A bit of eavesdropping never did anybody any harm, did it? We’ve all done it. A chance conversation that next door have a bit too loudly in their back garden; an argument between two lovers at the next table in the pub. It’s natural to be a bit nosey and have a listen – a vicarious living of the lives of others, even if just for a second.
But eavesdropping was seen, in the past, as a bad habit; one that gossips partook in, in order to whisper scandalous tales to their neighbours. It was a sign of being a ‘common nuisance’, in other words of doing something ‘to the annoyance of all the king’s subjects’, and William Blackstone warned against it in his Commentaries on the Laws of England, describing these gossips acerbically:
“Eaves-droppers, or such as listen under walls or windows, or the eaves of a house, to hearken after discourse, and thereupon to frame slanderous and mischievous tales, are a common nuisance.” (Commentaries, Book IV, Chapter 13, 169)
There was a clear assumption that the majority of eavesdroppers would be women, Blackstone placing eavesdroppers next to the ‘common scold…a public nuisance to her neighbourhood’.
He noted that such eavesdroppers could be either presented at a court leet, or indicted at quarter sessions, and if found guilty of the offence, could be fined or bound over to good behaviour.
It was clearly seen to be a lesser offence than scolding, and thus not punishable with the cucking or ducking stool – but it is doubtful whether the threat of a fine could really stop anyone from, um, inadvertently overhearing someone else’s conversation…particularly if it was a little bit juicy.