Q&A with Dr. Sara M Butler: Forensic Medicine & Death Investigation in Medieval England

I am thrilled to welcome to my blog Dr. Sara M. Butler, the King George III Professor of British History at Ohio State University, author of Forensic Medicine and Death Investigation in Medieval England. After using up several packets of book darts marking passages in her book, I approached her about an interview. Not only did she accept, but, as you will see, she answers my questions with such depth and breadth that I feel you will get a far better sense of the book from her responses than any summary I might write. Suffice it to say that existing studies regarding the discovery and investigation of suspicious death left me with more questions than answers about: coroners–who they were, their status, the makeup and purpose of their juries; investigators–who investigated, were medical experts involved, and what was considered sufficient evidence; and what constituted guilt as we think of it. Sara’s book answers all my questions–what a gift! She writes with the clarity of one who has honed her understanding by presenting the material to her classes and making note of what confused them. A remarkable book, and a joy to read. Thank you, Sara.

Q.  What drew you to this topic? Was it something that came up while researching another project? Something you’d been curious about for a long while?

A. I have always enjoyed a good murder mystery. As a child I read every Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, and Trixie Belden mystery in publication, and harassed my two brothers to no end with my Hardy Boys’ fingerprinting kit that somehow always resulted with me turning one of them in to my parents as the culprit. As I grew older, I left the Hardy Boys behind, but still loved solving crimes. I toyed with the idea of pursuing a law degree, as many of my friends did, but I was less interested in working with people than mysteries. I had also fallen deeply in love with the Middle Ages and come to realize that historians are detectives in their right. They work with clues, piecing together a distant past that seems both familiar and oh-so-foreign at the same time.

This book also evolved out of a great appreciation for the coroners’ rolls, with which I first became acquainted during my doctorate at Dalhousie University (Halifax, NS). I was working on the subject of marital violence, a thesis that eventually resulted in The Language of Abuse: Marital Violence in Later Medieval England (Brill 2007). For this project, I read mostly legal records because the law is one of the few ways that real people (the peasantry, the middle class) left an imprint on the medieval record. I spent months looking over trial records from medieval England, which are generally brief and formulaic; for the most part, the records give so few details the best you can do is count them. This is not true of coroners’ rolls, however. Many coroners (or their scribes) were intent to record every juicy detail, especially when it came to domestic spats! Wives caught with their lovers in flagrante; husbands eager to explain away their abuse as “discipline”; neighbors bursting into homes in the middle of the night to restore the peace before an argument spiraled out of control – the coroners’ rolls help to bring the history so tediously documented in the trial records to life.

The one aspect that intrigued me most in this process was the coroner’s inquest jury, that group of men drawn from the visne (the region where the crime took place) to conduct an investigation into the events leading up to the sudden and unnatural death (coroners did not only investigate homicides, they also looked into accidental deaths and anything that seemed unnatural). Reading Thomas Green’s work (Verdict according to Conscience: Perspectives on the English Criminal Trial Jury, 1200-1800) helped me to understand why their verdicts were sometimes at odds with those of juries later on in the process: Green emphasizes that juries represent communal, rather than crown, values. This made me realize that juries had their own personalities and their own baggage, and by exploring their verdicts I might crack a window onto the lives of these captivating communities. All of my early work is focused on the jury and its impact on the judicial system and people’s lives, whether in cases of marital violence, abortion, suicide, or infanticide.

Q. You correct several concepts about the medieval coroner as well as coroners’ juries and investigating the crime scene. My impression is that most of the errors arose because scholars had too narrow a scope. How did this catch your attention?

A. Originally, I wanted to call this book CSI: Medieval England – of course, copyright got in the way, but this is very much how I approached the book. Assuming that my reader’s comprehension of homicide investigations was equally tainted by television as was my own, I wanted to answer those niggling questions about the medieval process of investigation that we were all wondering (and that often came up in the classroom when I teach “Medieval Crime”). How did they decide what was an unnatural death?  Who sat on coroners’ juries? If the coroner was not a medical practitioner, how did the coroner and his jury determine cause of death? And just how efficient was criminal justice without a police force and modern methods of investigation?  None of these questions had yet been answered sufficiently because the field of medieval coroners and their documents had been dominated by R.F. Hunnisett, the former assistant keeper of the Public Records Office who published extensively in the 1950s and 60s. Quite frankly, the feeling was that everything had been said about the coroner that needed saying.  I didn’t think that was quite true, but I could not have done any of this project without Hunnisett’s seminal work. I also think that the questions I had to ask of the coroner are a product of the era that I’m living in now, where we are much more conscious of the role played by average people in history, rather than always focusing on “great men.”

