The Power of a Pen in the Hand of an Angry Woman: The Trials of Caroline Norton

maclise the spirit of justice

Daniel Maclise, The Spirit of Justice (1847-9). Fresco. Caroline Norton was the model for Justice (center)

In an age in which English marriage law considered women not just less than equal, but absolutely nonexistent, Caroline Norton emerged as an unlikely hero. She is sometimes called an early feminist, but that is inaccurate. Pressured into marriage to a virtual stranger by her family’s financial problems, abused both physically and emotionally by her husband, object of general pity, falsely accused of adultery, separated from her children, and crippled financially by her manipulative husband, she fought back.

Caroline didn’t believe in woman’s equality with man, as did Wollstonecraft for example, and certainly never argued for it. What she did believe in was rule by law, laws that could be changed, and the obligation of the law to protect those dependent on others. She may have been without protection, money, or power, but she had two formidable weapons: she had influential friends and she could write.

Caroline’s early life is generally described one of poverty, and that is somewhat true. Her grandfather, the playwright Richard Sheridan, died in poverty, but in an age that knew true poverty, Caroline didn’t go hungry or lack shelter. However, her mother, who had been left with seven children to raise on a modest pension when her husband died suddenly, endured enormous financial insecurity and worried particularly for her three dowerless daughters throughout Caroline’s childhood. Still, her childhood cannot be called bleak. The Sheridans were an intellectually vibrant family with radical political leanings and a wide circle of friends. Her mother wrote novels, and Caroline was particularly fond of her uncle, Charles Sheridan, a noted if not particularly brilliant poet. She began writing and expressing herself at a very young age.

Once Caroline’s older sister made a successful marriage, Caroline didn’t question that it was her turn to do so, particularly because their youngest sister had begun to attract a number of suitors, and giving the family hope she might make a brilliant match. (So she did. Georgiana Sheridan became the Duchess of Somerset.) Caroline may not have wanted to stand in the way, may have desired to please her mother, or might simply have believed she would get no other offers. There had been none during her only London season. Whatever the reason, she agreed to marry Edward Norton, a man she had met only once three years before when she was sixteen. He had approached her mother at that time and been put off, apparently in hopes Caroline could do better. This time both mother and daughter agreed.

CarolineNortonbyGeorgeHayter1832

Portrait by Sir George Hayter, 1832

No one knows why Edward wanted Caroline, but his dissatisfaction with her surfaced early. The Sheridans were Whigs, if not outright radical, in their politics. Norton, a Member of Parliament and a staunch Tory, loathed much of what Caroline believed. Raised to argue her position, she must have been devastated when he kicked her for expressing views with which he disagreed. That kick early in the marriage was the first of extensive physical abuse. Various accounts describe Norton as “dull-witted” and indolent, the sort to be threatened by her wit, verbal dexterity, and vivaciousness. He wasn’t above using her social skills for political gain, however. He even encouraged her friendship with Lord Melbourne.

Money also caused trouble. Norton probably presented his financial status to Caroline’s mother otherwise, but he was in fact living on a barrister’s salary when he married. Though Lord Grantly’s heir, he received no allowance from the estate. He lost his seat in Parliament three years after they married. Extremely conscious of status, he refused work he considered beneath him, did little to help their situation, and pressured Caroline to convince her influential friends to get him an appointment, one he thought worthy of his rank. Eventually Melbourne gave him an appointment as a magistrate. Caroline, for her part, began to publish her writings, and he happily took the income from that.

The birth of three children and her writing gave Caroline some joy. She was a devoted mother. The violence, however, never let up. When she was pregnant with her fourth child, he beat her so badly she miscarried. After such episodes Caroline would go to her family for refuge but always went back. Arguing and violence escalated until one day, when Caroline was out, Edward sent their three children to a cousin and ordered the servants to lock her out of the house. He had, in essence, thrown her out.

