Thursday, November 28, 2013

The Eyres of London: an enthralling look at crime in the 13th century

I'd like to share with you 13th century court records with all the sizzle of a modern scandal-sheet.

During the 13th century, London's population was roughly 50,000. This was quite a respectable city size for the time, but did not allow for the elaborate machinery of justice we take for granted today. Instead, complaints were filed with the local sheriff or bailiff and prosecution was put on hold until the next time the circuit judge came around. These traveling circuit courts were named 'Eyres' (yes, just like Jane Eyre - her last name is no coincidence).

Most records of 13th-century Eyre trials and judgments are presumed lost, but two have survived in a remarkably complete state. These are the Eyres of London for 1244 and 1276. They were special in that the king himself (or his direct representative) sat in on the judgments. Being therefore the most perfect or official of trial records, multiple copies of the Eyre transcripts were made and distributed as exemplars to judges and other agents of law enforcement. They may be thought of as a bundle of sample cases and precedents with a royal seal of approval.

Copying was not the most reliable of arts at the time, and different surviving copies of the Eyre transcripts vary in details. Fortunately, in the 1970s a British scholar, Martin Weinbaum, took it upon himself to examine all the variations and from them (hopefully) reconstruct the original. His editions of the Eyres were published by the London society, and a hypertext version has recently been made available free of charge at the British History Online web site.

Not only did this scholar scrupulously edit the texts, but he also provided modern English translations alongside the original Latin. It's been over a decade since I last used my Latin lessons, but his translation seems to me to be accurate and conservative.

The London Eyre of 1244
The London Eyre of 1276

I must admit I found these quite by chance. As a student of economic history, my first thought when being asked to find a primary source that could inspire a piece of fiction was to go for probate records. These inventories of items left at a person's death are used frequently by economic historians, and are often heart-breaking or stirring. Entries such as, 'Wooden chest, worm-eaten, containing sheets of fine French cloth, never used. One reserved as burial shroud.' are not uncommon. (Rather reminiscent of the famous six-word novel, 'For sale: baby shoes, never worn.', isn't it?)

Finding well-catalogued, free probate records in English - or in a pinch, grammatically correct Latin - proved easier said than done. A hyperlink chase across a dozen web sites eventually led me to British History Online, where a mis-click took me to a transcript of one of the Eyre sessions.

I didn't leave the computer for a half hour after that. I was hooked.

London, as I mentioned above, had a rather small population. Because of that, personal cases that in another age would never make it to the ears of the head of state were presented to the king. Legal language had not yet calcified into its modern passive voice and restrained, careful neutrality. The court scribe recorded events quite conversationally, and as a result, the stories almost write themselves. All that's needed is putting meat and skin on the skeleton provided, and furnishing entertaining and plausible answers to the questions raised.

Consider the following entry, from one of the first sessions of the 1244 Eyre:

They say that on the feast of St. Ethelburga [11 Oct. 1226] Emma, daughter of Walter of Coggeshall appealed Gregory, son of master Gregory the Physician, of violently raping and deflowering her, and Richard, son of Thomas the Imagemaker of aiding and abetting him. Gregory and Richard come, but Emma does not, and she found pledges to prosecute her appeal, viz. Richard the Baker and John of Kennington, baker. Therefore they are in mercy and Emma is to be taken into custody. Afterwards the mayor and citizens were asked whether they were of opinion that peace had been made between the parties, and they said upon their oath and in the faith in which they are bound to the king that they had agreed together. Asked further if they believe that Gregory is guilty of the deed, they say that he is not guilty. They say also that he who was appealed for aiding and abetting has not made peace and is not guilty. Therefore he is quit. And Gregory is to be taken into custody. He made fine in half a mark, because he is poor, with Simon fitz Mary and John de Coudres as bis sureties.

First of all, note the date: the event took place in 1226, but was not heard until the Eyre of 1244. This is what I referred to above: cases were kept in cold storage until a judge errant arrived. It was common for the parties involved to die before the case made it to court. This led to entries such as this one, from the first case in the above link: "Stephen has died, therefore nothing from him."

The accused was the son of a physician. This raises interesting questions - did Gregory's father know of his son's activities? Did the accused use his father's position to gain access to Emma? Even if he did, apparently he still needed the help of Richard, son of an image-maker. I haven't looked it up, but I suspect this refers to religious images, such as figures of saints in a cathedral. Could Richard have used his father's professional contacts to lead Gregory to Emma when she was alone in prayer within an isolated chapel?

The accused and his accomplice made it to court. Emma, though she was still alive, did not. What was it that made her stay away from the proceedings? Did she fear for her life? She did appoint two bakers as her representatives. At the time, most homes took their dough to the neighbourhood baker, to be baked in a communal oven (for a fee). Suppose Emma kept mostly to herself after the assault. There is no husband mentioned, or children, or change of name - spinsterhood seems probable. If that were the case, she'd seldom leave home and meet other people... save for daily errands, such as fetching water from the pump and baking bread. While waiting for the bread she would have had time to socialize with and get to know the bakers in a safe setting, where she was surrounded by other women. That would explain why these were the men she trusted to represent her at court. Their profession is doubly interesting when we consider that bakers at the time were thought to be proverbially dishonest, adulterating flour with any sand or sawdust at hand. The modern equivalent would be to send two used car salesmen to vouch for her.

The court didn't think the bakers were an appropriate substitute. Gregory and Richard were granted mercy (a kind of conditional bail), and officers went off to arrest Emma - and presumably drag her back to court by any means necessary.

We don't hear any details of testimony by the principals in the case, if indeed there was any. The court was satisfied with conducting something halway between an opinion poll and a jury trial. The answer by the makeshift jury, consisting of the mayor of London and vague 'citizens', seems a bit contradictory. Gregory had 'made peace' with the court, which essentially meant he agreed to stop hostilities. He was found not guilty, but nonetheless taken into custody and charged half a mark, which he could not afford. Two others, presumably his friends, had to promise to pay it on his behalf. This odd juxtaposition of a 'not guilty' verdict combined with custody and a fine suggests that there was a plea bargain: I suspect Gregory agreed to 'make peace' and pay his fine as long as he came out of it without being officially labeled a rapist. While I'd have to research the issue, it's reasonable to think that there were social and religious costs to such a label quite apart from the law's punishment. Meanwhile, Richard the image-maker's son wanted nothing to do with the case. He refused to make his peace, but he wasn't found guilty, either. I can almost see him storming angrily out of the square, pushing people aside while muttering curses under his breath.

This is just one of many, many colorful stories in these wonderful source-books. In the next few weeks, once I've had a chance to read them more carefully, it is my intention to write up a few of them as short historical fiction. Care to join me?

1 comment:

Naveen Thakur said...

I just happened to read the same case today but couldn't make sense of the language - till I read your blog. You've definitely brought it to life.