Historically Speaking

Making sense of it all!

Blackmail

Posted by Elyse Bruce on August 6, 2010

Even if a Jack-of-all-trades knows the ins and outs of keeping a stiff upper lip, he could find himself in quite the kettle of fish should someone try to blackmail him.

Mail is an Anglo-Norse term used in Medieval Scotland in the mid 1500s when referring to rent or tribute. During the time of border warfare between England and Scotland, freebooters extorted payment from farmers in exchange for protection and immunity from plunder. 

Tribute was paid in grain, meat, the lowest coinage (copper) or labor and was referred to as reditus nigri, or “blackmail.”  The reason for paying tribute in this fashion was because the farmers weren’t financially able to pay tribute with silver, referred to as reditus albi, or “white rent.” 

Farmers felt forced and coerced into a paying what was demanded for tribute or rent under threat that if the blackmail was not paid in full, no protection would be extended to the farmer and his family.  In time, the word came to mean any payment extorted by threat of exposure.

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