The central thrust of my book is that England was not, in fact, centuries behind the Continent when it comes to the use of forensic medicine, but rather the nature of the records hide the participation of the medical profession in death investigations.  England is often “othered” by Continental historians who just don’t understand the vocabulary of English law and who get irritated by the fact that greedy England hogs the spotlight, but also by English historians who choose to believe that England was unique, always dancing to the beat of its own drum.  However, the channel was not much of a barrier keeping knowledge out.  The English were well aware of how law was practiced on the Continent: remember that many of the king’s justices and sheriffs during the thirteenth century were university-trained clerics who studied in Paris or Bologna. They were not out of touch with Continental trends in jurisprudence or law enforcement.  The problem is borne from the records themselves. The purpose of English records of crown pleas (i.e. records concerning felonies) was financial: the king wanted what was owed to him to be closely recorded. The king was less interested in the details of the case or the methods of investigation. Accordingly, there was no need for a coroner to explain in writing that of course he had sought out a barber-surgeon to sit on the jury so that a proper examination of the corpse might ensue.

I spent a lot of time in this book trying to resurrect the reputation of the medieval English criminal process. Our capitalist mindset today makes it hard for us to understand that people in the English past regularly took on jobs that were unpaid and that did not deter them from working hard. We have a tendency to believe that you get what you paid for: thus, if coroners were unpaid, surely little could have been expected of them. The medieval records simply do not uphold this perspective. Yes, some coroners were lazy; but many others worked hard, showed up in a timely fashion, and were determined to do their best.

Q. Research is a process, never truly complete. Has anything come up in further research that you wish you’d been able to include in this book?

A. Not yet! But give me time.

Q. Were there any stories you wish you could have included?  Would you care to share some here?

A. What didn’t appear in the book will appear sooner or later in a blog that I write with Krista Kesselring and Katherine Watson: https://legalhistorymiscellany.com/

Q. I came away from the book with a new respect for the medieval coroner and the jury process. I also have a new appreciation for the differences between now and then in the purpose of juries and the goals of an investigation/trial, as well as what is considered the important truth in the cases. Is there any particular instance of this that stands out in your mind? Did it change how you think about crime and punishment?

A. I read Richard Firth Green’s A Crisis of Truth: Literature and Law in Ricardian England (U of Pennsylvania P, 1999) back in the days of my doctorate and it was an eye-opening experience for me. Firth Green was the first to explain clearly that what we see as “truth” is not really the same as what a medieval jury understood as truth. When a trial jury took an oath to speak the truth, they did not mean about the events leading up to a crime and whether the defendant was in fact the perpetrator; they meant the truth about the man’s character. If they acquitted him, would he repent of his sins? Or, would he fall back into a life of crime? Could he be reintegrated into the community in a way that might restore peace and harmony?  The most important mental shift that is required to understand the medieval courts is that, despite what we see on television, they were not bloodthirsty. Hangings were fairly rare in the medieval period, and no one was eager to see a member of their community dangling from a rope. Most defendants were acquitted, not because their system of law enforcement was inefficient, but because it was a Christian society and they believed in giving people second chances.

My favorite case will always be the death of Roger son of Gervase, drawn from the miracle stories of St Thomas de Cantilupe, Bishop of Hereford. Roger was two years old and naked when he wandered out of his house in the middle of the night while his mother and father were at an all-night vigil praying for the souls of two recently deceased fellow villagers. Drawn naturally across the bridge leading to the castle where his father worked as a cook, the boy fell from the dark and icy bridge, smashing his infant body on the rocks below, and eventually freezing to death. The boy’s body was found the following morning. The coroners appeared immediately and began to conduct their investigation. Despite being prohibited from entering the scene of the accident while the coroners’ and their jury were embroiled in the minutiae of the investigation, one burgher climbed down to the child and bent a penny to Saint Thomas, promising to visit him at his tomb if he brought the child back to life. Lo and behold, Thomas heard his prayers and the boy began to move his right arm ever so tentatively. The burgher alerted the coroners and carried the frozen boy to his mother, who was half out of her mind with grief, and she warmed his naked body against her flesh. That night the entire village, including the coroners, celebrated with a procession to the church, singing Te Deum Laudamus.

