Medieval Defamation: A World of Social Cohesion or Social Discord?

Sadhbh Ní Dhuinn

‘Women’s counsel brought us first to woe,
 And made Adam from paradise to go.’[1]

The historian D.G Neal characterised medieval England as a ‘society of complex social stratification… of considerable economic insecurity; of cultural transformation; [and] of great inequality of wealth’.[2] Indeed, with this context in mind, it is perhaps unsurprising that a culture of defamation and litigation emerges as reputation becomes increasingly paramount to one’s social and mercantile prospects. The medieval population, whether noble or lay, embarked upon their day in an intrinsically obtrusive world, where distinctions were made based on their behaviour and gender. The medieval understanding of reputation and identity, which are deeply enmeshed, is inherently gendered. Female identity in anchored in the domestic realm, marriage and procreation.[3] Male identity is harder to define, though it is innately intertwined with notions of honour, masculinity and their ability to provide and climb the social hierarchy.[4] Therefore, avenues of defamation, and the disintegration of reputation, are correspondingly gendered.


Canon law rationalised defamation as a recurrent attempt to sully another’s reputation.[5] Hence, efforts to cease such behaviour were generally brought to the medieval court, where the defamation was treated as a ‘speech offense’.[6] Sandy Bardsley, in her Venomous Tongues: Speech and Gender in Late Medieval England, alleges that the genesis of medieval defamation discourse lies in the pedagogy of the Church.[7] In order to appropriately penalise their parishioners for their individual sins, it was subsequently necessary for community priests to understand the hierarchy of sins. The theological ideologies of the era produced various codex’s outlining these hierarchies, which included the ‘sins of the tongue’ motif.[8] These ideologies, best exemplified in the work of Guillaume Peyraut’s Summa De Vitiis, persisted across the Middle Ages, and infiltrated the secular realm and concurrently, civic discourse.[9] Thus, as this ideology pervaded the medieval zeitgeist, instances relating to defamatory speech become more numerous. Notwithstanding, there exists an apparent gender divide in the types, and manner of slander recorded. Hence, avenues of defamation innately reflect the gender roles which regulated medieval society. Men, whose integrity and honour decides their role in the collective hierarchy, faced allegations relating to falseness and deficiency of masculine attributes. Women, whose chastity governs their societal reputations, are most often associated with sexual slander. Returning to D. G Neal’s assertion, the medieval world which emerges from these cases presents a deeply insecure and discriminative society, which seeks to enclose its people within strict, easily characterised and definite boxes. Nevertheless, in its attempts to regulate its people’s behaviour, it strives for social cohesion – though it admittedly often misses the mark.


I. Malevolent Men

The foremost examples of how masculinity and reputation go hand in hand in medieval society, most often concern the elites within the social structure. The medieval English aristocracy were polemic in their attempts to conserve familial reputations, and the legislative process was the best course of action to safeguard their legacy.[10] Honour was a fundamental element of reputation, and hence, honesty and veracity was paramount to maintaining social relationships. In the instances that these attributes are questioned, particularly with concern to male members of the nobility, legal recourse is not only accepted, but encouraged. 1275 saw the introduction of a number of statutes aimed at preventing defamation against the crown and securing royal impunity. The Statute of Westminster specifically objected to ‘devisors of tales’, who sought to cultivate enmity between the crown and its subjects, stating that none may ‘tell or publicise any false news or tales, from which discord or occasion of discord or slander may grow between the King and his people or the great men of the realm, and… he that tells such tales shall be taken and kept in prison until he had brought into the court the first author of the tale’.[11] The next century saw significant development in this area of legislation, as the 1378 Statute of Gloucester outlawed defamatory speech aimed against the aristocracy.[12]


