London Korean Links

Covering things Korean in London and beyond since 2006

Double entry, poison and murder: historical sources examined at SOAS

LKL reports from the 21 May conference at SOAS – Historians, clerks and accountants: Methodological issues in the use of sources on Chosŏn History.

The one-day seminar at SOAS examined the value and danger of using alternative historical sources. The types of sources discussed ranged from family and guild accounting records, via personal travelogues, ancient encyclopaedias and pictorial maps, to transcripts from court interrogations and autopsy reports. Some of the problems raised were linguistic – to understand some of the records you need to understand 이두: the hybrid Korean-Chinese written by the clerks of the time.

When it came to accounting records not only is there the obvious problem that some of the material is quite technical (no-one fully understands Joseon dynasty accounting systems and their specialist terms), but also, even when the records seem to be painting a clear picture, things might not be what they seem. After all, Enron looked like a healthy company until it collapsed, and when it comes to Joseon dynasty accounting, in an economy in which payments could be made in a combination of coin, rice, hemp or cotton, it’s not always clear the “currency” that an expense is being recorded in, and at what exchange rate.

The lecturers and moderators at the SOAS one-day conference

Probably the talk which had most people’s attention was the juicy titbits which emerged from the analysis of the records of court cross-examinations. Not much discussion of historiographical conundrums here: just the Page 3 stuff, and very entertaining it was, and highly illuminating in terms of everyday life in the Joseon dynasty. Did you know that lepers used to think they could be cured by eating the liver of a young child? One unfortunate toddler’s father was up in court for taking bloody revenge on three lepers for the death of his son. Another sad trend were the cases of fatal beatings – a yangban youth beat to death a commoner for trying to get him to behave less rowdily; a man beat to death his concubine for infidelity. That such cases came to court in the first place indicates that Joseon Korea was not a completely lawless place where the rich / men could act with impunity over the poor / women. And, as they say at the end of Crimewatch: don’t have nightmares. Focusing on individual horrific incidents makes one think that such things are more widespread than they possibly are.

A high-level survey of the records provide some interesting statistics: Hwanghae province, in the North-West of the peninsula, had the most murders over the period, despite being the least densely populated. Typical cases coming to court were robbery, private torturing and killing someone while intoxicated. Indeed, the three biggest problems highlighted as the underlying cause of criminal activity were Alcohol, Gambling and Catholicism. Quaintly, in an age before photography, pictures of the murder weapon or of the crime scene were hand-sketched in the court records.

Pages from the Muwonrok autopsy manual

The autopsy reports and methods are similarly illuminating. The original handbook of autopsy techniques was written in China in 1308, and was brought to Korea in 1384.1 The Korean edition was edited, with footnotes, under King Sejong in 1438. The Chinese text was also used in Japan, where it was expanded to fit the local market: the Japanese adopted a wide range of techniques of physical violence to do people to death. In Korea, however, the local version had to meet peculiarly Korean murder techniques: Koreans murderers showed themselves remarkably proficient in the use of various poisons. Favoured poisons in Korea were lye and puffer fish.

What were the autopsy techniques? Methods of medical examination, reinforced by Heo Jun, eschewed cutting the body open. Everything had to be done by external examination – though a silver pin inserted into the anus would detect poison if it went black. Skin colour was a particular clue in determining whether a person had died of a disease or from poison, and therefore cleansing the body with alcohol – often makgeolli – was a vital part of the process.

Another important tool in the Joseon Dynasty medical examiner’s kit was a live chicken. Put rice in the corpse’s mouth for an hour: if the person had died of poison the rice would absorb the poison. Then, feed the rice to the chicken. If the chicken died, then the person had been poisoned. Case closed. But towards the end of the 18th century the use of chickens in this way was banned. Not because of any concern for animal welfare, but because sadly the local paupers would eat the dead chickens and then be poisoned to death themselves.

All very entertaining stuff, and we are once again grateful to SOAS and the Academy of Korean Studies for sponsoring these free events.

  1. The title of the book is the Muwonrok (무원록), which means something like ‘Let there be no grievance’. []

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