This miracle story gives us an opportunity to see the coroners as human beings.  Far too often studies focus on the corruption of medieval law enforcement: coroners who refused to hold inquests unless paid to do so, who misappropriated funds, or who failed to investigate a sudden death because the weather was too cold and unpleasant for traveling.  This story, however, shows us coroners who were delighted to find that their trip had been unnecessary after all, who shared in a community’s joy that one of their own had risen.

Q. As a novelist writing about crime in medieval England I appreciate your explanations of the differences between how we view crime and punishment, but also in what is expected of the various professions/officials involved. For instance, you mention that coroners’ juries were better served by barbers and surgeons than by physicians because the latter were trained to be theorists rather than hands-on practitioners. They hired surgeons or barbers for hands-on medical care. In your other research projects have you come across other examples of occupational tags that no longer mean what they did in the past?

A. I’m delighted that you appreciate that aspect! One of my reviewers wanted all of that cut, but I stubbornly refused.  That viewpoint was essential to my motivation for writing the book. I also felt that it was useful tool to make sense of what we were reading in the medieval record.

In terms of occupations: Before doing the research for this book, I never understood King Edward III’s 1363/64 pronouncement of one craft per person (37 Edw. III, c. 6). Why would the king feel it necessary to limit men to only one trade?  As I tried to figure out how to classify who might belong to the pool of medieval medical practitioners, I realized just why Edward III made this declaration. Occupational diversity was the norm in late medieval England. Hardly anyone worked in just one profession. A chandler needed wax to make candles: but wax could also be used for other purposes, such as shaping pills and making ointments. Why not expand also into the apothecary profession? Similarly, overlap existed between surgeons and metalworkers:  a surgeon needed iron-tools for his work, and metalworker produced those tools. Why not have one man employed in both trades? Because of this it was not all that easy to pigeonhole men and women from the era. To the king, this was frustrating because he saw the guilds as a useful way to control the population and he wanted everyone to fit neatly into a category. To me this is really exciting because it suggests much more ambition, creativity, and flexibility than we often imagine of medieval men and women.

Q. In writing about medieval England for a popular audience I am keenly aware of the trap set by a common language—I do glossaries for my readers, but quite often my editors urge me to avoid the words that might confuse them. Most hilariously, an editor asked me why there were bars at all the gates of York—took me a day to realize that she thought Monk Bar was a tavern. But I have gone down a rabbit hole in doing research when I didn’t realize I was chasing the wrong term. Has this ever tripped you up? How do you flag these items in your own research?

A. Language is a serious problem for me. I write about legal history; however, I am determined to write for a wider audience than the few legal historians that I see regularly at the Conference for British Legal History. However, when I try to write in a more accessible manner by sidestepping the legal jargon, reviewers of my work in the field of legal history seem to think I’m avoiding it because I don’t know it. I have been told by the editors of legal history journals that I write social history, not legal history, while the editors of social history journals have insisted quite the opposite. Sigh. In this book, I have tried my best to include all the legal jargon, but to explain it to my audience in the hopes that this might be a useful handbook of sorts for tackling other works of medieval legal history. The legal record is too useful to social historians to be ignored, but it is a shame that so much of the legal history out there sounds as if it was written by a lawyer.

My students play a key role for me in determining which terms need to be explained so that I avoid your Monk Bar experience!  Students have told me that they thought “gaol” was a high class prison (why else would it be spelled so oddly?); that an “eyre” (itinerant court) was a lovely, lilting tune; that justices of the peace were only interested in marrying people; and that a villein (an unfree tenant) was in fact always the bad guy.

Q. Often when I’m writing one book I find something that I tuck away for another book. Did writing Forensic Medicine lead to a future project for you?

A. It led me to two new projects.

One: I’m working on an article about juries of matrons, the women who were called in to perform a physical examination of convicted felons who claimed to be pregnant, and another one on pleas of the belly. Medieval courts did not execute pregnant mothers: they waited until after the birth of the child before they executed its mother.  I’m interested in knowing more about the matrons: who were they? How did they qualify as matrons, that is, were they mothers, or medical practitioners? How did they decide whether a woman had in fact conceived?  I’m also interested in pregnant felons and their treatment in prison. Did they actually give birth in prisons, and what happened to the babies? How long after the birth were they executed?