Thus, in preventing attempts to sully the King and his confidantes reputation, the crown was empowered to preserve their dwindling authority. Indeed, the late fifteenth century saw the transition of defamation from sinful to criminal behaviour, as the secular judicial system reclaimed authority over cases involving slander.[13] The existing primary material attests to this deliberate campaign. In 1432, Andrew de Holes was convicted of slander after he defamed Richard de Bulkeley in the presence of King Henry VI. Due to Andrew’s false claims, ‘great scandal and discord’ is said to have developed between Richard and the King.[14] As a result of this circumstance, Andrew de Holes was charged with violating the royal legislation regarding defamation. Whilst in-fighting amongst the nobility was somewhat common, especially as they vied for the crown’s favour, any attempt to involve the King in matters concerning reputation was strictly forbidden. Reputation conveyed power in medieval culture, and in a society fraught with political instability and social discord, even the King was not immune to the fallout evoked by slander. The vast scope of defamation, reaching from the highest echelons of society to those poverty-stricken and destitute, demonstrates the degree to which slander was considered an instrument of sorts, one which could maintain the social equilibrium which governed medieval culture.


II. Wicked Women

Virtue and chastity formed the basis of a woman’s ability to exercise autonomy and secure both financial and social security. Ergo, we may state that a medieval women’s reputation was, in due part, dependent on her disposition. Those who spoke boldly and confidently were deemed scolds. Compliancy was key to maintaining strong social relationships, as being regarded as an outspoken women not only implied that they were reckless and disruptive, but severely limited their agency and social mobility. Being labelled a scold carried with it analogous connotations, most notably concerning sexual deviation and violent inclinations.[15] In the view of the medieval community, scolds endangered the finely balanced social order.[16] This paradigm is reflected in the medieval courts, as scolding, though related to defamation, was considered an offence in and of itself. Early fifteenth century records from Middlewich, in Cheshire, attests to just how prevalent this phenomenon was during this era, as up to a third of legal cases dealt with in the Middlewich court centred around scolding.[17] Indeed, returning to the theological basis for these moral attitudes to social behaviour, it is without doubt that the Bible modelled this outlook towards women and their supposed propensity to spread rumours with malicious intent. St. Paul directed women to ‘learn in quietness and full submission’, as he believed that women, without the guidance of a figure of male authority, would ‘learn to be… not only idlers but gossips and busybodies, saying what they should not’.[18] These motifs were mirrored in the contemporary literature, which only further fuelled both the frequency to which women were being prosecuted, as well as the wider public fear of women conducting themselves outside of the prescribed social and legal guidelines.


Much akin to scolding, medieval society understood sexual defamation within an inherently gendered structure. Once again, this may be attributed in part to the history of theological discourse. Leading clerical ideologies from the early Middle Ages promoted an overtly misogynistic overtone, as figures such as Peter Damien, Doctor of the Church, wrote: ‘So come and listen to me, you strumpets, prostitutes waiting to be kissed, you wallow for fat pigs, den of unclean spirits, nymphs, sirens, witches, forest goddesses of the night, and if there are yet other monstrous titles of ill-omen that one can find, they should well be ascribed to you.’[19] The vast majority of court cases in the historical record relating to this accusation pertain primarily to women, both by way of and against. Defamation of this nature often incited further legal difficulty for the victims, including fornication. As such, given both the social and legal repercussions of such defamatory accusations, there exists ample evidence of victims taking their accusers to court on the basis of slander.[20] A case which exemplifies this paradigm is that of Christina Fressell, from 1496.[21] Christina submitted an indictment of defamation against Nicholas and Joan Lambert, as ‘the said Joan said and publicly proclaimed that she saw her husband carnally copulating with the said Christina’.[22] Given the public nature of Joan’s accusation, Christina is left with little choice but to openly, and legally, denounce said claims, in order to salvage her reputation. Once more we see a clear parallel between virtue and social mobility, as Christina is forced to exonerate herself, despite the fact that the slander evoked against her lacked substantial evidence, so that she may exercise her small degree of autonomy without objection. A woman’s independence was only permitted on the basis of her unfailing morality.


