A Day In Court (1)

The idea behind our #DayinCourt posts is to highlight a particular law, and look at a corresponding court case that demonstrates how that law was put into practice, and examines the surrounding context of that case in varying degrees of detail. Tweet us your #DayinCourt cases, and we could blog about your favourite medieval eyre records and other court cases (ecclesiastic, county, royal, etc) here! 

Before We Start:

To help with terminology and source material, there are several online guides out there that can assist you if you’re looking at this material for the first time. The National Archives, Kew, have a good guide on General Eyres 1194-1348, and Court of the King’s Bench 1200-1600. The guides are useful for navigating these sources, of which none of the original documents are online.

By contrast, some of the land conveyances by feet of fines are online, and the National Archives has a research guide for these records too. This is a good place to start if you’re new to this topic, and looking for something to help you with the source material. For feet of fines for Wales, you will have to go to the National Library of Wales.

Let’s take a look at the concept of ‘secret killing’ – murder by person or persons unknown – and have a look at some examples of this.

Secret Killing, Homicide and Juries

For our first post we’re highlighting an article by Bruce O’Brien, looking at the pre-Conquest origins of the murder fine.

From Morðor to Murdrum: The Preconquest Origin and Norman Revival of the Murder Fine

Bruce R. O’Brien
Vol. 71, No. 2 (Apr., 1996), pp. 321-357
[Access provided by JSTOR]
That it is a Cnut law at the root of William I’s ‘murdrum’ fine is difficult to prove incontrovertibly, but one argument presented by O’Brien is that since its scope did not extend to areas where William would want to protect his men (North and West) but was primarily collected in the South, which makes sense only if this is a law of Cnut being repurposed. A tighter, linguistic argument considering the root and compounds of morð and morðor follow, making this article a great one to read if you are a fan of the Gersum Project or Law and Language more generally.
Note that secret killing, or murder proper as opposed to manslaughter, was one of the most heinous crimes as far as Welsh law was concerned, and similarly for Irish law. The murder of a person by an unknown assailant threatened the integrity of an entire community, and presented the problem of a mysterious, internal, enemy, nursing evil thoughts in their breast… and who could potentially escape [human] justice by dint of going unidentified as the perpetrator of their crime.
There was also the question of the value of human life – quite literally, as different classes or statuses of people were compensated at varying amounts for maiming or killing. In some cases, no payment was necessary if they were not native-born, etc.

Who Killed Sir William?

In later centuries, the murdrum fine had become a means to extort money from the countryside, and consequently it is possible that the number of violent deaths went underreported; coroners, however, were instituted to ensure that this did not happen between eyre courts. [See, James Buchanen Given, Society and Homicide in Thirteenth Century England, p. 10]. Aside from the murdrum fine as an incentive to cover up the discovery of murder victims in a locality, there was also the pressure on jurors when the lord or other high-status noble was implicated or directly involved in the killing.
The case of William Cantilupe, murdered in 1375, is one such example of collusion and truth-stifling, with the Sheriff implicated in the murder by his relationship with William’s wife/widow. The involvement of Ralph Paynel, with whom the widow took refuge after the killing, which went unreported, was also not greatly discussed, and Paynel was certainly not implicated in the event itself. Frederick Pedersen has an interesting take on the whole event in his article, Murder, Mayhem and a Very Small Penis, arguing that Paynel’s involvement was due to his daughter Katherine’s treatment as wife of William’s brother, Nicholas Cantilupe. Pedersen argues, based on the annulment records of Katherine and Nicholas’ marriage, that Katherine Paynel discovered her husband had no male genitalia and was threatened by Nicholas keep this quiet and refute her claims. Ralph Paynel, the enraged father, had every reason to bear a grudge against the Cantilupe family, and after Nicholas died young while on campaign, supporting another Cantilupe wife seemed a natural course of action.
The ins and outs of the complicated case would make for an excellent period mystery-drama; Dr Melissa Julian-Jones has blogged about making this case public engagement-friendly and ideas on how to present a murder case in an interactive lecture format here and here.

Let’s Talk Law

Please share with us any cases you find particularly interesting in the comments (with references, preferably) and let’s talk about murder, lecturing on law, engagement with the public and enriching the curriculum.

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