Posted by Sara M. Butler, 23 Aug. 2021.
Like many other teenagers, the only reason I enjoyed leafing through the occasional Shakespearean play in high school was that they provided me with a glorious and expansive vocabulary of insults with which to disparage my classmates. “Accursed varlet!” “Pox-marked wagtail!” “Rancorous flirt-gill!” That my juvenile sense of humor is widely shared has since been confirmed by the fact that modern technology has birthed not one but multiple automated Shakespearean insult generators (could there be a better use for digital technology?). Thus, even if the sonorous rhythm of his iambic pentameter and the depth of his historical knowledge go unappreciated by the masses of the twenty-first century, at the very least Shakespeare’s vast wealth of weird and wonderful derogatory epithets have found a good home in the modern world.
Thankfully, reading defamation cases from England’s later medieval church courts nurtures that same infantile passion. While men and women of the medieval era were not generally as creative in their contempt as Shakespeare was, the ways in which they lashed out verbally against each other makes for good entertainment. For example, Isabel wife of John Austyn of Kirkgate was cited by the Deanery of Wisbech (Lincoln) 1479-80 for being a common defamer of her neighbors. Apparently, she was fond of calling them “horys” (whores), “strumppettes,” and “fyssenagges.” Strangely enough, none of these neighbors was willing to support Isabel’s good reputation by acting as a compurgator on her behalf. Thus, she was sentenced to follow the procession in church the next two Sundays in a row, dressed as a penitent (bare feet, kerchief on head, wearing only a kirtle) and carrying a candle worth one penny to offer before the image of St Edmund. The official of the court warned her to better govern her language in the future, under pain of 6s. 8d.
Isabel’s choice of epithets for her female neighbors was typical of the period. As Bronach Kane has observed, gender ideologies were so prominent in the medieval era that they tended to “structur[e] the content and focus of insults.” For women, this meant sexual insult, “reflecting the premium placed on women’s chastity as a crucial part of their reputation.” Far and away, “whore” was the most popular invective, although it combined easily with a variety of qualifiers such as “strong whore,” “false whore,” or (my favorite) “priest’s whore.” One might also string together multiple combinations: a woman named only Harmon appeared before the London Commissary Court in 1514 accused of calling Margaret James both “a strong priest’s whore” and “a bawdy whore.”
Other insults that got right to the point: “strumpet,” “brothel,” “harlot,” and “queen” were all common in late medieval name-calling between women. “Fyssenagge,” one of Isabella’s choice epithets, also seems to fit into this category. The Middle English Compendium glosses this as “unchaste woman,” although it is a challenge to see how a compound of fise (“fart”) and nagge (“small horse”) came to acquire that meaning. Fyssenagge was also used with qualifiers: in the 1460s, Cecilia wife of William Bagwell and her son Thomas were accused of defaming Agnes wife of John Prest by calling her a “falsfysnagge” (a false fyssenagge) and a strumpet.
Name-calling of women did occasionally expand beyond disparaging their own sexuality. Calling a woman a “horcoppys” or “hoorcope” (bastard) or “fonlyng” (foundling) at the very least shifted the blame to her mother’s loose sexuality. Alice Cowper, also cited before the deanery of Wisbech in the 1460s, branched out when she defamed Margaret wife of Richard Honyter as “harlot, strumpet and thief.” Perhaps the most unexpected was when Margaret Waryn complained that Thomas Harpham had defamed her by calling her a “strong lady.”
For men, the insults were rarely sexual in nature. Even “cuckold,” which became popular in the early modern era, was rare in the Middle Ages. If an invective aimed at a man had sexual connotations, it was usually directed at his governance of others’ sexuality (for example, “whoremaster” or “whoremonger”) or his mother’s (“hoorcope,” “whoreson priest,” or “false whoreson”).
More generally, the language of male insult was designed to hit where it hurt most: a man’s reputation for honesty, upon which his livelihood depended. Thus, “thief” was the most common affront to propel a man into court. This, too, joined with various adjectives: “false thief,” “strong thief,” or (another favorite) “false side-glance thief.” There were also multiple ways to indicate a man’s lazy disposition: “false sponger,” “false lurdan” (loafer), “londleper” (landleper, that is, vagabond) or “beggarly knave.” A particularly vituperative name-caller might also call into question a man’s national origins. “False Flemmyng,” “Skottishe prestes whore,” and “Walsche prestes son” are particularly good examples of how national stereotypes might be coupled to more ordinary insults to heighten the degree of censure.
