ in the foetus, by any means, but certainly suggesting value.






A Cornish compensation claim

Content warning: miscarriage/abortion

Here is another snippet on that vexed question: how did medieval law regard the foetus (something I have blogged about a bit.[i]

Much of the attention in this regard – including mine – has been on the law of homicide. That’s understandable, since we tend to think of the big question being ‘was it regarded as homicide, to end the life of a foetus?’. But here, in KB 27/590 m. 15d, is a Cornish case in which the aim is not to convict a person who had caused foetal death, but to obtain compensation for a ‘tort’.

It is from the King’s Bench plea roll for Michaelmas 1408. John Archer and his wife, Alice, brought a trespass action against David Renawedyn and seven other men, accusing them of having, (on a date the same year which seems to be May 16th, with a woman, not a defendant here, at ‘Aransawyth’[ii]), assaulted Alice, so that she miscarried (abortum fecit) to the great damage of John and Alice and against the king’s peace. They claimed that they should recover £100.

The defendants pleaded not guilty and the matter rested there, awaiting a jury. No end found just yet.

One is struck by the fact that both husband and wife brought the action. But then a married woman had to bring this sort of action in conjunction with her husband: we cannot really read into this a particular statement about the foetus being the man’s ‘property’, or the loss ‘really’ being his, since this is the way all trespass cases would have to be brought, when damage was done to the person of a woman.  Unhelpful, too, for the historian, is the fact that the damage to Alice from the external force, and that from the consequent loss of the foetus, or the pregnancy, are not disentangled. We certainly can’t say that this is putting a particular financial value on the life or worth of a foetus in itself. However, it is an interesting indication that the loss to the expectant parents when a pregnancy was ended in a violent, wrongful, manner, could be calculated, and a claim for substantial compensation was plausible.

The existence of such a claim might be seen to confirm the impossibility of the homicide route with regard to a foetus, especially where the pregnant woman had not, herself, died. It could, though, simply be a case of choosing one of a number of overlapping modes of legal response to an offence. I still think much remained unclear and ‘up for grabs’ in the law on the foetus in medieval England, but there is certainly more thinking and research to be done on this point.




Image – Perranporth: probably not where any of this took place, but a fine view.



[i] E.g.: here, here, here

[ii] Not sure about this name – it looks like some mangled Kernewek to me, but someone else may have a better idea.

Procedure and pregnancy: a Middlesex appeal


The question of how medieval people regarded and valued the foetus, and whether they saw abortion as being homicide or not, was raised, and debated, quite a lot, following the Dobbs case in the United States. The opinion of those who know about medieval law has generally come down against the selective and otherwise questionable use of medieval English authority by judges in the case.[i] I have many issues with the ways in which judges in the common law world cherry-pick and simplify past legal materials, or accept without appropriate questioning the contentions of advocates regarding their meaning: the misuse of such materials in modern courts is a multi-faceted problem. One aspect of the problem, when it comes to the foetus/pregnant woman issue is the failure to take seriously the impact which procedural matters might have on the way a case appears in the remaining documents. It is all too easy to conclude that we are seeing a substantive rule, when, in fact, the ‘rules of the game’ of pleading, or ‘form of action’ may actually have dictated what could be argued or included.

A nice example (in the legal sense, thoroughly nasty if the things described actually happened) is in a 1454 King’s Bench plea roll: KB 27/771 m. 35 (see it here on AALT). This concerns an appeal (individual prosecution) against Walter Fairstede lately of London, a yeoman or glover, Agnes his wife, and William Couper, a London yeoman, brought by John Stanford, for the death of Margaret, widow of John Henry.

The accusation was that, on 26th October, 1452, somewhere in Westminster, Walter and Agnes had assaulted Margaret and killed her. The attack was not, for once, said to have been carried with weapons, but with punches to the belly of Margaret, who was pregnant, or ‘great with child’. Both Walter and Agnes were accused of punching Margaret, Walter going first, with a right-handed punch to the left part of Margaret’s belly, and then Agnes punching her in the middle of the belly. Each of the blows was alleged to have been sufficient to kill Margaret (meaning that both assailants were ‘principals’). William was an accessory: said to have  assisted but not said to have thrown any punches. Margaret was said to have died following the assault, but not immediately: she ‘languished from 26th Oct to 7th December, 1452, and then died, in Westminster.

