June 27, 2010

Elizabeth Lylliman

Elizabeth Lylliman suffered a gruesome fate. In 1675 she was found guilty at the Old Bailey of having stabbed her husband and she was executed at the session. What is interesting about Lylliman's case isn't so much the crime: the Old Bailey's writer tells us very little about it but the fact that she appeared to want to see her husband throughout her trial. At her trial after the indictment was read, 'she fell into a kind of passion and desired of the Court that she might see her dear husband before she pleaded'. The court judged this was a 'mad kind of artifice' to take away the suspision that she might be behind his death: a judgement that is questionable, afterall it would have been more plausible had she been sane to argue that though her husband was dead she had not done it, than to argue that her husband was not dead (a fact that the court knew). Lylliman protested her innocence throughout the trial because she argued her husband was not dead. The jury did not believe her or believe her mad and found her guilty.

We will move on to what crime they found her guilty of, but what they found she had done is equally interesting. The story according to the Old Bailey writer goes like this. Lylliman and his wife were cooking with the people of the house in which they lived. They were boiling a mackerell. The husband went to borrow a knife to skin the mackerell or cut it from a cobbler who ran a store next door. The people in the house left the room and left Lylliman and her husband alone. She stabbed him right to the heart and he stumbled to the door, shouting to the cobbler three or four times that his wife had killed him with the knife he had borrowed. There are obvious problems with this: why did she let him move to the door, where were the others and how could he move having been stabbed to the heart. The interesting thing though is to note the closeness with which these people lived: Lylliman was in her fifties but lived alongside her husband with others, their kitchen adjoined the street so he could shout to the cobbler. Whatever else the case demonstrates it demonstrates the closeness of early modern people to each other, a closeness that isn't as true today.

That may be what it demonstrates to us, what it demonstrated to the jury was that Elizabeth Lylliman was guilty of petty treason. This was a crime that has now disappeared. You were guilty of petty treason if you killed someone above you in the social hierarchy to whom you owed an obligation of obedience. Based on the Aristotelian notion that the state ressembled lesser communities like the house, the concept was that if treason was directed against a king then petty treason was directed against a petty king- a master within his house- by one of his subjects, his children, servants or in this case his wife. Lylliman therefore was not hung along with the other criminals when she was executed but was 'burned [alive] to ashes'. The particular horror of her crime for the contemporary writer is demonstrated by the fact he describes her as a 'bloody woman'- as anyone who knows their Book of Numbers would know that description is used to describe members of the Isrealite community who had brought God's curse upon them and must be purged less the curse itself contaminate the community. To tolerate Lylliman would seem both to strike at the political government of society based on obligation, and also to strike at its religious foundation- petty treason was a type of treason and the highest form of treason was, in seventeenth century eyes, satanic.