Potions and prosecution: a case from medieval Herefordshire

By Dr Gwen Seabourne, Reader in Legal History (University of Bristol Law School).*

© M.J. Seabourne. Tomb of John de Swinfeld, Hereford Cathedral
© M.J. Seabourne. Tomb of John de Swinfeld, Hereford Cathedral

In 1292, Herefordshire, close to the Welsh border, received a visit from the royal justices, touring England with a view to hearing legal disputes, investigating crimes and making a tidy profit for the king from the various fines imposed upon individuals and communities. Precociously bureaucratic, the machinery of royal government recorded much of what went on before the justices, bequeathing to future generations priceless insights into life and law at this early time.

One intriguing case from the rolls of this 1292 session gives important glimpses of several different aspects of medieval law and life. As I have noted in a recent article in Social History of Medicine, Isabella Plomet, a woman from Hereford, managed to obtain some measure of legal redress from Ralph de Worgan, a surgeon of sorts, who was found to have agreed to treat her for leg problems, but actually gave her a drug called dwoledreng and proceeded to rape her.

This short record – just a few lines of abbreviated Latin – is interesting in a number of ways. From the point of view of medical history, it provides some useful insights into availability of, and use of, anaesthetics at this early period. From the point of view of legal history, it is a rare example of a medieval woman managing to convince a jury that she has been the victim of a sexual offence. Anyone who has looked at medieval rape cases is likely to have come across endless discontinued cases, and a great many ‘not guilty’ verdicts.

The successful outcome is even more striking since it might well have been expected that Isabella Plomet would have an uphill struggle to convince a jury that there had been an offence here: medieval law books stress the need to show signs of a violent struggle – blood, torn clothes and evident bodily injury – not necessarily present if the victim was immobilised or anaesthetised by the drug in question. It seems clear that the ideas medieval juries (only men allowed, by the way) had about sexual offences were more complex and flexible than might have been imagined.

But then there is the next problem – this case seems to be a one-off. I have found nothing at all similar in medieval English records. So should we see the Plomet case as a sign that medieval women’s lot might not have been as bleak as previously imagined, or should we assume that there was some particular reason for this verdict – something to do with the respectability of Isabella or the unpopularity of Ralph, for example – which led those involved in hearing and trying the case to an uncharacteristic generosity to the victim of a sexual offence? The jury (this time without gender disqualification) is, I am afraid, still out.

* The full version of the paper has been published as G Seabourne, ‘Drugs, Deceit and Damage in Thirteenth-century Herefordshire: New Perspective on Medieval Surgery, Sex and the Law’ (2016) Social History of Medicine, advanced access doi: 10.1093/shm/hkw053.

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