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Medieval Sourcebook:

The Strange Story Of Thomas Of Elderfield


A. The Plea Roll Record.

Hundred of Deerhurst . George of Nitheweie appeals Estmar of Netheweye, together with Thomas his son, for assaulting him and wounding him on his arm and his wife similarly. And he offers to prove against him with his body as the court may adjudge that he did this wickedly and in felony and within the Lord King's peace. Later, however, he denies that he appeals Estmar of the deed, but his son Thomas of the deed and Estmar of the force. And so Thomas is to be arrested. Later Thomas comes, and George appeals him of wounding him on the arm, wickedly and in felony and within the Lord King's peace, on the night of the Sunday after Whit in the first year of King Henry. And he is prepared to prove this against him as the court may adjudge, as a man maimed by that wound, and if he be not maimed he is prepared to make proof by his body as the court may judge. And Thomas comes and defends the Lord King's peace etc. and felony and everything word for word as the court may adjudge, and he places himself on his neighborhood. The wound is viewed and it is attested that he has no mayhem through it. And the coroners and the shire attest that suit was made in the proper manner ("racionabiliter") and that they viewed the wound when it was recent, and that he [George] at that time appealed Thomas of the deed and Estmar of force. And the jurors say that they well understand that the same Thomas is guilty of the wound, and they well know that he [George] made suit just as the coroners attest. And it is therefore adjudged that there be a duel between them; and Thomas should give a gage to defend and George to prove [their pleas]. George's sureties: Robert de Haghe, Adam de Pudebrok, John de Notteclive and Richard de Happelege; and Estmar is to be under surety until it is known what will become of Thomas.[1] A day is given to them at Hereford the Wednesday after St. Margaret's Day when they are to appear armed. Thomas was defeated, and blinded and castrated. And the sheriff was ordered to call on the sureties of Estmar of Netheway to produce Estmar himself at Gloucester on the arrival of the justices to answer George concerning the breach of the Lord King's peace of which he appeals him.[2] Estmar is to be under surety until it is known what is to become of Thomas etc. Later they came in arms to Worcester and a duel was fought between them, and Thomas f. Estmar was conquered and therefore judgement is made of him, and it was carried out, and he lost his eyes and scrotum ("pendencia") etc.[3]

[F.W. Maitland, Pleas of the Crown in the County of Gloucester (), no. 87, pp. 21-2.]


 

B. Worcester Story, c. 1240.

The blinded and castrated champion who received eyes and genitals through St. Wulfstan

Rejoice noble England, incomparably glorious from the merits and memories of the saints. Thou, who were in long decay wasting away in idolatry, although slowly steeped in health-giving baptism, although you were not compressed under the footsteps of the Savior Lord, or burdened with the sacred burden of the holy apostles, you yet dare as best you can to contend for equality with the eastern church and sometimes to lift up your head even higher as regards the unheard of novelty of miracles. For saving the reverence due to the holy apostles and martyrs with whom I in no way presume to compare our confessor, who ever heard that what God has deigned to work for his saints in our West has ever been done in the East? To infuse the eyes of the blind with sight, to move the lips of the dumb with speech, to stretch the tendons so the lame and crippled may walk, to clean up the skin of lepers, and to repair or confer new utility to other limbs not indeed lost but enfeebled, this is indeed great and very wonderful. But far more wonderful because absolutely extraordinary is the restoration of new limbs for ones cut off and in every way utterly destroyed. Yet God has deigned to honor England, the corner of the whole world,[4] beyond all kingdoms of the earth, and to favor it with a certain prerogative of dignity. First in Thomas, the glorious archbishop of Canterbury and martyr, and now in our own days in the equally comparable confessor of Worcester. How this happened, I shall tell if that most blessed confessor Wulfstan helps me and God gives me His grace.

