Tag Archives: Seabourne

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.

GS

24/6/2018.

 

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 …

 

 

The other disadvantage of excommunication…

A Cambridgeshire case from the early part of the reign of Edward III shows the other disadvantage of excommunication (apart from the whole ‘no communion, going to Hell…’ side of things, that is) and also contributes to the rich and fascinating picture of women’s participation in medieval ‘criminal justice’.

The case was an appeal of robbery, brought by a woman, in which an objection was raised by the accused man, contending that he should not have to face such an accusation brought by a woman he claimed to be in a state of excommunication. It qualified for Year Book reports – it is both YB Pasch. 3 Edw III pl 33 f. 19a;  Seipp 1329.072  and also 3 Edw. III Lib. Ass. 12 f. 5b; Seipp 1329.171ass; http://www.bu.edu/phpbin/lawyearbooks/display.php?id=6228 https://www.bu.edu/phpbin/lawyearbooks/display.php?id=6327,

and I have found the plea roll entry in the King’s Bench roll for Easter term 1329: KB 27/276 Rex m.9; see also m.9d.

As is often the case, the reports are light on, or inconsistent as to, details. Putting it all together allows us to get a little nearer to what was going on.

The plea roll entry clears up the reports’ disagreements on the parties: it should be Margaret le Hornere v. Master Richard Badowe, Stephen Bedel and Thomas Bedel. It tells us that this is an appeal of robbery and breach of the king’s peace. It seems to be from Cambridgeshire rather than Kent, as the reports suggest (‘Cant.’ for Cambridgeshire could easily be misread as indicating ‘Canterbury’). Margaret had brought a trespass case against Richard, alleging that he had locked her up and taken some goods from her, and she had been faced with the argument that she could not do this, as she was an excommunicate, an official ecclesiastical letter to this effect (from John [Hotham] Bishop of Ely) appears to have been produced, and that put a stop to the action (at least until Margaret’s status should be improved.  Not to be put off, Margaret also tried the ‘criminal’ procedure available for ‘theft’ facts – the appeal of robbery – as noted. The KB record of this action gives a more detailed account of the robbery – which she said took place on a stretch of water between Barnwell and Cambridge – and a longer list of the items allegedly taken (much of it fancy  clothing). But the defence and the outcome were similar to the trespass case: Margaret could not pursue the case in her current state of lack of grace, and so the appeal could not proceed.

The case is interesting in a number of respects. In terms of jurisdiction and spiritual-temporal procedural matters, it is worth noting as an example of the effects of excommunication on ability to litigate in the secular courts. If one were able to have potential accusers excommunicated, that might be a very good way to hold them up, or even discourage them from pursuing their suit. In terms of the law on appeals, it looks as if there was some doubt about what should be done with the defendant in a case like this, once it was established that the woman bringing the appeal was excommunicate. The record shows a slightly makeshift looking series of securities being used, while Margaret was allowed time to show she had been absolved.

Things trundled on, with requests for Margaret to produce evidence of absolution, security for Richard’s appearance and several court dates, but in the end, Margaret seems to have given up, and never did manage to show that she had been readmitted as a communicant. Richard prevailed in the end. Nevertheless, Margaret did show an interesting flexibility in what action to bring, as well as clearly being rather keener to bring Richard to justice than to make sure that her soul was safe.

GS

25/1/218 (Dydd Santes Dwynwen!)

 

Swooning and sexual offences: recent article

Thoughts on Victoria Bates (2016): ‘Under Cross-Examination She Fainted’: Sexual Crime and Swooning in the Victorian Courtroom’, Journal of Victorian Culture (2016)

As an openly medievalist legal historian, I am not a regular reader of this journal, but am glad that I was put on the trail of this very interesting study of the fascinating but frustrating world of the Victorian trial. There is so much information, in comparison with the trials of earlier eras (and – hurrah – no Latin), and yet it often feels as if the most important things remain annoyingly opaque.

The author makes a good point about the various meanings and readings of fainting/loss of consciousness in women, in connection with sexual offences and sexual offences trials. The volume of court records studies is such as to impress the most train-spottingly completist legal historian (guilty), and the material brought in here is a valuable addition to the burgeoning literature on sexual offences, and attitudes to them, in the nineteenth and twentieth centuries. The whole thing got me thinking about whether the use of the swoon in descriptions of sexual offences was something of a compromising device – getting a jury on the side of the prosecutrix in a trial for an offence less than rape (most of the cases covered here are ‘lesser offences’), whilst perhaps making the facts as presented less of a ‘fit’ for rape (even if the act was in fact completed) because there would be a problem in relation to lack of demonstrated absence of consent.

Anyway – a good piece of work and worth a look.

Law in space (but no rockets)

There is a very thought-provoking and bold legal history related article in the latest Past and Present: R. A. Houston, ‘People, Space, and Law in Late Medieval and Early Modern Britain and Ireland’, Past and Present 2016 230: 47-89

The article argues for a significant difference between English law on the one hand and the laws of Wales, Scotland and Ireland on the other, based on the relative importance attached to personal and territorial jurisdiction. In brief, it is contended that territoriality was more important in England, while the other parts of the British Isles emphasised jurisdiction based on personal links.

The argument is made with spirit (and is rather more nuanced than might seem from my summary above) and there is a lot in it to interest legal historians from all parts of these islands. As a good article should, it also leaves room for debate in several areas – e.g.

  1. To what extent would it upset the argument to factor in gender (since women in all areas were arguably more affected by personal links with male family members and their powers and rights than they were by territorial jurisdiction)
  2. Are territorial jurisdiction and personal jurisdiction best considered as a linear ‘continuum’ (p.89) or as something more 3D?
  3. Exactly how does the common law ‘doctrine of estates’ relate to the idea of territoriality? (I have been teaching Land Law too long …)

J.H. Baker, Selected Readings and Commentaries on Magna Carta 1400-1604

Selden Society vol. 132 has arrived with a hefty thump on the doormats of Selden Society members and libraries. It is, of course very timely, given this year’s 800 year commemorations of the 1215 treaty/statute/event/totem. This volume provides some very interesting comments on parts of Magna Carta, from common lawyers of the later medieval and early modern periods. They are shown in parallel texts, original law-French and modern English.  I am sure we will be using this for a considerable number of years.  There are certainly a number of nuggets which I have already found useful, including some classic misogyny (however ‘disappointing’ the editor finds this – lxx –  it is hardly a surprise). Sadly for Magna Carta nerds, there is nothing about fish weirs or weights and measures, but otherwise another impressive volume.