How To Sue A Peasant
It’s amazing what you learn from your seminar reading sometimes…
So it turns out that in the Elizabethan and early-to-mid Stuart period (especially c.1580 until c.1640) the English liked nothing more than suing each other. Seriously. All the bloody time! Lacking a police service to deal with those who upset the status quo, and without such other modern recourses as aggrieved blogging, letters to the Daily Mail, or a retaliatory drive by shooting, the villagers, townsfolk, yeomen, gentry, nobles and wenches of the early modern period often resorted to litigation in their attempts to respond.
Some slights would make sense today. Stealing livestock.
Mild-to-severe street violence.
And, of course, personal insults, or defamation as it was called in those days.
Thus sheep thief gets hit with two law suits, and ginger gets hit with one. However as sheep thief also got hit by ginger, he is well and truly the loser in this scenario.
Back then it was really quite severe to insult someone. Naturally being horribly sexist, the men got their cases of defamation dealt with in proper legal courts, whilst women had to make do with the Church courts, which didn’t seem as grown up and involved vicars.
This was a dangerous thing as the records record that one particular vicar was such a model of dignity and vicar-ness that he sued one parishoner 26 times in six years. 26! You can almost imagine how it went…
They couldn’t even spell properly in those days (spot the error)!
So with all these lawsuits flying around people became really worried that this meant the end of all civility and decency. People who started lawsuits were treated with disdain. But they still started lawsuits. Some people, probably including our vicar above, were using what was known as vexatious litigation, that is just suing to annoy someone. How bloody annoying you can imagine. Well, at the time it wasn’t annoying, it was seen as a clear sign that SOCIETY ITSELF WAS FALLING APART!!! They feared there would be riots and chaos as no one would love their neighbour anymore!
Funnily enough, it was this attitude which meant society didn’t fall apart. See, because litigation was such a bad thing whenever a lawsuit was threatened the community would run around and try and prevent it happening. This usually meant making the parties sit down and talk it over with someone there to mediate. The local clergy were useful for this, even if they did appear to have very bad facial hair and were very very skinny.
Often this was enough. The people involved in the lawsuits were just like everyone else. They didn’t like litigation either and often dropped it when they calmed down or realised it would cost loads to actually continue the suit. There were no annoying TV adverts for companies offering “No win, no fee” back then. Some would argue this is a good thing.
Traditionally mediation would take place over some food and drink. Those church ales that clergy were alawys brewing came in useful for a purpose other than enlivening the Sunday sermon.
If this didn’t work then there could be forced arbitration which was like when the priest told them to behave but with a more scary authority figure telling them to behave and them having to by law. Or they could go through with the suit and be disapproved of forever after.
And that was the great thing – most people didn’t want any lawsuits so they tried to avoid getting involved with one, and tried to stop any they found out about. Except there was still a massive rise in litigation (at least one lawsuit per household per year, every year for 60 years). It made no sense! As it turned out people were calming down from about 1600, but the rising population meant more people to have lawsuits with so the fall didn’t occur until all them had calmed down too.
Bunch of whiny hypocritical hippies.