Indeed, an important aspect of this specific subsection of libel, are the epithets that such allegations provoke. As the Middle Ages progressed, the once ubiquitous titles of ‘whore’ and ‘harlot’ lost their generality and came to be associated with women more universally. This evolution is made clear as one can map the etymology from meaning ‘knave or rascal’ to becoming synonymous with immorality and deviance, or in other words - prostitution.[23] One register from the court of Middlesex in 1497, records the case of a man who slander’s another’s mother, stating: ‘preches horeson kocold, thy moder is an hore and an harlet’.[24] These nominates, even when applied across the gender spectrum, demonstrate the degree to which femininity was defamed and disparaged. Otherwise stated, the increasing usage of these epithets indicates an emerging phraseology centred around licentious female behaviour, and accordingly, suppressing this manner of conduct. In R.L Poos’s study of the English medieval judicial system, he discovers that the fifteenth century Wisbech, London and Durham ecclesiastic courts record 102 individual cases concerning defamation.[25] A disproportionate seventy-seven of these cases relate to women. With regard to London specifically, Poos states that twenty-one cases pertain directly to sexual defamation, six of whom relate to ‘whoredom’ and another six relate to extra-marital affairs.[26]Given the statistical evidence, we can assuredly state that sexual defamation in medieval society is a largely female experience, and thus, with the popularisation of sexual slander, sexual honour became increasingly crucial to a woman’s reputation.


Concluding Remarks:

The medieval world, regardless of geography, relied intensely on orality.[27] Hence, it may be unsurprising, given its ubiquity and subsequent power, that speech evolved into a fundamental indicator of social unity and/or social unrest. The power of speech permeated every stratum of society, regardless of wealth or title. It pervaded theological discourse and remained omnipresent as an instrument to sow social discord. However, in many of the cases recorded in the judicial process, as well as the contemporary literature, defamation was utilised as a means to oppress individualism. Medieval society was wholly depended on proximity and community, and therefore, the majority of the existing primary source pertaining to defamation reinforce these values. Thinking and acting contrary to social norm was discouraged as a mechanism for survival. Hence, though it may seem that the legislation and the degree of social seclusion and repercussion imparted on those who acted rogue, outside the bounds of what was considered socially acceptable, was somewhat severe, it may be theorised that it was an attempt to endure a harsh world as a homogenised community. Survival was dependent on social cohesion, and the realities provided by medieval defamation cases reflect this fact.

[1] (ed.) Benson, Larry D., ‘The Nun’s Priest’s Tale,’ in Chaucer, Geoffrey, The Riverside Chaucer, 3rd ed.  (1987), 259, lines 3257–58.

[2] Neal, D. G., The Masculine Self in Late Medieval England (2008), p. 13.

[3] Idem, p. 24.

[4] Ibid.

[5] Idem, p. 31.

[6] Ibid.

[7] Bardsley, Sandy, Venomous Tongues: Speech and Gender in Late Medieval England (2006), p. 27.

[8] Ibid.

[9] Lindorfer, Bettina, ‘Peccatum Linguae and the Punishment of Speech Violations in the Middle Ages and Early Modern Times’, in Speaking in the Medieval World, (ed.) Godsall-Myers, Jean E. (2003), p. 27.

[10] Kane, B. C., ‘Defamation, Gender and Hierarchy in Late Medieval Yorkshire’, Social History 43:3 (2018), p. 361.

[11] Statutes of the Realm: Printed by Command of His Majesty King George the Third . . . from Original Records and Authentic Manuscripts, Reprint of 1810–28 ed. (1963), vol. 1, p. 35.

[12] Statutes of the Realm, vol. 2, p. 9.

[13] Bardsley, Venomous Tongues (2006), p. 29.

[14] Ibid.

[15] Bardsley, Venomous Tongues (2006), p. 2.

[16] Ibid.

[17] Tonkinson, A. M., ‘Macclesfield in the Later Fourteenth Century: Communities of Town and Forest’, Chetham Society Publications, 3rd series, vol. 42 (1999), p. 52.

[18] New International Version, 1 Timothy 2:11; New International Version, 1 Timothy 5.

[19] (trans.) Blum, Owen J., Peter Damian: Letters (1998), p. 276, letter 112, verse 34.

[20] Poos, L.R., ‘Sex, Lies, and the Church Courts of Pre-Reformation England’, Journal of Interdisciplinary History 25 (1995), p. 586.

[21] Idem, p. 589.

[22] Ibid.

[23] Idem, p. 591.

[24] Ibid.

[25] Idem, p. 598.

[26] Ibid.

[27] Bardsley, Venomous Tongues (2006), p. 2.

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