In an editorial by George Monbiot in today’s issue of The Guardian, we learn that Britain’s libel laws have gone so far that they are positively […wait for it…] medieval.
Make any accusation, anywhere in the world, and if the subject can demonstrate that a single person in England or Wales has read it, you could be sued here for every penny, cent, rouble, rupee or renminbi you possess. The internet and the global nature of publishing ensure that these medieval laws have become the most powerful extra-territorial legislation ever drafted.
The blogger Richard Brunton tells a shocking story of the threats he received from a leisure company (which he is now too frightened even to name) after contributors to his site had made adverse comments about some of its products. Such threats could bring an end to critical online reviews. The internet butterfly is repeatedly broken upon the wheel of England’s medieval laws.
At first, I wasn’t certain that these were medieval-in-a-bad-way‘s, as I don’t know very much about medieval English law (my medieval law prof was a Gratian scholar). Maybe the roots of British libel law really do stretch back to some medieval king, I thought. It only took a smidgen of research to discover, however, that modern British libel law took shape under the rule of James I, who took the throne at the beginning of the seventeenth century. I suppose “Jacobean libel law” doesn’t pack quite the same punch, as it conjures up images of Shakespeare rather than medieval butterfly torture.
One reason modern libel laws took shape under James, rather than one of those horrible old medieval kings is, of course, that libel refers to printed falsehoods, and ye olde printinge presse is a very late medieval advance. This is not to say that there were no medieval laws concerning slander or libel. [UPDATE: However, for most of the Middle Ages, defamation (which covers written and spoken injurious statements), seems to have been primarily a matter for canon courts (the Church’s legal system) not English civil courts, though there was the occasional civil prosecution.]
Here are some of my favorite non-ecclesiastical defamation laws:
- The Lex Salica puts the penalty for (as one early twentieth-century scholar circumspectly put it) “the false imputation of unchastity against a woman” at forty-five shillings.
- By the same law, men who falsely call another man “wolf” or “hare” must pay three shillings. A bargain, especially considering…
- …that the Anglo-Saxon Dooms, on the other hand, set the punishment for folcleasung, or slander, as the loss of one’s tongue.
- The Norman Costumal dictated that a man who falsely charged another with thievery or murder not only had to pay damages, but also had to publicly confess to lying while holding his nose with his fingers.
- And according to Pollock and Maitland’s History of English Law, falsely calling a woman a harlot (meretrix) under the legal codes of medieval England was fineable, though the fine was one shilling less than the fine for falsely calling a man a thief (latro).*
The last time that Mr. Monbiot drew this site’s attention, it was for comparing carbon offset credits to medieval indulgences. As a certain famous brush management technician once said, “fool me once, shame on–shame on you. Fool me–you can’t get fooled again.”** With this in mind, I did a quick search of the Guardian and pulled up still more Monbotian medieval horrors:
- In a June 2007 editorial, Monbiot warned that the UK had “been allowed to remain in an almost medieval state of ignorance.” About what? The health benefits of breastfeeding. I know there were a lot of things the medievals didn’t know about, but breastfeeding?
- In an April 2005 editorial lamenting Paul Wolfowitz’s appointment to the presidency of the World Bank, he wrote that one of the few positives would be that it would remind the world that the Bank “is run like a medieval monarchy.” (Note: This was well before Wolfman’s mistress saw the light of day.)
- In December 2001, he childed “Torquemada Blair’s inquisitors, the lord chancellor’s medieval department” for threatening to dispense with jury trials for enemy combatants captured in Afghanistan. Isn’t there something about trial-by-jury in some medieval document or other? It’s on the tip of my tongue… uh, Magma Blarta? Flagna Marta? Something like that, anyway.***
Huzzah for bulleted lists! But anyway, that’s five it’s-so-bad-it’s-medieval‘s for George Monbiot. Sure, it doesn’t quite match Christopher Hitchens, but what is with British journalists and the M-word?
*That led historian Richard O’Sullivan to postulate the following algebraic formula:
Thief – Harlot = 1 shilling.
**That old Tennessee–I know it’s in Texas, probably in Tennessee–saying.
***There once was a footnote here that said nasty things about the Star Court and compared it to the Bush administration’s secret military tribunals. I’ve removed it after a dressing down by a reader in the comments section for the post. Any similarity between the US’s now unconstitutional tribunal system and a court that (in the late Middle Ages, at least) held secret sessions with no right of appeal, no witnesses, and no juries I will leave to my readers to suss out on their own.