Two: I’m working on a new book project on peine forte et dure.  When a defendant refused to plead to a felony indictment, the English courts were left in a quandary. In the English system, defendants had to consent to be tried: consent came in the form of a plea. If the defendant refused to plead, what is better known as “standing mute,” then he could not be tried. Accordingly, the king’s justices sent him back to prison to be coerced into pleading. He was subjected to peine forte et dure: strong and hard punishment, essentially pressing with weights and a starvation diet, until he agreed to undergo jury trial. By the early modern period, this had come to be death sentence, and is probably best known to a non-legal historian audience by the deaths of Saint Margaret of Clitherow (a recusant during Queen Elizabeth’s reign), or Giles Corey (during the Salem Witch trials). During my research I came across a number of deaths from peine forte et dure and it made me question why anyone would choose to undergo the peine. I also wondered why the English employed the peine: the English were always proud of the fact that they did not employ judicial torture. Yet, peine forte et dure sounds an awful lot like it. My book is going to look at how the practice evolved, and how the peine fit in with the ideology behind justice in the medieval English context.

Q&A with Dr. Sara M Butler: Forensic Medicine & Death Investigation in Medieval England

I am thrilled to welcome to my blog Dr. Sara M. Butler, the King George III Professor of British History at Ohio State University, author of Forensic Medicine and Death Investigation in Medieval England. After using up several packets of book darts marking passages in her book, I approached her about an interview. Not only did she accept, but, as you will see, she answers my questions with such depth and breadth that I feel you will get a far better sense of the book from her responses than any summary I might write. Suffice it to say that existing studies regarding the discovery and investigation of suspicious death left me with more questions than answers about: coroners–who they were, their status, the makeup and purpose of their juries; investigators–who investigated, were medical experts involved, and what was considered sufficient evidence; and what constituted guilt as we think of it. Sara’s book answers all my questions–what a gift! She writes with the clarity of one who has honed her understanding by presenting the material to her classes and making note of what confused them. A remarkable book, and a joy to read. Thank you, Sara.

Q.  What drew you to this topic? Was it something that came up while researching another project? Something you’d been curious about for a long while?

A. I have always enjoyed a good murder mystery. As a child I read every Nancy Drew, Hardy Boys, and Trixie Belden mystery in publication, and harassed my two brothers to no end with my Hardy Boys’ fingerprinting kit that somehow always resulted with me turning one of them in to my parents as the culprit. As I grew older, I left the Hardy Boys behind, but still loved solving crimes. I toyed with the idea of pursuing a law degree, as many of my friends did, but I was less interested in working with people than mysteries. I had also fallen deeply in love with the Middle Ages and come to realize that historians are detectives in their right. They work with clues, piecing together a distant past that seems both familiar and oh-so-foreign at the same time.

This book also evolved out of a great appreciation for the coroners’ rolls, with which I first became acquainted during my doctorate at Dalhousie University (Halifax, NS). I was working on the subject of marital violence, a thesis that eventually resulted in The Language of Abuse: Marital Violence in Later Medieval England (Brill 2007). For this project, I read mostly legal records because the law is one of the few ways that real people (the peasantry, the middle class) left an imprint on the medieval record. I spent months looking over trial records from medieval England, which are generally brief and formulaic; for the most part, the records give so few details the best you can do is count them. This is not true of coroners’ rolls, however. Many coroners (or their scribes) were intent to record every juicy detail, especially when it came to domestic spats! Wives caught with their lovers in flagrante; husbands eager to explain away their abuse as “discipline”; neighbors bursting into homes in the middle of the night to restore the peace before an argument spiraled out of control – the coroners’ rolls help to bring the history so tediously documented in the trial records to life.

The one aspect that intrigued me most in this process was the coroner’s inquest jury, that group of men drawn from the visne (the region where the crime took place) to conduct an investigation into the events leading up to the sudden and unnatural death (coroners did not only investigate homicides, they also looked into accidental deaths and anything that seemed unnatural). Reading Thomas Green’s work (Verdict according to Conscience: Perspectives on the English Criminal Trial Jury, 1200-1800) helped me to understand why their verdicts were sometimes at odds with those of juries later on in the process: Green emphasizes that juries represent communal, rather than crown, values. This made me realize that juries had their own personalities and their own baggage, and by exploring their verdicts I might crack a window onto the lives of these captivating communities. All of my early work is focused on the jury and its impact on the judicial system and people’s lives, whether in cases of marital violence, abortion, suicide, or infanticide.

