Ow! My cerebrum!

Research can, on occasion, present the scholar with a difficult choice between sources of evidence. The written and material records do not always agree and one is left with an uncomfortable choice between arbitrary preference or awkward uncertainty. Actually, this problem may be more common than people like to admit and so it’s great fun to find close analogues between the records and the archaeology. My self-directed Latin study has reminded me of one such match.

One early volume from the Selden Society compiled medieval Coroners rolls and while morbid, they are fascinating collections of every-day minutia.1 Now that many of the original rolls are viewable online, thanks to AALT, I can actually point to the original entry that records the surprising durability of John Bretteville of Barford, Bedfordshire.

The case, recorded in TNA/JUST2/46 memb 5, recto (the Bedfordshire Coroners rolls for Henry III), was brought to the coroner’s court of Bedfordshire on 2 November, 1271 by John’s wife, Emma. She described an attack on her husband by Simon, son of Roger Cainhoe back on 10 October. Emma and John where walking through Barford in the evening when Simon attacked them, struck John in the head and left hand, and robed hm of some cash and a purse. Nothing particularly remarkable here, but there is a detailed description of John’s wounds. Simon first struck John ‘with a certain sword’ and “assera in summitate capitis ex sinistra parte inter grevam et auditum / et fecit eii mangnum plagam longitudine vto policium, latitudine iij. et profunditate usque ad cerebrum, unde tresdecim pedie ossis exierunt de dicta plaga.”2 Thus did Simon strike John “on the top of his head on the left side between the parting of the hair and the ear” and “inflicted upon him a big wound which was five inches long, three inches wide, and which extended downward as far as the brain, so that thirteen pieces of bone were extracted from the wound.”3 John tried to fend off further blows, such that two fingers on his left hand were maimed and he was otherwise beaten about the head with the flat of the sword.

We can trust this description because the Coroner went and viewed the wounded John himself. That head wound seems to have cost John his hearing but not, at this stage, his life. Emma clearly describes a husband who is very much alive, but unfit to appear in court and the language of the case implies that there is no certainty that he will succumb to the wounds.

Medieval medicine does not have a good reputation and while this is entirely reasonable, we too often forget the remarkable durability of the human body. John’s injuries, and his survivability, have a direct analogue in the archaeological record. Trevor Anderson and Ian Hodgins describe a skull with healed injuries that were somewhat worse than John’s. That skull was struck two or three times, in the same area (left temporal area) which would have penetrated to the brain.4 Anderson describes another similar skeleton from the Anglo-Saxon period that also survived, for a while, with similar injuries.5

Now, one can’t say much more about John’s ‘functionality’ after this attack or the extent of his recovery but he does recover enough to appear at the Coroner’s court in person on 30 November, and again four more times, as late as 24 June 1272. Simon appear to have scarpered by that point, but the case is well a truly asserted in Bedfordshire. It does not say if John got his hearing back and we must assume that he changed where his hair parted, given the circumstances.


1 Charles Gross, Select Cases from the Coroner’s Rolls AD 1265-1413 with a Brief Account of the History of the Office of Coroner, Selden Society vol. ix (Bernard Quaritch: London, 1896). The introductory essay is now superseded by H. F. Hunnisett, The Medieval Coroner, Cambridge Studies in English Legal History (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1961).

2 I use the transcription from Gross (21), but it is accurate. The original is very heavy on abbreviations which Gross silently expands. There is little point in putting them back in here. Feel free to look at the original if you want. This description appears near the end of line 6.

3 Gross, 22.

4 Trevor Anderson and Ian Hodgins, ‘Healed Cranial Weapon Injury from Medieval Coventry, England’, Neurosurgery, 50 (2002), pp. 870–873.

5 T. Anderson, ‘Cranial Weapon Injuries from Anglo-Saxon Dover’, Osteoarchaeology, 6 (1996), pp. 10–14.

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