Of Heretics and Ghosts: II

We leave Arnuad and Arnaud behind for a moment to turn to the world of 11th-ish century Iceland and the medieval ghost story of Thorgunna and Thurida. Normally I’d recap what happened in the previous post before continuing on, but this digression is entirely separate from the main story. So, enjoy Part I, but you don’t need it to understand what follows: except for the blue ghost elephant who’s narrating this particular ghost story. This story comes from the Icelandic Eyrbyggja Saga.

We begin at sea, off the shores of Iceland. A boat awaits the wind to carry them farther on their journey from Dublin to Dogvertharness. On board, one woman is thoroughly done with sailing.

A ship at sea off the shores of Iceland.
Ghost: One day, a ship came to harbor at Snowfall Ness, on its way from Dublin.
Sailor 1: The shores of Snowfall Ness!
Sailor 2: Just a good breeze is all we need...
Thorgunna: *thinking* I hate seafaring...
Sailor 3: *thinking* I miss the Hebrides already.
Sailor 4: ...To get us to Dogvertharness.

On shore, some soldiers gossip about the passengers now that the boat has docked in the harbor.

Soldiers on shore talking about the boat come to harbor.
Ghost: A local woman named Thurida heart that the passenger Thorgunna traveled with the finest treasure.
Soldier 1: One of the women has an exquisite wardrobe.
Soldier 2: Wonder how she came by it.

Thurida, quite interested in the latest fashions, goes on board to meet this Thorgunna.

Thurida goes on board the ship to meet Thorgunna.
Thurida: Is it true? You have the latest fashions?
Thurida: *thinking* Please say you'll sell. Please say you'll say.
Thorgunna: Yes. But I'm not parting with any of it.

Thorgunna, an older woman and quite tall, is very protective of her possessions.

Ghost: Nevertheless, Thorgunna let Thurida see what she had.
Thurida: *looking at clothes and thinking* This is supposed to be exquisite? Still...a new dress is a new dress..Not like we get much fashion out here.
Thurida: You sure you won't sell?
Thorgunna: Absolutely not.
Thurida: *thinking* Dammit.
Thorgunna: *thinking* On no...they're preparing to set sail. I'm so sick of this boat.
Thurida: Oh. Umm... Why don't you come stay with me? Enjoy some Icelandic hospitality?
Thorgunna: Okay.

Thorgunna accepts Thurida’s offer of hospitality and sets herself up in the guest room in the village of Froda.

Thorgunna comes to stay with Thurida. She sets up her guest room.
Ghost: Thurida was amazed at the gorgeous bed-clothes Thorgunna pulled from her trunk. Sheets of the finest linen, coverlets of silk, tapestries, and curtains. Thurida had never seen their like.
Thurida: What lovely bedding! And so much of it... I don't suppose you migh-
Thorgunna: I will not like like a pig in the rushes for you, madam!
Ghost: Thurida did not take that well. But Thorgunna had soon settled into life in Froda, even if only Thurida's son Kiartan liked her.
Thorgunna seen at the loom, going to church, and raking hay.
Ghost: One day, Thurida's husband Thorodd said:
Thorodd: It's a fine day! Time for some haymaking!
Ghost: When a sudden storm came, Thorgunna alone left her hay spread upon the ground.
Villager: So...that wasn't rain. It was blood.
Thurida: on no!
Thorgunna: Thurida, it is worse than you know. It is an omen. An evil omen, for you and your house and all in it. Now, I must go change.

I do wonder why it took so long for them to recognize it is as blood. But maybe that’s just me.

Thorgunna went to change and lay down in bed. She did not emerge again that day.

Thorodd: Thorgunna, you've not risen from bed for over a day.
Thorgunna: I am dying. I would dictate my will.
Thorodd: ...
Thorgunna: Listen well. Failure to follow my instructions will result in grave consequences. This affair has so begun, that it will not pass off smoothly, unless strong measures are taken dealing with it.
Thorgunna: I would be buried at Skalholt, for soon it shall be a sacred spot and there are priests there who will say prayers for my soul. My red gown may go to Thurida. That way she will consent to all the rest I require. My gold ring will go to the church. But my bedding - all of it - shall be burned. I ask this not because I grudge the use of these handsome articles to any, but because I foresee that the possession of them would be the cause of innumerable quarrels and heart-burnings.
Ghost: She died a few days later.

