Tag Archives: defamation

Early modern attitudes: was ‘hermaphrodite’ defamatory?

I am preparing a lecture on the history of common law ‘tortious’ defamation, and have, once again, come across references to the case of Wetherhead v Armitage (1678) 2 Lev 233; 1 Freeman 277; 2 Show KB 18. According to the accounts in the English Reports, this was a case in the King’s Bench in Michaelmas 30 Charles II (= 1678 – we pass over the whole Commonwealth business without counting those years). It was an ‘action on the case’ (i.e. a ‘tort’ claim for compensation) in respect of words. There are some variations in reports and discussions of the case. All agree that the plaintiff was a dancing teacher to ‘young gentlewomen’, and she had, apparently been insulted by the defendant, but his words are given in slightly different forms. He may have said “she is no more a woman than I am; [or possibly ‘she is as much a man as I am’]’ and ‘she had a bastard on J. S. [or possibly ‘she got JS with child’’. There is agreement that he rounded off with ‘she is an hermaphrodite [or a hermaphrodite].” The plaintiff claimed that the words had caused her to lose some of her students, causing her £40 of loss.

There may have been mistakes in the way P’s case was pleaded – reports suggest that perhaps it should have been more exact about when P had been a dancing-mistress, and about which students left as the result of D’s words. What is intriguing to me, however, is what the case could tell us about contemporary attitudes to ‘hermaphrodites’ (which must be taken to be a rough, if problematic, equivalent to ‘intersex person’). There are statements to the effect that this does not count as necessarily defamatory in itself, and that the statement as a whole does not obviously damage a dancing-mistress in her profession ‘for young women are taught to dance more frequently by men than women‘. In one version (2 Show. 19), counsel for D, Mr. Levinz and Mr. Saunders moved … ‘that “hermaphrodite” is no word of turpitude or crime, but only an imbecility’. The last term may seem insulting today, but should be seen as akin to ‘weakness’ – so, somewhat milder, if still troubling.

A slightly different view of the matter was apparently taken by Wylde J, who seemed to doubt the idea of ‘hermaphroditism’, and insisted, presumably following Coke, Bracton and older sources, that one sex must predominate. He is also reported as seeing ‘the matter’ (but which part!) as ‘scandalous’ in and of itself. But the agreed ratio of the case seems to be that ‘hermaphrodite’ was not actionable without special damage (2 Lev. 233).

The case is referred to in later works as authority for the proposition that calling a school-mistress or dancing-mistress an hermaphrodite is not actionable without pleading by P of particular damage. The bit about being a man and having fathered an illegitimate child is sometimes left out, making a simpler story, and there seems a little doubt about what the case actually decided.

Assuming that the ‘not necessarily defamatory and actionable’ view is correct, it does seem interesting that, while P clearly regarded it as insulting to be so designated, being a ‘hermaphrodite’ is not clearly treated by the court as if it would obviously damage the reputation of somebody dependent on public acceptance for her livelihood. Would we expect people of the seventeenth century to blame the ‘hermaphrodite’ for being so? I can’t claim an expertise in 17th C attitudes in this area, but it is worth bearing in mind that the common law did treat allegations of certain physical conditions (syphillis, leprosy…) as being obviously defamatory. (I also like thinking through the logic of the ‘insult’: if P is ‘as much of a man’ as D, and P is an hermaphrodite … what does that say about D?)

Because of the murkiness around the decision and also just because I would very much like to know a bit more about the people involved, it would be excellent to find the KB record for this one, and see what more can be gleaned from it.