The price of the poor's words: social relations and the economics of deposing for one's ‘betters’ in early modern England

Hillary Taylor
Published Online:
08 Aug 2018
Volume/Issue No:
Volume 72 Issue 3

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Abstract Historians of early modern England are aware that the legal testimony of poor, dependent, and subordinated individuals was regarded with suspicion. Contemporaries believed that labouring people would provide false evidence in return for ‘gifts’ or ‘rewards’. To what extent did such assumptions accurately reflect the processes whereby such witnesses came to depose for their ‘betters’? This article uses sixteenth‐ and early seventeenth‐century perjury and subornation suits from the court of Star Chamber to reconstruct labouring people's experiences and understandings of the politics of testimony. In explicating the structural and material factors that could militate against their deposing, override their reservations about doing so, and colour the contents of the depositions they gave, it makes two broader contributions to our understanding of the period. On the one hand, it presents a markedly more pessimistic account of the social relations involved in the increase in litigation. On the other, it reappraises a category of source—depositions—that historians have long regarded as providing singularly privileged access to the expressions of social groups that left little trace in the historical record.

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