Wednesday, 15 May 2013


Residents of Oxford are currently reeling at what is emerging in the trial of the appalling child abuse ring based in what can seem like a rather tranquil and certainly very privileged city (don't be taken in though - Oxford has one of the largest wealth differentials in the country).

Reading Zoe Williams' commentary on this in the Guardian today, I was particularly struck by her critique of the repeated excuse that 'no one quite put the whole picture together'.  As she says, the assumption here is that one girl's testimony was not enough.  And why was it not enough for one victim to claim that she had been sexually abused?  Because of the reputations of these girls.  Williams explains: 'Victims were considered unreliable because they'd run away, because they were challenging, maybe they were drunk or on drugs when the rape occurred'.

It is frightening to be forced to acknowledge that the credibility of victims is still considered to be dependent essentially upon their good name, let alone to consider that their 'bad reputations' are often indicative of the lack of social choices open to them.  

In later medieval England, 'reputation'  was actually enshrined in law as a key element of prosecution.  One's standing as a witness depended upon reputation, one's role as a juror was officially dependent upon 'good name', the credibility of victims was shaped by what was already known of their behaviour and standing within the community, and, of course, perpetrators could be found innocent or guilty on the basis of reputation.  This was not seen as problematic - it was in the nature of the law.  And in some ways, it can even be seen as a rather positive aspect of medieval law in action: it meant that communities, from a bottom-up perspective, were actively involved in the prosecution of law and in shaping legal outcomes.

But it doesn't take much to see the problems with such an approach.  

Strangers in communities were faced with almost automatic demonisation, the process of law became deeply prejudiced against those unpopular for other reasons, and the marginalised or disempowered within communities became ever more so, as their damaged reputations ensured legal persecution.

Clearly, lessons are to be learned from the 21st-century Oxford case, and I sincerely hope that one of them will be to assess complaints and testimonies of victims on their own merits, without the assumptions shaped by prejudice and stereotypes.

If you're interested in questions of medieval gossip and rumour, look at Chris Wickham's  'Gossip and Resistance among the Medieval Peasantry', Past and Present, 160. (1998).  And if you want to know more about the medieval English legal system, see Anthony Musson Medieval English Law in Context (Manchester, 2001).

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