All of the accused were found not guilty by a jury – as ever, who knows about the truth of any of this, and who knows what the accusation was supposed to indicate, in terms of motive – a random stranger attack, robbery gone wrong, abortion (whether consensual or not) … much is beyond us. Nevertheless, there are things to consider. While we are told, more than once, that Margaret was pregnant, and visibly so – showing that this was something seen as important – nothing direct is said about the fate of the foetus. We may imagine that it would be unlikely that there would be a live birth, in the circumstances, however, and may deduce that there was no live baby, from the fact that the man bringing the appeal, described as Margaret’s relation (in fact an uncle on her father’s side), was also stated to be her heir. That would not have been correct, presumably, had she had a living child (assuming it would have been legitimate – we do not know how long Margaret had been a widow, of course)..[ii] What can we read into the non-mention of the foetus/baby? One view might be that the foetus was unimportant, so not worth mentioning. I think that the better view is that the loss of a niece’s baby would probably not have been something for which an uncle could bring an appeal, since it would be too far removed from him to be seen as his loss.[iii]  So, an example of ‘form of action’ setting the limits of what might be alleged, and not necessarily saying anything about the value, or not, of a foetus, in the medieval period. This remains a very difficult question – and I do not think that there was one clear ‘medieval legal view’ (let alone ‘medieval view’) on this.

One last thing which seems to me to hint at the complexity, and perhaps tensions, of medieval views in this area is the interesting difference in the way in which the two relevant dates are given. The date of the attack is given by day, month and regnal year, but the date of death is given in the old-style ‘by reference to a holy day’ manner – as ‘the following Thursday next before the Conception of the Blessed Virgin Mary: a complicated maternity-and-foetus-related feast if ever there was one. Simply indicative of a transitional period in legal dating, or something more interesting, in terms of attitudes and concerns?




[i] See this, for example.

[ii] It is possible that she did have a live-born child, which died before the proceedings were brought: I am not sure that we know the critical date for appeal right. This case is quite interesting from the appeal right point of view too.

[iii] In this case, I suppose he is the heir because there was no living child, so in a sense he gained from these events. That is not unique to uncle appeals, however.

Had Margaret’s husband not been dead, perhaps he might have brought an appeal framed in a different way.


Image: Westminster – yes, I am embracing radical anachronism. It’s symbolic of past-present confusion, or something.

Drawn-out in Devon: a mayhem match

Here’s Another Year Book/Plea Roll match: YB Pasch. 6 Henry VII pl 1 f 41b appears to be KB 27/919 m. 29.[i] It is a case from Devon, Walter Chapman v. Thomas Preston and others, and it’s one of those in which there is a line of argument/pleading in the YB which was clearly given up, so does not appear in the PR.

According to the plea roll, Walter Chapman appealed Thomas Preston of Teynton Drew [Drewsteignton], husbandman, John Wheddon of Chagford, yeoman; and Robert Blakehey of Teynton Drew, husbandman, for mayhem and breach of the king’s peace – though it was breach of the peace not of Henry VII, who, in 1491, was on the throne, but of Edward IV, who had been in charge in 1481, when the injury was allegedly inflicted.

Walter’s case was that he was in the peace of God and Edward IV, at Spreyton, on 22nd March, 21 Edw IV (1481) at about 8 a.m., when Thomas, John and Robert came,[ii]  feloniously, contrary to the king’s dignity etc, lying in wait and assaulting Walter. They attacked his legs in a slightly jarringly non-symmetrical way: while Thomas went for his right leg, with a bill worth 2s (evidently a two handed weapon) the three others went for the left leg, John wielded a clubbe bound with iron (8d), Robert used a more basic clubbe (2d), and Richard brought to bear a Welsh bill (20d). The same thing happened to both legs as a result, however, the veins and nerves were ‘restricted and mortified’ and his leg became useless. Thus they feloniously mayhemed him.

After the usual words about pursuit, and offer to prove things, Thomas and Robert denied it and put themselves on a jury. John came up with a different plea, however, saying that he and Walter had reached a settlement, giving Walter 40s in full satisfaction for the wrong. This, he said, had happened quite soon after the injury, on 1st May 1481. Walter denied that a concord had been made.

