Tag Archives: Edward I

Medieval mental health: describing, explaining and excusing a ‘furiosus’

Today’s tale comes from Sussex, and from the latter years of Edward I’s reign. It is to be found in a roll of ‘criminal’ proceedings of 1306 (JUST /934 m.3; http://aalt.law.uh.edu/AALT4/JUST1/JUST1no934/aJUST1no934fronts/IMG_5655.htm)  and associated Patent Roll records (CPR 1301-7 p. 416: https://archive.org/details/calendarpatentr00offigoog ). The longer record is in the roll of pleas and gaol delivery before Bereford, Hengham and Mallore, justices commissioned to hear certain cases in Sussex, in Hillary term 1306.

The record states that Nigel Coppedone of Pende had been indicted for the death of Henry Rosselyn of Bradewater, killed in the field of Lancing, on a date in 1305. Nigel pleaded ‘not guilty’, and accepted jury trial.

It tells us that the jury swore the following to be the true story of events surrounding Henry’s killing:

Nigel had recently been a sailor, taking his own ship in the fleet which was supplying the English in Gascony, fighting there against the king of France. Unfortunately, Nigel’s ship, along with others, was captured by the enemies of the king of England, and he lost all of his goods which were on the ship. Nigel was also beaten and wounded. As a result of the beating, the wounds, and the loss of such a large quantity of goods, he was injured, exhausted and mentally incapable or ‘insane’ (in demencia… furore…) for a long time. Grieving, his friends tied him up, as one does with a mad person (furiosus). Tied up in this way, he was brought to these parts, and entrusted to other friends and neighbours of his. They kept him tied up for a long time, because he continued to exhibit the behaviour of a furiosus, but he broke free of his chains, and escaped their custody. He ate raw meat and ran about naked all over the place. Henry got in his way when he was on the run, and, in a state of madness (furiose), Nigel killed him. And afterwards he ran about in the same way (i.e. furiosus). And they specified that he did not kill Henry through malice or by pre-planned felony, but was led to do it by madness (furore tantum ad hoc ipsum inducente). They backed this up by linking it to the statement that before the deed, during and after it, he was in a continuous state of madness (furor). Therefore he was to be sent to jail to await a royal pardon. This pardon was forthcoming, and is reproduced in the record. It accepts the explanation that Nigel had killed Henry through madness (furore ductus). A summary appears in the Calendar of Patent Rolls (above).

Why is this interesting?

Clearly, it is a striking and tragic story. It is also a valuable source for ‘lay’ and ‘official’ attitudes to mental disorders and appropriate responses to them. Some things are not new: it is well-known that a person who was in an obvious state of mental disorder when committing homicide could expect a pardon (see, e.g. N. Hurnard, The King’s Pardon for Homicide (Oxford, 1969). The tying up – or chaining- of violently unwell people is also known. What is a little different to other accounts I have seen, however, is (i) the thoroughness of the jury’s explanation and (ii) what that allows us to deduce about their ideas of the causes and effects of mental disorder. We could note that they see a causal link between Nigel’s mistreatment and the loss of his goods on the one hand, and his descent into ‘fury’ on the other. Their care to ensure that Nigel is not held criminally responsible for his actions also leads them to talk about the periods before and after the killing, adding fascinating details about the sort of behaviours thought to indicate ‘fury’ – the raw meat, the nakedness, the running around. They portray ‘fury’ as something which entirely removes responsibility – and is, in a sense, a cause of the killing: Nigel is led by ‘fury’ into doing what he does.

Another little glimpse of a much bigger subject is afforded by the description of those around Nigel as he becomes disordered: his shipmates are grieved by this. And, although chaining up does not strike the modern reader as a kind way to treat somebody like Nigel, we should note that those doing the chaining are described as his ‘friends’,  indicating that he was not cast off by those who had known him before, and that they were probably trying to do their best for him. One wonders, of course, what would have been the perspective on all of this of the friends and family of the unfortunate Henry.