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Defamation Notes

History Notes > Crime and Punishment in England c.1280-c.1450 Notes

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Select Cases on Defamation to 1600 - R. H. Helmholz (ed.) (London: Selden Society, 1985) pp. 3-12, pp. 28-37 Introduction:
? Private law of defamation
? English law of defamation had effective origin in provincial Constitution of the Council of Oxford (1222) ? excommunication
? The person was required to be of good fame prior to the imputation of a particular crime
? Covered unjust accusations made maliciously and in public
? No one tainted by infamia could serve as an advocate or testify in a criminal trial
? Remedy of public apology
? Crime must have been imputed - yet could also encompass sins
~ 16 defamation cases in first surviving Canterbury Deposition book (1411-21) - 11 concerned imputations of theft, 2 dealt with sexual offences and there was one each for sacrilege, leprosy and homicide
? Yet words of mere abuse did not count
? Did not necessarily need to specify the actual crime - just refer to it?????Nothing in the English Constitution required the imputation to have been spoken falsely - must have been made maliciously
~ Canonists held that even a true accusation might be made out of malice
~ Yet almost all libels contained allegation that imputation was false
~ Truth was used as a defence - something of public importance that people should know Wide discretion in assessing motive and whether it was malicious
~ Malice required a certain perseverance in the accusation
~ Defences of sudden anger and provocation Defence of prior bad fame appeared in court Sentence of excommunication
~ Left open what the offender had to do to have the sentence lifted Court regularly awarded expenses
~ Damages could have been hidden within this Frequent reference to 'spiritual' penalties - public penance and public apology to the party defamed Royal courts conceded defamation to the Church so long as money damages were not demanded Exception seen in use of defamation to impede the operation of royal courts
~ 1327 Parliamentary petition - complained that persons who had caused others to be indicted were harassed in the ecclesiastical tribunals under the heading of defamation
~ 1327 statute enacted granting a writ of prohibition to prevent the practice Could be seen as an ordinary kind of trespass - local court records show this Most frequent entry combined a verbal with a physical attack Could use defence that plaintiff had suffered no demonstrable harm


Many manor and borough courts regularly heard defamation cases in 1300 - had ceased to be heard by 1400
~ By 1400 the local courts had lost their jurisdiction over civil actions for defamation Ecclesiastical Courts

Gray c. Archdeacon of Buckingham:
? Proctor of Lady Joan Gray against Richard of St Frideswide c. 1290
? 'cited or caused to be cited her ladyship to appear before him on a certain day and place to answer concerning the adultery committed, as he imputed against her, by her with John Harleston'
? 'he intends to prove that the aforesaid archdeacon imputed the aforesaid crime to her ladyship falsely and maliciously, openly and publicly, at divers times and places, before many good and substantial men and defamed her of this falsely and maliciously among good and substantial persons, although she had not been previously defamed of this in any way, although no fame of this had in any way reached the archdeacon and although no accuser or denouncer had appeared'
? Her ladyship tried to avoid greater scandal - canonically purged herself of this matter before the archdeacon
~ Archdeacon did not take care to restore her to 'good fame'
~ Continued his defamation as if she had been convicted
? 'he intends to prove that by reason of this imputation, defamation and injunction, the reputation of her ladyship is burdened in manifold ways and her status is grievously injured
? Archdeacon defamed her 'falsely and through malice among good and substantial persons, not only judicially but extrajudicially, not with the spirit incumbent upon the exercise of his office, but in the company of guests and at other gatherings of knights and great men, frequently and widely as well without as within his district' Topcliffe c. Greenhode:
? Proctor of John Topcliff of Ripon against John Greenhode 1381
? 'propounds and intends to prove that the said John Topcliff was at one time a man of good fame, honest conversation and unblemished in no way burdened by debts or indebted and that he was and is a very wealthy man and a squire to the venerable father the archbishop of York, in no way implicated in the crime of prodigality'
? 'the aforesaid John Greenhode defamed the aforesaid John Topcliff and imputed the crimes of falseness, perjury and prodigality and other outrageous crimes to him'
? Called him a 'false man and false sponger' and 'false lurdan'
? Imputed that he had been a false man of bad fame - much rhetoric on his supposed prodigality
? Imputed 'publicly, repeatedly, falsely, wickedly, and maliciously and for the sake of hatred and with the intent to defame' and 'in order that the same John might be hindered from contracting marriage with Emma Erle of Wakefield Colmere c. Daniel:
? Production of witnesses on behalf of Christine Colmere of Westgate, Canterbury against Simon Daniel 1413
? 'the aforesaid Simon said to this deponent that many people were afraid to drink the beer of the said Christine because she was strongly infected and afflicted with the disease of leprosy. Then this deponent said 'That which you say is not true because I spoke with Christine a little while ago and she was then as healthy and clean in the face as she was accustomed to be, without disfigurement of leprosy''


