Philobiblon: That nasty brutish medieval life - so what has changed?

Saturday, December 10, 2005

That nasty brutish medieval life - so what has changed?

I've been reading about crime and punishment in 13th-century England, and wondering what has changed. In cases of rape, juries were reluctant to convict, often cases were withdrawn, and if the woman got pregnant medical belief of the time (and for some time afterwards) held this to be conclusive evidence that it could not have been rape.

Before 1275 it wasn't even the Crown's duty to prosecute, and the victim had to seek her own recompense in the courts, if she could.

So one can't but cheer Sybel Climne, who was walking home late one night by the light of the moon in 1312 through the alleys of Great Yarmouth. When a man jumped out and tightened her hood around her neck, trying to strangle her into submission, she pulled out a small knife and stabbed him in the stomach, killing him instantly. She even had a witness to testify to what had happened. (Although, I read, witnesses to the defence were not sworn and may not have been legally taken into account.)

The jurors couldn't at this stage, however, give a verdict of "not guilty"; all they could do is recommend the king pardon her for killing in self-defence (se defendendo). The source doesn't say if she got her pardon, but you'd hope so.

But you do have to wonder about the coroner's verdict in the case of Agnes Tuppel of Wiltshire, who struck a six-month-old-boy, "William, son of Michael the vintner", with an axe. The verdict? Misadventure.

From R.J. Sims, "Secondary offenders? English woman and crime 1220-1348" in Studies on Medieval and Early Modern Women 4: Victims or Viragos, pp. 69-88.


Anonymous Anonymous said...

Just recently, I saw a christian website about chastity and virtue for young women that extolled the medieval period as a great example of when women's virtue was prized as it should be. This wasn't a parody site or anything -- they honestly wanted women to act like it was the middle ages, and I'm not talking Renn Faire orgies. Ech.

12/10/2005 03:22:00 am  
Anonymous Sharon said...

This looks like one for my To Read list!

The question of whether getting pregnant proved that a woman hadn't been raped was actually a matter of some controversy, certainly by the early modern period. The underlying idea (for anyone who doesn't know) was that it was impossible for a woman to conceive without having an orgasm. In normal circumstances, ironically enough, a pretty positive thing for women; but in rape cases, it led to the argument that if the woman got pregnant she must have had an orgasm, therefore she couldn't have been raped...

I'm not sure if this was the case in the 13th century, but later on part of the problem with getting convictions in rape cases was that it was a capital felony; it wasn't anywhere near as difficult to get a conviction for attempted rape, which didn't have the death penalty. It's likely that quite a lot of women who'd been raped prosecuted their attacker for the lesser offence because they stood a much better chance of seeing him get at least some punishment (and the trial itself would be less harrowing).

For a very long time - I don't know the exact date when this changed, but again it'd be late 18th or 19th century - defence witnesses (and defendants) were not sworn. Their evidence was nonetheless legally valid, and I don't think it had any significant effect on their credibility in practice.

12/10/2005 09:22:00 am  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

Well regarding the fundamentalists, I guess it is just more of their fantasy world.

It is an interesting pan-European collection of essays, although one of the other ones that really grabbed me was "Emma of Normandy's role in the English Succession Crisis 1035-42". I hadn't learnt of her before, but she had a truly amazing life: married about age 12 to the Anglo-Saxon king Aethelred II, with whom she had two sons, then married as a widow to the Danish conqueror of England Cnut, who already had two sons with a concubine. Then they had a son. (So much for that medieval morality - and under Danish law anyway they had the same right of succession as "legitimate" sons.) So when Cnut died, the legal situation - not to mention military - was what you might call confused.

12/10/2005 11:13:00 am  
Blogger Another Damned Medievalist said...

Morality has nothing to do with it. I'm sorry, but that is such a silly comment. What does it even mean, except as a slam to how inferior people in the MA were to us modern types?

It was a very complex period where different peoples with disparate religios, legal, and kinship traditions were also (in many cases) still becoming Christian. Levels of orthodoxy varied greatly from people to people and from region to region -- let along between individuals.
Add to this the tradition among many Germanic (adjective as used traditionally) peoples of semi-elective kingship, and of course, it's complicated. Not that complicated, though. Partible inheritance is just that -- with no assumption that one son will inherit everything, dividing property need not have been a problem. In the case of the English throne, however, you're dealing with people from one tradition having taken over a land whose kings by then followed primogeniture. That makes it a problem. What Emma's case arguably shows that you fail to note is the importance of women in the building of kinship networks. That she was married again after being widowed points to the fact that, despite having become king by right on conquest, Cnut needed (or felt the need) to assert his kingship through marriage to the the old royal house -- even though it was by marriage to the widow.

12/16/2005 06:26:00 am  
Blogger Another Damned Medievalist said...

And by silly, I of course mean, makes no sense to a medievalist. The MA are what they are -- it makes no sense to assume a "should be" morally or otherwise.

12/16/2005 06:29:00 am  
Blogger Natalie Bennett said...

To clarify, I wasn't making any moral comment about Emma whatsoever; I just think it is a great story about a strong woman, who endured an enormous amount and still fought for herself and her sons with whatever was avialable to her.

As for the "nasty, brutish" in the headline, I was referring to the treatment of women who had been raped, making the parallel to today and suggesting that we are behaving very nearly as badly. So no, I'm not saying us-good, them-bad.

I suppose it is fair comment to say that I am using today's standards to judge the past, but I'm primarily using it to comment on the present.

12/16/2005 10:32:00 am  
Blogger Another Damned Medievalist said...

And even there, it's hard for me to accept. The past was what it was. An interesting thing to look at, though, might be the transition from rape as a crime against property and/or family (but in terms of costing the family in honor AND actual value on the marriage market, etc.) to rape as a crime that takes on more meaning in terms of the sexual (and therefore sexual morality). In the Early MA, or at least in Frankish law (and I think Lombard law), there are varying penalties deprending on whether force was used, intent, social status of the victim, etc. But a lot of the penalties were arguably payment to the family for damaging the family's ability to marry off a daughter. In the same vein, women were kidnapped (although sometimes these might have been elopements) in order to force a marriage and create a political tie to an impportant family. I'm pretty sure this happens to one Carolingian princess, but can't pull up the circumstances offhand.

So although the types of crime are different, there seems to still be some differentiation of penalty depending on intent and the willingness of the woman. I also wonder (not having read the laws in Latin) whether there is sometimes ambuiguity in the verb, as rape can sometimes be kidnap. Not that that's the case in the laws you're looking at.

it might be worth it to see if there is a change in canon law over the same period. Clerical celibacy rules and marriage laws underwent substantial chances, IIRC.

12/17/2005 08:05:00 am  

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