Say John, what’s in the bag?

I’m sure John Crok of Tetworth, Cambridgeshire, enjoyed his game of ‘guess what’s in the bag’, and won drinks at some public house in Southwark until a disgruntled husbandman, blabbed to the bailiffs. What no-one could manage to guess, and what became known to the bailiffs, was that John Crok was walking around the south bank of the Thames, with a head in a bag—capud cuiusdam Sarisini—a certain Saracen head, from Toledo.

In October of 1371, Crok was called before the court of King’s Bench at Westminster to explain himself (and the head).

I regret that this isn’t my discovery, but it’s obscure enough that I doubt many of my readers will roll their eyes and think “Oh this again? The old head-in-the-bag story. Old news is so exciting.”

Frankly, I’m surprised i didn’t know about this sooner. I have read rather extensively in medieval esoteric and occult history but I can’t remember seeing this one before.[1] Granted, there isn’t much to this one, but it’s neat all the same. I just read about Crok in an unlikely place; a discussion of the extant records of the court of King’s Bench.

When H. G. Richardson wrote about the various historical sources of English legal history in 1922, the big news was that the Coram rege or King’s Bench records were slowly appearing from the cellars of the White Tower and the Chancery storage at Westminster. Previously, the curious relied on the 17th century year books, compiled from those same KB records but with less care for detail and without any historical motivation.

Richardson argued that there was a great deal of useful stuff still in the KB files that were not recorded in the year books (a gross understatement, really) and he used the example of John Crok. The year-book entry for his case was pretty sparse and, it would appear after comparison with the KB record, it was wrong on a few significant details.[2] Over the years following Richardson’s brief reminder of the hidden value in the King’s Bench rolls, G. O. Sayles edited 7 volumes of KB records for the Selden Society and in volume 6 (which is vol 82 in the Selden Society series) he reproduced the King’s Bench proceedings against John Crok.[3]


KB27/443 rex rot. 23d (detail)

[You can read the entire case, in its original 14th century glory, at AALT]

It’s a fairly straightforward case. Someone accused Crok of “deceit and treachery” which probably refers to illicit use of the head in some process. That the bag and its contents were of interest to the court is clear from the seperate writ issued to John Tipet, bailiff of the Archbishop of Canterbury (within whoes jurisdiction Southwark fell). The writ ordered Tipet to send “the bag with aforesaid head” to the court. Crok was sent separately under his own writ.

When examined further the bag contained, in addition to the head, a book and “scrowettas de papero diuersimodo pictas comburet etc.” which Sayles translates as ‘screws of paper with their carious drawings etc.'[4]

Crok was asked to explain himself and while we can’t be sure of his exact words. KB rolls are not transcriptions of proceedings, only summaries containing essentials and usually produced by the recording clerk once everything was resolved at that particular sitting, and since Crok’s testimony was, in all probability, given in English, it is recorded here in Latin. That being said, Crok’s statements are direct and honest. He told the court that “the said head was the head of a Saracen and that he bought the head in Toledo, a certain city in Spain, in order to shut a spirit up in it so that he said spirit would answer questions”

And the book?

“the book had to do only with experiments [experimentis] and he had so far done nothing with the head.”

Well, nothing deceitful there… Crok was asked to swear on the gospels that he keep his nose clean, as far as this stuff goes, and he was released. The book, head, bits of paper (and, one assumes, the bag) were given to the marshal of the court who was ordered to burn the lot.

