As the end of February approaches, I find myself thinking about my undergraduate thesis. I wrote about defamation cases from the 14th-century Ely Act Book, which records the acta of the consistory court of Ely from 1374 to 1382. Four years ago this week, I was scrambling about trying to write a conclusion, reconcile several people’s suggestions, and find acceptable paper to print it all on.
My thesis focused on only a fraction of the cases in the book, the ones dealing with defamation. I surveyed all of the defamation cases and did close readings of a few. Adding broader context was a struggle for me–I was so compelled by the Act Book (the scans, microfilms, and unpublished transcription I was working with) that I didn’t want to spend time connecting it to Chaucer (as might be appropriate for a thesis in History and Literature) or writing about the Peasants’ Revolt. Instead, I spent my time learning about the laws the court applied, the people who worked for the court, the construction and history of the book itself, and even the geography of the diocese. (I’m still hoping to do some of the walking around Cambridgeshire that these folks had to do to get from their homes to the court.) Studying the book this way was incredibly rewarding.
In fact, the book has been so compelling that I came back to the substantive law involved when I took Cyberlaw at Berkeley. In the twistiest of research paper plot twists, I turned a paper about Section 230 of the Communications Decency Act into a paper on medieval defamation law. I did this because I thought, and still think, that there are remarkable similarities between the world of the Act Book (and Chaucer, and the Mabinogion, and Barbara Hanawalt’s The Ties that Bound) and the world of Wikipedia (and YouTube, and instant messaging, and Facebook). These two worlds have things in common with each other (such as attitudes toward strangers, outlawry, and lack of privacy) that they do not share with the intervening time. Thus, my argument goes, we should look to the punishments for defamation used in the 14th century (they’re much more humane than you might imagine) when shaping defamation law today.