The YB report ends up focused on an argument about a possible concord as well, but also discloses a ‘non-runner’ line of argument: it was about the injury itself, with a defendant (which seems to be John) praying that the court view the injury and see whether or not the plaintiff (Walter) was maimed. There seemed to be some doubt, and certainly a view that the defendant would necessarily lose if the court found that the injury was indeed a mayhem (so would not be able to plead a lack of guilt, for example). In this version, the defendant retreated from this to plead a concord instead – a less risky plea.

The YB also has some material on the offence itself, which does not correspond to the plea roll account. It says that the defendant could not be bailed because of the heinous nature of the offence – the plaintiff’s legs had been broken on a threshold. Quite why that is particularly bad is not clear to me. In addition, and perhaps inconsistently with its own story, it says that the bones were shown to the court. This is inconsistent if this was part of a viewing at the behest of the defendant, but might not be if either it was the plaintiff who insisted on showing his injuries, or if the bones shown were body-parts which had been separated from the plaintiff himself.

So what? Well:

  • quite interesting to see a leg mayhem case: there aren’t too many of those
  • also quite interesting to see the differences between YB and PR
  • a good confirmation that such actions could be settled
  • tantalising evidence about investigation of physical injury
  • indication that these actions could go on for a very long period of time.

And, of course, there is also just the trainspotterish joy in coming up with a PR/YB ‘snap’.




[i] Earlier stages: AALT Page (uh.edu) AALT Page (uh.edu)

[ii] (with another man, Richard Michel, miller, but he was not present here)


Image – pretty church somewhere near the scene of the alleged crime.

A birching churchman

Not an earth-shattering legal point in this one, but some nice detail…

In the King’s Bench plea roll for Michaelmas term 1428 (KB27/670 m.76d) , there is a case from Devon, alleging a beating. John Langeley, parson of the church of Combe Martin, was the defendant, accused of a trespass, by Walter Elyot. In the standard wording, John was said to have beaten, hurt and mistreated Walter so that his life was despaired of, against the king’s peace, at [Ashburton]. Walter was represented by his attorney, William Elyot – a relation? and claimed that his damage was £40 – so quite a severe beating was being alleged. Boiling the pleading stages down to essentials, John said that he was not guilty of a trespass, because, long before the point in question, and at that time, he was a grammar master, living there and teaching (docens, erudens, informans – nice rule of 3-ing there) those who came to him to learn. And at the time in question, John found Walter deficient in his knowledge, and all he did was to impose reasonable chastisement and correction with a stick called a Byrchynyerde. Walter disagreed, and the case was kicked on to the next term.

It is interesting how far back the case stretches – the beating was supposed to have been in 1405, so the peace which was breached was that of Henry IV, not Henry VI, who was (technically) on the throne in 1428. So a long-borne grudge, and no idea of limitation of actions, by the sound of it.

I was also quite interested in the naming of the stick (which it is tempting to equate with the more modern birch) and in the admission that the beating was imposed because of a failure in academic standards – not any clear misbehaviour on the part of Walter. The implication is that that would have been acceptable, if true. Clearly important to get your grammar right, in late medieval Devon.




Image: birch, innit? Photo by Thomas Drouault on Unsplash

Criminal Chaplains in Yorkist Yorkshire?

A very nasty case from the late 15th C here, but one which gives a few half-clues to medieval English attitudes to pregnancy and the status of the foetus, an area which has interested me for a long time,[i] and which has received attention in recent years, as a result of the appeal to medieval law by US Supreme Court justices, in justification of their stance on abortion.