There was in the vill of Tirley in Gloucestershire a certain young man, Thomas by name, the son of Estmer of Northway, a man free in condition, indeed, but thin in substance. Since his means scarcely sufficed for himself, the father with pious severity drove him off when he became adult to look to his own needs and in addition to leanr courtly skills ("curialitatem") in the service of some honourable man. Off he went to Chief Justiciar of the kingdom, Geoffrey FitzPeter, confident in the hope that he could more easily gain admittance to service there, where the domestic staff was greater and was less likely to fail anyone where there was an abundance of good things. Nor did his hope deceive him, for he was at once admitted, joined one of the hall-servants ("aulici") and as a conscientious servant acquired the goodwill of the household. In consequence, he profited in many ways, and in brief heaped together many things ready to shower them forth in benediction at the time of seed sowing so that he might reap more richly at harvest time.[5] After a few years there hunting wealth, he returned to his native soil to see his father and his home.[6] And there he dwelt for some time, energetically accumulating riches by seeking out business deals the way laymen do. The wife of his lord, Robert of Northway, saw this and frequently borrowed money from him. She then drew him into the closer intimacy of adultery and kept him for about two years netted in the snares of Venus. Eventually God's grace intervened and remourse stung him; so he presented himself to a priest and took his healthy advice to do proper penance for his offence. Nor did he ever backslide afterwards, thanks to God's protection, though the Lady often incited him to do so and, after her husband's death called on him to marry her. On the contrary, Thomas first completed the penance imposed on him, then confessed to about four other priests, and each time voluntarily underwent and completed in full a new penance. But that daughter of the old Eve, lamenting his refusal and shamed by her repulse conceived a mortal hatred ("mortales .. inimicitias") for him. She disguised this for a time ("ad horam"), as women can, postponing vengeance for her wrongs to the right moment. Disgusted by a long widowhood, she married a certain George, a very sly man, skilled at dissimulation. When it came to his notice that his wife had committed adultery with Thomas in her first husband's time, he was tortured by suspicion and, inflamed by marital zeal, he came to feel an inexorable hatred for Thomas.

One day when they had met to buy a beer or two and were returning home both quite drunk. George, who had been following Thomas along the road, overtook him, stood in his way and hit him, on the head with a big stick, when he was expecting nothing of the kind, then violently threatened worse things. Thomas complained that he had not deserved the blow and warned him with due moderation that, so long as it was the beer that had driven him to do this, he might go away safe this time, but if he added anything to the pain of his wound he would not pass on without punishment. But George's anger had not cooled; nor had he got rid of his malice. He struck him a further blow on his left shoulder. Thomas had now been struck twice. He turned white with anger, and, afraid that if he did not repel force with force, he risked being killed, he raised the axe he was carrying over his arm to strike George.[7] By an unlucky chance he cast the axe-blade further than he had intended. The handle alone struck George's shoulder without harming him, but on the way back the point at the back of the axe slightly scratched George's arm just enough to draw blood. There was a little hedge of the kind you often find by a road or path to safeguard the crops; George leapt across it and hurried on his way. He complained to anyone who crossed his path that he had been bloodied ("de effusione sanguinis sui") and named the one who had caused the wound. He told the story quite differently from the way it had happened. He declared that he had been wounded in all innocence, and proclaimed Thomas a violator of the King's Peace. George hurried back to his home which was not far off. He was used to consulting his wife, because the evil woman never fully sweated out the poison which the malicious serpent poured into the ears of the first mother, but found in herself counsel always ready and capable of evil.

(Once home), he roused the neighborhood against the fugitive with a horn blast, lying that Thomas had violently invaded his house with no respect for the royal peace and had wickedly carried off his goods like a thief, thus inflicting on him a mortal wound while he was defending his home. Among the others coming to the sound of the horn was Estmer, Thomas' father, quite unaware of these things. Meanwhile his son had diverted his flight in the meantime to his own house which he had bought in fee ("sibi et heredibus suis") at Eldersfield in Worcestershire. That whole assembly of men therefore rose up against Estmer as a closely involved supporter and accomplice. They took him to Gloucester and handed him over for the sheriff to shut him up in a dark cell. But he was eventually released, when he had given sureties ("fideiussoribus") and exhausted his purse. Thomas was likewise arrested on a number of occasions and as often freed, through the intercession of the courtiers whom he had served, after pouring out all his goods and chattels in the business.

