By Ken Mondschein
“Cancellation” has been in the news a lot lately: Those who transgress against social norms by expressing controversial ideas, or defend those who do the same, quickly find themselves socially ostracized and even deprived of their livelihoods. However, “cancellation”– when social sanctions are informally applied by your peers, rather than by a formal legal system—is nothing new under the sun. In fact, in the Middle Ages, when there was little idea of diversity of thought or acceptance of difference, and when governments were relatively weak, the court of public opinion was an effective means of ensuring group cohesion.
Because being “cancelled,” or shamed and shunned, is an informal sanction, heresy, apostasy, treason, or other crimes prosecuted by religious or civil authorities do not count in this category. However, the consequences could be no less severe: The shunned person was not able to participate in community life. People would not do business with them, and they were deprived of human company. In a way, it is a form of living death, and could lead to people moving away from their communities or even committing suicide.
In the past, as now, the extralegal procedure of shunning happens when there is no legal recourse for the transgression that has been committed. For instance, it is not against the law in the United States to express transphobic, homophobic, or racist opinions, but doing so is unacceptable to broad swaths of the entertainment industry. An actor who makes a transphobic tweet therefore might find themselves deprived of acting roles. While this might be a decision made collectively by higher-ups in entertainment companies, it is not a decision enforced in any way by a governmental body. No one can be compelled to give someone else a job or, for that matter, publish their ideas on a privately-owned platform such as Facebook or Twitter.
Similarly, because of the weak state structure, outlawry in medieval Iceland was more akin to shunning than a formal procedure: the gothis, or law-givers, assembled in an assembly called the thing and witnesses were called, but, with no police force, enforcement was up to individuals. Shunning was the expression of the “invisible hand” of the market of public opinion. Similarly, though after Rome adopted Christianity as the official religion of the empire, the Church had the power to enforce doctrine with the force of law, early Christianity had no recourse save to cast out those with “erroneous” beliefs. Various movements we now refer to as “heresies”—Docetism, Monophysitism, Arianism, etc.—were condemned by the Council of Nicea in 325, but there was no mechanism for enforcement until the Emperor Theodosius issued the Edict of Thessalonica in 380.
Because “cancellation” is the community depriving an individual of resources, it therefore stands to reason that it is much harder to “cancel” those who control those resources. Donald Trump, J. K. Rowling, or Harvey Weinstein are more difficult to exclude than actors such as Gina Carano, Johnny Depp, or Kevin Spacey, who were dependent on producers and directors for work. In the Middle Ages, the gently-born could similarly be shunned at court for not following the proper codes of behavior, as David Crouch discusses in his recent book The Chivalric Turn. However, the noble who controlled the court was, for the most part, immune from cancellation—provided the largesse kept flowing—so a courtier could only counsel his lord against wrongful behavior. Similarly, monks could be cast out of their chapters for breaking their vows, wearing secular dress, and consorting with women, but an abbot or a bishop was harder to depose.
Just as it is difficult to bring down the powerful, the powerless are more easily shunned. Lepers, beggars, and the sick and handicapped—not mutually exclusive groups—were among those socially excluded in the Middle Ages, albeit for no fault of their own. (In the case of lepers, it was for fear that they could contaminate the body public.) Shunning is also often practiced internally by minority groups or those without formal legal power. Medieval Jews, for instance, could and would excommunicate and shun those who broke group discipline.
Public shaming and dishonor took a different form among commoners. Natalie Zemon Davis has written at length of the practice of charivari, or “rough music,” for those who did not conform to village mores—widows and widowers marrying much younger partners, adulterers, wife-beaters, out-of-wedlock births, and, also, failing to produce children within a marriage. Such practices took the form of public humiliation, with a mock parade and the rattling of pots and pans. In town, wrongdoers might be roughly serenaded outside their homes, or excrement thrown on their doors. Such attacks took different forms in different places and times, but were common throughout premodern Europe.
Insults that led to shunning could, and did, lead to violence, since shaming and shunning are closely related to honor culture. For instance, someone who did not avenge an insult (often related to the chastity of the women in one’s family), might be shunned by their community; similarly, women accused of being unchaste might be shunned and excluded. In Renaissance Italy, the code of dueling hinged on the idea of the “lie”: Someone who was accused of being dishonest lost their social face and was from society. One was compelled to avenge one’s honor in the duel, or become, effectively, an un-person.
As governments grew stronger, the duel of honor gave way to the civil lawsuit—particularly for libel. (The desire to limit violence by forbidding unforgivable insults is preserved in modern laws such as Germany’s, which makes certain terms of abuse illegal.) Historians, following the anthropologist Ruth Benedict, have seen this as part of a larger transition from a “honor/shame” culture to a “guilt” culture-dependent on individual consciences and internalized mores. However, even in modern society, there still remains a gap between individual consciences—which may be highly variable—and group opinion. Since modern law provides no recourse for people who have been informally socially excluded on account of their own words and deeds, as opposed to belonging to a protected class, the practice of “cancelling” fills in the gap. The idea of “cancelling” someone, while a throwback to a premodern way of doing things, thus fills a need in the modern world’s market of ideas.
Ken Mondschein is a scholar, writer, college professor, fencing master, and occasional jouster. Click here to visit his website.
Top Image: British Library MS Yates Thompson 21 f. 26v