The case is to be found on the King’s Bench roll for Michaelmas term 1484,[ii] so during the reign of Richard II, but concerning events from the reign of his brother, Edward IV. West Yorkshire jurors had presented, in 1483, that one William Turnour, lately of Kirkby Wharfe, Yorks, chaplain, a.k.a. William Neweland of Kirkby Wharfe, chaplain, and John Atkynson of Tadcaster, Yorks, chaplain, on Friday 27th September, 1482, came with force and arms and entered the house, in Kirkby Wharfe, of Katherine Raner, widow of William Raner, and there beat Katherine and William Rayner’s daughter, Cecilia, who was the wife of William Wright of Kirkby. Cecilia was pregnant (prignant, gravida). William Turnour beat and mistreated her, and feloniously killed and murdered her. Cecilia’s body was taken away and buried in the middle of the night in the cemetery at Kirkby Wharfe, without the coroner’s view, a piece of misconduct said to be against the king’s crown and dignity. There is also material on the fate of the foetus, though it is not entirely clear what the order of events was – did Cecilia give birth and then die after a while, or did all of this happen closely together? – in any case, the record mentions the child as Cecilia’s (puerum eiusdem Cecilie) with which she was pregnant at that time (cum quo adtunc gravida erat), and that it was separated from its mother, one way or another, and then taken away by Atkynson to an unknown place. It is not made clear whether or not the child was born alive. We get the neutral ‘after the child was brought into the world from the womb of the said Cecilia’ (postquam ab utero predicte Cecilie in hunc mundum product’ fuit …). It sounds to me as if this means that she gave birth before dying, but the slightly evasive phrasing could mean removal from Cecilia’s womb, as opposed to her pushing the baby out. Given that we are not told whether or not there was a live birth, it is not possible to know whether this report should be taken as one in which (a) both mother and foetus were killed as a direct result of William Turnour’s beating, but the felony and murder words are attached only to the killing of the mother (in some contrast to the case I mentioned here) or, (b) a live child was born, and, whatever became of it – and, frankly, its prospects do not look to have been too good, in the hands of these apparently malicious chaplains – its fate could not have been considered part of the felony being presented here. In either case, we have an indication of the (all male) jurors’ knowledge of, and interest in, the pregnancy and the foetus/baby, but on their perception of its value or status, it is more equivocal. There are unanswerable questions, too, about why such an attack might have taken place – part of wider disturbances, or something more personal? Where was William Wright in all of this – it does not sound as if Cecilia was a widow, but there is none of the half-expected involvement of her husband in pursuit of the offenders.

The usual tantalising uncertainties, then, and also the almost inevitable postscript – the allegedly murderous William Turnour (or whatever his name was) walked,  as a result of a rather general pardon from Richard III, and a promise of future good behaviour. So that was all right then.





[i] Another post on this area can be seen here.

[ii] KB 27/893 Rex m.4, which you can see here, courtesy of AALT.

Pinning down a promising prioress, or, the mundane business of divine service

Who doesn’t like a nice bit of Year Book/Plea Roll matching? Today’s ‘snap!’ moment comes to you courtesy of the year 1293 and the Common Bench/Court of Common Pleas. It is one which came up in my searches connected with The Prior’s Case (1369) and the interesting borderland between ‘property’ (or ‘feudal’ rights) and covenant/contract. And there are nuns.

YB Trin 21 Edw. 1 pl. 16 (Seipp 1293.217rs) is the case found in the plea roll CP 40/101 m. 32.[i]

It’s a case from Sussex. William de St Georges sued the prioress of Esseburn (Easebourne) to try and enforce their covenant, from ten years previously, made at Todham,[ii] under which she and the nuns of Easebourne were obliged to find suitable chaplains to celebrate divine services in the chapel at Todham before William and his wife and their heirs (number of times per week varying, depending on whether the couple were or were not present), for ever. William said that he had had these services for a short period of time, but after that, the Prioress had refused to do them when asked. There was, in the Year Book, some discussion of whether William had made some errors in his pleading – he had mentioned that he had received the services (been ‘seised of’ them), which sounds closer to the cessavit de cantaria type of action, based on the stopping of ‘feudal’ services previously performed, as opposed to covenant:  it does not just rely on ‘you made a covenant that you would provide this service, and you didn’t’. The Year Book suggests that this manner of pleading was somewhat foolish.

The Prioress – or her legal representative – can’t deny that there was a covenant, as it was all formalised nicely, and so settles on a plea of ‘yes we are obliged to find the chaplains but you were supposed to provide ecclesiastical kit – chalice, vestments, missal –  and you didn’t’. This was the issue that went to a jury, and the plea roll tells us that the jury found that William had done his duty with regard to the ecclesiastical kit. The final outcome was that the prioress had to perform her covenanted obligations, and William got damages for the non-performance.