Norton then brought suit against Melbourne for “Criminal Conversation,” or adultery, a first step in obtaining a divorce. He also hoped to milk money out of Melbourne. He lost. The jury didn’t even have to leave the courtroom; he was laughed out of court. The case had several results. Melbourne’s reputation and political position were upheld. Caroline was labeled a “scandalous woman” for the rest of her life. There could and would be no divorce. Only a man could sue for divorce, and she was a faithful wife. They were stuck with each other.

Worst of all he kept the children from her. Her only recourse was to attack the law that let him do it. Caroline rallied her friends and contacts. She finally convinced a member of parliament to introduce a bill to give mothers the right to appeal to the Court of Chancery for custody of children less than seven years of age. She continued to write, but now she wrote pamphlets brilliantly arguing for the rights of women to their children. It took two years, but in 1839 parliament passed The Infant Custody Act enabling women sue for custody of children under seven as long as they were not adulteresses. The act made married women visible in the law for the first time. Edward countered by moving her children to Scotland where the law didn’t apply. Three years later one of her sons died there before she was able to get to him.

Edward also denied her a home and refused to support her. Another woman might have been crushed under all that, but Caroline Norton was made of sterner stuff. She continued to write. She could support herself with her published works. Edward quickly claimed her income as his right.

Yes, he could do that.

She proceeded to send her bills to him, bills he was obligated to pay. Years of conflict followed eventually culminating in another court case in 1853. This time Edward won on a technicality because the particular creditor in question had presented his bill before Norton withdrew support.

CarolineNortonbyFrank_Stone

Detail from a painting by Frank Stone, 1845

Again Caroline fought back with her pen. Since her husband was entitled to all her income from writing, she dedicated that writing to one topic, marriage and property laws that enabled him to profit from her labor. She never argued for the equality of women. She focused entirely on the non-existence of women in marriage law.

A movement to change the laws was already underway and a number of women including Barbara Leigh Smith, Emily Davies, Elizabeth Garrett and Dorothea Beale, were lobbying for change. Caroline threw herself—and her pen—into the fray. NON-EXISTENT became a kind of rallying cry for her. Among other things, she wrote an open letter to Queen Victoria about the position of women in regard to divorce. When the Matrimonial Causes Act passed in 1857 it had 68 clauses, four of which came from Caroline’s pamphlets. It wasn’t perfect, but it was a step forward. It created a Court of Divorce and Matrimonial Causes removing divorce from both civil and ecclesiastical courts, and provided women recognition in law.

In later years Caroline continued to write. Her poetry and novels enjoyed some success, but today they are far less well known than her political writing. Edward Norton died in 1875. Two years later Caroline married a long time friend and supporter, Sir William Stirling-Maxwell. They died within months of each other later that year and are buried next to each other. Sadly, her oldest son predeceased her, and her only remaining son died within weeks of Stirling-Maxwell.

Caroline Norton never joined the earliest feminist circle, The Ladies of Langham Place, who had lobbied for the Matrimonial Causes Act, nor devoted herself to such women’s issues as education, the vote, or equality in employment. Still, her influential writing helped put the first cracks in the wall separating women from recognition under the law. She used her pen to stand up for herself and in doing so stood up for others who had no voice.*

Further Reading:

There are many pieces about Caroline Norton in print and on the Web. These three are particularly rich and well documented:

“Caroline Norton,” on Spartacus Educational.

Diniejko, Andreij, Contributing editor, “Caroline Norton: A Biographical Sketch,” on The Victorian Web.

Ockerbloom, Mary Mark, editor, “Caroline Norton (1808-1877)” on A Celebration of Women Authors, University of Pennsylvania Digital Library, 1994-2017.

Untitled design (15)Caroline Warfield has been many things (even a nun), but above all she is a romantic. Having retired to the urban wilds of eastern Pennsylvania, she lets her characters lead her to adventures while she nudges them to explore the riskiest territory of all, the human heart. She is a regular contributor to History Imagined and to The Teatime Tattler, a blog in the shape of a fictional nineteenth century scandal sheet.

Her current series, Children of Empire, is set in the late Georgian/early Victorian era and focuses on three cousins, driven apart by lies and deceit, who must find their way back from the distant reaches of the empire—and the women who help make them whole. The second book in the series, The Reluctant Wife, set in India and England, was just released.