Later, when king John died and peace was restored to England by the coronation of his son Henry in his place, justices were appointed for the punishment of malefactors and praise of the good through every shire of the realm. George, who had not forgotten his grudges, now proceeded to appeal the said Thomas before the justices for a wound wickedly inflicted within God's peace and the King's. Thomas had no place to hide, so absolutely denied the wound and all the allegations. It was adjudged that the matter be tested by duel and a day was fixed for this on the tenth day before the Assumption of the Blessed Virgin Mary [August 5 1221] at Worcester.

On the day, the justices and innumerable people of both sexes gathered on the field of battle with the champions their arms prepared. George stands there in the middle of the crowd trusting to his strength, nimble with the skills of duelling and ready for action. Opposite stands Thomas putting his trust in the Lord, devotedly to his aid Mary, the glorious mother of God, and the blessed Wulfstan, weeping copious tears for the past and promising a reformed life in the future. Once the address had been given, they joined battle, both giving and receiving wounds, but with Thomas always getting the worst of it. Yet the more he was hurt, the more it inspired him to greater devotion for St. Wulfstan. At length, Thomas was worn down by many assaults, taken by George and thrown to the ground. Then, with his right eye almost torn out, he was forced to acknowledge himself beaten. The odious result of the duel was irrevocably declared. He was stripped by the victor of his fighting clothes, and left on the field more or less naked. And though he was liable to hanging by the custom of the realm, the justices mixed mercy in their judgement, declared him deserving of castration and blinding and authorized the victor's neighbors and kinsmen to execute this judgement. They extracted one eye at once and with ease, more from eagerness to punish than any love of justice, in the presence of servants left behind by the justices for the purpose and a crowd of curious people willingly streaming in for the spectacle. But the other one, already badly injured by George, they could hardly dig out and then only with great difficulty and anguish to the suffering man. They sharpened the blinding instrument two or three times then cast it into the brain in the hope of extinguishing life along with sight. The wretched Thomas felt that nothing was left for him except to raise to God the eyes of his mind and so, crying out strongly, he constantly and continuously invoked the blessed Mary and the blessed Wulfstan. The apparitors completed the job with cruelty, and in full sight of many cut off the pupils and nerves that had been dug out but were still hanging off the front of his face and flung them down onto the field. They then tore out his testicles from the scrotum and threw them even further away so that some young men kicked them to and fro to each other among the girls. None of this could escape notice by the people, who had come with such curiosity to see the affair and as usual would not leave until it was brought to a conclusion. Fear of the justices urged on the apparitors, and hatred fired them not to spare anything, so that they might complete the business as adjudged. The reason I mention this is that later, when the members had been miraculously restored, many were compelled to disbelieve by malice or forced to doubt by the amazement of so great a miracle. I admit that doubt crept over me too until trustworthy men who had been present at the deed and seen everything with their own eyes cleansed the shadows of all doubt from my heart with their oath.

When all this had been done wretchedly on the wretched Thomas, they went away, leaving him half dead. The poor man wallowed in his own blood, which poured from his injuries in such a flood, that, scarcely breathing, he might have been thought about to breathe his last. Nevertheless he was taken away by some who took mercy on his miseries, so that he should not be left to be devoured by the dogs, rather urged on by the arms of those supporting him than helped by his own feet. A certain woman, moved by mercy, took him from their arms and had him put in a hamper and carried to St. Wulfstan's Hospital. When the brothers of that house repelled him as a disgrace and unworthy of dwelling with them, the maidservants who had brought the hamper there took it back again, threw the wretched Thomas out against a wall and left him. And thus he, whom they had not admitted freely, they retained against their will. Oh, how many and miserable were the miseries of this miserable wretch! pains that can only be expressed by the one suffering them, hardships indescribable except by him who experiences them! Worn out with his wounds, overwhelmed by pain and hardship, saturated with hatreds and confusion, he was cast out of the world as a vile being, despised and detested even by those most dear to him. But to thee, O Jesus, to thee the poor man is abandoned, and thou shalt bring aid to the orphan whom the world father rejects. Thou thus punish with mercy, so that thou mayest pity with justice. For all thy ways are mercy and truth. For with thine illumination, O lord who illuminates every man that comes into this world, he has the eyes of his mind opened. And the more reliably he fastens the eyes of his devotion firmly on thee, the further from himself he sees all hope in the fallible and infirm things of this world to have fled.