Skálholt would, in 1056, become one of two episcopal sees in Iceland.

After her death, Thorodd dutifully carried out the dictates of Thorgunna’s will.

Thorodd is preparing to burn Thorgunna's bedclothes.
Thurida: What are you doing?! You can't burn such beautiful sheets!
Thorodd: But... It was her final request.
Thurida and Thorodd argue.
Thurida: Nonsense! Thorgunna only desired this to be done because she was full of envy lest others should enjoy these incomparable treasures!
Thorodd: But... She threatened all kinds of misfortunes unless I did exactly what she said!
Thurida: Piffle. What misfortunes can a bunch of sheets and coverlets possibly cause?
Arnaud and Ghost, walking along and talking.
Ghost: They argued for a long while. At last, they came upon a compromise: Thorodd would burn the pillows and sheets, but Thurida would keep the beautiful hangings and becovers.
Arnaud: I thought this was supposed to be a ghost story.
Ghost: The living are so impatient. I'm getting there.

And I am getting there too. As you can tell, this ghost story is a long one. Next time, what happens when Thorgunna’s will is ignored.

The Commonly Uncommon Medieval Execution

Right. What’s going on with burning Agnes at the stake? Is it just a medieval form of eye-for-an-eye? You burn down your neighbour’s house, we’ll burn down the bodily house in which your soul resides. You blaspheme against God, we’ll rip out your tongue. You steal a loaf of bread, we’ll steal your appendix. You forge letters, we’ll use your bones to heat the forges making…umm…paper?

I think things have rather quickly gone off the rails.

Maybe it’s not so simple as eye-for-an-eye, in that case.

First, let’s put aside one common misconception about the Middle Ages: punishment was not always and everywhere tortuous and deadly. As an illustrative example, here’s the cover of a book by John D. Bessler, associate professor at the University of Baltimore School of Law.

Cover of John D. Bessler’s The Death Penalty as Torture: From the Dark Ages to Abolition. Carolina Academic Press, 2017.

Before I tear this cover to shreds, allow me to acknowledge that Bessler probably didn’t choose this cover. I also have some fellow-feeling for Bessler as a fellow-Minnesotan (he even did his law degree at Hamline, where my father taught and where my mother got her JD). Now that those biases have been set forth, let’s look at the bias set out here. Then I’ll get to the question of burning at the stake directly.

Here’s an excerpt of the book blurb (I’ve only omitted the bits having to do with the modern world):

During the Dark Ages and the Renaissance, Europe’s monarchs often resorted to torture and executions. The pain inflicted by instruments of torture from the thumbscrew and the rack to the Inquisition’s tools of torment was eclipsed only by horrific methods of execution, from breaking on the wheel and crucifixion to drawing and quartering and burning at the stake. The English Bloody Code made more than 200 crimes punishable by death, and judicial torture expressly authorized by law and used to extract confessions permeated continental European legal systems. Judges regularly imposed death sentences and other harsh corporal punishments, from the stocks and the pillory, to branding and ear cropping, to lashes at public whipping posts. In the Enlightenment, jurists and writers questioned the efficacy of torture and capital punishment…In The Death Penalty as Torture, Prof. John Bessler argues that death sentences and executions are medieval relics…

Were there executions during the Middle Ages? Yes!

Was there torture? Yes!

Does it really get my goat when someone calls the entire 1,000 year expanse of time (not to mention geography) that encompasses the Middle Ages the “Dark Ages”? Oh, you have no idea… I have lost so many goats…

I haven’t read the book, I will admit, but the blurb and the cover do a lot of work to play on stereotypes we have about the Middle Ages. Did those horrific executions described in the blurb exist? Yes. Were they the most common forms of execution? Not hardly. Hanging was the most common, followed by simple decapitation. Torture was also used, and it was bad, no question about it, but even it had rules. Those who broke those rules could be and were brought up on charges over it.

And I’m just going to set the Inquisition to one side, because it’s really not the same kettle of fish as the rest of the daily business of justice Bessler lumps it in with.

Back to the summary: Did a lot of executions take place. Sure. When you’re talking about 1,000 years and a geography that spans all of Europe, North Africa, and the Middle East (and I’d argue even more than that, but I strongly doubt Bessler has such an expansive, global view of the Middle Ages), the numbers swiftly add up. Here’s the thing though, most crimes did NOT end with an execution. Even when the statute books said that that was the only punishment available.

