Perhaps unsurprisingly for an institution that did not formally admit women as members until 1920, the early records of the University are dominated by men – with academic progress records documenting their achievements; the minutes of Congregation and Convocation recording their appointments, actions and voices; and accounts noting how they chose to spend money. In contrast, the actions of women are seldom documented, unless they happened to be wealthy and gave large parcels of land for the use of the University.
An exception to this comes from a quirk of Oxford’s history – the existence of the Chancellor’s Court. The Chancellor’s Court was effectively the University’s own judicial system. Believed to have originated in 1214, when the Award of the Papal Legate ensured that arrested clerks would be handed over to the Chancellor, the powers of the Court grew over the years. By 1290, it had the power to hear all cases where one party was a University member; by 1341 the Chancellor had the right to banish people from the city; and by 1355, the Court had powers to enforce the peace of the city (by punishing those carrying weapons, for example). It is the records of the Court that detail the daily lives of “lower class” women and attitudes towards them.
One such woman is Lucy Colbrand. She appears in the first volume containing records of the Chancellor’s Court, the Chancellor’s Register 20 March 1435 – 3 March 1469 (Reference: OUA/Hyp/A/1). The Register is not an easy document to penetrate. The entries (written on a mixture of parchment and paper sheets) are thought to be in handwriting of individual Chancellors and their representatives (known as Commissaries). Furthermore, there is evidence that these entries were made hurriedly, perhaps even verbatim. The entries also use “scribe specific” abbreviations – just as we now have our own ways of shortening words when writing under time pressure. It’s rather like trying to read the prescriptions of dozens of different doctors!
The page in the Chancellor’s Register, documenting Lucy’s transgressions (OUA/Hyp/A/1)
Fortunately, we are able to turn to the Reverend H.E. Salter’s two-volume transcription of the Register (Registrum Cancellarii Oxoniensis 1434-1469 (1932)) which removes the need to decipher handwriting, but still preserves the entries in their original Medieval Latin, the formal written language of this period. The entry relating to Lucy, dated 13 March 1443/4, can be found on pages 92 to 93 of Volume I.
A translation of the passage reads:
In that same year, namely the year of the Lord’s Incarnation 1443 on the day after the day of St Gregory the pope, Lucy Colbrand, procuress and whore, was publicly banished for numerous insurgencies and perjuries for which she had previously sworn that she would leave outside the University and its precincts forever. However, notwithstanding her oath, she did not leave but she was, within the University, the cause of ensuing quarrels, whoredoms, arguments and murders; therefore because she was thus the reason and cause for further evils and disturbance of the peace, and because she herself [was] incorrigible and unreforming after imprisonment, therefore on the aforesaid day she was banished publicly in the presence of many doctors and masters in writing in the form which follows:
‘In the name of God, Amen. We, Thomas Gascoigne, acting Chancellor of the University of the school of Oxford, do decree that you, Lucy Colbrand – who have been in the presence of the official judicially and at other times lawfully convicted of the frequent disturbance of the peace, of procuring, prostitution, perjury and many other outrageous trespasses and offences, and have confessed the same, and are wholly incorrigible — are to be banished on account of the aforementioned matters. According to this writ we banish you, warning you the first time, the second time, and the third and final time that you must leave and depart within three days from this University of Oxford and beyond its precincts, not to return again under the penalties and threats according to the privileges granted to us on that account.’
Enacted on the day of St Benedict the Confessor at Oxford at Carfax; and the punishment of incarceration is imposed on anyone who illicitly receives her into the University or its precincts.
The Medieval Latin of the original immediately presents its own challenges to understanding the entry. By the Medieval period, Latin had evolved to include words for new concepts, often specific to the context in which they were used. Even more of a headache for the would-be reader, sometimes words changed their meanings from those used in Ancient Rome. For example, in the first line, Lucy is described as “pronuba et meretrix”. “Meretrix” is straightforward, translating as “prostitute”, but in Classical Latin “pronuba” means “bridesmaid”, a word that does not fit comfortably in this context! An investigation of this word in its medieval context indicates that there was a complex vocabulary surrounding the sex industry active during this period. There were specific words, not just for prostitute, but also for brothels (lupanaria), brothel keepers (fautor lenocinli), and pimps (leno). “Pronuba” was sometimes used to describe a female pimp, but it was also specifically used to mean “procuress”, meaning someone who received money from a client for providing the introduction to a sex worker, perhaps the equivalent of running a modern-day escort agency.