Name-calling, however, is just one form of defamation that led men and women to turn to the church courts of late medieval England to rehabilitate their reputations. Most defamation complaints revolved around informal yet highly public accusations of crimes or sins. For example: a case from the London Commissary court of 1502 reports that Anna Miller was cited for defaming Alianor Dulyne, her master’s wife, by having accused her of trying to poison her husband. When Anna appeared in court, she defended her accusation by declaring it to be true. She presented this story:
Six months previously, John Daveley, Alianor’s husband, was feeling so ill in the stomach that he sent Anna to Bucklersbury to buy medicines. When she returned home, she gave him the medicine, but she spied his wife putting something in it, she assumed, to poison him. The following morning when he asked Anna to fetch his medicine, she offered to prepare him a new batch, saying, “Sir, it hath leyn opyn all night, and I wat never fell yn it, therfore I will rather make you another.” His wife, though, was no fool. She later cornered Anna and said, “Thou strong hore hast then shewed hym that I have put some yn it.” John must have overheard because he threatened to make his wife consume the medicine with him. The court record noted that because John was still not healthy, the court would adjourn until a later date (although I could not find any record of what happened next).
Anna Miller’s case highlights the value of defamation. Anna was in a precarious situation. As a servant, her word only went so far against her mistress’s in court; and with no actual proof to back up her accusation, it is unlikely that the sheriff or local jurors would have taken her seriously. Exploiting the channels of gossip, then, was the only path open to Anna to prevent Alianor from escaping fully the consequences of her actions. Canon law did not require a statement to be false in order to be defamatory; it simply had to be malicious. Nonetheless, the English church courts routinely investigated the truth of the allegation in order to put the matter to bed and restore some semblance of harmony to the parish. Defamation, then, was a powerful tool of law enforcement that might be wielded even by those lower down on the social scale against their superiors.
Agnes Drake and her daughter Isabella may also have turned to defamation as a means of policing their neighborhood. Suspecting that the local butcher, a man named Adam Johnson, was in fact responsible for his stepdaughter’s death, they confronted him in the market place on a Saturday, calling him “mordyrman” (murderer) and declaring that he had killed his wife Joan’s daughter. Without any evidence except a strong sense of suspicion, presumably built on observation of the butcher’s prior abusive behavior of his stepdaughter, how else might they draw attention to the authorities?
A case from the Norwich Consistory Court from July of 1500 emphasizes that the court of public opinion was founded on a pattern of observable behavior. While authorities may have had no reason to suspect Thomas Banburgh of killing his wife, his neighbors felt otherwise. In her deposition before the court in a case of defamation, Agnes Baken of St John’s of Maddermarket made it clear that she couldn’t prove he’d done it, but she was certain that he had: “All men know nott how sche dyed, for he was hir deith, for he called her upon a pair of stayers & gave hir a blow on the one eyr & brest, and said to hir these words, Wilte thow dye for this? I shall quykkyn the agayn.”
Joan Wade, also of St John’s of Maddermarket, provided a slightly different account of the story. In her testimony, she credits Simon Warner, accused of defaming Thomas Banburgh of his wife’s death, with spreading the rumors. She heard Warner say: “Thomas Bawburgh was and is a fals and unkynd man with his wiff, for [he] bete & threw her down a payer of stayers & set his fote on her brest & toke and pullyd hir be the armys till that the wynd was out of her body and so dyed and then he said ‘Wilt thow dye for this,’ and toke his fist and bete hir a boute the hedde.”
Of course, none of this was sufficient evidence to convict a man of murder. But if you heard those rumors, and knew about the court case, even if Thomas successfully purged himself, would you want to be standing in line to be his next wife? Surely that is what Simon Warner was counting on.
Cases of defamation brought before the church courts had multiple possible resolutions. Like Isabel Austyn, mentioned above, for those who failed to prove their innocence through purgation – that is, the testimony of good men and women of the community willing to attest to the accused’s good character and reputation – penance was the likely outcome. Penitent procession in conjunction with a monetary fine was a popular choice: the public nature of the allegation merited a public penitential act to signal the penitent’s atonement to the community and give them an opportunity to begin their relationship afresh.
