Libel in the Provinces:Disinformation and ‘Disreputation’ in Early Modern England

Egan, Clare (2022) Libel in the Provinces:Disinformation and ‘Disreputation’ in Early Modern England. Past and Present, 257 (Supple). pp. 75-110. ISSN 0031-2746

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By the early modern period, libelling a private individual had been legally redefined and was being tried at the court of Star Chamber, alongside cases relating to the monarch or government. This brought the ruination of individual reputations by spreading false rumours into the same realm as the circulation of nationally significant false news. Private libels typically took the form of verses, impersonations, mock ceremonies or visual symbols that were read, sung, posted, and published; they exploited the defamatory potential of fictional reconstructions of local disputes in order to exacerbate conflicts within provincial communities. This chapter argues that private libels provide evidence for a novel multimedia practice of circulating disinformation that blended fact and fiction amongst the social networks of early modern England. It examines two cases, one centred upon a libellous verse and the other on mock proclamations, to establish the significance of literary and performance techniques in libellous disinformation. The chapter also explores the significance of ‘disreputation’ for the categories of private and public. It argues that private libels were a crucial feature of the social backdrop to established forms of oral, print and manuscript communication, which impacted upon common perceptions of trustworthiness of information and public official figures.

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Journal Article
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Past and Present
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This is a pre-copy-editing, author-produced PDF of an article accepted for publication in Past and Present following peer review. The definitive publisher-authenticated version Clare Egan, Libel in the Provinces: Disinformation and ‘Disreputation’ in Early Modern England, Past & Present, Volume 257, Issue Supplement_16, November 2022, Pages 75–110, is available online at:
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10 Nov 2022 10:25
Last Modified:
19 Sep 2023 02:55