about this project
- The Consistory Court of the Diocese of London
- Medieval Canon Law and Consistory Court Litigation
- Late Medieval London and its Hinterland
- Editorial and Translation Conventions
- Further Reading
- Credits and Acknowledgements
Although ecclesiastical courts all over medieval Europe heard marriage cases, the English ecclesiastical courts' jurisdiction over defamation was unusual in the medieval European context.1 By the fifteenth century, however, defamation made up a considerable portion of the business in English ecclesiastical courts, including litigation in the London Consistory, and the proportion made up by defamation cases would continue to grow in the sixteenth century, eventually eclipsing matrimonial litigation.2
Defamation, as the word suggests, was the loss of reputation or fame due to an allegation of wrongdoing.3 A defamation was not simply an insult; it had to involve the commission of a wrong. The wrong could be a sin (for instance, adultery), or a secular crime (for instance, theft). By the fifteenth century, English ecclesiastical courts accepted quite general imputations of wrongdoing. In order for an insult to be considered defamatory it was not necessary to refer to a specific instance of wrongdoing ( you fornicated with so-and-so; you stole my sheep last Friday); generally calling someone a whore or a thief would do. To prove defamation in a suit, a plaintiff had to show that the defendant had spoken maliciously, although for the most part this was seen to be self- evident from the nature of the words themselves (the assumption was that one would not lightly or unintentionally use these words).
Defamatory words also had to harm the reputation of the plaintiff. Somewhat curiously, whether or not the allegation at issue in the defamation was true was only somewhat relevant; in the cases in the London Consistory, the usual focus was not objectively on whether (for instance) a woman actually had, or had not, committed adultery, but rather on whether the words spoken harmed her reputation. The truth of the allegation was not unrelated; there was an assumption that if a woman had indeed committed adultery, or if a man was in fact a notorious thief, their reputations would not suffer from talk about their whoredom or thievery; they did not have good fame that the talk would harm. The testimony in defamation cases in the London Consistory tended to focus first on the uttering of the defamatory words, and then on the harm the words had done to a person who had hitherto been of good fame (see, for instance, John Mendis c. John Adam, or Joan Ponder c. Margaret Samer. Many scholars have fruitfully used defamation litigation to explore gender and social relations in England during the late medieval and early modern periods.4
1 On defamation, see Helmholz, R. H. The Canon Law and Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction from 597 to the 1640s. The Oxford History of the Laws of England, vol. I. Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004, ch. 11.
2 For sixteenth-century litigation in the London Consistory, see Laura Gowing, Domestic Dangers: Women, Words, and Sex in Early Modern London (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1996). In the fifteenth century, a good many defamation cases were heard in the lower-level Commissary court as office cases: see Richard M. Wunderli, London Church Courts and Society on the Eve of the Reformation (Cambridge, Mass.: Medieval Academy of America, 1981), ch. 3.
3 R. H. Helmholz, The Canon Law and Ecclesiastical Jurisdiction from 597 to the 1640s (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2004), 573.
4 E.g. L. R. Poos, "Sex, Lies, and the Church Courts of Pre-Reformation England," Journal of Interdisciplinary History 25 (1995): 585-607; Sandy Bardsley, Venomous Tongues: Speech and Gender in Late Medieval England (Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006); Gowing, Domestic Dangers.