In Henry IV, Part One, Shakespeare’s Hotspur turns on his prissy wife: “Heart! You swear like a comfit-maker’s wife. ‘Not you in good sooth!’ and ‘as true as I live!’”. Instead Hotspur demanded a good mouth-filling oath. Something like his own “By God’s heart” was more suited to a lady of rank.
The oaths of the Tudor and Stuart centuries, the era of Shakespeare (1564–1616), still jump out at modern readers from plays, courtroom testimonies and countless other sources. And they strike us as very different from our own bad language. Swearing – solemn or profane – was a religious issue: an oath called on God to guarantee the truth of a statement, just as profane swearing took God’s name in vain.
Swearing supposedly ran along the lines of social status and gender. And swearing was always something of a performance. If you wanted to be believed by your neighbours, swearing a solemn oath with one hand on the Bible was the best option. The legal system was built on that promise to tell the truth, so help me God. But this was an invocation that spilled over into other arenas. As John Bunyan (d1688) complained, vain swearers “tell their jestings, tales, and lies, and then swear by God that they are true”. And the phrase ‘by God’ was just a beginning. Oaths sworn in the 16th century were many and various. A poetical Protestant preacher reported in 1550:
"Some swear by God’s nails, his heart, and his body
And some swear by his flesh, his blood, and his foot
And some by his guts, his life, and heart root,
Some other would seem all swearing to refrain
And they invent idle oaths, such is their idle brain:
By cock and by pie, and by the goose wing
By the cross of the mouse foot and by Saint Chicken
And some swear by the Devil, such is their blindness."
Tales of London low-life in the Elizabethan period (1558–1603) resound to ‘Mercy God’ and by the ‘Mary Mass’. A century later “some, indeed, swear by idols, as by the mass, by our Lady, by saints, beasts, birds, and other creatures; but the usual way of our profane ones in England is to swear by God, Christ, faith and the like”.
Then as now, some individuals sought to shock by transgressing against the pieties of the age. To swear was to parade one’s worldliness and social standing. Samuel Pepys (d1703) was thrilled to hear a gallant, just arrived from France, swear when disturbed in a croquet shot. Here was a real-life model for all those Frenchified fops and libertines on the Restoration stage, such as the Monsieur de Paris, a character in a play by William Wycherley (d1716) who constantly swore and vowed in English and in French. The gallants who filled their speech with oaths and a French dressing of profanity were young, dissolute and obnoxious.
More like this
They came drunk and screaming into the playhouse, stood on the benches, and cried: “Damn me this is a damn’d play. Prithee, let’s to a whore, Jack”. Humbler folk were just as prone to profane swearing and they too may have been resisting the pressure to fit in with the respectable and devout.
Swearing was a litmus test: the pious recoiled whenever they heard the Lord’s name taken in vain. In Jacobean Essex, Margaret Jones was prosecuted as “a swearer using most cursed oaths, as namely, God’s wounds, God’s heart”. When chided by her vicar, she had retorted “God’s heart she should swear in spite of his teeth; as she used much swearing, so she laid violent hands and smote the vicar… and followed him swearing most devilishly, from one end of the town to the other”. At North Walsham in 1664, Daniel Durrant, a labourer, was prosecuted because he had “grossly abused by words and struck and dazzled Mary Bawcock and tore her waistcoat and pursued her with the slings, swearing he would knock her on the head and that only because she had seriously reproved him for swearing”.
Swearing could also unite people. Wherever men were gathered together, at work, trade or play, in the army or at university, profane swearing was likely. “Several volleys of execrable oaths oftentime resounded from all sides of the room”, complained Thomas Turner in 1760 after a typical meeting of East Hoathly vestry. It was said that Thames bargemen had only ever heard the name of their saviour as part of a profane oath. Ale certainly loosened tongues and inhibitions. In court Richard Macham of Leyton in Essex was pathetically described as “a drunkard, a swearer and a slanderer; sometimes he is overseen with drink and by provocation he doth use unlawful oaths”.
One would naturally expect such widespread swearing to be echoed in the historical records and in contemporary literature. But the reason we hear so much is probably because contemporaries found it so threatening. Moralists saw the rising tide of profane swearing as a sure sign of the declining respect for solemn oaths. Profane swearing dishonours God and endangers society, warned the authorities: “For from a custom of swearing men easily slide into perjury, and how can it be consistent with reason that a man who hourly invokes God by rash and vain swearing, should boggle at a false oath, whenever his lust, his covetousness, his revenge and his ambition prompt him to it?”