Cites other witnesses Asserts by virtue of his oath that he has not been bribed Another witness asserts 'that by reason of these words uttered by the said Simon, the said Christine was harmed both in her name and goods, in that none of the neighbours there would dare buy nay beer of the said Christine because of fear of infection by the said leprosy'

Robinson c. Rayner:
? Proctor of Thomas Robinson of Cottingham against John Rayner of Cottingham, Yorkshire 1424/25
? Maliciously defamed in front of good and substantial people among whom he had previously been of good fame
? Wants him to be excommunicated
? Evidence - the proctor of the defendant believes that he is trustworthy and of good fame
? Defamed of falseness and theft
? Said that Thomas was a false side-glance thief - 'fals gleand thefe'
? 'he propounds and intends to prove that the said crime uttered as stated above by the aforesaid John reviles, lesses and diminishes public morals and in particular those of Thomas Robinson'
? 'the status and fame of Thomas are harmed and blackened and the public character of Thomas is reviled and diminished to the highest degree to the manifest prejudice of Thomas'
? Rayner does not admit these offences
? Interrogation of witnesses as to what harm has been caused to Robinson
? William Stevenson
~ Has known him 'for the space of the past 20 years as a man of good fame, of honest life and conversation and of unblemished reputation'
~ Heard the defamation - did not think that it was true and the Robinson had beaten Rayner
? 'the status and fame of Thomas are harmed and blackened and the public character of the same Thomas is grievously reviled, lessened and impaired'
? Robinson was not stirred to anger at the time - further evidence
? It is found that the proctor has sufficiently proved the defamation ? John Rayner is to be canonically punished and must pay expenses Local Courts Fulk v. Kenep 1245:
? Called Fulk a thief
? A day is given to all on the Thursday next Wyke v. Ywon 1274:
? Complains 'of the trepass and the dishonour which he caused to him and which his wife caused to him by imputing crime and scandal to him, in the fraud that the same Peter sold his wife a piglet which was not sound'
? Peter Ywon is in mercy of Peter Wyke Lumyner v. Wylde 1285:
? Attacked with opprobrious words
? Charged with words and nothing else ? Nicholas de Lumyner is in mercy

Hylton v. Malyng 1287:
? Called a thief and other enormities and struck with a knife
? Defence of drunkeness
? Should make satisfaction to him for the trespass in mercy 12d Engham v. Burton 1287:
? Said that his wares were false and rotten - lost sale of wares to the damage of half a mark
? Does not come so is in mercy Ferur v. Ralph Leech 1287:
? Called a counterfeiter, traitor and seized him by the throat
? Not answerable for judgement - just words Ode v. Wolston 1289:
? Constructed a certain house improperly to the injury of Walter Chautecler
? Inquest due to many witnesses saying that this did not occur Curteys v. Poyfoy 1289:
? Said his fish were rotten - damage of half a mark
? Inquest Butcher v. Smalegrave 1291:
? Called a cheater of his neighbour's goods
? Both in mercy Geyst v. Dunwich 1292:
? Accused of bringing a dead man into his house ? loss of sales of bread 20s
? Given damages of 12d Angle v. Sweyn 1300:
? Called a thief, house burner, deceiver and cuckold
? Also had hue and cry raised against him - attacked and lost 20s
? Jury found Sweyn guilt - damages of 1 mark Avice v. Aldwinkle 1303:
? Women
? Called her a thief and a whore
? Aldwinkle denies all and says that there is an exception as the house is not Alice Avice's but her husband Peter's ? Alice in mercy?