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*Editor’s Note: Caroline Norton’s influence on modern matrimonial and custody laws cannot be understated. As a lovely (and telling) tribute, Daniel Maclise used her as the model for Justice in his fresco The Spirit of Justice in the House of Lords (top). See The Transfigurations of Caroline Norton for more on her influence on art and literature. -JC

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The Joy of Confessing: “Women’s Vices” and Burchard’s Decretum of 1003

Some people think medieval history is boring—all religion, suppression, and marrying for alliances—but we know better, don’t we? Medieval history is a Pandora’s box of surprises, and the deeper you go, the stranger they get. Case in point, penitentials. Yes, I’m going to get into sources here with you for a minute, but bear with me, it’s worth it.

When studying the Middle Ages, the temptation is to stop at Canon Law, that is, the rules and guidelines set by the Church. The mistake is in assuming everyone lived by it; even prominent people within the Church disagreed with each other on many key points, and the laws they reached by consensus were laws for an ideal world where everyone lived perfect Christian lives according to the standard of whichever pope they happened to have at the time. As you can imagine, not everyone lived the way Rome wanted them to. To get a more accurate picture of medieval life, we need to consider other sources like court documents, medical texts, and even popular literature. The source we’re going to be looking at today is a personal favorite of mine: pentitentials.

sex with a dragon

When I get busy with dragons, I never forget my crown

What, pray tell, is a penitential? It’s every bit as exciting as it sounds. Penitentials were confessional literature compiled by monks as guides to the theory and application of confession. Spanning hundreds of pages and multiple volumes, penitentials listed every sin imaginable in separate categories and advised punishments for each. Penitentials are fantastic sources for those studying the Middle Ages, but proceed with caution: while many of the sins do give us a better idea of the ways in which common people could misbehave, it is impossible to say how often some of the sins came up (or how many were products of a bored monk’s imagination. See also marginalia, below).

With that disclaimer firmly in place, we are going to take a look at the Decretum of Burchard of Worms.

Apart from having the best name ever, Burchard served as the bishop of Worms from 1000 until his death in 1025. During his tenure, he wrote his Decretum, a massive twenty-book list of every sin conceivable to the medieval imagination, drawing on a combination of earlier penitentials and things actually heard in confession at that time. Some of the penitentials he used as sources dated back to the seventh century, and this may help to explain some of the stranger sins below.

wolf as monk

A wolf dressed as a monk. Why not?

The nineteenth book of Burchard’s Decretum has a section dealing in sickness of the soul, including magic, divination, and “women’s vices.” It is worth noting that many of the “diabolical practices” mentioned here could be forgiven with a fairly light penance, as opposed to the death sentences handed out like candy four hundred years later with the publication of the Malleus Maleficarum. Many of these are framed as questions a priest would ask his penitent. I have included some of my favorites here, but if you want to read this in its entirety, you can also find it here.

As relevant art from these period is sadly limited, I have added some marginalia to our…erm…margins. Enjoy.

***

“Have you violated a grave, by which I mean, after you see someone buried have you gone at night, broken open the grave, and taken his clothes? If you have, you should do penance for two years on the appointed fast days.”

I mean, not since college. Is that bad?

bunny“Have you refused to attend mass or prayers or to make an offering to a married priest, by which I mean have you not wished to confess your sins to him or receive the Body and Blood of the Lord from him because you thought he was a sinner? If you have done so, you should do penance for one year on the appointed fast days.”

That’s right. Married priest. At this point, priests were still allowed to marry or have concubines. Clerical marriage wasn’t condemned by the pope until Leo IX in 1049, but the ban didn’t take hold until well into the twelfth century after the Lateran councils in 1123 and 1139. The more you know!

“Have you tasted your husband’s semen in order to make his love for you burn greater through your diabolical deeds? If you have, you should do seven years of penance on the appointed fast days.”

Okay, oral sex has magical properties. So far, so sensible. What next?

