Posted by 10 September, 2015

The history of emotions in the courtroom has become a popular topic in recent years (See this past years IMC session and stand-alone conferences convened at St Andrews and University of London). Emotional appeals and ritualised displays of emotion are a key part of modern trial law and we expect prosecuting and defence attorneys to play on the emotions of jurors and judges. They instruct their clients to display certain emotions, and they show certain emotions - anger, sadness, pity - themselves. This is not to say that these emotions are wholly manufactured, but how and when they are displayed is shaped by the practical aim of winning one's case.

Having been raised on a diet of Law and Order (Chris Noth and Jerry Orbach, natch), this should have been part of my understanding of medieval women's legal cases from the start, but it was not until I began to look at cases initiated by bill in the court of the justiciar of the English colony in medieval Ireland that I began to think about emotions in the courtroom. Pleading by bill (rather than writ) gave plaintiffs much more flexibility in how they framed their case and spoke about the wrongs they claimed had been done to them. In them we can see how plaintiffs used emotional language in their pleas to appeal to jurors and justices. Many of the bills that used the most emotional language were submitted by female plaintiffs or concerned women's experiences, and manipulated societal expectations of female vulnerability to arouse sympathy in the jurors.


Lady Justice, Dublin Castle (Photo Steven MacDevitt)

In a case from Trim, Co. Meath, a widow named Isabella prosecuted Adam Payn for damages to her finger which occurred when Adam was repossessing half of a house that he had rightfully won in court. However, Isabella's plea contained a great deal of information that wasn't just about her finger: she elaborated and set a sympathetic scene. A young mother, Mabilla, lay in childbed in the house that Adam won, in fear that she would be thrown out at any moment. She pleaded with her husband to get a guarantee that she could bear her child in peace and not be moved. Her mother, Isabella, didn't know the outcome of her son-in-law's request, so when she saw Adam, the rightful owner of the property, approaching, she locked the door, terrified that he had come to eject her heavily pregnant daughter. Adam had in fact come to reassure Mabilla that he would not move her before the birth, but he did not take kindly to the locked door, and broke it down, breaking Isabella's finger in the process. The jury found that Adam could have gone out another door, and did not need to break that one down to exit, and so Isabella was awarded 40s for the damage to her finger.

Adam was entitled to repossess the half of the house that had been awarded to him in court (though perhaps not to injure others in so doing), and he came, moved by pity for a pregnant woman, to allow her to stay. However, one naturally sympathises with a heavily pregnant woman and her protective widowed mother, who locked the door in what she saw as an effort to secure her daughter's safety. Mabilla's husband was not in the house, and in the absence of any male family, these two women acted out of fear and from a position of vulnerability. At least, this was the picture painted by Isabella, and it was an effective one, given that she won her damages. These two female roles, the widow and the pregnant woman, were common objects of pity in court cases and some English courts seem to have seen the protection of widows as a particular part of their remit. These women were also acting in socially acceptable ways, in that they were motivated by a desire to protect their family (in Mabilla's case her unborn child). The image of the pregnant woman was supremely sympathetic for medieval and early modern audiences, just as it is for audiences today. (Just last week I heard a wonderful paper by Fiona McCall at the WHN conference that talked about women's narratives of the English Civil War that used pregnant women as the most virtuous/pitiable victims of violence). A pregnant woman was in a state of physical vulnerability and even peril while at the same time fulfilling her most societally celebrated role, bearing children.

British Library MS Royal 20 C III, courtesy of the British Library

It was not only female plaintiffs who took advantage of the pregnant woman to help make their cases more sympathetic. Peter son of James de Birmingham complained that his travelling party was attacked by a posse of officials from Drogheda in 1305. They killed three of his male companions, and when Ele, Peter's female companion, saw their bodies, she was so afraid and upset that she went into premature labour and had a stillborn baby boy. The effect of her traumatic experience and stillbirth meant, according to Peter, that 'from that day til now she has never had health'. Peter didn't win this case, at least in court, so his use of the sufferings of his pregnant companion would initially seem to have been unsuccessful. However, though the Drogheda officials denied the charges, and Peter withdrew his prosecution, the justiciary rolls note that they later acknowledged that they owed Peter 12 tuns of wine worth 36 marks. This means that the case was settled out of court, and that Peter won a considerable financial settlement. The dispute over wine was probably what triggered Peter and his company's visit to Drogheda in the first place. In this case, again, the pregnant woman and her fears and suffering were not the central plank of the case evidentially, and in both cases, the financial settlements were not designed explicitly to compensate these women. And yet their portrayal as sympathetic victims may have been the key to the success, in court or extra-curially, of these plaintiffs.


Wellcome Library London, MS 49, f. 69r, courtesy of the Wellcome Trust

John son of Simon also used pity for a vulnerable woman to bolster his plea against Robert son of Richard. He held (and the jury agreed) that Robert came into John's house to attack and intimidate his wife and her nurse, who were alone and without any male protection. Robert, who was on horseback (!) drove them through the house with a staff and 'so followed them that for fear they left the house and fled through the town'. As a result of this ill-treatment, John's wife was so terrified that she was ill for a long time afterwards. John also mentioned unspecified other grievances, but this attack on unprotected women was the only one he elaborated on, suggesting he felt it offered his best chances for success. This strategy was rewarded, since he won 10s from Robert, who was committed to gaol.

This use of the vulnerable woman as a tool in pleading was not necessarily fabrication. Robert was also accused of attacking another woman on her own, suggesting that he used intimidation of women as a tool in his disputes (which were numerous). William Resk said that while he was elsewhere working for Robert, Robert, presumably taking advantage of William's absence, maltreated William's wife, and 'basely expelled her with her movables from their home'. And yet his treatment of women may have been the aspect of Robert's bad behaviour that plaintiffs chose to emphasise, either from their understanding or that of their lawyers that juries would be most easily moved to sympathy by the plight of vulnerable women, made so by their physical state of pregnancy, or their absence of male company, either because of widowhood or just because their husbands were elsewhere.


BL Harley MS 4425, f. 85r, courtesy of the British Library

The court records that survive from medieval Ireland are full of formulae and shaped by the evidential demands of common law; this can make them seem, at first, emotionless and standardised. However, some bills contain very emotional language of fear and pity in an attempt to elicit certain reactions with their stories of maltreatment. And these attempts are successful - reading their stories, even centuries later, you have to feel sympathy with the women described in these pleas, as many of them were probably telling the truth and did endure these traumatic experiences. Nevertheless, it was the case that plaintiffs used these stories of vulnerable women strategically as well, emphasising them to impress upon juries the rightness of their plea (and often the villainy of the defendant). In this way female defendants could play upon societal expectations of them that could be disenfranchising (like tropes of vulnerability), in a way that benefitted them and helped them win their cases.


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