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How Eavesdropping Was Punished in Medieval Times

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When people live together in small communities they can be a great source of comfort and support to each other—but they can also really get on each other's nerves. Every community must figure out the best way to keep conflict to a minimum. In the late middle ages, English village courts tried to maintain equilibrium by imposing punishment for eavesdropping, scolding, and noctivagation (aimless night wandering), three offenses, as Marjorie McIntosh explains in her book Controlling Misbehaviour in England, 1370-1600, "often said in local records to be damaging to local harmony, goodwill, and peaceful relations between neighbors."

The term "eavesdropping" originally came from Anglo-Saxon laws against building too close to the border of your land, lest the rain running off your roof, the yfesdrype or "eaves drip," mess up your neighbor's property. "Eavesdropper" became the word for a person who stands within range of the eaves drip—too close—in order to listen in on what was going on inside the house. This is quite literally how eavesdropping was done, such as in the case of one Agnes Nevell, who was described in 1517 as "a perturber of peace in her neighborhood in that she lies under the windows of Edward Node and hears all things being said there by said Edward."

Eavesdropping was best carried out under cover of darkness, hence the suspicion under which noctivagators, or "nightwalkers," were held. Anyone found to be wandering round at night without a good reason was assumed to be eavesdropping, as was John Rexheth, who was reported in 1425 to be "listening at night and snooping into the secrets of his neighbors."

The problem with eavesdropping wasn't so much about notions of rights to privacy as about people who "perturbed the peace" by using the information they gained through eavesdropping to sow discord. Getting the goods on your neighbors might lead to scolding—verbally attacking, berating, stirring things up. Where eavesdropping might get you fined, the punishment for scolding could be much worse. Repeat scolders might get dunked in the water on the "cucking-stool" until they were thoroughly soaked and humiliated, or made to wear a "scold's bridle," an iron muzzle with a spiked gag to keep the tongue from moving.

Clearly, offenses like theft, adultery, and inflicting bodily harm merited more severe punishments than skulking around at night to spy on your neighbors in order to collect ammunition for verbal harangues, but "for a good two hundred years, beginning in the 1370s, the medieval cocktail of eavesdropping and tale-telling comprised about eight percent of all social crimes."

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This Just In
Little Ross—a Tiny Island in Scotland With a Murderous History—Can Be Yours for $425,000
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Just off Scotland’s southwest coast sits the island of Little Ross. While picturesque, the remote speck of land comes with a tragic backstory: the 1960 murder of a lighthouse keeper, who died at the hands of a colleague. Now, decades after the tragedy made national headlines, the Independent reports that Little Ross is officially on the market and accepting offers over £325,000 (a little under $424,000).

The 29-acre island has a natural harbor, a rocky beach, and a craggy green coastline. There's also a six-bedroom cottage and several ramshackle barns, all of which are included in the purchase. A wind turbine and solar panels provide power (although everyone knows that good ghost stories are best enjoyed by candlelight).

What’s not for sale is the island’s 19th century lighthouse, the scene of lighthouse keeper Hugh Clarke’s 1960 murder. (His assistant, Robert Dickson, was found guilty, and received life imprisonment.)

“Since automation in the late 1960s the lighthouse no longer requires full-time staffing, and only the lighthouse and Sighting Tower are maintained by the Northern Lighthouse Board,” the island's listing states. “It is anticipated that the Northern Lighthouse Board and the purchasers will share the use, and future maintenance of the jetty wall.”

Since Ross Island is only accessible by boat or air, the listing advises that potential buyers be “proficient seamen” (or have access to a helicopter). Fit the bill, and in the market for an unconventional getaway? Check out the pictures below, or visit the island’s listing for more information.

The island of Little Ross, which sits off the Meikle Ross headland on Scotland’s south coast.
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The island of Little Ross, which sits off the Meikle Ross headland on Scotland’s south coast.
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[h/t Independent]

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crime
The Reason Police Officers Tap Your Taillight When They Pull You Over
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Asking a driver for their license and registration is common procedure from police officers during traffic stops. There’s another practice that was once standard across the force but is more of a mystery to the people being pulled over: While approaching a driver’s window, officers will sometimes touch a car's taillight. It's a behavior that dates back decades, though there's no reason to be concerned if it happens at your next traffic stop.

Before cameras were installed on the dashboards of most police cars, tapping the taillight was an inconspicuous way for officers to leave behind evidence of the encounter, according to The Law Dictionary. If something were to happen to the officer during the traffic stop, their interaction with the driver could be traced back to the fingerprints left on the vehicle. This would help other police officers track down a missing member of the force even without video proof of a crime.

The action also started as a way for officers to spook drivers before reaching their window. A pulled-over motorist with a car full of illegal drugs or weapons might scramble to hide any incriminating materials before the officer arrives. The surprise of hearing a knock on their taillight might disrupt this process, increasing their likelihood of getting caught.

Today the risks of this strategy are thought to outweigh the benefits. Touching a taillight poses an unnecessary distraction for officers, not to mention it can give away their position, making them more vulnerable to foul play. And with dash cams now standard in most squad cars, documenting each incident with fingerprints isn’t as necessary as it once was. It’s for these reasons that some police agencies now discourage taillight tapping. But if you see it at your next traffic stop, that doesn’t mean the officer is extra suspicious of you—just that it’s a hard habit to break.

[h/t The Law Dictionary]

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