Cruel Britannia

Cruel Britannia

At a convent in the 1160s, near Watton in the East Riding of Yorkshire, one nun had lost her virginity to a young priest. When her condition became obvious, the nuns interrogated her about the offending man. When she revealed his identity, the nuns captured him. They took him to the cell of the pregnant nun. She was given a knife and forced to castrate her lover, whereupon the nuns stuffed his genitals into her mouth. She was then flogged, and bound with chains in a prison cell. This is one of the many signal and striking episodes that make the study of medieval England more fascinating than a mere chronicle of kings and battles. 

In Worcester in 1221, Thomas of Eldersfield was accused of malicious wounding and sentenced to harsh punishment: the judges decreed that the relatives of the victim could perform the blinding and castration. They threw his eyeballs to the ground, and used his testicles as little footballs. The apparent severity of the penalties was deemed necessary in a violent society where relatively few offenders were caught. In the absence of a police force or a standing army, condign punishment was one of the few ways of upholding social obligations. That is why local people were generally compelled to witness the performance of the sentence.

If the life of the nation was harsh, so was the system of punishment. The objective was to maintain order at all costs. The stocks and the gibbet were the common properties of English life. “Let him see a priest” were the last words of the judge in a hanging matter. If you were convicted in Wakefield, you would be hanged; if you were found guilty in Halifax, your head would be cut off. Thieves, apprehended in Dover, were thrown over the cliffs. At Sandwich, they were buried alive, in a place known as Thiefdown, at Sandown. At Winchelsea they were hanged in the salt marsh there. At Halifax, the axe would be drawn up on a pulley, and then fastened by a pin to the side  of the scaffold. If the prisoner had been caught in false possession of a horse or an ox, the animal was led to the scaffold with him. The beast was then tied to a cord that held the pin and, at the moment of judgment, the beast was whipped and the pin came out when the animal moved. The proceedings were accompanied by the plaint of a bagpipe. 

It was a world in which no one was ever wholly well, especially when the remedies of illness were not always effective. The cure of toothache was to burn a piece of mutton fat under the affected tooth, so that the ‘worms’ would fall out. A curative for kidney stones was a mash made out of the bodies of beetles and crickets applied to the sick part of the body. The cure for tonsillitis was inspired: “Take a fat cat, skin it, draw out the guts and take the grease of a hedgehog and the fat of a bear… All this crumble small and stuff the cat, roast it whole and gather the grease and anoint the patient therewith.” The lice of hogs were a sovereign remedy against consumption. If you combed your hair with an ivory comb, your memory would be improved. For a condition known as ‘web in the eye’ the marrow from the great bone of a goose wing was to be mingled with the juice of the red honeysuckle, but the flower had to be plucked “with the saying of nine paternosters, nine aves and a creed”. 

It is easy to mock what seem to be absurd provisions, but they were part of a tradition that viewed the human and natural world as part of the same unity. That is why doctors prescribed the flesh of tame beasts rather than of wild ones – a carp from the pond was better than a shrimp from the seashore. It calmed, rather than excited, the patient. Melancholy men must avoid eating venison – the deer is a beast that lives in fear, and fear only augments the melancholy humour. If a man was sick with jaundice and saw a yellow thrush, the man would be cured and the bird would die.

Laughter was, perhaps, the best medicine, though medieval humour is now perhaps an arcane subject. One phrase was a catchword in the 14th century – “As Hendyng says” or “quoth Hendyng”, a way of encapsulating wit or wisdom: “Friendless are the dead, quoth Hendyng” or “never tell your foe that your foot aches, quod Hendyng” or “Hendyng says, better to give an apple than to eat an apple.” Many jokes or puzzles were posed, and a game of question and answer was called ‘Puzzled Balthasar’. What is the broadest water and the least danger to walk over? The dew. What is the cleanest leaf among all other leaves? The holly leaf, for nobody will wipe his arse with it. What is the best thing and the worst thing among men? Word is both best and worst. What thing is it that some love and some hate? It is judgement.

A thousand proverbs and sayings rose into the air: a ring upon a nun is like a ring in a sow’s nose; the sun is none the worse for shining on a dunghill; he must needs swim that is borne up to the chin; an hour’s cold will suck out seven years of heat. The last sentence is redolent of the entire medieval period. To enter that world, in fact and in imagination, is to discover the lost spirit of England.


Foundation: A History of England, Volume I by Peter Ackroyd is out now, published by Macmillan.

A major exhibition of the British Library’s treasure trove of medieval and Renaissance manuscripts, Royal Manuscripts: the Genius of Illumination, runs from 11 November 2011 until 13 March 2012. See