“Have you done what some women are wont to do? They take their menstrual blood, mix it into food or drink, and give it to their men to eat or drink to make them love them more. If you have done this, you should do five years of penance on the appointed fast days.”

fish

That poor fish.

How’s that for a binding spell? If that doesn’t work:

“Have you done what some women are wont to do? They take a live fish and put it in their vagina, keeping it there for a while until it is dead. Then they cook or roast it and give it to their husbands to eat, doing this in order to make men be more ardent in their love for them. If you have, you should do two years of penance on the appointed fast days.”

Wait, what?

“Have you done what some women are accustomed to do? They lie face down on the ground, uncover their buttocks, and tell someone to make bread on their naked buttocks. When they have cooked it, they give it to their husbands to eat. They do this to make them more ardent in their love for them. If you have, you should do two years of penance on the appointed fast days.”

Bread…on my butt?

“Have you done what some women are wont to do? They take a man’s skull, burn it, and give it to their husbands to drink for health. If you have, you should do one year of penance on the appointed fast days.”

Who hasn’t? Next…

nude knight on a hobby horse

See what happens when you don’t have your burnt skull potion?

“Have you believed what many women turning back to Satan believe and assert to be true: you believe that in the stillness of a quiet night, with you gathered in your bed with your husband lying at your bosom, you are physically able to pass through closed doors and can travel across the span of the earth with others deceived by a similar error? And that you can kill baptized people redeemed by Christ’s blood without using visible weapons and then, after cooking their flesh, can eat it, and put straw, wood, or something like this in place of their hearts, and, though you have eaten them, you can bring them back to life and grant them a stay during which they can live? If you have believed this, you should do penance for forty days (that is, a quarantine) on bread and water with seven years of penance subsequently.”

Do any women believe that? Show of hands, please.

“Have you done what some adulterous women do? As soon as they find out that their lovers wish to take lawful wives, then they use some sort of evil art to extinguish the men’s sexual desire so that they are useless to their wives and unable to have intercourse with them. If you have done this or taught others to, you should do penance for ten days on bread and water.”

baking magic butt bread

Baking some magic butt bread

Sure. Someone put a “spell” on you. Right.

“Have you done what some women are accustomed to do? They take off their clothes and smear honey all over their naked body. With the honey on their body they roll themselves back and forth over wheat on a sheet spread on the ground. They carefully collect all the grains of wheat sticking to their moist body, put them in a mill, turn the mill in the opposite direction of the sun, grind the wheat into flour, and bake bread from it. Then they serve it to their husbands to eat, who then grow weak and die. If you have, you should do penance for forty days on bread and water.”

Is this a sin or a recipe? And hang on, only forty days for murdering a spouse with magic bread?

Also included under “women’s vices”, for some reason:

“Have you eaten any food from Jews or from other pagans which they prepared for you? If you have, you should do penance for ten days on bread and water.”

BURCHARD. What. The. Heck? I guess there wasn’t a chapter for xenophobic culinary guidelines.

As batty as these sound, some of them are nevertheless revealing of superstitions and pagan rituals that had survived until the eleventh century through confessional literature, if not in real life. We do need to take these with a pinch of salt, however; while some of them could be indicative of real practice, others are just as likely to have been imagined or embellished by the monks painstakingly copying these manuscripts and doodling madness in the margins.

You can find this section translated here.

Jessica Cale

A Field Guide to Historical Poisons

[From the archives]

The Long Way Home takes place in the court of Louis XIV during the Affair of the Poisons. During this period, many people from all walks of life were employing poison to dispatch with rivals and even family members to improve their fortunes or standing in court. As you can imagine, poison plays a large part in the plot of The Long Way Home. Here are three that are featured in the book along with symptoms so you’ll be first to know if your enemies have dosed your wine.

You know, just in case.

Arsenic (also known as Inheritance Powder)

Arsenic was the most commonly used poison at this time, and was used alone or to add extra toxicity to other lethal concoctions. It was the primary ingredient in Inheritance Powder, so called because of the frequency with which it was against relatives and spouses for the sake of inheritance.