Q. You correct several concepts about the medieval coroner as well as coroners’ juries and investigating the crime scene. My impression is that most of the errors arose because scholars had too narrow a scope. How did this catch your attention?

A. Originally, I wanted to call this book CSI: Medieval England – of course, copyright got in the way, but this is very much how I approached the book. Assuming that my reader’s comprehension of homicide investigations was equally tainted by television as was my own, I wanted to answer those niggling questions about the medieval process of investigation that we were all wondering (and that often came up in the classroom when I teach “Medieval Crime”). How did they decide what was an unnatural death?  Who sat on coroners’ juries? If the coroner was not a medical practitioner, how did the coroner and his jury determine cause of death? And just how efficient was criminal justice without a police force and modern methods of investigation?  None of these questions had yet been answered sufficiently because the field of medieval coroners and their documents had been dominated by R.F. Hunnisett, the former assistant keeper of the Public Records Office who published extensively in the 1950s and 60s. Quite frankly, the feeling was that everything had been said about the coroner that needed saying.  I didn’t think that was quite true, but I could not have done any of this project without Hunnisett’s seminal work. I also think that the questions I had to ask of the coroner are a product of the era that I’m living in now, where we are much more conscious of the role played by average people in history, rather than always focusing on “great men.”

The central thrust of my book is that England was not, in fact, centuries behind the Continent when it comes to the use of forensic medicine, but rather the nature of the records hide the participation of the medical profession in death investigations.  England is often “othered” by Continental historians who just don’t understand the vocabulary of English law and who get irritated by the fact that greedy England hogs the spotlight, but also by English historians who choose to believe that England was unique, always dancing to the beat of its own drum.  However, the channel was not much of a barrier keeping knowledge out.  The English were well aware of how law was practiced on the Continent: remember that many of the king’s justices and sheriffs during the thirteenth century were university-trained clerics who studied in Paris or Bologna. They were not out of touch with Continental trends in jurisprudence or law enforcement.  The problem is borne from the records themselves. The purpose of English records of crown pleas (i.e. records concerning felonies) was financial: the king wanted what was owed to him to be closely recorded. The king was less interested in the details of the case or the methods of investigation. Accordingly, there was no need for a coroner to explain in writing that of course he had sought out a barber-surgeon to sit on the jury so that a proper examination of the corpse might ensue.

I spent a lot of time in this book trying to resurrect the reputation of the medieval English criminal process. Our capitalist mindset today makes it hard for us to understand that people in the English past regularly took on jobs that were unpaid and that did not deter them from working hard. We have a tendency to believe that you get what you paid for: thus, if coroners were unpaid, surely little could have been expected of them. The medieval records simply do not uphold this perspective. Yes, some coroners were lazy; but many others worked hard, showed up in a timely fashion, and were determined to do their best.

Q. Research is a process, never truly complete. Has anything come up in further research that you wish you’d been able to include in this book?

A. Not yet! But give me time.

Q. Were there any stories you wish you could have included?  Would you care to share some here?

A. What didn’t appear in the book will appear sooner or later in a blog that I write with Krista Kesselring and Katherine Watson: https://legalhistorymiscellany.com/

Q. I came away from the book with a new respect for the medieval coroner and the jury process. I also have a new appreciation for the differences between now and then in the purpose of juries and the goals of an investigation/trial, as well as what is considered the important truth in the cases. Is there any particular instance of this that stands out in your mind? Did it change how you think about crime and punishment?

A. I read Richard Firth Green’s A Crisis of Truth: Literature and Law in Ricardian England (U of Pennsylvania P, 1999) back in the days of my doctorate and it was an eye-opening experience for me. Firth Green was the first to explain clearly that what we see as “truth” is not really the same as what a medieval jury understood as truth. When a trial jury took an oath to speak the truth, they did not mean about the events leading up to a crime and whether the defendant was in fact the perpetrator; they meant the truth about the man’s character. If they acquitted him, would he repent of his sins? Or, would he fall back into a life of crime? Could he be reintegrated into the community in a way that might restore peace and harmony?  The most important mental shift that is required to understand the medieval courts is that, despite what we see on television, they were not bloodthirsty. Hangings were fairly rare in the medieval period, and no one was eager to see a member of their community dangling from a rope. Most defendants were acquitted, not because their system of law enforcement was inefficient, but because it was a Christian society and they believed in giving people second chances.

