Institute of Early Modern History

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Common Informing: Arbitrary Enforcement in Early Modern England

"The Common Informer is the offspring of the laws;
he is engendered in every statute, like weevil in biscuit."


"The Common Informer", from: Heads of the People, or: Portraits of the English, drawn by Kenny Meadows, engraved by Owen Smith (London, 1840), 201.

The enforcement of penal statutes in early modern England was often achieved via the legal principle of qui tam and the practice of common informing: the private prosecution of economic, social, religious, and political deviance was financially rewarded. Persons otherwise unaffected by the statutory violation thus became advocates of the common good with executive capacities, for all legal decisions were binding even for the Crown. Well known among legal historians, this form of common law prosecution has rarely been viewed in its implications for early modern authority and remains little studied in its political and social dimension. Here, however, it promises new insights: Circumventing the necessity for expensive administrative institutions, governments were able to delegate the enforcement of authority to their subjects. The latter, however, were thereby enabled to encroach on government prerogatives. Accordingly, some subjects’ opportunities for participation increased. Because of its denunciatory character, however, informing also led to a rise in social tensions and new vertical dependencies. Relations between subjects and rulers formed and regulated by informing were thus highly ambiguous for both sides and highlight structural tensions still prevalent in modern politics.

The project aims, for the first time, to write a coherent history of common informing in early modern England via three case studies. An important aim is to locate informing in the context of early modern rule and authority in England. Methodologically, the project aims to take the notorious ambiguity of such arrangements seriously. To this end, the project chooses to describe informing on the part of informers as arbitrary acts: Informers had every right to act as they did, and yet they acted without specific office or mandate and routinely defied political and social norms. The effects of such actions in turn cannot be subsumed in a narrative of subjects’ emancipation or successful state-building either. Their structural ambiguity is captured, therefore, in the neutral formula of authority effects. On the whole, the project aims to study the emergence of authority as an interaction of rulers and subjects specific to the common law. The project thereby offers, on the one hand, a contribution to the ongoing debate around early modern state-building and offers, on the other hand, the possibility for an engagement with current debates about surveillance, private policing, and governance.