The Ninth Commandment: Bridling the tongue

Jonathan Willis

(For the first, introductory post in the series, click here)

reputationAt first glance, the Ninth Commandment, ‘Thou shalt not bear false witness against thy neighbour’, was rather niche compared to the first four precepts of the second table: honouring parents, and not killing, committing adultery with, or stealing from other people.  However, as historians such as Alexandra Shepherd and Craig Muldrew have shown, credit and reputation were vital and powerful forces in early modern English society.[1]  Honest speech and truthful dealing were therefore essential for the proper functioning of personal and community relationships up and down the land.

This key social role of plain and open speaking was universally recognised by commentators on the Ninth Commandment, as well as humanity’s weakness for using a certain fleshy little member to the detriment of their neighbour.  As the ‘Preacher of Gods Word’ at Stourpaine in Dorset, Peter Barker, wrote in his Judicious and painefull exposition upon the ten Commandements (see what he did there!):

The tongue is … a world of wickednes an unruly evill, full of deadly poison … so the law hath made for it a bitte and a bridle, by setting downe a double restraint: A bitte, thou shalt not take the name of the Lord thy God in vaine … A bridle in this place, Thou shalt not beare false witnes against thy neighbour: therefore sit not & speake against thy brother, poysen him not with the venomous sting of thy tongue, whet not thy tongue like a sword, nor shoote for thy arrowes bitter words.[2]

largeIn other words, the tongue’s capacity for false speech made it so dangerous that not one but two of God’s commandments were required to regulate its activities – the third and the ninth – and it could be as hazardous a weapon as poison, a sword, or a bow and arrows.  Expanding on the original sense of the commandment in the customary way, Barker explained that silence when speech was important could be just as treacherous as false speech.  One of the most dangerous public contexts for dishonest speaking was, of course, that perennial feature of early modern life, the courtroom, and so Barker explained how, in his list of sins,

The giver in of false evidence, because he cuts the throate of all good proceedings, and is the beginner and first cause of turning Justice topsie turvy, worthily deserveth the first place.

In the Old Testament, he reminded his readers, anybody who falsely accused another of a crime would be punished as though they themselves had committed the crime in question.[3]  ‘That Lawyer who pleades a bad cause, and knowes it to be a bad cause’, was second in line for Barker’s denunciation.  The lawyer, he explained, ‘should be a true glasse’ or mirror: ‘false glasses and glosses varnishing and garnishing, false bodyes and counterfeit colours are staynes and blemishes’.  Judges also had a responsibility to conduct themselves uprightly and without deceit, ‘because they represent Gods own person’.

The ‘public’ (legal) implications of ‘false witness’ dealt with, Barker then moved on to consider ‘private’ sins against the commandment.  Barker explained that ‘this Commandement is broken by speach privately, when men either shall report the truth to a bad end … or else report that which is false, either of themselves … or of others’.  In other words, both speaking evil of good and speaking good of evil were equally condemned by the commandment.  One of the really enjoyable aspects of Barker’s treatise is his frequent use of rich metaphors and imagery, much of it either homespun and colloquial, or drawn from the natural world.  Those who spoke evil of good were ‘like Hyena that wolvish heart, which untombes the bodies of the dead, that he may feed himselfe with putrified flesh like the dogs’.  Those who attacked the good names of others,

If his tongue like the clacket of a Mill will still be wagging, if he doth what he can to grinde to powder the good name of his neighbours; let the accused learne to make this use of an enemie, so to live, as no credit shall be given unto him.

163500i644f0298957bd1d3-6571Unusually, Barker focussed entirely on the negative aspect of the Ninth Commandment; most authors enumerated positive and negative dimensions of each precept.  The virtues enjoined by the Ninth Commandment were commonly considered to be anything that contributed to the credit of a neighbour: adopting a cheerful, positive and friendly demeanour.  As one of the leading exponents of puritan ‘practical divinity’, Richard Greenham, explained, there were four duties enjoined by the Ninth Commandment: in judgement to further righteous causes; to speak truth from the heart to every man; ‘to be as careful of the credit of my neighbour as of mine own’; and ‘fourthly, to hope and believe the best of every man’.[4]  This was surely (in aspirational terms at least) early modern society at its most supportive and optimistic.

[1] Alexandra Shepard, Accounting for Oneself: Worth, Status and the Social Order in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2015); Craig Muldrew, The Economy of Obligation: The Culture of Credit and Social Relations in Early Modern England. (Macmillan, 1998).

[2] Peter Barker, A iudicious and painefull exposition vpon the ten Commandements (1624),  STC2: 1425, pp. 292-304.

[3] Deuteronomy 19:19.

[4] Richard Greenham, The workes of the reuerend and faithfull seruant af Iesus Christ M. Richard Greenham, ed. H.H. (1612), STC2: 12318, p. 79.

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One thought on “The Ninth Commandment: Bridling the tongue

  1. Pingback: Reforming the Decalogue: A Blog Series Preface | the many-headed monster

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