My favorite case will always be the death of Roger son of Gervase, drawn from the miracle stories of St Thomas de Cantilupe, Bishop of Hereford. Roger was two years old and naked when he wandered out of his house in the middle of the night while his mother and father were at an all-night vigil praying for the souls of two recently deceased fellow villagers. Drawn naturally across the bridge leading to the castle where his father worked as a cook, the boy fell from the dark and icy bridge, smashing his infant body on the rocks below, and eventually freezing to death. The boy’s body was found the following morning. The coroners appeared immediately and began to conduct their investigation. Despite being prohibited from entering the scene of the accident while the coroners’ and their jury were embroiled in the minutiae of the investigation, one burgher climbed down to the child and bent a penny to Saint Thomas, promising to visit him at his tomb if he brought the child back to life. Lo and behold, Thomas heard his prayers and the boy began to move his right arm ever so tentatively. The burgher alerted the coroners and carried the frozen boy to his mother, who was half out of her mind with grief, and she warmed his naked body against her flesh. That night the entire village, including the coroners, celebrated with a procession to the church, singing Te Deum Laudamus.

This miracle story gives us an opportunity to see the coroners as human beings.  Far too often studies focus on the corruption of medieval law enforcement: coroners who refused to hold inquests unless paid to do so, who misappropriated funds, or who failed to investigate a sudden death because the weather was too cold and unpleasant for traveling.  This story, however, shows us coroners who were delighted to find that their trip had been unnecessary after all, who shared in a community’s joy that one of their own had risen.

Q. As a novelist writing about crime in medieval England I appreciate your explanations of the differences between how we view crime and punishment, but also in what is expected of the various professions/officials involved. For instance, you mention that coroners’ juries were better served by barbers and surgeons than by physicians because the latter were trained to be theorists rather than hands-on practitioners. They hired surgeons or barbers for hands-on medical care. In your other research projects have you come across other examples of occupational tags that no longer mean what they did in the past?

A. I’m delighted that you appreciate that aspect! One of my reviewers wanted all of that cut, but I stubbornly refused.  That viewpoint was essential to my motivation for writing the book. I also felt that it was useful tool to make sense of what we were reading in the medieval record.

In terms of occupations: Before doing the research for this book, I never understood King Edward III’s 1363/64 pronouncement of one craft per person (37 Edw. III, c. 6). Why would the king feel it necessary to limit men to only one trade?  As I tried to figure out how to classify who might belong to the pool of medieval medical practitioners, I realized just why Edward III made this declaration. Occupational diversity was the norm in late medieval England. Hardly anyone worked in just one profession. A chandler needed wax to make candles: but wax could also be used for other purposes, such as shaping pills and making ointments. Why not expand also into the apothecary profession? Similarly, overlap existed between surgeons and metalworkers:  a surgeon needed iron-tools for his work, and metalworker produced those tools. Why not have one man employed in both trades? Because of this it was not all that easy to pigeonhole men and women from the era. To the king, this was frustrating because he saw the guilds as a useful way to control the population and he wanted everyone to fit neatly into a category. To me this is really exciting because it suggests much more ambition, creativity, and flexibility than we often imagine of medieval men and women.

Q. In writing about medieval England for a popular audience I am keenly aware of the trap set by a common language—I do glossaries for my readers, but quite often my editors urge me to avoid the words that might confuse them. Most hilariously, an editor asked me why there were bars at all the gates of York—took me a day to realize that she thought Monk Bar was a tavern. But I have gone down a rabbit hole in doing research when I didn’t realize I was chasing the wrong term. Has this ever tripped you up? How do you flag these items in your own research?

A. Language is a serious problem for me. I write about legal history; however, I am determined to write for a wider audience than the few legal historians that I see regularly at the Conference for British Legal History. However, when I try to write in a more accessible manner by sidestepping the legal jargon, reviewers of my work in the field of legal history seem to think I’m avoiding it because I don’t know it. I have been told by the editors of legal history journals that I write social history, not legal history, while the editors of social history journals have insisted quite the opposite. Sigh. In this book, I have tried my best to include all the legal jargon, but to explain it to my audience in the hopes that this might be a useful handbook of sorts for tackling other works of medieval legal history. The legal record is too useful to social historians to be ignored, but it is a shame that so much of the legal history out there sounds as if it was written by a lawyer.

