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How Eavesdropping Was Punished in Medieval Times

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Wikimedia Commons

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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Mata Hari: Famous Spy or Creative Storyteller?
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Nearly everyone has heard of Mata Hari, one of the most cunning and seductive spies of all time. Except that statement isn't entirely true. Cunning and seductive, yes. Spy? Probably not. 

Margaretha Geertruida Zelle was the eldest daughter of a hat store owner who was quite wealthy thanks to some savvy oil investments.  When her mother died, her father remarried and shuffled his children off to various relatives. To escape, an 18-year-old Margaretha answered an ad in the paper that might have read something like this: "Dutch Colonial Army Captain Seeks Wife. Compatibility not important. Must not mind blatant infidelity or occasional beatings."

She had two children with Captain Rudolf MacLeod, but they did nothing to improve the marriage. He brazenly kept a mistress and a concubine; she moved in with another officer. Again, probably looking to escape her miserable existence, Margaretha spent her time in Java (where the family had relocated for Captain MacLeod's job) becoming part of the culture, learning all about the dance and even earning a dance name bestowed upon her by the locals—"Mata Hari," which meant "eye of the day" or "sun."

Her son died after being poisoned by an angry servant (so the MacLeods believed).

Margaretha divorced her husband, lost custody of her daughter and moved to Paris to start a new life for herself in 1903. Calling upon the dance skills she had learned in Java, the newly restyled Mata Hari became a performer, starting with the circus and eventually working her way up to exotic dancer. 

To make herself seem more mysterious and interesting, Mata Hari told people her mother was a Javanese princess who taught her everything she knew about the sacred religious dances she performed. The dances were almost entirely in the nude.

Thanks to her mostly-nude dancing and tantalizing background story, she was a hot commodity all over Europe. During WWI, this caught the attention of British Intelligence, who brought her in and demanded to know why she was constantly traipsing across the continent. Under interrogation, she apparently told them she was a spy for France—that she used her job as an exotic dancer to coerce German officers to give her information, which she then supplied back to French spymaster Georges Ladoux. No one could verify these claims and Mata Hari was released.

Not too long afterward, French intelligence intercepted messages that mentioned H-21, a spy who was performing remarkably well. Something in the messages reminded the French officers of Mata Hari's tale and they arrested her at her hotel in Paris on February 13, 1917, under suspicion of being a double agent.

Mata Hari repeatedly denied all involvement in any spying for either side. Her captors didn't believe her story, and perhaps wanting to make an example of her, sentenced her to death by firing squad. She was shot to death 100 years ago today, on October 15, 1917.

In 1985, one of her biographers convinced the French government to open their files on Mata Hari. He says the files contained not one shred of evidence that she was spying for anyone, let alone the enemy. Whether the story she originally told British intelligence was made up by them or by her to further her sophisticated and exotic background is anyone's guess. 

Or maybe she really was the ultimate spy and simply left no evidence in her wake.

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German Police Tried to Fine Someone $1000 for Farting at Them
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In Berlin, passing gas can cost you. Quite a lot, actually, in the case of a man accused of disrespecting police officers by releasing a pair of noxious farts while being detained by the police. As CityLab reports, Berlin’s police force has recently been rocked by a scandal hinging on the two farts of one man who was asked to show his ID to police officers while partying on an evening in February 2016.

The man in question was accused of disrespecting the officers involved by aiming his flatulence at a policewoman, and was eventually slapped with a fine of 900 euros ($1066) in what local media called the "Irrer-Pups Prozess," or "Crazy Toot Trial." The errant farter was compelled to show up for court in September after refusing to pay the fine. A judge dismissed the case in less than 10 minutes.

But the smelly situation sparked a political scandal over the police resources wasted over the non-crime. It involved 18 months, 23 public officials, and 17 hours of official time—on the taxpayers’ dime. Officials estimate that those two minor toots cost taxpayers more than $100, which is chump change in terms of city budgets, but could have been used to deal with more pressing criminal issues.

[h/t CityLab]

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