The Vocabulary Murders: some thoughts on brilliant, infuriating sources

22 Mar

So over the last week or so I’ve been involved in something properly exciting. In collaboration with CRASSH – the Centre for Research in the Arts, Social Sciences, and Humanities – I’ve been helping (along with the new-to-Twitter Richard Blakemore) to put together the first series of Cambridge PhDcasts. These are videos & podcasts of PhD students in the arts & humanities talking about what they work on, why it gets them excited, and why it’s important. We’ve recorded two already, and have four more to go – the first series should be with you after Easter. And after that, we’ll be looking for new volunteers, so if you’re a Cambridge PhD, get in touch! 

On Saturday, I spoke to Katy Barrett – who you might know as @SpoonsOnTrays (follow her!) – about her research into the cultural history of debates over longitude in the eighteenth century. She had some amazing stories and insights (just wait for the podcast) but one of the sources she brought got me thinking. It was – not to ruin the surprise – the story of a dispute over the word ‘longitude’ that came to blows and ended in a fatal stabbing. 

This vignette set me to thinking about a similar account in my own research into foreign language-learning in early modern England. It’s even from the same source – the ever-fascinating Old Bailey Online, a database of transcribed and searchable Old Bailey trial documents from 1674 to 1913. If you have a minute, head over and play around with it for a while. It’s always exciting and worryingly addictive, and it’ll turn you into an early modern primary source fiend really frighteningly quickly. 

When I was playing around (sorry, researching) on the site, I came across the following case. Have a read, and then we’ll have a chat about how it’s both amazing and infuriating at the same time. It’s a murder trial from the 17th of January 1676. 

There were two men drinking, and there arose a dispute between them concerning a Spanish word, one affirmed that it was not properly exprest, the other gave him provoking language for saying so, he reply’d, Sir I know not how to bear that affront; then said the other if you like it not follow me out; then he seemed willing, but was prevented by the rest of the company, who laboured afterwards to compose their differences, and they seeming well reconcil’d; the company left them, about an hour after they fell to quarrelling again, and being out of doors he that gave the unseemly language bid the other draw or else he would run him through; he thereupon unsheath’d his Rapier, and in the quarrel run the challenger into the arm, the neighbours soon put a period to their fighting, and parted them. But the wound proved mortal, and the other was therefore accused for the murther, but the Jury perceiving by the evidence that he was compelled to draw to secure his life, brought in their verdict, se Defendendo*.

On the face of it, this looks like solid gold for a researcher like me. A dispute about a foreign language that turns fatal – like Katy’s story, it shows vocabulary being used as a grounds for physical violence. Language is often crucial to records like these – harsh words being spoken, slanders being uttered in public places, rumours running out of control. Some great research has been done by people like Laura Gowing and Laura Wright on language, crime, and courts in the seventeenth century. In a society governed by ideas of credit and reputation, the spoken word had a power which can be difficult for us to imagine. 

But what about this bit of Spanish vocabulary, this word which goes unrecorded in the sources – where does it leave us? Without knowing what it was, or the relation between the two men, or the topic of conversation, it’s hard to say more about this case, except that it shows language and interpretation as serious business and, at times, as a matter of life and death. Sources like these are fascinating but can infuriate, too. I don’t quite know where or how this fits into my work so far. For me, this account poses far more questions than it answers. 


* The verdict of ‘se defendendo’ is one of self-defence. There’s a great joke** about this in the gravediggers scene in Hamlet, but that’s a story for another day. 

** Well, for a given early modern value of ‘great’. 

4 Responses to “The Vocabulary Murders: some thoughts on brilliant, infuriating sources”

  1. EDornan March 23, 2013 at 1:27 pm #

    ‘Se offendendo’ indeed!

  2. Brodie Waddell March 23, 2013 at 5:22 pm #

    Finds on the Old Bailey Online are so often that mix of ‘both amazing and infuriating’. They frequently describe parts of an event in great detail but then leave out some crucial (to us) piece of information. I suppose its common when one is trying to ‘read against the grain’ and find information that the records were not really designed for: after all 17th-century legal records weren’t written with 21st-century cultural historians in mind.


  1. Carnivalesque 94: No bishop, no king | the many-headed monster - April 27, 2013

    […] OBO, but I’ll just share two more that aren’t linked there. One is from Early Modern John on ‘the vocabulary murders’ in which a man is killed in 1676 for uttering ‘a Spanish word … not properly exprest’. The […]

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