My students play a key role for me in determining which terms need to be explained so that I avoid your Monk Bar experience!  Students have told me that they thought “gaol” was a high class prison (why else would it be spelled so oddly?); that an “eyre” (itinerant court) was a lovely, lilting tune; that justices of the peace were only interested in marrying people; and that a villein (an unfree tenant) was in fact always the bad guy.

Q. Often when I’m writing one book I find something that I tuck away for another book. Did writing Forensic Medicine lead to a future project for you?

A. It led me to two new projects.

One: I’m working on an article about juries of matrons, the women who were called in to perform a physical examination of convicted felons who claimed to be pregnant, and another one on pleas of the belly. Medieval courts did not execute pregnant mothers: they waited until after the birth of the child before they executed its mother.  I’m interested in knowing more about the matrons: who were they? How did they qualify as matrons, that is, were they mothers, or medical practitioners? How did they decide whether a woman had in fact conceived?  I’m also interested in pregnant felons and their treatment in prison. Did they actually give birth in prisons, and what happened to the babies? How long after the birth were they executed?

Two: I’m working on a new book project on peine forte et dure.  When a defendant refused to plead to a felony indictment, the English courts were left in a quandary. In the English system, defendants had to consent to be tried: consent came in the form of a plea. If the defendant refused to plead, what is better known as “standing mute,” then he could not be tried. Accordingly, the king’s justices sent him back to prison to be coerced into pleading. He was subjected to peine forte et dure: strong and hard punishment, essentially pressing with weights and a starvation diet, until he agreed to undergo jury trial. By the early modern period, this had come to be death sentence, and is probably best known to a non-legal historian audience by the deaths of Saint Margaret of Clitherow (a recusant during Queen Elizabeth’s reign), or Giles Corey (during the Salem Witch trials). During my research I came across a number of deaths from peine forte et dure and it made me question why anyone would choose to undergo the peine. I also wondered why the English employed the peine: the English were always proud of the fact that they did not employ judicial torture. Yet, peine forte et dure sounds an awful lot like it. My book is going to look at how the practice evolved, and how the peine fit in with the ideology behind justice in the medieval English context.

On My Mind: Wolves, Magda Digby

Why do we so fear wolves? They are predators, yes, but so are cats, and many of us live with cats, indeed sleep with them curled into our warm bodies. Eagles, hawks, and owls are also predators, yet most people I know, though in awe of them, don’t fear them, don’t see them as threats. Granted, domestic cats and birds of prey cannot knock over an adult human, but they can do serious harm. Yet it’s the wolves…

I’m thinking about this not only because of my work in progress, but also because the battle between farmers/ranchers and wolves is a thing in my state, and it breaks my heart.

Here’s a thoughtful piece of writing about that fear by James Roberts in the ezine Zoomorphic: http://zoomorphic.net/2017/10/in-the-eyes-of-a-wolf/
“Wolves mourn their dead. Some wolf mates return over and over to the place where their partners were trapped or killed. Others leave the pack and spend the rest of their days wandering in a state of growing starvation before they too die. Some wolves, when relocated by helicopter in an effort to shrink pack numbers, travel many hundreds of miles back to their home territory, risking being killed by other packs or by starvation. Some have even been caught again, then again relocated and this time have simply given up and died in their transport cages. Wolves create their own cultures. There is much we humans have forgotten we share with them. There is much we still have to learn from them.”

I tend to agree with Farley Mowat: “We have doomed the wolf not for what it is, but for what we deliberately and mistakenly perceive it to be –the mythologized epitome of a savage ruthless killer – which is, in reality, no more than a reflected image of ourself.”

And this: “…in the wolf we have not so much an animal that we have always known as one that we have consistently imagined.” –Barry Lopez, Of Wolves and Men

They are exquisitely beautiful beings, loyal to the pack, mating for life.

In medieval England the wolf was considered an enemy of foresters (i.e., the king’s hunting grounds) and the wool trade (monasteries grew rich on the wool their flocks produced), so the goal of wolf hunts was to rid the realm of their presence. In Aleksander Pluskowsky’s book, Wolves and the Wilderness in the Middle Ages (Boydell Press 2006) he notes that “the last reliable reference to wolf trapping in England is dated to 1394-6, from Whitby Abbey in East Yorkshire, where the monks paid 10s 9d for tawing fourteen wolf skins” (30).

