This Autumn, I’ve got an article out in Northern History, or the ‘Journal in the North’ as it should now be called.
It’s about the way neighbourhood worked in the small Northumberland village of Dilston, seen through the eyes of the manor court – the lowest, most localized place of justice in medieval and early-modern times.
Like other similar studies, it shows a community struggling to keep the peace between neighbours who were often at odds. But one character really stands out. A man called George Forster.
Forster (who by complete coincidence shares a surname with the very gentlemanly editor of the JITN), was evidently quite the sod. In fact, he appears to have been so rude and unpleasant as to make Raoul Moat seem like C3PO.
He was, we know, a tenant of the manor from at least 1558 to 1589. In this time, he was constantly engaged in litigation. In fact, he was involved in at least fourteen civil suits between 1558 and 1579, mostly over various acts of trespass or debt. On one occasion, it was alleged that when a swarm of bees owned by one of his neighbours ‘did fly forth of her bee yard and did light in the said George Forster’s yard’, he simply kept them and pretended they were his own. On another, he was hauled before the court for letting his mastiff kill a neighbour’s sheep. The court ordered that if he didn’t get the dog under control, they would hang it.
Forster was also, it seems, pretty gobby, as he got entangled in fifteen separate slander suits, eight times as the defendant – meaning that he was the one mouthing off. His wife also got in on the act, feeling the wrath of the court in 1561 for calling one of their neighbours a thief.
In 1571 he made the very serious, and sinister, accusation that his neighbour Richard Cowper not only did ‘lay in watch of his son George Forster’, but also ‘lamed his wife with strokes’. Strokes of his fist, presumably. Then in 1575 he was going around reporting one George Parke ‘to have the plague’ again landing him in hot water.
Perhaps most bizarrely, Forster was twice up before the court for accusing his fellow villagers of being Scottish. He was acquitted on both occasions, the earlier of which when he proved to the court’s satisfaction that his opponent was indeed a Scot. He was called Archie Angus.
As we’d expect, George didn’t escape the ire of his neighbours either. One of them, William Dennynge, was before the village court in 1561 for calling Forster ‘a pock’: in other words, accusing him of having syphilis, and – on another occasion – calling him a ‘thief’. In fact, he sued his neighbours seven times for slander, though not always successfully, suggesting either that he couldn’t prove the words were uttered, or that the utterer was felt to have a point.
As much, though, as characters like Forster are interesting – the colourful rogues who make Tudor history so entertaining at times – in many ways it’s the language itself that most grabs the attention. For if you really want to understand a society, then the ways people slag each other off is as good a place to start as any.
In Dilston, they called each other liars, accused each other being syphilitic or Scottish. Sex was a regular theme, especially – as historians have often commented – in cases involving women.
Widow Sadler was accused in 1571 of slandering Audrey Craige’s wife, ‘and calling her whore, and all her kind’. Margaret Cragg was in trouble the same year for accusing Widow Sadler of sleeping with her husband. Nor was this the first accusation of infidelity levelled at Widow Sadler, and on this occasion the court found for the defendant and actually then ordered Sadler to be thrown out of town.
The insults continued. Nicholas Ridley, in 1577, was before the court for calling a cottage-dweller, Widow Maughley, a ‘naughty false strumpet’. In 1620, Robert Sharpe allegedly cut down Barbary Jopling by calling her a ‘trumper and borden’, both sexual insults.
In fact, a couple of years later Barbary again suffered the wagging tongues of her neighbours when the court heard that Michael Leech, the miller, had called her ‘Daniel Mason’s whore’, and said ‘that she was as free to him as to her husband’.
It was, though, much less common for men to be the subject of sexual insults, though Cuthbert Simpson was an exception when in 1623 he was called by Robert Gray a ‘common drunkard, a harlot and a whore master’.
Most of the time, indeed, it was theft and dishonesty that was being thrown in people’s faces. We have evidence of 44 surviving suits. In 33 cases the language of insult survives, and in 19 of these it was an accusation of theft or dishonesty. Even for quite trifling amounts: William Thompson’s wife was slandered by Jennett Patterson who said that she stole a hat. Mathew Deyne was sued by Widow Anne Greenwell ‘for saying her children did steal a hen’.
But the records don’t give us a completely free hand. Under English law you weren’t able to sue for simple hurt feelings. It was only when insults could have material consequences that you could bring them before a court.
So we need to be careful. If you were accused of having the plague or syphilis, this might – in the former case – result in you being shut up in your home; in the latter it might cause business associates to shun you. If you were accused of being a thief, or a whore, this could bring criminal prosecution, so it was an allegation it was in your interests to fight. The accusations of being Scottish, though quite funny, are also pretty mundane. Scots, as aliens and subjects of a different monarch, were legally not entitled to hold land at the time, so it was a major legal disability.
So we should treat historical insults with care – it’s not the unblemished window into a lost culture that we might suppose. As with many bits of history, we only get to see it through the prism created by the legal system.
A pox on that.