Insult in the 16th Century (Revised)

The use of insulting language in the late 16th century is easily seen in court records of the time. After the Reformation there was a sudden rise in defamation allegations being recorded. Defamation laws required there to be an economic consequence or accusation of crime for the case to be brought to court, hurt feelings were not enough. 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 was precious, and any insult is important enough to take to court. Most of these cases were tried at the secular courts, with the exception with those concerned with sexuality, generally against women, these went to church courts. Men were more likely to be concerned with insult that could affect their business, while women’s entire reputation was based on the accepted sexual mores of the day.

The most dangerous insults towards men, and those pursued most vigorously, were those against their professional business. Thomas Handley accused Elizabeth Vincent of destroying his business when she publicly proclaimed “God forbid that ever Handley take any work in hand that ever shall prosper” after her child died in his care. He claimed as a result of this he lost customers. Some insults were meant to suggest that men were outsiders to their communities and a threat by questioning their parentage – a direct insult to their reputation – such as those levelled at John Johnson by a neighbouring couple who claimed ‘no man knew from where he came’ while also branding him a ‘Scotty Rouge’ and ‘Vagabond’ further pushing an idea of a threat to the community. While drinking alcohol was seen as an important part of male friendship, extreme or common drunkenness was seen as a man out of control. One John Paterson was described as a ‘foresworn drunken fellow’ and a ‘spewbleck’ describing what drunkenness did to him.

 

The cases of women v women or men v women are quite different. When women were insulted it tended to be of a sexual nature, often with the word ‘whore’ being used. Other words of a negative sexual nature solely towards women such as ‘jade’ and ‘queane’ can be seen in cases such as Anne Webb’s diatribe against Margery Dunne in 1593:‘thow hacking queane thou hacking jade comon ridden Jade codpeece whor codpeece quean…’. Some cases such as this one seem to be more attacks on other women out of anger. Other women sometimes would directly attack women who had sex with their husbands such as a case in 1579 where Alice Amos was heckled by Susanna Symonds: ‘Thow art a whore And I sawe my husband stand between thie legs and thow didst put thow hands into his codpeece very rudely.’ 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 about their sexual and moral behaviour. This statement is backed by numerous records of what is said in these cases.

 

When cases were between men and women the tone often changed. 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. Some were possibly revenge, men often defamed women they claimed to have slept with; whether this was always true if women rejected male advances or if it was in revenge for when women tried to end things we cannot always know. In 1574 James Granger threatened Alice Marsh by telling her: ‘Alice Marsh was an arraunte whore and that he had lyen with her, and that he would send letters to her husband to declare the same’.

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 and he was a cuckold. The number of cases where men brought the cases to court where female family members were accused of ‘whoredom’ is interesting, as men were considered the guardians of their female family member’s sexual behaviour.

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.

 

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5 thoughts on “Insult in the 16th Century (Revised)

  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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