The passage also gives us insight into the punishments used (not only towards prostitutes) at the time. The least harsh penalty was abjuration. In this context, it can be interpreted as a promise to withdraw from the University to a set radius (for example, five miles) for an agreed period of time (for example, one year). Imprisonment was another punishment option, probably deeply unappealing at a time when the city’s prison had been nicknamed the “Bocardo”, thought to have been derived from the word “Boggard”, meaning toilet. Finally, the Chancellor had the power to exile individuals from the University and its precincts (technically within two miles of Carfax tower, although in 1444 the King gave the Chancellor permission to banish disturbers of the peace to a distance of 12 miles), a punishment that also carried public shame as it was announced at Carfax on market days.
As well as transcribing the Chancellor’s Register, Salter also “retro-created” a map of how Oxford might have looked in 1400. The Bocardo would have been located within the North Gate, and Carfax is by St Martin’s Church (only the tower of the church remains today, known as “Carfax Tower”). This vibrant modern update of Salter’s work is an extract from the brand new “British Historic Towns Atlas, Volume VII, Oxford” and is kindly provided by and is copyright of The Historic Towns Trust, 2021.
Lucy seems to have, through numerous infractions, worked her way through the system of punishments to the most severe available, obviously trying the Chancellor’s patience in the process. It’s clear that at some point previously, she did abjure, and thus her reoffending is referred to as a “perjury”, a breaking of her oath. It is notable, however, that at the time of abjuration, Lucy’s crimes must have been substantial, for the period of withdrawal was “forever”. It’s evident that she had also already spent some time incarcerated (“after imprisonment”) – again, given the structure of the wording, most likely for the same crimes. Her refusal (or inability due to financial circumstances) to stop offending seems to have infuriated the authorities – the words “incorrigible” and “unreforming” are often amplified by words of repetition and continuation – “previously”, “ensuing”, “numerous”, “further”, contributing to the impression that Lucy seems to have been before the Chancellor a number of times in the past.Source: Wellcome Collection. Attribution 4.0 International (CC BY 4.0)
This sense of exasperation is supported by the immediacy of the writing. Although, this provides some challenging palaeography, it nevertheless, in this circumstance, conveys the feelings of the author. The first paragraph heaps up her crimes: although it is clear that the crimes of sexual immorality are the focus of the punishment, it is made plain that she is an “unseemly” woman – she is not quiet and submissive. She quarrels, argues, and is disruptive. The second paragraph apparently gives us the precise words spoken by the Chancellor when handing down his sentence, possibly in the very speech that Lucy would have heard. Although recorded for administrative purposes, the direct language places the reader in Lucy’s shoes: “You… have been… lawfully convicted and… have confessed… we banish you… you must leave”. The use of the “the first time, the second time, and the third and final time” conveys a sense of rhythmic emphasis given to this warning – we can practically hear the speaker’s delivery when reading the piece.
A piece of marginalia from later in the Register depicts the form of official decrees (OUA/Hyp/A/1)
The order in which Lucy’s crimes are listed is also of interest, as the crimes do not fit our preconceptions of importance. As identified above, those regarding sexual immortality are front and centre, but the list goes on – she does not respect authority, she breaks her oath, and causes arguments. It is one of the last crimes listed that provides the surprise, as the passages cites her involvement in murders (plural). It is not clear from the passage to what extent Lucy was involved or how active a participant she was. It may perhaps have been a passing involvement, as it is not mentioned at all in the direct speech of the second paragraph. Yet, it does seem to convey the sense that involvement in murder is of the least concern to those in power, certainly behind being a quarrelsome and argumentative woman!
Unfortunately, this is the first and last we hear of Lucy in the University’s records. She makes no further appearance in the Chancellor’s Court records. A cursory search of non-University contemporary judicial documents (such as Rogers’ Oxford City Documents and Salter’s Records of Mediæval Oxford and Munimenta Civitats Oxonie) appear not to record her name. We have no information on whether Lucy continued to exercise her profession and her temper outside the city boundaries, or whether the Chancellor’s harshest punishment finally “reformed” her character. It would seem that, to quote Laurel Ulrich, “well-behaved women seldom make history”.
For further information on the Chancellor’s Court and prostitution in Medieval Oxford the following sources are a good starting point:
Salter, H. E. Registrum Cancellarii Oxoniensis, 1434-1469. Oxford, 1932. Print. Oxf. Hist. Soc. (Ser.) ; v. 93-94.
Kavanagh, H. (2020) The Topography of Illicit Sex in Later Medieval English Provincial Towns. MPhil thesis. Royal Holloway, University of London. Available at: https://pure.royalholloway.ac.uk/portal/files/37318718/2020KavanaghHMphil.pdf (Accessed: 8 December 2021)
Karras, RM. “The Regulation of Brothels in Later Medieval England.” Signs: Journal of Women in Culture and Society 14.2 (1989): 399-433. Web.
Mazo Karras, Ruth. “The Latin Vocabulary of Illicit Sex in English Ecclesiastical Court Records.” The Journal of Medieval Latin 2 (1992): 1-17. Web.