Monday, 19 March 2018

Eavesdroppers

A guest post by Dr George Redmonds, author of the Yorkshire Historic Dictionary.

If I were accused of eavesdropping I might be mildly embarrassed but I would certainly not expect to
be punished for it. The truth is that we use the word loosely these days, not stopping to consider that the eavesdropper was once the scourge of the local community – a person who lurked at night under the eaves of a neighbour’s house in the hope of gathering titbits of gossip that could then be turned to advantage. The serious nature of the misdemeanour is clear from definitions in Law dictionaries, one of which describes the eavesdropper as a person who ‘hearkens after discourse … to frame slanders and mischievous tales’.

Entry on Eaves-droppers from Blackstone's Commentaries on the Laws of England, 1768.
There is no record of just when eavesdropping started to be considered as an offence but in 1377, in Methley near Wakefield, Matilda Seamster was indicted at the manor court for listening under the walls of her neighbours’ houses at night and ‘narrating idle speeches’. That entry was in Latin, so the word ‘eavesdropper’ was not used but in Nottingham, in 1487, a jury found that Henry Rowley was a man who wandered around the village during the hours of darkness, and they indicted him as a common evys-dropper.

In Yorkshire it was more usual for the offender to be called an ‘eavesing dropper’ or an ‘easing dropper’ and a few early examples are found in the court rolls. In 1577, for example, Elizabeth Banke of Acomb, a village near York, was ordered to kepe hir house in the neight season and not be an esinge dropper; in Rastrick, in 1664, Elizabeth Dyson was presented for standeing under the ewse of the house of Joseph Goodheire as an ewseing dropper and was fined 10 shillings.

St Peter the Little, York today - now called Peter Lane
It is not difficult to see how the word had acquired its meaning. In Old English the noun ‘eavesdrop’ (yfesdrype) referred originally to the water that dripped, or dropped, from the eaves of a house, but from that it came to mean the edge of the roof itself. In 1338, the sale of a house in York, in the narrow lane called St Peter the Little, required the parties concerned to agree about the space they would need should repairs or rebuilding be necessary. Two English words that were included for greater clarity were gettes and efsdropes, that is to say the ‘jetties’ or overhanging upper storeys and the ‘eavesdrops’ or projecting parts of the roofs.

The Shambles, York
The Shambles, York
showing jetties and eavesdrops
Clearly, both of these affected the space available between the buildings at ground level and that could be a problem in narrow town streets – like the Shambles in York. As a consequence it became customary to restrict a person from building right up to the edge of his land, lest the water dripping from his eaves should cause a problem. That custom appears to be implicit in a Kent charter dated 868 where the word ‘yfæs drypæ’ is on record for the first time. It was in the space between the house wall and the ‘eavesdrip’ that our more inquisitive ancestors found shelter and were privy to a neighbour’s secrets. 

Etymologically, the Old English word ‘efes’ was actually singular but the final –s has been mistaken for a plural and that is how we interpret ‘eaves’ now. When John Tyndall wrote in 1872 that ‘water trickles to the eave and then drops down’ he was employing what is called a ‘back formation’ – as we do when we use the word ‘pea’ and not ‘pease’.



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