Not having looked much at churchy aspects of law in the past, it did strike me as interesting to see litigation in secular courts about the provision of divine services, but I suppose that is anachronistic, seeing these things as clearly separate. Not having somebody to sing mass would, presumably, have involved William in expense, in terms of hiring a substitute. I presume that is what the damages represented, rather than (and admit it, this would have been cooler) a calculation of the amount of spiritual damage done to him and his family by missing out on mass.

It is clear that this was not ‘just’ a contract case: there were land dealings and warranty involved in the William-Priory relationship as well. Teasing out ‘property’ and ‘contractual’ aspects of these cases is not straightforward, and it does look to me as if a not dissimilar deal and relationship lay behind The Prior’s Case, rather complicating it in terms of it really being comparable to modern ‘horizontal’ freehold covenants contexts, or really standing for the legal principles assigned to it. But more of that another time.





[i] (Even nicer: there is another, connected piece of evidence – a count in Novae Narrationes. See 80 Selden Soc p. 103).

NB the WAALT shows that this was still problematic in 1309: KB 27/195 m. 25d.

[ii] Tuddenham, Suffolk seems closest to this name, but not geographically! Todham seems to be the correct reading: see this account.

Matching mayhem

A spot of plea roll-Year Book matching as I ease myself into 2024. YB Pasch. 25 Edw III f. 85a pl. 22 seems to be this 1351 plea roll case. There are no names or places in the short YB note, while the plea roll tells us that it was a London case, an appeal brought by John de Hardyngesthorne, saddler, against John White, pouch-maker, for maiming the middle finger of his right hand with a baselard. There is a pretty clear match – both are about injuries to fingers, and both show a self-defence plea.

A point of legal interest is that self-defence might work here, as well as in homicide cases. That was not self-evident, since there were some important differences between the two, especially in the sense that a successful appeal of mayhem did not result in capital punishment.

The plea roll tells us that John White claimed that John de Hardyngesthorne had come, mob-handed, and attacked him in his home. The jurors weren’t having any of the self-defence story, however: there was a conviction and a jury award of £10 to the injured saddler. Interestingly, the judges inspected and considered the injury, and then raised the sum to be paid, by 40 s.

There are all sorts of things to think about here, including this last assessment of injury and compensation point. It is also potentially a telling case in terms of one of the questions which has been buzzing around my head, as I work on a larger problem on mayhem: what role was this offence playing in medieval society, and why are so many of the cases about arms, hands and fingers? In this case, our injured saddler was undoubtedly concerned not so much for his fighting prowess (the original domain of mayhem) but for his ability to perform his craft and earn a living. I am no expert but I would imagine that a hand/finger injury would be a big problem in a skilled and fiddly task like saddle-making. Any attempt at reconstructing the facts behind the allegation is necessarily speculative, but it’s hard to resist – possibly a basic brawl, but I find myself wondering about the possibility of a squabble over supplies for the creation of saddles and pouches: was there little love lost amongst the leather-workers?



Epiphany, 2024.

Image – your actual baselard. A later German one, but you get the idea. Courtesy of Wikimedia Commons.

‘Frenzy’ and Fatality in Fourteenth Century Flore

Here ( JUST 1/635 m. 38 (1MG 0745)) is an interesting case from the Eyre of Northamptonshire, 1329-30, which I saw in passing today, and which seems worth noting for that niche demographic of people who are interested in women, things medieval and things legal. Somebody may have discussed it, but in case they have not, this is what the record says, in quick and dirty translation …

The jurors of the hundred of N[ewbottle Grove], Northants, presented to the eyre the following story: Walter Bunt, who was not in his right mind, as a result of frenzy [infirmitate frenetica detentus], hit Leticia Bellawe at Flore in the head, and she died fifteen days later. Walter was arrested and brought to trial. He pleaded not guilty. The jury said that, on the day in question, which was very recent, Walter was affected by this ‘frenzy’ [infirmitate frenetica laborans], and he was alone in his house at Flore with Leticia, who had charge of him [que ad custod’ ipsius Walteri extitit deputata]. Walter, in his madness [in furiositate sua], grabbed Leticia by the head and threw her to the ground, then took up an iron candlestick, and hit her on the head with it, while so afflicted [in infirmitate sua predicta], and she died of it in this way, not through felony nor malice aforethought. Walter was sent back to prison, in the custody of Thomas Wake, to await the king’s grace.