Judges, clergy and commentators all stressed the dangers to society of such swearing. This was a sin that ran the length of the community. Children learned to swear from their parents, apprentices from their masters, common folk from their betters. Swearing was an infection, a contagion, or a flood. It was a sin that would damn the swearer’s soul and might well provoke more immediate punishment from on high: every preacher seemed to know personally some unfortunate wretch who had been struck dead with a profane oath on their lips. Clergy urged their congregations not only to avoid the bold oaths of the libertines, but also to be wary of “the more petty oaths of faith and troth; take heed also of cursing, and taking God’s Name in vain, remembering that the Lord will not hold such guiltless”.
Language will always betray the tensions of a changing society. Swearing was one of the key concerns of the long English Reformation. Protestants had clear theological reasons for uprooting oaths invoking the mass, the Virgin and Saints, or the body of Christ, and they took the persistence of such oaths as a sign of resistance or backsliding to Catholicism. In 1601 swearing was “of all other sins most rife in the land”, complained Arthur Dent, and he listed Catholic oaths as especially worrying, while in 1652 a Lancashire minister was concerned to hear a woman swear by our lady.
Swearing also became a marker to distinguish between those who were intent on a godly lifestyle and those who refused to be railroaded into a new linguistic austerity. Godly English Protestants became increasingly intolerant of any form of swearing outside the law courts, and some, Baptists and Quakers most notably, even refused to swear in court.
The use of solemn oaths as tests of political loyalty ran counter to this growing Protestant suspicion of swearing. From 1534 onwards the state imposed a number of oaths of obedience, loyalty and allegiance on the population. Such state oaths were designed to winkle out those who could not abandon earlier commitments and were thus seen as politically unreliable. The proliferation of these ‘bitter pills’, their inconsistency, and the hypocrisy they fostered among those who swallowed them whole to gain or retain office, were blamed for undermining the sanctity of oath taking.
Slowly but surely attitudes change. The frisson of a profane oath in early modern England depended upon the parallel reverence for the solemn oath. As the two drifted apart, and as reverence for oaths dwindled, society’s tolerance of swearing grew, and the nature of swearing changed. What now counts as swearing is very different from what outraged people 400 years ago. Modern public opinion surveys report that religious expletives and terms, such as ‘damn’, ‘God’ or ‘Christ’, are generally considered to be acceptable. Racial and sexual terms are now seen as most offensive, whereas sexual language was hardly at issue in Tudor or Stuart England.
Swearing, cursing and the law
Those who didn’t mind their manners could face harsh punishments
Statutes passed between the reigns of James I (1603–1625) and George III (1760–1820) criminalised swearing. These laws drew careful distinctions between swearing and cursing, imposed fines or the stocks, and banded the penalties according to social rank. So when John King of Colne Engaine in Essex “did swear by God’s blood” that he would be avenged on the church¬wardens “and bade a pox on them”, he swore a profane oath, but he cursed the church-wardens. And when the sailor Robert Abbot was fined one pound and four shillings, it was for six oaths “by God” and six curses “damn your blood”.
Yet legislation could not hope to cover every form of swearing. The 1650s law reformer William Sheppard observed that there was “no proportionable and certain punishment by law, appointed for swearing by creatures, as the sun, light, bread, drink, money; or by idols, as by the cross, mass, rood; or by saints, as our Lady, or Saint Mary; or by faith and troth, etc, or for cursing, pox, plague, or the devil rot thee, and the like; it being doubted whether these be within the law about swearing, or not”.
At the end of the century, the Societies for the Reformation of Manners faced similar difficulties. Swearing could be prosecuted only when “God, Lord, Jesus or Christ are used plainly and lightly and in the sense of an affirmation or negation”, but a curse was more easily prosecuted since it was “punishable as well without the aforesaid words as with them”. So the curse ‘a plague take ye’ was open to prosecution, as was the oath ‘God’s wounds’ but not the phrase ‘by my soul’.
Public opinion against swearing could also be effective. In 1654 MP Henry Glapthorne swore “by God’s wounds, by God’s blood, by Jesus Christ, by the eternal God, God confound me body and soul, God damn me, the Devil fetch me, God refuse me”.
Some 400 of the MP’s constituents successfully petitioned for his removal since such a “common curser and swearer” was “not fit to be a law-maker or parliament man for them”.
John Spurr is professor of history at Swansea University
This article was first published in the July 2010 issue of BBC History Magazine