Tag Archives: miscarriage

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.

Kentish conundrums

(CW miscarriage)

It seems quite a long time since I looked at this one in TNA in Kew – on a nice foray in summer 2022. I just found it when sorting through some papers for a big clear-out, and it seems a shame not to put it ‘out there’, with a few comments. I can’t see when I am going to be able to write it up properly, so, for what it’s worth, here goes …

C1/14/44 has a catalogue reference which dates it to 1443-50.[i] This states that Richard, bishop of Rochester, (probably not really a Richard – see further below) examined on oath in the Chancery, said that whereas Reginald Pekham of Kent, esquire, had claimed that there had been some dispute with the men of the Archbishop of Canterbury[ii], and his (Reginald’s) wife, children, servants and familia had been attacked at Ightham, Kent,[iii] by men and servants of, Sibill, daughter of Reginald and wife of Richard Culpeper esquire, who, at the time of the said attack was pregnant,[iv] within a short time after this, gave birth to an ‘abortive foetus’,[v] [in fact] the Bishop, together with John Bamburgh & lady Elizabeth Culpeper, wife of Hugh Godewyne, at Wrotham, baptised[vi] the infant Sibill had borne, naming him Richard, and, after being born,[vii] the infant lived[viii] for about a year.[ix]

The context of the document is unknown. Such an inquiry might indicate some sort of attempt to discredit the bishop of Rochester: if he had indeed baptised a miscarried foetus, this would clearly be very bad practice. There are other possibilities though. It might be something which was produced in the context of a contested claim to tenancy by the curtesy. We can imagine a dispute in which Reginald was trying to say that the attack at Aldham had had dire consequences, including the death of this potential grandchild, and somebody else was trying to minimise that, and dissociate the death from the attack. Moving the two a year apart would do that effectively. Another possible context would be a claim by Richard Culpeper to tenancy by the curtesy of Sibilla’s family lands, if and when she predeceased him: to qualify for a life interest of this sort, a man had to have produced live, legitimate, issue. Again, it would be useful to be able to have evidence of a baptism by a high-ranking churchman, to support such a claim. Using the father’s name for the child’s christening adds that extra bit of dynastic connection, and perhaps suggests that this was the heir presumptive.[x]  The possible snag with this theory was Kent’s special land law, which included different rules for curtesy, and did not require the birth of live offspring – so this would not work for gavelkind lands.

I find myself asking, in a less legally-focused way, if it was plausible that there was a child which had lived for a year, what does that say about the nature of the relationships expected between a grandfather and grandchild in the same county? I am also at a bit of a loss to come up with any reason why Bishop Richard would lie about the child’s survival (unless he had, in fact, participated in a dodgy baptism of the not-alive).

Just possibly, there may be more evidence to find on all that, but it might be a while before I get to it.



[i] The catalogue entry includes ‘stillbirth’, and that is what drew me to it at first: that particular term is an interesting one in the present day, contrasting in its nuances with the ‘born dead’ terms ubiquitous in other languages, and, I am keen to trace its origins. Anyway, the document itself does not use the term ‘stillbirth’, but it is very interesting in other ways.

[ii] ‘The Venerable father John Archbishop of Canterbury, Chancellor of the Lord King’. This would presumably be John Stafford, if the catalogue date is right – though there was not a Richard as bishop of Rochester at that point. However, if Bishop Richard is Richard Young, 1404-18, then there was not a John as Archbishop of Canterbury/Chancellor at that point – a puzzle, and clearly some mistake somewhere! A copying mistake, influenced by all of the other Richards, perhaps? There was a prior of Rochester called Richard in the 1460s, but that probably doesn’t work…

[iii] ‘Aldham’

[iv] There is language of ‘supposition’ and ‘claim’ here, but this is not a case in which it is suggested that there was a false claim of pregnancy, so this must be associated with Reginald’s narrative.

[v] (fetum peperit abortiuum)

[vi] (lifted from the holy font)

[vii] (post partum suum)

[viii] (vitam duxit in humanis)

[ix] There is nothing on the dorse

[x] We will not get into lurid speculation about Bishop Richard’s involvement being more than just doing the honours at the baptism!


Image: Rochester Cathedral – isn’t it lovely! I have never been – one more for the bucket list.