chapter  12
17 Pages

Speech and sociability. The regulation of language in the livery companies of early modern London


In January 1560 two goldsmiths, Edward Robynson and John Smeeton, appeared before the court of the London Goldsmiths’ Company. They sought the resolution of a quarrel that had developed between them since Smeeton had uttered ‘certen vnsemely and sclaunderous words’ against Robynson’s wife. The Goldsmiths’ Company wardens, who had been called on to act as mediators in the dispute, examined Smeeton, asking what exactly he had said about Robynson’s wife, and what had prompted him to do so. Smeeton confessed that ‘he spake not vpon any certen knowledge’, but rather had uttered the slanderous words in the heat of the moment, and ‘only in his fume’. Given that Smeeton had admitted his fault and was willing to apologise for his behaviour, the wardens ruled that he should return to the place where he had fi rst insulted Robynson’s wife, and there ‘recante the same sclaunderous wordes before suche of the neighbors as heard him vtter them’. This solution was deemed acceptable by both Robynson and Smeeton, who left the company hall in peace, with their ‘variaunce’ fully settled, and their friendship restored. 1

This incident is one of many similar examples in the records of the London livery companies from the early modern period. The company court minutes contain numerous cases of craftsmen being reprimanded or punished for uttering ‘evil words’, ‘slanderous words’, ‘opprobrious words’, ‘unreverent words’, ‘unbehaving words’, ‘uncivil words’, or ‘misbehaving speech’, and company governors were frequently called on to mediate in cases of verbal disputes and insults exchanged between company members. In most instances, these disputes were successfully resolved, with offenders like Smeeton agreeing to apologise, recant their words, and restore friendship with their fellow company members. In other cases, however, offenders who remained recalcitrant and refused to apologise were charged with stricter punishments, including fi nes, imprisonment, and even suspension or expulsion from the company.