Many further similar cases Less talk of 'good fame' - yet still existent

The Slight of Honor: Slander and Wrongful Prosecution in Five English Medieval Villages - Patricia Hogan (Studies in Medieval and Renaissance History (New Series: Volume XII) - J. A. S. Evans and R. W. Unger (eds.)) (New York: AMS Press, 1991) pp. 1-44??One of the most powerful influences on an individual's conduct Individual or community gossip?
Honour - evaluation of self as others might be imagined to judge one Can be equated with power to obtain some future good and gain recognition Reputation can rest almost exclusively with someone's moral characterIn England questions of honour, especially the prejudice of a man's reputation through words, were closely bound up with law codes - strict compensation
~ Local and ecclesiastical courts
~ Common law only really entered the field in the 16th century The more closely interwoven a society, the greater the chance of slander Defamation was usually left to village courts - they could resolve the community problems Difficulty of unreported cases?Broughton 1288-1316:
? 22 defamations
? Very brief cases - simply a lie and required little elaboration
? Honour is most contentious amongst those comprising the broad middle ranges of agrarian and pastoral societies
? 6 defamations of women e.g. 1294 Ralph Everard alleged that the wife of John Le Bon had stolen wheat from the lord's fields
~ The defamations are made by men
? Yet women also defamed people - 4 against men and 3 against women
~ 1307 Agnes, wife of John Pege, defamed Christina of London as a whore and 7 years later similarly maligned Christina Couper
? Number of property offences charged against women - 5/11
? Tradesmen and officials also feature conspicuously
? Dominant charges of detailed promiscuity and theft and debt
? Any threat to material resources was a powerful motive of action
? Main motives of spitefulness and fear
? Villagers knew that it was not 'the beste meanes' to sue one another and that they should try to 'make frendes'
~ Principal aim of the law was to bring quarrelling people to an amicable settlement
? Were aware that defamation was a breach of Christian charity and a violation of neighbourly ethics
? Most were little damaged by accusations - maintained juror, pledging and ale-tasting responsibilities Women and Defamation:
? Warboys 1290-1353 - 7/13 slanders by women
? Wistow - 5/13


~ Yet made a spectacle e.g. 1294 Alice Bole defamed 26 workers regarding a cash agreement - brought autumn works of the lord to a halt Slander is a potent assault weapon - more devastating than physical attack Allows the weaker sex to strike first Slandered almost as frequently as men They only monopolised one charge - sexual license Social origins cast more light - 90% from families with a minor involvement in public life
~ Little to lose by their boldness e.g. repeat offenders Agnes and Alice Bole Yet it was actually men who slandered most often Women had been seen to be major detractors in society due to insufficient interests
~ Yet it was due to business, economic and public services that men slandered

Property and Defamation:
? Issue of debt - medieval village credit system Officials, Tradesmen and Families and Defamation:
? Officials were routinely slandered
~ Some of the most severe condemnations
? Contempt for authority due to its defence of an established precept
? Richard of Hyrst's defamation of the bailiff of Broughton in 1297
? Local courts gave strong and unequivocal support to their officials
? Warboys - 26/43 false claimants were from main families Geography and Defamation:
? Upwood 1278-1350 - only 4 defamations but 33 false claims
~ Less direct relations yet a marked litigiousness
~ Unlike nucleated centres of arable parishes - scattered modes of economy and settlement Conclusion:
? Assumption that villagers love gossip
? Offenders come from every part of life and have many different motives
? 2 of the most fundamental underpinnings of social life are cooperation and competition
~ Defamation shows an extreme of competition
? Slander and wrongful prosecution are genuinely harmful acts

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