Sexual Slander in Nineteenth-Century England: Defamation in the Ecclesiastical Courts, 1815–1855

By: S. M. Waddams (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2000. Pp. xvi + 315. $75.00 (ISBN 0-8020-4750-5))

It is difficult to convey to a nonhistorian the simultaneous excitement and terror created by the words “uncatalogued local archives.” Stephen Waddams’s impressive and ground-breaking Sexual Slander delivers on the promise of those words. Drawing on a laborious excavation of unsorted cause papers preserved in local archives across England and Wales, he presents a comprehensive survey of defamation litigation in ecclesiastical courts up to the abolition of their defamation jurisdiction in 1855. Defamation litigation attracts historians’ attention because of one procedural feature: all evidence was taken in writing. Unlike most common law proceedings, therefore, we have access to what the witness actually said (or pretty close to it). For historians seeking entry into the everyday world of Britons, these records present a unique and valuable resource. Waddams reminds us that words such as “salty bitch,” “lazy stinking strumpet,” or “flounced whore” continued to wound well into the nineteenth century.1
     Sexual Slander not only shows us the world of early nineteenth-century insult and sexual mores, it also provides an admirably clear guide to the largely uncharted ecclesiastical court system. Waddams divides his book into three parts: the law, the courts, and the cases. The law limited actionable insults to those alleging conduct criminal under ecclesiastical law. This restriction helps explain the gender asymmetry in the insults prosecuted: women commonly brought suit over allegations they were “whores,” while no equivalent term existed for men. Accusations of sodomy, meanwhile, did not give rise to suits because it was not a crime under ecclesiastical law (21). Waddams reveals other intriguing facets of the law. Truth, for example, was not a defense. While defendants often sought to prove that the insult they were charged with was, in fact, true, that information could only be used by the judge to reduce their penalty, not to exonerate them (33–39).2
     In his discussion of courts, Waddams details the staffing of the ecclesiastical courts, the patterns of litigation, and the typical procedure in defamation cases. Few courts, for instance, would have had a judge with any training in the ecclesiastical law; most chancellors were clergymen (53–54). Waddams also describes a custom that emerged in defamation cases where two or more friends of the plaintiff (who was prohibited from testifying in the case) visited the defendant and challenged him or her to repeat the insult. If the defendant was foolish enough to comply, the friends could meet the evidentiary burden of two witnesses and all but guarantee the success of the case. If the defendant refused, while the case was unable to proceed, rough justice had been done, with the defendant forced to renounce his or her insult (81). Unfortunately, the organization of this section is one of the few areas in which Waddams’s book could have benefited from tighter editing. At times, tangentially related material is conjoined uneasily. “Patterns of Litigation” (chap. 4), for example, treats both different levels of litigation across England and Wales and regional variation in the procedure for filing a suit.3
     In the final section on cases, Waddams explores the parties, the insults they complained of, and their motives for going to court. He discovers that the majority of plaintiffs during this period were women, and that most cases were disputes between married women, often neighbors (123–24). Litigants were neither from the highest nor the lowest social classes; instead, they tended to be small traders, craftspeople, and farmers (126). Among the smaller numbers of male plaintiffs, however, members of the professions and especially clergymen predominated, because their livelihood was threatened by allegations of sexual misconduct. The question of motive is one of the most intriguing. No damages could be awarded in sexual slander cases; only costs and performance of semi-public penance. Nonetheless, in many dioceses, plaintiffs still eagerly litigated these cases. Waddams speculates that the existence of a legal remedy created pressure to litigate, regardless of potentially neglible awards (177).4
     Sexual Slander is a valuable contribution to a number of discussions. Most obviously, it brings the history of slander in church courts, previously explored by Laura Gowing, R. H. Helmholz, Martin Ingram, J. A. Sharpe, and Robert Shoemaker, into the courts’ twilight years in the nineteenth century. By expanding both the chronological and geographical scope of our knowledge of church court slander cases, Waddams complicates Shoemaker’s proposed eighteenth-century “decline in public insult” (“The Decline of Public Insult in London 1660–1800,” Past & Present, 169 [2000]: 97–131). Shoemaker sees a grand shift away from the regulation of reputation as part of a changing relationship between the individual and the community. Waddams, however, points to the surprising persistence of slander cases outside London and attributes decline where it did occur to a combination of judicial reluctance to hear cases and development of local norms governing responses to insult.5
     Waddams’s research also reverberates with Ginger Frost’s study of breach of promise actions in the same period (Promises Broken [Virginia, 1995]). Both revise narratives of nineteenth-century legal rationalization by pointing out that reform effectively closed avenues by which women could and did pursue their interests in court. As Waddams notes, 90 percent of the sexual slander cases were brought by women (xii). More broadly, Sexual Slander supplies a valuable piece of the emerging history of legal reform in Victorian England. Waddams illustrates the chasm between the rhetoric of reformers, who eagerly attacked both the ecclesiastical courts and their defamation jurisdiction, and the reality of practice in those courts (6–12). His work provides a salutary caution against taking the reformers’ representations of the legal system at face value.6
     Sexual Slander is a generous book, in the finest sense of the word, in that it opens the way for more research. Such scholarship will no doubt follow, now that Waddams has taken the terror out of these papers.7

Wendie Ellen SchneiderYale University

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