In other words, if you judge only by the law books, medieval Europe (again, limiting to be fair to Bessler’s scope) looks a lot more bloody than it was in reality. How do I know this? Well, we have records. We also have a lot of not-records.

Allow me to explain.

There are numerous cases of a person committing, say, treason against the king. Pretty clear case that it’s a capital crime. Same with murder. Definitely a capital crime, especially once we’re into the late Middle Ages (meaning ~1250-1500). Yet, when you read the trial documents, many many people (sometimes a majority, depending on when and where you’re looking) get off with a fine or a bit of public humiliation. As for the “not-records,” that comes from the fact that often times people took themselves into self-imposed exile. Or we have a record where the trial was begun, but we never see its conclusion. We cannot, based on what I wrote above regarding fines, then assume that the trial ended with an execution. Sometimes we can even be positive that it didn’t because the accused crops up later on in another record.

We can’t even be certain they were tortured, as many times the existing records don’t specify that they were.

Shouldn’t we assume it anyway?

No. Consider my area of expertise, France. Torture was more often used post conviction. So if we don’t have a conviction, we can’t be sure someone was tortured. Add to that the fact that simply being left alone in the room to contemplate the instruments of torture, before they’re ever used on your body, was counted by some courts as a round of torture in itself. How do we, in 2020, tally that up? Torture or not torture?

Now for the book cover.

Cover of John D. Bessler’s The Death Penalty as Torture: From the Dark Ages to Abolition. Carolina Academic Press, 2017.

We have the stocks up at the top. Also known as the pillory, this was definitely a humiliating and painful punishment, but it wasn’t execution. In fact, it was often used instead of capital punishment.

How about hanging, of which there are three woodcuts on this cover (unless the top right is meant to be the ladder)? Well, it could be pretty bad. And there’s no question it was a method of execution. But while the corpse was often left suspended from the gibbet for days, the death itself was often quick. Medieval executioners knew their craft and typically the knot was tied in such a way as to break the condemned’s neck at the initial drop.

Look, I’m not advocating for any of this. I personally am opposed to both the death penalty and incarceration. What I am advocating for is a better, more nuanced understanding of the history, even its most salacious bits.

Now we come to burning at the stake. Absolutely, this was a horrible way to go. Most people who were burned alive died of smoke inhalation long before the fire itself consumed their bodies. Again, there were ways to ensure this, based on the type of wood and kindling placed upon the fire. And in many cases in the historical record, the condemned would be strangled at the post before the flames were ever lit, a final act of mercy.

Before I began my Ph.D. work, I assumed that burning at the stake was reserved for witches. After all, that’s how it was always depicted in film and story and my history textbooks from grade school. Certainly, the witch burnings are a dramatic and tragic example of what burning at the stake can be like. But it wasn’t exclusively meant for witches, or women.

So what was burning at the stake used for?

It was the most common means of capital punishment for women in medieval France (though this is not exclusive and changes with time — by the 17th century, the notorious poisoner Madame de Brinvilliers was beheaded and women who’d committed bestiality were buried alive with their animal of choice).

It was also the execution method of choice for heretics, dating back to 1022, the first recorded incidence of it since the end of the western Roman Empire.

In sum, Agnes died at the stake not because she was a witch, or to cosmically balance the scales of justice in light of her arson (har har), but because she was a woman who had committed felony treason.

She was burned because that’s how women were executed in 14th-century France.

She was executed because a woman committing lese-majesty was an abomination in the eyes of the French state.

She deserved it, said her judges, because her crime and being was disruptive to the good of the whole and could not be tolerated within the society.

We lock people away for an eternity because they stole a pair of hedge clippers. s infuriating. And is this story just one instance? Sure. But so is the case of Agnes. So maybe we shouldn’t judge an entire millennium on the basis of one person.

However, I’ll very happily judge the Louisiana Supreme Court on the basis of Fair Wayne Bryant.

5 Ways to Commit Medieval Treason without Knowing It

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.

‘Treason!’ says the king to the cat on the throne.

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.

Voice in a Medieval Arson Trial

I absolutely love the story of Agnes. There’s something about her deposition, her trial voice, that comes alive for me every time I read it. It’s like I can hear her voice in my head: a little petulant, very bossy, and overwhelmingly tiresome.

