January 31, 2007

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.


- 14 comments by 3 or more people Not publicly viewable

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  1. I for one appreciate it when people explain history to me in a way I can understand god durn it! Very public spirited of you.

    It’s disturbing that those people are more expressive for not having faces…

    31 Jan 2007, 23:47

  2. You forgot to mention the fact that they all sued on credit so they then got sued by their creditors (in several different courts no doubt) for non-payment. Still, it’s probably there weren’t all these ambulance chasing parasites we have today around then; they’d have made an absolute killing.

    Has someone blasphemed at you? Have they slandered your good name? Then we’ll take your case through as many courts as you can afford to pay for (charge is 1d for every ten words in the depositions taken) as well as fighting off the counter-claim they’re bound to make against you. And if by any chance you actually have any money left at the end, we’ll sue you to recover our costs. Remember, where there’s blame there’s a claim.

    I quite like the description I came across last year of lawyers as ‘vipers and pettifoggers of the commonwealth.’

    01 Feb 2007, 00:10

  3. ‘Vipers and pettifoggers of the commonwealth’ is I’m guessing the book. I read that for the essay this came from. Was fairly interesting. Unfortunately the essay was 5000 words long and I couldn’t condense it all down to cartoon form. I can imagine the cheesy advert voice reading that ad though… worryingly.

    01 Feb 2007, 01:03

  4. I can imagine the cheesy advert voice reading that ad though… worryingly.

    So can I. And what’s worse I could hear it as I wrote it. Definitely not a good sign; I have voiceovers in my head.

    01 Feb 2007, 01:18

  5. Your local clergyman reminds me of sam.

    01 Feb 2007, 07:33

  6. I love these – more of them…. I feel as though I am being educated at the same time as being amused.

    The clouds are parting… I see a long career for you in illustrated history books.

    Blatent plug: Someone could even nominate them for a blog award...

    01 Feb 2007, 09:05

  7. Nick Howes

    I don’t think Sam likes being characterised purely by the fact that he has a beard. He had other things too, like a moustache and a coat.

    01 Feb 2007, 12:01

  8. Nick Howes

    How to Shoo a Pheasant.

    Just needed to say that.

    01 Feb 2007, 12:01

  9. The black clergy outfit reminded me of teh coat to be honest. And clergy guy looked a little menacing.

    01 Feb 2007, 14:12

  10. Mathew Mannion

    But does it blend?

    01 Feb 2007, 22:56

  11. England still has the best Legal system in the world. Up English Law! Down American Law! Etc. etc.

    02 Feb 2007, 00:27

  12. Wow. Great MSPaint skills :) yay for history.

    02 Feb 2007, 23:13

  13. Jane

    So they sue in England as much as they do in the US. I thought we had the corner on that market.

    01 May 2007, 02:48

  14. So they sue in England as much as they do in the US. I thought we had the corner on that market.

    Used to sue.

    01 May 2007, 08:59


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