Tasteless as it was potent, arsenic usually went undetected in wine or food, although it was also added to soap and even sprinkled into flowers. It could easily kill someone quickly, but was more commonly distributed over a long period of time to make it appear that the victim was suffering from a long illness. The symptoms begin with headaches, drowsiness, and gastrointestinal problems, and as it develops, worsen into convulsions, muscle cramps, hair loss, organ failure, coma, and death.

Unusually for a poison apart from lead, arsenic has had many other common uses throughout history. It was used as a cosmetic as early as the Elizabethan period. Combined with vinegar and white chalk, it was applied to whiten the complexion as a precursor to the lead-based ceruse popular in later centuries.

Ad for Arsenic Wafers, 1896. Arsenic was a common complexion treatment until the early 20th century.

By the Victorian period, arsenic was taken as a supplement to correct the complexion from within, resulting in blueish, translucent skin. Victorian and Edwardian doctors prescribed it for asthma, typhus, malaria, period pain, syphilis, neuralgia, and as a nonspecific pick-me-up. It was also used in pigments such as Paris Green, Scheele’s Green, and London Purple, all of them extremely toxic when ingested or inhaled. A distinctive yellow-green, Scheele’s Green was a popular dye in the nineteenth century for furnishings, candles, fabric, and even children’s toys, but it gave off a toxic gas. It may have even played a part in Napoleon’s death. While it took nearly a century to discover the dangers of the pigment, it was later put to use as an insecticide.

A Glass of Wine With Caesar Borgia. John Collier, 1893. From left to right: Cesare, Lucrezia, their father, Pope Alexander VI, and a young man with an empty glass. The implication is that the man doesn’t know if it will be poisoned.

Cantharides (also known as Cantarella or Spanish Fly)

Cantarella was a poison that was rumored to have been used by the Borgias (among others). Although it appeared in literature as something that could mimic death, cantarella was probably made from arsenic, like most of the common poisons of the era, or of canthariden powder made from blister beetles, and was highly toxic. Cantharides are now more commonly known as Spanish Fly.

Although it was only rumored to have been used by the Borgias, it was definitely 8fda6-cantharidesassociated with the Medicis. Aqua Toffana, or Aquetta di Napoli, was a potent mixture of both arsenic and cantharides allegedly created by an Italian countess, Giulia Tofana (d. 1659). Colorless and odorless, it was undetectable even in water and as little as four drops could cause death within a few hours. It could also be mixed with lead or belladonna for a little extra f*** you.

In case you’re wondering how one would catch enough blister beetles to do away with one’s enemies, cantharides were surprisingly easy to come across. They were also used as an aphrodisiac. In small quantities, they engorge the genitals, so it must have seemed like a good idea at the time. In larger quantities, however, they raise blisters, cause inflammation, nervous agitation, burning of the mouth, dysphagia, nausea, hematemesis, hematuria, and dysuria.

Oh, and death.

The powder was brownish in color and smelled bad, but mostly went unnoticed with food or wine. More than one character in The Long Way Home has come in contact with it, and it even plays a part in the story.

Ad for Pennyroyal Pills, 1905.

Pennyroyal

Pennyroyal was not often used to intentionally poison anyone, but I’m including it in this guide because of its toxic effects. Usually drunk as tea, is was used as a digestive aid and to cause miscarriage. Is was also used in baths to kill fleas or to treat venomous bites.

Although this is the least toxic of the bunch, the side effects are much more worrying. Taken in any quantity, it may not only result in contraction of the uterus, but also serious damage to the liver, kidneys, and nervous system. It’s a neurotoxin that can cause auditory and visual hallucinations, delirium, unconsciousness, hearing problems, brain damage, and death.

Along with Inheritance Powder and Cantarella, Pennyroyal also appears in The Long Way Home and causes some interesting complications for a few of our characters.

*

All of these poisons were common and easily obtainable in much of Europe during the time this book takes place and as you can see, continued to be commonly used for a variety of purposes until very recently. The use of Inheritance Powder in particular is very well-documented and it played a huge part in the Affair of the Poisons as well as commanding a central position in The Long Way Home.

Don’t say I didn’t warn you.