The Price of the Poor’s Words: Social Relations and the Economics of Deposing for One’s “Betters” in Early Modern England

by Hillary Taylor (Jesus College, Cambridge)

This article is published by The Economic History Review, and it is available on the EHS website

Poverty and Wealth. Available at Wikimedia Commons

Late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century England was one of the most litigious societies on record. If much of this litigation was occasioned by debt disputes, a sizeable proportion involved gentlemen suing each other in an effort to secure claims to landed property. In this genre of suits, gentlemen not infrequently enlisted their social inferiors and subordinates to testify on their behalf.[1] These labouring witnesses were usually qualified to comment on the matter at hand a result of their employment histories. When they deposed, they might recount their knowledge of the boundaries of some land, of a deed or the like. In the course of doing so, they might also comment on all sorts of quotidian affairs. Because testifying enabled illiterate and otherwise anonymous people to speak on-record about all sorts of issues, historians have rightly regarded depositions as a singularly valuable source: for all their limitations, they offer us access to worlds that would otherwise be lost.

But we don’t know much about what labouring people thought about the prospect of testifying for (and against) their superiors, or how they came to testify in the first place. Did they think that it presented an opportunity to assert themselves? Did it – as some contemporary legal commentators claimed – provide them with an opportunity to make a bit of money on the side by ‘selling’ dubious evidence to their litigious superiors?[2] Or were they reluctant to depose in such circumstances and, if so, why? Where subordinated individuals deposed for their ‘betters’, what was the relationship between the ‘pull’ of economic reward and the ‘push’ of extra-economic coercion?

I wrote an article that considers these questions. It doesn’t have any tables or graphs; the issues with which it’s concerned don’t readily lend themselves to quantification. Rather, this piece tries to think about how members of the labouring population conceived of the possibilities that were afforded to and the constraints that were imposed upon them by dint of their socio-economic position.

In order to reconstruct these areas of popular thought, I read loads of late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century suits from the court of Star Chamber. In these cases, labouring witnesses who had deposed for one superior against another were subsequently sued for perjury (this was typically done in an effort to have a verdict that they had helped to secure overturned). Allegations against these witnesses got traction because it was widely assumed that people who worked for their livings were poor and, as a result, would lie under oath for anyone who would pay them for doing so. Where these suits advanced to the deposition-taking phase, labouring witnesses who were accused of swearing falsely under oath and witnesses of comparable social position provided accounts of their relationship with the litigious superiors in question, or commentaries on the perceived risks and benefits of giving evidence. They discussed the economic dispensations (or the promise thereof) which they had been given, or the coercion which had been used to extract their testimony.

Taken in aggregate, this evidence suggests that members of the labouring population had a keen sense of the politics of testimony. In a dynamic and exacting economy such as that of late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century England, where labouring people’s material prospects were irrevocably linked to their reputation and ‘honesty,’ deposing could be risky. Members of the labouring population were aware of this, and many were hesitant to depose at all. Their reluctance may well have been born of an awareness that doubt was likely to be cast upon their testimony as a result of their subordinated and dependent social position, which lent credibility to accusations that they had sworn falsely for gain. More immediately, it reflected concerns about the material reprecussions that they feared would follow from commenting on the affairs of their ‘betters.’ Such projections were not merely the stuff of paranoid speculation. In 1601, a carpenter from Buckinghamshire called Christopher Badger had put his mark to a statement defending a gentleman, Arthur Wright, who had frustrated efforts to impose a stinting arrangement on the common to, as many locals claimed, the ‘damadge of the poorer sorte and to the comoditie of the riche.’ Badger recalled that one of Wright’s opponents – also a gentleman – later approached him and said ‘You have had my worke and the woorke of divers’ other pro-stinting individuals. To discourage Badger from further involvement, he added a thinly veiled threat: ‘This might be an occasion that you maie have lesse worke then heretofore you have had.’[3] For members of the labouring population, material circumstance often militated against opening their mouths.

But there was an irony to the politics of testimony, which was not lost on common people. If material conditions made some prospective witnesses reluctant to depose, they all but compelled others to do so (even when they expressed reservations). In some instances, labouring people’s poverty rendered the rewards – a bit of coal, a cow, promises of work that was not dictated by the vagaries of seasonal employment, or nebulous offers of a life freed from want – that they were promised (and less often given) in return for their testimony compelling. In others, the dependency, subordination and obligation that characterized their relations with their superiors necessitated that they speak as required, or face the consequences. In the face of such pressures, a given individual’s reservations about testifying were all but irrelevant.

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[1] For debt and debt-related litigation, see Craig Muldrew, The Economy of Obligation: The Culture of Credit and Social Relations in Early Modern England (Basingstoke, 1998).

[2] For suspicions surrounding the testimony of poor and/or labouring witnesses, see Alexandra Shepard, Accounting for Oneself: Worth, Status, and the Social Order in Early Modern England (Oxford, 2015).

[3] TNA, STAC 5/W17/32.

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