At times, the victim of defamation may have felt driven to use the courts as a platform from which to make a public statement. John Drabbe turned to the deanery of Wisbech in 1463-64 specifically for this purpose. He claimed that he had been defamed by his (unnamed) enemies, who claimed that he killed and murdered Robert Wyght, the son of John Wyght, now long dead. His reputation was suffering because of this scandal; thus, he begged the courts to be allowed to purge himself before his neighbors for this crime. The goal in this situation was to have the courts restore his “pristine reputation.”
Theoretically, if his enemies persisted in their defamatory behavior, and yet refused to prosecute the case judicially, it was also possible for the church to institute a medieval gag order, requiring the defamers to keep silent on the matter. Although in practice, this instrument was rarely used.
More likely, persistent defamation was two-sided and ended in mediation or arbitration. This was the case with Robert Lowyn and his wife Helen after years of “debates, quarrels, harsh rebukes, [and] defamations” with William Seegrave and his wife Isabel. Their agreement promised to resolve all causes brought up between the two couples “since the beginning of the world” (a standard clause in medieval arbitration agreements) unto 8 Feb. 1476. One can only hope their agreement, the details of which were not recorded, lived up to its promise.
One aspect that is clear from these cases is that defamation in the medieval context was meaningful. Today, calling someone the modern equivalent of a strumpet, or even accusing them of a crime, is not likely to result in a defamation suit. It isn’t worth it. They are just words, with no tangible impact. This was not at all true in late medieval England. A woman accused of loose behavior might find herself friendless, unmarriageable, and incapable of supporting herself. For her, the time, effort, and expense of going to court was all worth it to mend her damaged reputation and restore order to the community in which she lives.
The Droeshout Portrait of William Shakespeare, from the First Folio. Public Domain. Wikipedia.
Manicule from the fifteenth century, from the margin of Archbishop William Scheves’s book. Courtesy of University of St Andrews Library, classmark Typ NL.A85JT (photograph by Daryl Green). Public Domain. Wikipedia.
One Winds on the Distaff What the Other Spins. Both Spread Gossip. By Pieter Bruegel the Elder. Web Gallery of Art. Public Domain. Wikipedia.
 For example, see: “Shakespearian Insults Generator,” (Siteseen Lmt., 2017), http://www.literarygenius.info/a2-shakespeare-insult-generator.htm; “Shakespeare Insult Kit,” ed. Chris Seidel, http://www.pangloss.com/seidel/Shaker/index.html; and “Legomenon: The Original Shakespearean Insults Generator,” (2012-20), https://legomenon.com/shakespearean-insults-list-generator.html.
 L.R. Poos, ed., Lower Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction in Late-Medieval England: The Courts of the Dean and Chapter of Lincoln, 1336-1349, and the Deanery of Wisbech, 1458-1484 (Records of Social and Economic History, new series vol. 32, 2001), 312.
 Bronach C. Kane, “Defamation, Gender and Hierarchy in Late Medieval Yorkshire,” Social History 43.3 (2018), 358.
 Elizabeth Ewan, “‘Many Injurious Words’: Defamation and Gender in Late Medieval Scotland,” in History, Literature and Music in Scotland, 700-1560, ed. R. Andrew McDonald (University of Toronto Press, 2002), 166.
 R.H. Helmholz, ed., Select Cases on Defamation to 1600 (Selden Society, vol. 101, 1985), 22.
 Headword: “visenage,” Middle English Compendium (University of Michigan, 2021).
 Lower Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction, 361.
 Lower Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction, 325.
 Lower Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction, 478.
 Derek Neal, The Masculine Self in Late Medieval England (University of Chicago Press, 2008), 31.
 L.R. Poos, “Sex, Lies, and the Church Courts of Pre-Reformation England,” Journal of Interdisciplinary History 25.4 (1995), 591.
 W.H. Hale, ed., A Series of Precedents and Proceedings in Criminal Causes, extending from the year 1475 to 1640 (London: Francis & John Rivington, 1847), 77-78.
 Select Cases on Defamation, xxx.
 Lower Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction, 542.
 E.D. Stone, ed., Norwich Consistory Court Depositions, 1499-1512 and 1518-1530 (Norfolk Record Society, vol. 10, 1938), no. 11.
 Lower Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction, 455.
 Select Cases on Defamation, xxi.
 Lower Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction, 387.