Bill Long 1/18/05
With an Added Bonus on Recreant and Infamous
We don't use the word "craven" much these days, but it occasionally appears in writings of political or religious writers as a word to expose and excoriate the supposed moral weakness of the one attacked. The OED says that craven can either be an adjective or noun. As an adjective it means "cowardly, weak-hearted, abjectly pusillanimous," and as a noun it is a "confessed or acknowledged coward."
Recent usages of craven illustrate its most popular contexts today. After the consecration of Bishop Robinson as the first openly gay Episcopal Bishop (Nov. 2003), the Southern Baptists called this consecration "a craven act of moral rebellion and rejection of the Holy Scriptures." Many Episcopals would have thought of the act as a courageous one, but Episcopals and Southern Baptists are rarely accused of seeing the world similarly. Or, after President Clinton ordered the bombing in Iraq in mid-December 1998, at the height of the Lewinsky scandal, many Americans might have agreed with the Washingon Times when it called this bombing a "craven act" to distract attention from the real issue before the American people.
Memorial services for victims of human acts of violence are also good places where "craven" tends to pop up. A speaker, remembering the victims of downed Pam Am flight 103 spoke of the "brutal and craven act of violence" that killed the people.
These usages are confirmed by historical examples given in the OED. Shakespeare, as expected, gives us the word as a noun:
"Is it fit this soldier keep his oath?/ He is a craven and villain else (Henry V, 4.7.139)."
Then, in its adjectival use, we have "the poor craven bridegroom said never a word," or "all other feelings had givven plce to a craven fear for his life." I like the theological use of the term by a 17th century expositor of I Cor 15:51ff., where Paul talks about the vanquishing of the last enemy we face: death. The commentator says, "Death is here out-braved, called craven to his face."
Though these examples give us a good sense of how the word is understood today, they can be supplemented by a vivid picture that comes from the legal history of the term. The OED never says that this meaning is the original one--however, the legal institution to which it points antedates any other appearance of the term.
Blackstone, in his Commentaries on the Laws of England (4 vols., 1765-69), devotes a chapter (4.27) in his volume on criminal law to "Trial and Conviction," in which he describes the several methods of punishing offenders established by the laws of England, even if they were obsolete in his day. This essay will not describe the nature of trial by ordeal or the "morsel of execration" or trial by the "peers" of England or trial by jury; rather our focus will be on "trial by battle."
This trial, which Blackstone also calls "duel" or "single combat," was a "species of presumptuous appeals to providence." It was an appeal to providence because God was supposed to show the divine decision on the guilt or innocence of the combatant by the result of the joust. The ritual leading up to the combat was as follows: (1) the appellee, when "appealed of felony" (that is, when accused of commmiting a felonious deed), pled not guilty and threw down his glove (i.e., throwing down the gauntlet) and declared that he will defend the same (the glove) by his body. (2) The appellant (accuser) takes up the glove and declares that he is ready to made good the appeal, body for body. (3) The appellee, in this elaborate minuet of challenge, then "takes the book" in his right hand and in his left hand takes the right hand of his antagonist and swears (naturally in Latin), "Hear this, O man whom I hold by thy hand....I who call myself XXX by the name of my baptism, did not feloniously murder XXX nor am I guilty of the said felony. So help me God and the saints and this I will defend against thee by my body..." (4) Then the appellant holds the bible and the antagonist's hand in the same manner and says, "Hear this, O man whom I hold by the hand....thou art perjured; and therefore perjured, because that thou are perjured; and therefore perjured, becuase that thou feloniously didst murder XXX....So help me God and the saints; and this I will prove against thee by my body." We don't know if they then bow to their partners and dance the Virginia Reel, but we know that they eventually move on to the battle.
The battle is fought with "batons." If the appellee is vanquished, so that he cannot or will not fight any longer, "he shall be adjudged to be hanged immediately," and "providence is deemed to have determined in favor of the truth, and his blood shall be attainted (corrupted--another interesting legal term)." But, if he kills the appellant or can maintain the fight without loss from sunrise until "the stars appear in the evening," he shall be acquitted. But now we come to the point of this whole essay. Let's hear Blackstone's words:
"So also if the appellant becomes recreant, and pronounces the horrible word of craven, he shall lose his liberam legem, and become infamous; and the appellee shall recover his damages, and also be for ever quit, not only of the appeal, but of all indictments likewise for the same offense."
Ah, now we see the powerful pictorial use of the term. The "horrible" word craven is used by the appellant in trial by battle when he "becomes recreant" (overcome). This stops the fight and the appellant doesn't lose his life, but he does lose a lot. The next essay will describe that loss.
Copyright © 2004-2008 William R. Long