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A brief history of libel

At a Cambridge court hearing in 1584, Margery Johnson reported that she heard Thomas Wylkinson refer to “the said Jane Johnson thus ‘A pox of God on thee, bitch fox whore, that ever I knew thee.'” If Wylkinson indeed called down such a curse on Jane, he was guilty not of libel, but of slander, a verbal attack on another person.

Libel, in contrast, is defined as defamation by written or printed words, pictures, or in any form other than by spoken words or gestures. The fundamental distinction between libel and slander lies solely in the form in which they are communicated. If the offending material is published in some fleeting form (i.e. words or sounds, sign language, gestures) then it is slander; if through writing, it is libel. Both slander and libel were rampant in Medieval and Renaissance England and Scotland, and both were illegal under certain circumstances, especially when aimed at the monarch or members of the governing elite. From as early as 1275, insulting a member of the upper class through either slander or libel left one guilty of “scandalum magnatum” and subject to prosecution by the Crown. By the early sixteenth century it was also libellous at law to accuse someone of incompetence in their craft or trade because it undermined their reputation and thus threatened their livelihood. Under James I, a person could be convicted of slander or libel even if their accusations were true.

Victims of mere name calling, such as the Jane Johnson case above, sometimes pressed charges in the ecclesiastical courts (sometimes termed “bawdy courts” when trying such cases). Our knowledge of early modern slander derives for the most part from these court records. Where the perpetrators were charged with libel, copies of the alleged attack were often entered into the court records, providing a valuable source of libel texts. These and the records of civil courts, including the central courts at Westminster, list hundreds of cases of libel from the period.

Under James I, a person could be convicted of slander or libel even if their accusations were true.

Libels seldom reached print for the obvious reason that printers feared they might lead to prosecution. Yet many libels circulated privately in manuscript. Some of these written insults were copied and recopied within communities or circles of correspondents. More interesting still, in some cases the libellers enhanced their readers’ enjoyment of their attacks by giving them poetic form. Verse libels had the advantage of rhyme, making them easier to remember and, perhaps, repeat to others (as slander). The verses could also be sung to a known tune or one made up for the occasion. A particularly ambitious verse libel was both set to music and extended into a “jig,” or brief operetta that was performed on several occasions in rural Yorkshire at Christmas in 1601.

A number of similarly ambitious libels have survived, enough to be recognized as, in aggregate, a poetic genre in their own right under the larger literary classification of satire. Libels belittled their targets with a broad array of literary devices including allegory, beast fable, fictional dialogue, prosopopoeia (a rhetorical figure that lets a concept or person, such as Lord Darnley or the hill in Yorkshire Black Hambleton, “speak”), and as verse letters. Some libels even attacked their victims in more than 100 lines of verse. Two of the Scottish libels concerned with Mary, Queen of Scots, for example, exceed 300 lines. All three libels on members of Cambridge and Oxford universities exceed 250 lines of verse. These insulting poems were couched in a broad range of poetic forms, from couplets to sonnets, with many innovative and unusual meters and stanza forms.

Verse libels took aim at people in all walks of life, from the monarch, bishops, and upper class (Members of Parliament and Inns of Court judges and lawyers among them), to the university communities, and to ordinary men and women up and down the land.

Libel and slander (more commonly known as “defamation”) are still legally punishable offences in the present day, with fascinating implications for freedom of speech and control of the media. In a world moving more and more towards fleeting digital publications–can the distinction between libel and slander remain relevant?

Featured image credit: Bundle Jute Rope Newspaper by Pexels. Public domain via Pixabay.

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