So… there might have been wolves up on the moors in the late 14th century…

Also much on my mind: John Thoresby suggested to Magda Digby in A Vigil of Spies that she might cease referring to herself in third person, that she had surely done sufficient penance for her youthful errors. Would she attempt to change her speech pattern in honor of his memory? I’ve been debating this with myself ad nauseam. I’d be curious to know what you think.

 

 

The Gift of a Talented Narrator

Both The Apothecary Rose and The Lady Chapel are now available from Tantor Audio in the US, with The Nun’s Tale coming in December!

When Tantor Audio offered an audiobook contract for the first three Owen Archer mysteries, I scoured their list of narrators for the one I thought might be the best match for the series, and proposed the award-winning Derek Perkins. I am so pleased with the results. Derek not only creates distinct voices for each character, but he gives a deeply nuanced reading that never strays from my intention. What a gift!

Publisher’s Weekly reviewed the recording of The Apothecary Rose: “Set in the 14th century, Robb’s historical detective stories about Owen Archer, a spy working for the influential John Thoresby, Lord Chancellor of England and Archbishop of York, currently runs to 10 volumes. This new audio edition of the first in the series is the obvious starting place for both curious newcomers and a treat for fans of the shrewd one-eyed Archer and his beautiful pharmacist wife Lucie, who may appreciate a reminder of how the two first met: over a pair of corpses possibly killed by a concoction mixed by Lucie’s first husband, master apothecary Nicholas Wilton. Reader Perkins gives Archer a confident-sounding British voice, with the requisite uncertainty about his trial employment by the demanding archbishop and feelings for a married woman. Perkins also presents thoughtful interpretations of the series’ continuing characters, like the warm-hearted midwife, Magda Digby; the rowdy, humorous tavern proprietress Bess Merchet; and the enigmatic Thoresby, whose voice changes according to the situation. His clerical delivery is sharper, higher pitched, while his personal conversation, which Archer prefers, is more relaxed, down-to-earth, and uncritical. Adeptly capturing the voices of the series’ recurring characters, Perkins delivers a promising start to the audio edition of this beloved series.”

Perfect for holiday gifts! And downloadable on Audible.

 

Toronto Bouchercon & a Long Answer to a Question

I’ve returned from a delightful sojourn in Toronto, attending Bouchercon (the World Mystery Convention), but also playing tourist. It’s a beautiful city with distinct neighborhoods, many museums (loved the kimono collection in the Museum of Textiles), a lively theater district, a peace garden (photo on the right), a never-ending labyrinth of underground shops, all filled with the friendliest, most courteous people. What a treat!

Note to Canadian readers–The Sleuth of Baker Street, Toronto’s great mystery bookshop, has freshly signed copies of both Kate Clifford books as well as a number of Owen Archers and Margaret Kerrs!

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I had so much fun on the panel Creative Histories. It might have been 8:30 on a Saturday morning, but we were lively: Sylvia Warsh (moderator), A.G. Wong (my companion to the kimono collection), Ovidia Yu, and in the photo below, you see me between Wendi Corsi Staub and Emily Carpenter.

At the convention, a reader asked, “Which characters in your books are your favorites?” I thought about it for a few minutes and then asked, “Favorite in what way?”

Because characters endear themselves to me for many reasons. Some are easy to write–Kate Clifford’s ward Marie Neville–she naturally inserts herself into scenes; Brother Wulfstan and Archbishop Thoresby in the Owen Archers, so clear in my mind that I was immediately in their heads. Some are fun because I never know what will come out of their mouths–Kate’s mother Eleanor is my current favorite in that regard, and Bess Merchet as well. Some touch me deeply, such as Brother Michaelo, the archbishop’s secretary, a character who has gone through such a sea change, a man who yearns for redemption; two young females who lost everything–Alisoun Ffulford and Petra Clifford. Some puzzle me–Sir Elric, Kate’s nemesis–or is he? Maggie Kerr’s friend Hal–does he have a special gift with animals or does he simply pay close attention to them? Some are just dear to me–Owen, Lucie, Bess, Kate, Petra, Berend, Maggie…   And some inspire me–Magda Digby is at the top of that list. How can I choose which character is my favorite?

Can you choose just one favorite character?