David Cressy, Dangerous Talk: Scandalous, Seditious, and Treasonable Speech in Pre-Modern England. Oxford University Press. Oxford, 2012. First published 2010.

I read unrelated-to-my-research history books for ongoing relaxation. Often it takes me some weeks, even months, to finish one. Cressy’s, though, I finished inside a week: it is an interesting, engaging look at speech crime in England from the late medieval period to the 19th century.

Not at all crimes of speech, mind you. Just speech which went contrary to the established order. Scandalous speech, which affected the reputation of notables and nobles; seditious speech, an amorphous category, which touched slightingly upon matters of state and the royal person; and treasonable speech, which “compassed or imagined the death of the king,” and for which people could at various times be executed – rather than the more usual mutilation, branding, fines, whipping, and imprisonment that applied to lesser speech crimes. (Depending on the type of speech, and the contemporary zeitgeist, of course.) The reigns of Henry VIII, Mary, and Elizabeth I were especially perilous times in which to grumble about the status quo.

Cressy reconstructs the speech crimes mostly from magistrates’ records, records of judicial proceedings, and Star Chamber records. The spoken word is ephemeral, but when reported as a crime it could enter the record, bringing with it some fragment of how lower class people, whose words are not generally preserved, viewed the political issues of their day – and what kind of talk went on in alehouses, taverns, and the occasional gentry dinner gathering. (A common excuse for seditious speech was, it seems, to plead I was so drunk I didn’t know what I was saying! I didn’t mean it!)

All told, a really interesting book.