There was in that hospital a woman called Isabel, dedicated particularly to the service of the poor; she took care of Thomas in contravention of the prohibitions of its Master and brethren, but in secret for fear of them. Thus is God on the lookout, so that where misery abounds, mercy is superabundant, and where there is an abundance of sin, grace is in superabundance. Daily she cleaned the empty eye pits with care from the lees of humours flowing in there, and cared for his wounds, soothing and healing after the example of the Samaritan.[8] Amidst these torments, eight days raced past and a ninth dawned, the eve of the Holy assumption of the Virgin Mary [August 14 1221], ready to illuminate the darknesses of the blind man through God's grace. And when vespers were being solemnly chanted in the cathedral church, the solemnity of the moment spurred the wretched Thomas on to the most fervent new devotion. He called on the mother of mercy to have pity on him, in the hope that she who aided the whole world and wiped away from it the shadows of eternal damnation while introducing the light of divine compassion, might deign to illuminate also his temporal eyes[9] and through the multitude of Her consolations gladden him in the multitude of his pains. No longer did he pray timidly and hesitant as before, but adopting a kind of new style of supplication by which he made his demands with unfeigned faith and a firm hope, without hesitation, unwavering in his requests. "O thou glorious Lady", he said, "who art this day taken up into Heaven so that thou may may intervene for us from that much closer, that Thou might obtain from thine son more effectively what thou sought, who destroyed that bronze wall which thy mother, the transgressor,10 erected between us and God so that sinners' parayers should have no access to Him. Thou who have compensated us with the blessed fruit of thy belly for the apple from the Tree of Life, when the cherubim blocked our way with the fiery sword. Thou who have become a window to Heaven through which the shouts of those groaning in pain may reach the mercy of God, pray that my petitions made lavishly to thee on this thy holy day ("sollempnitate") may not pass in vain, but that He may receive my prayers through you who bore them on our behalf as your own. But the blessed Wulfstan was permitted neither to drowse off nor to sleep in the face of this great devotion of his; he was instead roused to compassion with tearful prayers and noisy groans and deep sighs of devotion and was forced to listen.

And so after repeated prayers in this fashion, the Lord immersed Thomas in a wave of drowsiness ("sopor") so shallow that he did not know whether he was awake or asleep. And behold the whole house seemed to him to shine with an indescribable brightness. What would not glisten when overtaken by such brightness? For there was the splendor of fire in the midst of a similitude of a flash of lightning , as described by Ezechiel,[11] and the fire was coming out of the lightning. Thomas rejoiced and marvelled that he could while wrapped in this new light see more without eyes than could be believed; and he concentrated closely on that light. There appeared to him the mother of true light, the perpetual virgin Mary gleaming with such clarity that he neither dared nor was able to gaze upon Her face. She seemed to him more than mitred ("cornuta"). With her and following in her footsteps, appeared the blessed Wulfstan clothed in full pontificals, indeed, but radiating equal splendor ("longe impari fulgore resplendens"). They approached his bunk, made their benedictions over him, passed on and went on.

Thomas now recalled from his trance, at once shouted to all in the house that St. Mary and St. Wulfstan were present. But he fell silent, like one who had been unhinged by the ferocity of his pain and hence inspired to shout out aloud. After lying for a while all on edge turning over within himself so glorious a vision, his eyelids and everything on the wounds he had received in the duel began to itch so viciously that he could scarcely restrain his hands from scratching. He called the sister mentioned above and asked her for his eyepits and other wounds to be bathed in order to deal in this way with his itching. With devoted obedience, she loosed the bandages which held poultices against his eyes, and prepared washing water. Impatient as usual, he turned to the wall, put his fingers under his eyelids and drew them back so that they might not be healed too hastily, before the flow of humors was restrained. And behold, to his wonder and amazement, he observed a light entering the doorway across which his bed was set. Not believing himself, he suspected that he was in death's departure just before being carried off. But he moved his eyes around and could make out every object and see his hands moving pretty clearly. Turning on his other side towards the street, he distinctly saw people coming, going and standing about just as he once had. So he noisily bawled out to Isabel how he was and declared that he could see freely. She ran to him, and others too, and they could not believe for joy. But they eventually learned by certain signs and proofs ("indiciis et experimentis") that he could distinguish everything by sight. Getting up quite close they made out new if tiny pupils in the botom of the eye pits, like two small plums.