I have a feeling she’d identify with the Demi Lovato song “Sorry Not Sorry.”

Was Agnes actually petulant, bossy, and tireseome? Who knows! That’s the thing about these medieval cases, whether for arson or any other crime. What we have is, at best, a true-to-sense relaying of what the accused said. But then, medieval scribes aren’t known for their accuracy in transcribing the accused’s voice at trial.

The Châtelet of Paris, especially after about 1380, had become notorious as the royal prison and embodiment of judicial power in the Paris region. When a prisoner was called up to speak before the tribunal, they were questioned typically without a lawyer present (something that was more common in the Parlement of Paris). In Agnes’s case, we know that she was examined at least twice, “without force or constraint.”

That’s code for “not under torture.”

Does that mean she wasn’t tortured? Good question!

The short answer is no, it doesn’t.

Here’s how it often worked. A confession gained “without force or constraint” meant that it had been at least 24 hours since the last torture session (and there were only supposed to be three of these, max). The confession made is therefore not during torture. If it’s confirmed (that is, a court official reads back to the accused their confession, asks if it’s been correctly recorded, and receives an affirmative), then the confession is established as true.

Now, none of this is to say that Agnes was tortured. It’s hard to read through the medieval terms of art to see what actually happened. However, these particular records from which I took Agnes case tend to be unabashed about using torture. They’ll even go so far as to tell you what kind of torture.

The same goes for being sure that what’s recorded is what Agnes said. Agnes would have spoken a dialect of French. Coming from Brittany north of Rennes, she may have grown up speaking Dolois, the regional patios (a mix of French and Breton). Once near Paris, she likely spoke the Middle French dialect of that zone.

Undoubtedly her French, even if the same dialect as that spoken at court, would have had a different vocabulary and register than what the educated judges and scribes spoke. That in itself presents a challenge in trusting that what we have of Agnes’s words is true to her voice. Thankfully, the criminal registers by the 14th century were no longer being preserved in Latin (which was the case only a hundred years earlier, and meant that a scribe was translating from the vernacular, creating yet another layer of distance between the modern reader and the medieval speaker).

So, we don’t have to contend with Latin, but how about the way she describes the events? Can we be sure any of it is in her voice?

On the one hand, the story feels like it’s leaving something out, doesn’t it? Her neighbour won’t say hi and basically says he never wants to speak to her again, and her response is to burn down his house.

I mean really, WTF?!

Fire’s dangerous! And it’s your neighbour! Your house is going to be next if the thatch roof catches!

So surely there must be more context that we’re not getting, right?

Maybe. On the other hand, perhaps she was just that unhinged. People are weird. Ever hear of Florida Man?

To the question of whether this is a medieval thing, that the idea that not saying hello to a neighbour is some unforgivable insult, I can’t find any indication that that’s true. Rude, sure. But not “I’m going to burn your house down and maybe our whole village and everyone will think I’m totally justified” level rude.

And we do have some indications that these are her words, at least in broad strokes. The scribe includes Agnes saying that she’d been “tempted by the Devil.” In my AITA rendering, I translated that has “I must have had a devil on my shoulder.” The idea is largely the same, just more idiomatic in my translation.

Over the course of the later Middle Ages, in French materials at least, there’s an increase in attempts to blame a crime on the devil’s temptation. If you’re interested, I’ve written an article on this. What it boils down to here is that Agnes is trying to claim that her decision to burn down Miserelle’s house was a temporary one. More than that, it was aberrant. She’s not really like that, you see, it was just the Devil who, for one moment in the heat of her anger, succeeded in getting her to act so sinfully and criminally.

As we saw, that tactic of blaming the Devil didn’t work. But, the fact that the attempt was there suggests that Agnes did have at least some of her perspective or interpretation of events recorded.

Not that it did her any good.

There’s more to say about this case, but I’ll stop here for now. Agnes has put me in a musical state of mind, so let’s end with Billy Talent’s “Devil on My Shoulder.” Fitting, neketa?

Agnes Poulain, a Medieval Arson Trial

When I first read the medieval arson trial of Agnes, wife of Jean Poulain, it immediately felt like a medieval Am I the Asshole (AITA) post. I think you’ll see why in a moment.

This arson trial is from Paris, preserved in the medieval Registre Criminel du Châtelet (vol. II, pg. 61-64). It’s dated 28 January 1390-91.

