Sunday, September 20, 2009

Medieval Forensics—Part One

Today, we’re very pleased to welcome back Jeri Westerson as our guest blogger. I remember Jeri's excitement, blogging about her first book and now she's back with the second. The first book, Veil of Lies, was nominated for several awards including a Shamus for best P.I. novel.

My detective Crispin Guest treads the muddy streets of fourteenth century London in my newest medieval mystery SERPENT IN THE THORNS. He is a man who once had much, but now has nothing. Well, not exactly nothing. He has his wits, and he uses them wisely to get himself out of scrapes and solve his cases, earning sixpence a day, plus expenses.

But just how does he solve his cases in a time when forensic science was an idea centuries away? Television programs like CSI may not have been a gleam in anyone’s eye, but there were certainly some things that an enterprising detective could have done.

First of all, how did the majority of people die in the medieval period (and we are talking a period roughly between 500 and 1500 AD)?

Certainly women and children had it the hardest. Women died in childbirth and children died at birth or shortly thereafter, even those born into rich households. John of Gaunt, the duke of Lancaster and Crispin’s mentor, had three children die in their first year of life, one making it to three years old. One can see by the baptismal records that male heirs were often named after their fathers and continued to be christened with the same name until an heir finally survived. There might very well be four “Johns” born to the same family.

Childhood was a dangerous place, whether in the country or in a town. Children often died young, and with the need for children and the religious decree to “be fruitful and multiply” (and dubious birth control techniques), wives were pregnant almost every year. Hard on the mother and hard on the children.

Disease played its role as well as did lack of proper nutrition. Battles played their part. They caused farmland to be trampled and made unusable, thus causing starvation, fouling water sources, and opening up the area to diseases.
In the country and in cities like London where there were large water sources like rivers, wells, and cess pools, drownings top the list. But also in cities, many deaths were attributed to the late night wanderings of those wishing to…uh…relieve themselves. Instead of using a pot or going outside to the privies—sometimes climbing down rickety ladders in the dark from their second or third story rooms—men would often stand at their windows (no glass, remember. Just wide-open spaces closed with shutters) and fell out of them. It was suspected that a bit of inebriation was also likely involved. Talk about getting caught with your pants down!

So in the event that a body was found, what would happen?

The “First Finder”, that is, the first person to find a body, would call the “Hue and Cry”—literally, crying out. Hutesium et clamor, "a horn and shouting." Originally, they would follow the perpetrator from house to house. If the death was found to be accidental, it might be decided at once. If, however, the death was murder, more work was called for, and this involved the whole community. In a country village, this meant the whole village. In a big city like London, this would mean the immediate parish.

The Finder was obliged to go to the first four houses nearby and question the residents. Then the Coroner was called. This wasn’t a Quincy-type coroner, but someone with an entirely different and non-medical role.

The first mention of the word “Coroner” is pre-Norman between AD 871 and 910—Alfred the Great’s era. Unfortunately, we don’t know what those Coroners' functions were.
But the idea of the Coroner we know today dates from September 1194, during the reign of Richard I (Lionheart). The Eyre of September 1194 (“eyre” meaning circuit court) was held in the County of Kent, and Article 20 stated: "in every county of the king's realm shall be elected three knights and one clerk, to keep the pleas of the crown--"custos placitorum coronas." He was the guardian of the pleas of the King’s Crown (allegations against a perpetrator). "Coroner", who was also referred to for hundreds of years as "the Crowner". Each county had three Coroners and a clerk carrying the "Coroners' Rolls", later to be replaced by a fourth coroner.
The Coroner was an elected official, like the sheriffs, and traveled around the county seeing that all the rules in a community were conducted correctly, not just writing down crimes. And, of course, collecting fees and fines for when those rules were not followed.

But at the scene of a crime, the Coroner’s role was to take notes and ask questions, though mostly he appointed those nearby to do the questioning and investigating, the idea being that your neighbors knew the goings on best. Crimes were solved quickly or not at all. Either you knew your neighbor’s business and who was guilty or who wasn’t. If it had been a stranger committing the crime, there was no way to know who the culprit was.

Though there may have been unexpected deaths—those fellows who fell out of windows, for instance—there were also deaths attributed to others through no fault. These were called Homicide Through Misadventure. Henry de Bracton, a 13th century jurist, and who was the last word on interpreting law for many centuries, said about this: “ with where one intending to cast a spear at a wild beast or does something of the sort, as where playing with a companion he has struck him in thoughtless jest, or when he stood far off when he drew his bow or threw a stone he has struck a man he did not see, or where playing with a ball it has struck the hand of a barber he did not see so that he has cut another’s throat, and thus has killed a man, not however with the intention of killing him; he ought to be absolved, because a crime is not committed unless the intention to injure exists...”
It’s all about intent. So how would someone know if it were misadventure or only made to look that way?

Well, we’d have to look at the clues but that, alas, is in Part Two of Medieval Forensics. Where can Part Two be found? You’ll have to follow my blog tour, the schedule of which can be found on my website


Vicki Delany said...

I've often said that High School history classes should be reading crime novels. The things you learn! And all presented in a much more interesing way than out of a text book. Thanks, Jeri, interesting stuff.

Charles benoit said...

So I guess it took a village to solve a murder.

That section on Death by Misadventure really got me thinking - it would be very easy to get away with murder back then.

Cool post.

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