The Medieval Round Table meets again next Monday, 3 October, at 6:15 with a paper by Anya Adair, University of Hong Kong:
‘The Curious Incident of the Monster in the Nighttime: Circumstantial Evidence in Early English Law and Literature’.
We’ll again be meeting via Zoom. To receive the Zoom link for the meeting please email Andrew by this Saturday, 1 October; the link will then be emailed to you on Sunday.
A vivid example of circumstantial evidence was presented to the modern imagination in Arthur Conan Doyle’s 1892 story The Adventure of the Silver Blaze. Here, Sherlock Holmes famously solves the mystery of a missing horse by understanding the significance of the “curious incident of the dog in the night-time”. The problem posed by the fate of the horse with the silver blaze is one that the Old English law-writers would have appreciated, concerned as their codes are with animals stolen and straying. But (in the absence of a reliable witness to the moment of disappearance) how would the pre-Conquest English subject and legal process have gone about solving this or an equivalent crime? Were public oaths or recourse to oath-helpers, and submission to the hot iron or boiling water, their only practical methods of arriving at the truth? Or might the early English have made use of our modern detective’s methods — the application of reasoning, logic and imagination to what material evidence remains (or is significantly absent)?
This talk makes an argument for the importance of the role of circumstantial evidence in the truth-seeking endeavors of the Old English legal system, and finds traces in the decrees of the law codes to suggest that this approach to discovery was a widespread and accepted one in the legal field, adapted to a range of criminal and legal circumstances. The same interest in deliberate observation and telling inference emerges too in Old English poetry, which reveals in some of its narratives a dramatic reliance upon analogous truth-finding processes — Beowulf is the chosen exemplar here. These genres demonstrate shared (and perhaps mutually influential) intellectual and cultural approaches to truth-finding and truth-proving, particularly in situations involving criminal or legal activity — and both, I suggest, involve the imaginative interpretation of circumstantial evidence in the sense used by Sherlock Holmes.