Agnes earned her living, meager as it was, by carding and spinning. She’d been born in Dol, in Brittany. Around the age of 20 she moved to Chasteaufort (now Châteaufort). About seven years later, now married, she moved to Gif (now Gif-sur-Yvette), where our story takes place.

Map of northern France, showing Dol-en-Bretagne, Chateaufort, and Gif-sur-Yvette

Let’s try to imagine what happens as if she were writing an AITA post. Mind, I’ve never written one of these before, but then neither has Agnes, so all hiccups in the genre imitation I ascribe to her. Everything that follows, unless otherwise noted with an *, is from the trial record.

AITA for burning down my neighbour’s house?

So last Thursday I’m sitting outside my door, just doing my thing before I completely lose the light. Because it’s evening, right? Anyways, as I’m carding, my neighbour Jean Miserelle comes by. And he doesn’t say anything to me. Not a word! I thought maybe he was mad at me, so I walked up to him and said:

“Miserelle, why didn’t you say hi to me? What’d I do? Are you mad at me? I want to know what’s going on. Usually you chat with me and my husband, you have drinks and eat with us. On cold days you even come over and warm up in front of our fire. I thought we had a good time together.”

Here’s what Miserelle said back:

“Fine, I’ll talk to you, but only to answer your questions. But here’s the thing, if I’m mad at you, or if I don’t want to answer your questions, what are you going to do about it? I’m not going to talk to you anymore, ever. I won’t even say hello, if I don’t want to. And why should I tell you if I’m mad at you or don’t like you? Leave me alone. Let me do my thing, and you go do yours. Leave me alone.”

*Can you believe that? How rude! Well, as you can imagine,* I was pissed when he said all that. I replied:

“Well if you’re going to be mad at me, it’s going to be for a reason!”

At that, I left him and went back home. I must have had a devil on my shoulder, because when I got inside I went straight to the hearth. I pulled out a large, burning coal and wrapped it up in a linen sheet, best I could—*it was hot!* Then I slipped back outside with my bundle. Jean Miserelle’s house is right next to mine, so I easily, *and without anyone seeing,* stuck the linen-wrapped coal under the thatch of his roof, wedging it between two wooden tiles.

Medieval thatched-roof house, dating back at least 500 years.
The Hovel. Ludgershall, Buckinghamshire, UK

Then, like he asked, I went and did my thing.

It didn’t take long for the fire to start. When I saw the flames, I called for for help. Lots of people came running to put the fire out.

*TL;DR My neighbour refused to say hello so I burned down his house. AITA?*

Answer: yes!

Certainly Agnes’s neighbours thought so. Jean Miserelle’s house burnt down to the foundation, despite her cries of “Fire! Fire!”

Image of the Murder of Innocents, showing a man stabbing a woman with a child.
Book of Hours. France, ca. 1480. MS M.6 fol. 51v. I suspect this is how Jean was feeling toward Agnes after his house burnt down!

Everyone immediately suspected Agnes was the one who’d done it and they arrested her. First taken to Chasteaufort as a prisoner, she was then transferred to the Châtelet in Paris and put on trial for arson.

After Agnes had given her version of events (and I have a hard time hearing contrition in her deposition), the tribunal deliberated. They called her back in a second time to confirm that the events she’d confessed to were true. When she said they were, the tribunal was left in unanimous agreement. Agnes’ arson was treasonous and she could not be released. She would get what she deserved: burning at the stake.

Agnes’s sentence was carried out on Tuesday, 7 March 1390. She had no property, the court scribe reports.

I’m working on a comic for this one. Somehow, moths seemed like the appropriate animal choice. Here’s a taste. I’ll post an update once the comic’s done and up.

Moth version of Agnes, thinking "Why didn't he say hello? Is he mad at me?"

When Temptation Strikes: IV


Recap of Parts I, II, and III:

Our medieval crime story up to now: In 1424, two Englishmen who had been staying at Robin Ingier’s began to pillage his house and attack his wife. Women of the neighborhood responded to her cries for help and though they could not free her, did their best to protect her and the most valuable items in the household. Meanwhile, Robin Ingier heard the commotion and ran to his friends for help, using the good character of his wife to convince them to help save her.

Part IV: The Fight for the Golden Rule

After Robin Ingier had described what he had seen, Jehan and Laurent agreed to come to the house and see for themselves what was going on.

