15.08.32, Butler, Forensic Medicine and Death Investigation in Medieval England

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Wendy Turner

The Medieval Review 15.08.32

Butler, Sara M. Forensic Medicine and Death Investigation in Medieval England. Routledge Research in Medieval Studies, 7. New York: Routledge, 2015. pp. xvi, 311. ISBN: 978-1-138-80981-9 (hardback).

Reviewed by:
Wendy Turner
 Georgia Regents University

Forensic Medicine and Death Investigation in Medieval England is an interesting and informative new look the office of the coroner, created in 1194, and the coroner's jury. Butler sets out to "answer the question of how coroners and their jurors deciphered the body's signs of physical distress in order to determine cause of death without 1) appointing physicians as coroners, and/or 2) disbursing funds to pay a cadre of medical practitioners for their expertise." (8) Butler comes to the conclusion that, when needed, medical professionals served as members of the jury and many who served as coroners did so because of the social prestige associated with holding an office. It seems that the office of coroner was second in each county only to that of sheriff, on whom the coroner was to keep an eye.

The most powerful part of this book is Butler's work on jurors--especially the empanelment of juries. Coroners' juries assisted in the investigation of the accused and sometimes served both on the jury of "presentment and trial so that effectively a juror passed judgment on the same individual he had indicted." (107) Butler did a careful comparison of the jury lists of York, the Register of the Freemen of the City of York (Francis Collins, ed., v. 1, Surtees Society, v. 96, 1897), and poll tax evidence, as far as she could. This gave her, and us, an interesting collection of data, including names, occupations, repeated service on juries, and other valuable information. More, Butler delved into the possible expertise each of these members may have brought to any particular jury. "For example, in the death of John Clerk, a skinner, in August 1363, the inquest jury included fifteen jurors[...]. Most of them worked in occupations closely associated with skinning." (88-89) These jurors would be familiar with the dead individual's lifestyle, habits, friends and associates, and any equipment he used as well as quite possibly motives and/or connections in other ways if this were a homicide. As Butler puts it, "The ideal jury was both informed and authoritative: but not all members of the jury needed to embody both qualities." (89) Most juries, as expected, had twelve members, but in certain areas of the country--London, for example, which routinely had twenty-four members on a jury--they had other set numbers for juries; although, none that Butler mentions that were less than twelve.

The coroner examined corpses, certainly. These bodies were to be unclothed and all wounds were to be carefully logged and described. "Beyond the body, the investigation relied closely on oral interviews, from a wide variety of subjects: neighbors, family, friends, witnesses, suspects, even the dead themselves" (164-165), who sometimes gave "dying declarations." (156-158) While the coroner did not have to have expertise in medicine, it seems that Butler has uncovered several families that had passed either the job of coroner from one generation to the next or other law-keeping activities or offices. (57)

My only criticism is on the section closest to my own research, mental health. In the last decade there has been much new research on medieval law and mental health, both on mental illness and learning disabilities. Butler has a larger section of chapter four on "Insanity" (197-209) but uses very little of this new scholarship. While she mentions Basil Clark's important study from 1975, Mental Disorder in Earlier Britain: Exploratory Studies (Cardiff: University of Wales), and a few literary studies such as Sylvia Huot's Madness in Medieval French Literature (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003), the book here could have profited from more secondary sources. I want to emphasize, though, that Butler's findings are correct, albeit lacking some depth--but this topic was not the main purpose of her book. Still these dozen pages could have benefitted from works such as Christopher Goodey's A History of Intelligence and 'Intellectual Disability': The Shaping of Psychology in Early Modern Europe (Farnham: Ashgate, 2011), Patrick McDonagh's Idiocy: A Cultural History (Liverpool: Liverpool University Press, 2008), my own work both as editor of Madness in Medieval Law and Custom (Leiden: Brill, 2010) and author of Care and Custody of the Mentally Ill, Incompetent, and Disabled in Medieval England (Turnhout: Brepols, 2013), and others. I should mention one other early article, which is often missed on this topic and while from a while ago fits nicely with Butler's points: Donald Sutherland's fascinating article, "Peytevin v. La Lynde" (Law Quarterly Review, 83 [1967], pp. 527-546). Let me underscore the point that Butler's research here stayed true to her topic of coroner's rolls, as she wanted to focus on that rather than secondary materials, and her minor oversight in no way detracts from her exquisite work on coroners and their juries.

Early in the book, Butler suggests that "the history of the coroner needs a fresh start" (34), and I would say she's given it a good one. This book is highly readable by advanced undergraduates and will be enjoyable for all scholars of medieval law and medicine. Specialists in medieval gender history (see in particular 160-162) and disease history (especially her work here on "true pestilence," proving that medieval coroners specifically identified plague, 139-140, 181-184) will enjoy this volume in part or in whole. Certainly it offers a clear explanation of how the office of the medieval coroner operated, how the jury was put together and worked with the coroner, and how as a team they effectively came to conclusions concerning victims and perpetrators.

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