The entry I am interested in today is from the Michaelmas 1371 King’s Bench plea roll,[i] arising as part of a series of indictments relating to an alleged ne’er-do-well of Lincolnshire, Robert Gascall of Wold Newton. A Lincolnshire jury had accused Robert of a series of offences, some of them dating back several years, to 1364, ranging from homicide, through theft, to general menacing behaviour. The one I am interested in is a little more unusual, however.
Robert was accused of what we might define as sexual harassment or using sexual harassment as pressure for financial gain. The story was that one Joan Fettys of Bondeby had come to Glanford Brigg, apparently having business with an ecclesiastical court, on 3rd October, 1368, and Robert somehow got her into his room (I am assuming bedroom). Joan was said not to have known anything to Robert’s discredit (though by this point, according to the list of allegations, he had committed a number of offences, including homicide). When Robert had her in his room, he said he should have her as his concubine, and she refused. That, though, was not an end to the matter. Robert would not allow her to leave until she paid him off. The deal involved three pounds of silver and a purse with a silver clasp, price 40d.
There was difficulty, or reluctance, about getting him to appear for trial, but eventually Robert did appear to face this and the other charges. He was (surprise!) acquitted. A royal pardon was involved in relation to the homicide,[ii] but for the offence relating to Joan, and the other offences, he was simply found not guilty.
This one is interesting to me, in relation to the general picture of the treatment of women in medieval common law, but also, in particular, in relation to a paper I am preparing on traces of ideas about sexual misconduct/harassment other than rape, in medieval common law records, for the AVISA project. Such traces are rather scarce, and this one has some interesting aspects and hints, which I am currently turning over in my mind.
What can I do with it? Well, obviously there’s no way of getting anywhere with the ‘truth question’. I think, though, that I can at least say that the entry shows that people (men) thought:
- that the law might, or should, act here;
- that this was unacceptable treatment of Joan
- that it was something which added to their other accusations of Robert, who was clearly seen as a trouble-maker.
(It also strikes me that there might be a worthwhile investigation of the ways in which such multi-part indictments were put together, and their overall narrative. One interesting little touch here is the description of the exchange between Robert and Joan, when he is suggesting that he should have her as his concubine: reference is made to God’s help, as being involved in her resistance to this proposition. This does seem both to raise sympathy for Joan, and also to condemn Robert further).
In terms of the project aim to try and elucidate a historical background to condemnation of sexual misconduct, it is one of the fragments of evidence which show that ‘popular’ understanding of the relationship between law and sexual misconduct was much more complex and interesting than we might imagine, from the grim procession of appeals and indictments of rape. I look forward to discussing this further.
(Featured image – somewhere in the general vicinity. Hard to know what sort of image to use with a story of sexual harassment/pressure, so geography seemed a half-decent option).
[i] KB 27/443 Rex m. 34 (IMG 0223).
[ii] I have not found this yet. The homicide charge is mentioned in CPR 1367-70 p. 262.
[iii] (You know you are a dyed-in-the-wool legal history obsessive when all that is keeping you going through a hugely tiring and stressful time with ‘it all kicking off’ in the day job is the thought of that interesting little case which is crying out for a quick think and write up … That has very much been me today: good to get to it at last!)