Robin Ingier opens the door to his home to see his wife and goods trussed up

When Robin Ingier opened the door, all three men could see that the robbers were coming to the end of their pillaging. The goods had all been bundled up and Oudine sat trussed up, ready to be carted off as part of the spoils. As for the neighborhood women, it was clear that the strangers had beaten them, but they did not appear to be in imminent danger of kidnapping.

It is at this point that Robin Ingier assumes that the Englishmen had raped his wife.


The text remains unclear on this point. That in itself is interesting, as I noted in Part I, because at the end of this scene (spoiler!) Robin Ingier will kill the Englishmen. The original French reads “sadicte femme eust esté prise par force,” which translates to “his aforesaid wife had been taken by force.”

Why is this ambiguous?

The usual term for rape in French records from the time is “rapt,” occasionally “violer.” More often, though, “rapt.” But even if we had “rapt,” in this context it could be unclear. That’s because “rapt” was also the term for kidnapping and applied to both men and women. It even could be used to describe an elopement (especially if the bride’s family was not keen on the union).

In not using “rapt” here, the petitioners may be trying to avoid ambiguity. The wife has been taken by force, against her will. In other words, as I talked about last time, her honour is intact and she’s not complicit. Except that rape could be dishonouring. So is the taking meant to mean being trussed up or something far more violent? And the comment that she has been so taken, for whatever meaning, is preceded by the phrase “Ingier presumed.”

What’s he presuming? That she didn’t want to be tied up or that she didn’t want to be raped?

I think that the petitioners are being deliberately slippery. First, this isn’t Robin Ingier’s petition, it’s that of Laurent and Jehan. They might not actually ever have known the truth of what happened to Oudine.

Second, the presumption (whether accurate or not) of her violation is necessary to help justify the killing that follows. It’s therefore immaterial to their case whether she actually had been raped. They had enough evidence to assume it had occurred, and would occur again if they did not intervene.

Third, though not themselves married to Oudine, Jehan and Laurent may well have wanted to help preserve the honour of their friend Robin Ingier (and thus of his wife, whose virtue reflected upon him).

Whatever the truth of the matter, the three men drew conclusions in the moment.

Robin Ingier turns to his friends, saying “My friends, avenge me on these thieves who rob me and beat my wife!”

At the sight of Oudine tied up and helpless, Robin Ingier said:

“My friends, avenge me on these thieves, who rob me and beat my wife!”

At Robin Ingier’s heartfelt request, the petition gives us a reprise of what the neighbourhood women went through when they heard Oudine’s cries. Laurent and Jehan reflect on how they would want others to respond if their wives were in a similar situation. Once more the petition gives us a glimpse at how an un-policed society regulated itself, built on mutual good will and aid. And a very matter-of-fact application of the golden rule.

Due unto others as you would have them do unto you.

That is to say:

Rescue your friends wives as you would have them rescue your wife.

Of course, I’m sure the pillaging Englishmen were more fond of this version of the rule:

Wizard of Id Comic: Remember the Golden Rule! What's that? Whoever has the gold makes the rules!

But they were probably weren’t fond of what happened next.

Jellyfish-Englishmen and Robin Ingier, Jehan, and Laurent (octopuses) fight each other.

Laurent and Jehan rushed the Englishmen.

Jehan the octopus looks down at a fallen Englishman-jellyfish, saying “He’s dead.” Off panel, someone else says that the other one is also dead.

In the heat and fury of the moment, the Englishmen were killed. Yes, that passive voice is in the original. Sneaky sneaky.

This could get bad. After all, those strangers (whether Englishmen or otherwise) were probably quartering in Robin Ingier’s house, which means they were probably soldiers. I can’t say this for sure, as the letter of remission never makes it explicit. But Normandy is occupied territory, the town is on the frontier, making it a hot-spot for conflicts with the French (increasing the likelihood of an English presence even after hostilities ceased inside Normandy), and the strangers spoke a language the others didn’t know. Of course it’s not impossible to rent a room when you don’t know the local language (as any tourist pre-Internet knows), so my assumptions are just that. But as Robin le Peletier helpfully points out, the English are “eaters,” lodging in the homes of the local population and doing nothing but consuming what isn’t theirs — without paying, without asking, and certainly without saying thank you.

However justified the three men may have felt, they knew they were in trouble. Next time, we’ll look at how they tried to get out of that trouble, only to make the situation a whole lot worse.