Necromancy is a slippery concept in the middle-ages and considering that no-one would have argued that there were no such things as spirits or other super-natural forces at work around them, there was plenty of argument as to the moral efficacy of conjuring and controlling spirits. Fixing a spirit in an object does (I think) appear in the various texts of ritual magic but I can’t remember seeing ones involving actual human heads.[5]

As for the book, I imagine it was something small, a manuscript commonplace that Crok had obtained in his travels and which contained the sort of ritual stuff that was occasionally called ‘experiments.’ This isn’t the modern scientific meaning of the phrase, but a more subjective sort of thing that I lack the resources to explain properly here.[6]

What Crok does not tell the court, or anyone else, who exactly he was. Most legal records include the profession and status of all parties, and this became mandatory under a 1413 statute.[7] Unfortunately, the records of KB do not record Crok’s rank or profession. One can assume that he was well travelled and probably educated. Degree holding scholars often lived peripatetic lifestyles and Toledo would have been a good place to pick up some translating or scribal work (and a head or two). But there is nothing of proof in the case itself.[8]

I doubt I will find anything this cool in the post 1450 KB rolls, but one can only hope.




[1] The standards on this are Richard Kieckhefer, Magic in the Middle Ages, (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 1989), Claire Fanger (ed.), Conjuring Spirits: Texts and Traditions of Medieval Ritual Magic, (Pennsylvania State University Press: University Park, PA., 1998), and most recently Frank Klaassen, The Transformation of Magic: Illicit Learned Magic in the Later Middle Ages and Renaissance, (Pennsylvania State University Press: University Park, PA., 2012). I have not read Klaassen’s most recent work but Crok does not appear there, or the others. He is mentioned in V. I. J. Flint, ‘A Magic Universe’, in Rosemary Horrox and W. Mark Ormrod, eds., A Social History of England, 1200-1500 (Cambridge University Press: Cambridge, 2006) pp. 340–82, and in H. A. Kelly, ‘English Kings and the Fear of Sorcery’, Mediaeval Studies, 39 (1977), pp. 206–38.

[2] H. G. Richardson, ‘Year Books and Plea Rolls as Sources of Historical Information’, Transactions of the Royal Historical Society, 5 (1922), pp. 28–70. Crok is mentioned at pp. 34-6.

[3] G. O. Sayles (ed.), Select Cases in the Court of King’s Bench Under Edward III: Volume VI, Selden Society vol. 86 (Bernard Quaritch: London, 1965). Crok’s case, in Latin original and English translation begins at p. 162.

[4] These paper bits sound like the sort of natural-magic talismanic sorts of things discussed in Don C. Skemer, Binding Words: Textual Amulets in the Middle Ages, (Pennsylvania State University Press: University Park, PA., 2006).

[5] This reminded me of a paper I heard about (but did not actually hear) by David Porreca, ‘Love and Body Parts: A Study on the Use of Cadavers in Love Magic in the PGM, the Picatrix, and the Munich Handbook’, Forty-Fifth International Congress on Medieval Studies (University of Western Michigan, 2010).

[6] These little books don’t often survive for obvious reasons but they do appear, occasionally, in these contexts. For some good material on these sorts of things see Frank Klaassen, ‘English Manuscripts of Magic: 1300-1500, a Preliminary Survey’, in Claire Fanger, ed., Conjuring Spirits: Texts and Traditions of Medieval Ritual Magic (Pennsylvania State University Press: University Park, PA., 1998) pp. 3–31, and his ‘Medieval Ritual Magic in the Renaissance’, Aries, 3 (2003), pp. 166–199.

[7] For context see John A. F. Thompson, The Transformation of Medieval England 1370-1529, (Longman: London, 1983), pp. 110-17.

[8] Students and scholars, getting into trouble with illicit learned magic, is covered in detail by Frank Klaassen, ‘Learning and Masculinity in Manuscripts of Ritual Magic of the Later Middle Ages and Renaissance’, The Sixteenth Century Journal, 38 (2007), pp. 49–76, and Claire Fanger, ‘Covenant and the Divine Name: Revisiting the Liber iuratus and John of Morigny’s Liber florum’, in Claire Fanger, ed., Invoking Angels: Theurgic Ideas and Practices, Thirteenth to Sixteenth Centuries (University of Pennsylvania Press: University Park, PA., 2012) pp. 192–216. For more on Morigny see the material on Esoterica.


1 thought on “Say John, what’s in the bag?

  1. Pingback: Carnivalesque 94: No bishop, no king | the many-headed monster

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