There is no particular surprise in the fact that Walter’s mental disturbance was regarded as likely to result in a pardon from the king, nor in the jury’s apparent determination to move the authorities to mercy in this case, with their repeated insistence that actions were done whilst Walter was not mentally competent.[1] (We will leave the interesting distinction between an ‘infirmity’, ‘frenzy’ and ‘fury’, and the linking verbs about being ‘detained/held’ by a condition of the mind, labouring under such a condition and just being in a condition). What I want to draw out is, rather, the role of the unfortunate Leticia. I am intrigued by the description of her as deputata – assigned, ‘deputed’ – to take care of Walter. This strikes me as a rather official-sounding description: she was not merely looking after him, but she had been appointed to do so. If we take it at its most formal, could this be an example of a woman having some sort of court-mandated appointment? We know that those with mental disturbances were committed to their families at times, but it is not apparent that Leticia was related, or married, to Walter (and this is the sort of detail which is usually mentioned, in relation to women). So – an intriguing possibility with regard to women’s legal roles, even if far from clearly proven. Even if this is not any kind of official appointment, it does look as if somebody thought that Leticia was capable of taking care of a man suffering from some sort of mental health problem, which probably says something about wider ideas of women’s capacities. I am left wondering how such positive views might have been affected by the tragic outcome of this particular case of a woman being put, or left, in charge of a male detainee?





[1] There are other references to the effects of insanity on liability – including some interesting material on the effect of fluctuating insanity – in Sutherland’s Eyre of Northamptonshire 1329-30 (1981), 188, 196, 215-6. Note also what might have been a less kind attitude to those with mental disturbance in the same eyre, here: JUST 1/632 m.40d IMG 0926 – a man who was accosted by a woman who was not in her right mind, whose attack seems only to have been verbal, and who was accused of throwing a stone at her head, killing her, was found not guilty. Of course, perhaps the whole thing was untrue, but if not, interesting.

Wythcok man comes to a sticky end; ‘Clapp’ implicated

It’s been a while since I noted a medieval death story. This one (JUST 2/59 m. 3; AALT IMG 0009), coming from a Leicestershire coroner’s Inquest at Wythcok on Friday 23rd  March, 1386, has just one small point which captured my attention – and no, it was not even the rude-punnable location of the death. (FYI the deathplace seems now to be known as ‘Withcote’ – much less snigger-worthy …). The thing which drew me in was to do with what the entry shows about medieval popular understanding of science.

The entry tells it like this …

John Ludon of Wythcok, whose body was being viewed, had come a cropper in the fields of Wythcok, the previous day, at around the ninth hour of the day. Evidently he was out in a storm, and had the extreme bad luck to be hit by lightning. Or that is how we would see it. The entry, however, says that what hit him was a ‘thondurclapp’. I have undoubtedly gone on about how I like it when the usual Latin of these records breaks down and the writer reaches, instead, for a more earthy English word or expression. There is all sorts of very learned discussion of ‘code-switching’ in literature, and the trilinguality of the common law, but sometimes, it just feels as if the clerk did not know the right word in the more professionally exclusive languages. This one also gives us a little glimpse into ideas about how storms worked. John is hit in the arm by the thunderclap itself. I am not sure I have any grand conclusion on the basis of this – and certainly the idea that it was lightning and not thunder which hit people was known in classical antiquity – but, still, it is an interesting way of putting it. And another tiny snippet – the result of the ‘hit’ by the thunder-clap was an ictus (blow/wound) on John’s arm, and it was from this that John immediately died. Unlike the possible conclusion in classical antiquity (person hit by lightning is not to get proper religious burial, because such zappings were the will of the gods), however, John’s death was held to be a ‘misfortune’ or ‘accident’, and so he would have been fine to make his way into some consecrated Wythcok ground. A tiny bit of comfort then. I do wonder what medieval body-inspectors would have made of the characteristic scarring pattern found on (some) lightning strike victims, the Lichtenberg figure. That would probably have seemed pretty spooky, I would have thought.



Photo by Michał Mancewicz on Unsplash