As proof of so great a miracle and to the wonder of everyone who had known Thomas before the loss of his eyes, where his natural ones had been changeable in color ("varias") these were black. They grew from one day to the next until they were fair size. And lest anything of divine grace be imperfect but restore everything in full, putting his hands down he found his genitals and showed that they had been restored. Thus all the many wounds he had received in the duel had received the same moment of cure, just as if they had the same doctor.

And since so great a miracle had to grow by the authentic testimony of the respected ("maiorum") so that it might astound astound by its magnitude, Master Benedict, bishop of Rochester happened to arrive in Worcester on pilgrimage, as if come from the ends of the earth to hear the wisdom and see the power of the true Solomon. The story of such a miracle absolutely bowled him over, and he was sceptical along with many others[12] and proclaimed with Thomas the apostle: until I see it, I shall not believe. He mounted his horse and got off at St. Wulfstan's Hospital where Thomas was still living whether the claims of the story-tellers squared with the truth of the matter. He therefore ordered his chaplain, a monk, over protests from modesty, to feel ("palpare") the male organs ("virilia") and tell him if they had really been restored. There was no room for doubt over the eyes, because that was obvious to the whole world.[13] The monk could not but obey. Down on his knees, he moved his hand towards them, felt them and exclaimed that it was just as had been said. And so the bishop, weeping floods of tears for joy, said: "I too will stroke them, not to satisfy my incredulity but in order that I may become a true and faithful witness to so great a miracle.[14] He stroked, found matters to be as stated and believed. Having done so, he glorified God, got back on his horse and went his way rejoicing.

Glory and honor for ever and ever to God, who has deigned to work to work so many and so great marks of virtue in the church of Worcester through the merits of His glorious mother the perpetual virgin Mary, and of St. Wulfstan and the other saints who rest there. May he never withdraw His grace from it, but add more to their cure of souls so that no-one's prayers drain into the void but instead gush forth with devotion for their salvation to the Lord Jesus Christ, son of God, who lives and reigns with the Father and the Holy Spirit in world without end.

[ The Vita Wulfstani of William of Malmesbury, ed. R.R. Darlington (Camden Society, n.s. xl, 1928, cap. 16), 168- 75.]

1 The fact of the duel and the place and date fixed for it, as below, are noted on the margin of the roll for easy reference by court officials.

2 This paragraph is only on one of the two extant rolls, obviously added after the previous one.

3 This paragraph too is only in the one roll. It carries a marginal reference to the "Assize of Clarendon".

4 Cf. Fr. Angle-terre.

5 Obviously a biblical allusion along the lines of "As ye sow, so shall ye reap".

6 "patria" = pays, home locality.

7 Our author implies with "feriret" that Thomas intended more than a mere threat to ward George off.

8 Luc., x. 33

9 ? "temporales illuminare".

10 Eve; possibly a reference to Jerem., iii. 7 sq.

11 Ezech., i. 14

12 "dubitavit commodo multorum" = to the profit of many, as far as consistent with the interest of many?

13 "quod lippis et tonsoribus palam erat videre", = literally "to those with eye-disease and to the barbers, a reminiscence of Horace, Satires, 1, 7, 3)

14 Ironically, this recalls the original Roman connotations of "testis", which also means testicle, no doubt associated with the nature of testimony in suits concerning the consummation of marriage.

 

 


Translation by Paul Hyams of Cornell University. See his Course Page?. He indicated that the translations are available for educational use. He intends to expand the number of translations, so keep a note of his home page.

This text is listed as part of the Internet Medieval Source Book. The Sourcebook is a collection of public domain and copy-permitted texts related to medieval and Byzantine history.

Paul Halsall Jan 1996
halsall@murray.fordham.edu