Insult in the 16th Century

The use of insulting language in the late 16th century is easily seen in church court records of the time. After the reformation there was a sudden rise in defamation allegations being recorded in the church courts. The general type of these cases is easily seen, in situations where it is men v men, the insult is normally against a man’s reputation, or the activities of his wife. The thought being that a man’s reputation is precious, and any insult is important enough to take to court.

The cases of women v women or men v women are quite different. When women are insulted it tended to be of a sexual nature, often with the word ‘whore’ being used. The difference between the gender and the language of insult has been explored by Laura Gowing in her article ‘Gender and the Language of Insult in Early Modern London’ in History Workshop. Gowing states that after 1600 the consistory court of London found its time taken up by cases sued by women concerning insults concerning their sexual and moral behaviour. This statement is backed by numerous records of what is said in these cases.

However the records also show the cases between men and women. One such case is between Robert Coke and Joan White. The basis of the argument is that Robert found a knife in the street, which Joan then claimed to be hers. Robert then claimed that Joan ‘…liest (sic) like a whore…’, to which Joan replied ‘Whose whore am I…’. Robert then stated ‘…thou art John Cokes whore…’. This relatively simple exchange of insults was enough for it to be heard in court. The document in which these quotes originate is part of the church court record dated 30th October 1585.

The study of these documents show how insults were tailored to men and women, depending on their social standing. The fact that women were able to pay the costs of taking a case to a judge suggests that their husbands considered an insult against the woman an insult against them, as it would suggest that if their wife was a whore he could not control her sexual actions.

I find this all very interesting as it shows how the higher levels of society dealt with insult and potential controversy in the late 16th century, going to such lengths to protect their reputation as they would their own interests.


5 thoughts on “Insult in the 16th Century

  1. I am teaching British Literature to my high school seniors and we are in the English Renaissance where they are learning about the philosophical and cultural arts awakening of Europe and the ancient Greek and Roman myth resurgence. We have read excerpts of Edmund Spenser’s “The Shepheardes Calendar” and next week we will read “The Faerie Queene.”

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