When Temptation Strikes: III


Recap of Parts I and II:

Recap of the first two parts of this letter of remission (petition for pardon) from Lancastrian Normandy in the 15th century. So far, we have the crime of robbery and (attempted) assault. That assault may or may not have been a successful rape on Robin Ingier’s wife, whom we’re calling Oudine. The neighbourhood women heard Oudine’s cries for help and rushed to the rescue. Meanwhile, Robin Ingier also heard cries coming from his house, saw what was going on, and ran the other way.

Part III: Kick-Ass Women aren’t Passive

Robin Ingier, realizing that he needed help, ran off to find his friends and neighbors, Laurent and Jehan.

Robin Ingier asks his two octopus friends for help

Robin Ingier lays out the situation for them. Two strangers, the presumed Englishmen, had been plundering his home. When the women of the neighborhood arrived, they had tried to stop them.

A line of octopus-women try to protect Robin Ingier's goods

There’s a lot going on in the petition concerning these neighbor women.

They’re the first to arrive on the scene when the hue and cry goes up.

Willingly and out of a sense of duty, it seems, they rush in to try to help. (Note that Robin Ingier doesn’t rush in all at once, but reconnoiters and goes to get backup)

Once inside, these women set about trying to protect Robin Ingier’s goods. No mention of their trying to protect Oudine or help her escape. Maybe they weren’t able to get to her before the Englishmen caught them saving the stuff, for they were soon being struck and beaten.

Englishmen (jellyfish) put the women (octopuses) in a corner to guard them
Ocotpus women continue to try to hide valuables from the Englishmen-jellyfish
An Englishman-jellyfish strikes one of the women

Robin Ingier had apparently poked his head in the window at this point. In telling Laurent and Jehan what was going on and why he needed their help, he says that not only were the women beaten and oppressed, but the Englishmen had continued to pack up their loot and had bound up Oudine “ready to be transported.”

So what’s going on with these women? Why so much attention being paid to them when Robin Ingier’s trying to get some help? Is it just to give his neighbors a sense of what they’ll find inside?

I don’t think so.

I think the neighborhood women are being used on two fronts.

One is to add justification for the violence that’s about to come. See! There were so many women who’d been beaten and oppressed, not just the wife! How could we not try to stop what these villainous strangers were doing?!

That seems straightforward enough, as well as being in-line with the probable fact that the neighborhood women had in fact been there, and so needed to be accounted for in the petition.

But another line is added. Robin Ingier apparently told the two brothers that his wife “was not bellicose.”


Okay, it comes at the start of a description of Oudine, which continues as follows:

His wife, who was not bellicose, but had lived in good and honest conversation, without reproach, and that without reasonable cause she would not cry for appeal for aid.

The comment on bellicosity comes immediately after the description of what the neighborhood women are up to. Is the petition disparaging the women? Is it trying to suggest that they’re too aggressive, and so may have deserved some of the beatings they got? Whereas Oudine was entirely passive, and therefore without reproach?

Oudine the octopus looking pious

I’m honestly not sure. On the one hand, it’s entirely possible that the description of Oudine is meant entirely to back up the next sentence:

Ingier, presuming that his wife had been taken by force, said to Laurent and Jehan Drujon:

“My friends, avenge me on these thieves, who rob me and beat my wife.”

Probably that’s what it was meant to do.

Yet I still can’t shake that Oudine’s passivity is being placed in juxtaposition to the more active neighbors.

Is this why the Duke of Bedford took a moment to explain why the neighborhood women had responded so actively? To soften the criticism implicitly lodged against them?

It could also have been a more simple statement of contrasts, that Oudine was trussed up and about to be kidnapped, unlike the other, more active, women, and therefore it was Robin Ingier’s honour that was most in danger, justifying his (and Laurent and Jehan’s) next moves.

What were those next moves? Find out next time! (I need to work on better cliff-hanger transitions..)

When Temptation Strikes: II


Recap of Part I:

Part II: Help Thy Neighbour

We continue on with a case of burglary and violent assault in medieval Lancastrian Normandy. Let’s see what happens next to our medieval criminals!

