Our ancestors were insulting

March 9, 2001

Contrary to the suspicions of middle England, it seems the language of the street is politer than it once was. Analysis of court records has revealed that public insults have declined in London since the reign of Charles I.

Robert Shoemaker, a historian at Sheffield University, has used defamation cases to plot the decline of verbal abuse. His work appears in the journal Past and Present . "An insult had great implications for the person labelled a whore or thief by people in the street," Shoemaker said. "Now it does not have that much meaning."

In its heyday, the public insult was a colourful spectacle. Sexual insults were common, such as being labelled "a pockey, lousey hedge whore" or "worse than any salt-bitch that a dog follows up and down the street".

Men were accused of being informers who betrayed gin-sellers to officials, "cheating dogs", "knaves" and "gallows rogues".

Honour was a central feature of early modern society. A public row always attracted a crowd, and those slandered felt compelled to seek legal redress. Shoemaker's analysis showed that the number of defamation prosecutions at the Consistory Court of London peaked at 198 in 1633. It fell to 80 in 1680, 47 in 1725 and 14 in 1760. From 18 to 1829, there was just one a year.

At Middlesex sessions, recognisances or bindings over for insulting words hit 71 in the 1670s, then dropped to 45 in the 1680s, 26 in the 1690s and 16 in the following decade. After rising again, the number fell to just three by the 1760s.

Shoemaker attributed the decline to a broader cultural transformation as Londoners became more selective about their acquaintances and as the opinion of their neighbours grew less important. "The changes in the character of defamation cases suggest that defamatory words ceased having the kind of impact on reputations that they had had previously," he said.

Although higher standards of conduct emerged in public, Shoemaker notes that the insults may simply have been exchanged in private.

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