Medieval treason, usually called lèse-majesté in the French criminal records, was a catch-all term in the 14th century. Just about anything could be treason. There’s your obvious stuff: trying to kill the king, allying with the enemy during a time of war, trying to overthrow the king. Then there’s the less obvious, such as theft and rape and things that seem to have nothing to do with the king or the realm.
Here are five ways people in medieval France found to commit treason without even realizing they were doing it.
1. Burn down your neighbour’s house
As Agnes Poulain discovered in 1390, arson, especially when it could threaten an entire village, was not taken lightly by the Crown. Her fire-starting habits were a threat to the king’s ability to protect his subjects, as well as being bloody stupid.
2. Burn down a post
It helps if that post is currently displaying the royal safeguard, the sign of the king’s special protection over an area or a person. In one case, in 1348, a knight attacked a town that had been placed under the king’s protection. The court is very clear that what makes all the raping and pillaging particularly egregious, and so high treason, is the incineration of the safeguard. Sure, killing the friars in the priory isn’t great, says the court, but what really gets our goat is thumbing your nose at the king’s authority. Typical bureaucrats.
3. Steal letters of commission
In 1349, the bishop of Luçon and his accomplices attacked the nephew of the archdeacon, taking royal letters granting the nephew an official office. The act of stealing royal documents, even ones as routine as an appointment to a regional post, was ruled an act of high treason. Put simply, it interfered with the king’s ability to run his kingdom as he wanted.
4. Rape your son’s fiancée
When the lord of Biron got it into his head in the 1340s to rape his son’s betrothed, he probably didn’t expect the Crown prosecutor to charge him with high treason. This one’s trickier to suss out why it’s treason. The short of it is that treason was as much about protecting the king and his rights as it was about articulating social expectations. Yes, even in the Middle Ages, society expected you not to rape your son’s wife-to-be. Also, don’t violate a marriage contract. I’ll leave it to you to decide which violation mattered more.
5. Sell some apples
Jean Maillet made the mistake of selling some apples and other foods to the English and Flemings in 1340, during the Hundred Years War. That’s provisioning the enemy, that is! He should know better! Except, Jean pointed out, he did so during a time of truce. Tricky situation!
What was medieval treason?
If these five examples are any guide, medieval treason was anything the court needed it to be in the moment. But maybe there’s more to the story? In the coming weeks, I’ll revisit these cases to look at what’s going on in more depth.
I wrote a whole Ph.D. dissertation on the topic. I’ve spent far too many years thinking about medieval treason. And still I can’t shake the nagging feeling that treason was like cooked spaghetti.
You throw it at the wall and see if it sticks.