When we last left Oudine, she was running away from her assailants. Had she successfully escaped their assault? It’s hard to say. As we’ll see later in the story, preserving her virtue becomes an important plot point. That said, probably she had not been raped, as a successful attack on the wife would have been understood as an assault upon the husband, thereby further justifying any response he took. We can’t be certain, however, because Robin Ingier may have felt the loss of honour and status from his wife’s rape was too great to acknowledge. Come to that, this isn’t even Robin Ingier’s petition. We haven’t met the brothers who are actually presently pleading for a reprieve. And while they would have been involved in crafting their exculpatory tale, their friends and families would also have been part of the process.

All the voices I’ve been privileging here are male. What about Oudine? None other than Oudine and her attackers were present when the assault took place. Would she have told her husband if it was successful? Not necessarily. People then as now can be real nincompoops when it comes to responding to another person’s sexual trauma. And in the society of early 15th-century France, her worth as a woman and wife was tied to her perceived purity and uprightness, which was itself tied to ideas about sexual purity. She very well may have preferred not to admit what had happened to her.

In short, there are a lot of competing interests at play that may account for why the attack on Oudine is glossed as unsuccessful. We can be skeptical, but as I’ve no reason to say she was raped, let’s give the grrl props for getting away.

At least for the moment.

Outside of a house. Someone inside is yelling for help. Several people (drawn as octopuses) hear the cry.

Whatever the reality happening inside the house, outside the neighborhood women heard Oudine raising the hue and cry (ie yelling for help).

Every one of them, we’re told, assembled to help, wanting to do for her what they would want done for themselves in a similar case. This is a rather neat encapsulation of the medieval social contract, and as I write this feels pretty darn timely in terms of what community solutions to violence in an un-policed society can look like.

Also, these kick-ass medieval women are putting the lie to the whole “damsels in distress” motif.

I want to pause from looking at the story to looking at the petition itself.

This is a pretty neat part in the record, one we don’t see very often. The Duke of Bedford* (or at least, a court scribe writing in his voice) interjects to explain something.

Typically, the petitioner is able to get on with it, the official court voice only appearing at the beginning and end to set up the case and render the judgment (with occasional adjustments such as saying “our enemies” in reference to the French).

But here, when our petitioners speak of Oudine’s raising of the hue and cry, Bedford feels he needs to comment (I’m going to keep up the text’s fiction that it’s Bedford himself speaking). He interjects:

At this cry the female neighbors assembled and, wanting to resist the evil enterprise of the Englishmen or others, fearing that if they did not help or aid their neighbor in her need, she would not help them another time in a similar case, they made together a great hue and cry, requiring our help, such that our men and subjects were accustomed to do in such a case in our country of Normandy when one does them wrong, and they could not resist the furor of those who violently stole from them and took by undue force, against the custom of our country; our subjects are bound to come to such a cry, that is those who can hear it, in order to accomplish good justice.

It’s an odd interjection, since the idea of the hue and cry certainly existed in England, yet Bedford takes quite a few lines explaining what this is. Maybe it’s a rewriting of what the petitioners wrote, rendered in the duke’s voice, though I don’t quite know why this would be. If any one more expert than I on English criminal custom would like to share their thoughts in the comments, I’d be much obliged!

The octopus-women enter the house to find Oudine captured and two angry jellyfish-strangers.

Upon hearing Oudine’s calls for help, the women respond, just as the Duke of Bedford explained. Entering the home, they found Oudine trapped by the strangers and many of Robin Ingier’s goods stuffed into sacks.

While the neighborhood women are trying to help Oudine and adding their cries to hers, Robin Ingier passes near his home and hears the cries.

Robin Ingier, drawn as an octopus, hears cries for help coming from his house.

Looking inside, he quickly assesses the situation.

Robin Ingier looks through a window.

Assessment: I’m f*cked.

No, he didn’t actually say that. He was far more restrained, at least in the petition.

Considering that against the evil enterprise of the Englishmen he couldn’t resist without ehlp, he allied with Laurent and Jehan Drujon.

Who are Laurent and Jehan Drujon? Stick around! We’ll meet them next time!


Quick Refresher: Duke of Bedford is currently the regent of England while the king’s working out how to use a potty as opposed to mess himself. That means the Duke also is the ruler of Lancastrian Normandy, the English-occupied territory of… Normandy! Petitions for pardon thus go to him (or his judicial staff) at this juncture. For more on the situation in Normandy at this time, see A Dice Game to Die For: Part I. For Bedford, see Part I and Part II of Off the Deep End. Return to post.