‘Hir Olde Sekenes’: A Snapshot of Mental Ill Health in the Fifteenth-Century Stonor Letters

Medical texts, known as the ‘Articella’. France, 14th c. BL Harley 3140 f. 29. Image Courtesy of the British Library.

By Deborah Thorpe

The correspondence of the aspirational Stonor family and their circle is rich in descriptions of ill health, both physical and mental. One letter, written around 1478, captures a particularly vivid moment in which its writer, the wool merchant Thomas Betson, is rebuked by a woman who clearly does not wish to speak with him. In the letter, Thomas describes how he has elicited a conversation with this woman, Margaret Croke. He receives a frosty reception, as he reports in a letter to Margaret’s daughter, Elizabeth Stonor:

I spake vnto my lady your modyr on seynt Thomas daye, and she wold scarsely oppyn hir mouthe vnto me, she is displesid and I know nat whereffore, with owte hir olde sekenes be fallen on hir agayn.[1]

It is not clear what Thomas means by Margaret’s ‘olde sekeness’, why Margaret is displeased or whether her grievance is with him specifically or with life in general. In fact, Thomas does not elaborate on the topic of Margaret’s sickness at all in this letter. Her bad moods are a recurring topic of conversation between he and Elizabeth, so it seems there is a certain amount of assumed knowledge here. However, in another letter between Thomas and Elizabeth, probably written a few months earlier, he gives more details about the source of his frustration at Margaret:

She made me right sulleyn chere with hir countenaunce whyles I was with hir; me thought it longe till I was departid.[2]

Thomas is irked with Margaret’s ‘sulleyn’ appearance, which makes every minute he spends with her seem long and unpleasant. To make matters worse, he finds her argumentative. So, endeavouring to cut short their interaction, he gives a ‘lyght answere’ to her questions and departs swiftly. Thomas fails to understand Margaret’s moroseness, reflected in her facial expressions, which does not fit with her physical wellbeing. He has noted Margaret’s fine physical health (she is a ‘ffyn mery woman’, ‘merry’ meaning good physical health[3]), but observes that her mood is not correspondingly good: ‘but ye shall nat know it’.

Thomas is keen to demonstrate the extent of Margaret’s coldness, and that her problem is not only with him. He describes how, when she last met his cousin Anne in the street, she gave her only the briefest of greetings – ‘Godes blissynge haue ye and myne’ – before walking on. In general, Thomas’s account shows little concern for Margaret or her wellbeing. Rather, his unsympathetic descriptions beg sympathy for himself; he has been left feeling frustrated by her stilted conversation: ‘I had no ioye to tary with hir’.

In fact, as Kay Lacey has pointed out, Margaret had been widowed recently and endured the protracted, messy process of settling her husband’s estate. At one point, Margaret’s legal representative was forced – at gunpoint – to hand over money to the agent of another interested party. In July 1478, the same month that Thomas wrote about Margaret’s ‘sulleyn chere’, she was busy exporting wool to the continent on behalf of her deceased husband. To top this all off, soon after her husband’s death Margaret was sued for a debt relating to his business activities. It is perhaps unsurprising, then, that Thomas Betson finds her in such low spirits. However, unsympathetic Thomas only wishes she would perk up – ‘god send hir ones a mery contenance and a ffrendely tonge’. He even adds that if she continues to show such poor cheer, then maybe she should be sent to the ‘Mynnorres’ (The Minories), a house of Franciscan nuns in London, to live out her days there.

Thomas’s behaviour seems to have irritated other members of his social circle, even those presumably in the best of health. In a playful letter to his young intended wife Katherine, he reports that he is sitting writing to her long after it is time for dinner to be served. Frustrated members of his household demand that he stop writing and join them for dinner: ‘come down, come down, to dener at ones’.[4] Thomas seems to enjoy defying his household by sitting upstairs, long after every other man has ‘gone to his dener’, making them wait and letting the food go cold. Thomas’s recollection of the direct speech of his vexed household drips with delight, and he clearly relishes describing the moment to his young fiancé even more. Perhaps it is unsurprising, then, that the conversation of this man, whom Alison Hanham has described as a ‘mischief maker’, was not welcomed by Margaret in her time of great anxiety.

Detail of a historiated initial ‘C'(erebrum) of the treatment of a brain disease. BL Royal 6 E VI f. 258v. Image courtesy of The British Library.

This is just a snapshot of the rich information that the Stonor Letters contain relating to mental and physical health, as well as the accompanying emotional responses. Anxiety and bewilderment feature particularly often in the corpus, as correspondents try to establish the underlying cause of a range of different sicknesses. Topics relating to emotions, medieval mental health, and neurological health and ill health will be explored at the upcoming ‘The Medieval Brain’ workshop at the University of York (UK), 10–11 March 2017. The confirmed keynote speakers are Carole Rawcliffe (University of East Anglia), Corinne Saunders (Durham University) and Jonathan Hsy (George Washington University). Abstracts of up to 250 words, for individual 20-minute papers or panels of papers, are currently invited (deadline 21 October 2016). To submit an abstract, or for further information, please contact Deborah Thorpe (Deborah.thorpe@york.ac.uk) or visit the workshop blog at: https://themedievalbrain.wordpress.com/.


Deborah Thorpe is a fellow at the Centre for Chronic Diseases and Disorders (C2D2) at the University of York. Her research focuses on experiences of ageing and the onset of age-related neurological disorders by medieval people. The current project combines palaeography with medical handwritng analysis to identify and analyse signs of movement disorders in the work of medieval scribes.

Further Reading:

Hanham, Alison. ‘The Stonors and Thomas Betson: Some Neglected Evidence’, The Ricardian 15 (2005): 33–52.

Lacey, Kay. ‘Margaret Croke’. In Medieval London Widows, 1300–1500, edited by C. Barron and A. F. Sutton. London: The Hambledon Press, 1994.

Maddern, Philippa. ‘“Be mery […] and eate your mete lyke a woman”: Merriment, Health, and Salvation in Late Medieval English Texts’, Leeds International Medieval Congress, 3 July 2013.

Thorpe, Deborah. ‘“I Haue Ben Crised and Besy”: Illness and Resilience in the Fifteenth-Century Stonor Letters’, The Mediaeval Journal 5.2 (2015): 85–108.

Truelove, Alison. ‘The Fifteenth Century English Stonor Letters: A Revised Text with Notes, a Glossary and a Collation of Those Letters Edited by C. L. Kingsford in 1919 and 1924’. Unpublished Dissertation, Royal Holloway, University of London, 2001.

[1] London, The National Archives, SC 1/46/234, 22 December [?] 1478.

[2] TNA, SC 1/46/238, 31 July 1478.

[3] The article on which this blog post is based, particularly this interpretation of the word ‘merry’, would not have been possible without the guidance of Phillipa Maddern. My methodology for this research was inspired by her paper at the Leeds International Medieval Congress in 2013, which she kindly shared and discussed with me as I conducted the research.

[4] TNA, SC 1/46/255.

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