Spam and the Middle Ages

Several recent news stories have bemoaned what every email user already knows – spam is on the march and filling up the inbox. There is a spam arms race going on and the spammers are currently winning.

“It will only end when people stop buying diet pills, herbal highs and sexual performance enhancers,” said Dave Rand, of Internet security firm Trend Micro.

“The products they are selling by spam are exactly the same products that they sold in the Middle Ages,” he said. “This really is a human problem, not a computer problem.”

One of Chaucer’s 14th century pilgrims made a living selling relics, cures and potions to the gullible. He wasn’t exactly a spammer but he was certainly a pestilential nuisance. Ostensibly a church official, the pardoner was a corrupt charlatan employing his considerable skills to exploit the credulous. In the prologue to his tale he provides a nice expose of the tricks of his trade. Later, he has the chutzpah to try them out on his audience of fellow pilgrims and receives a very forceful response.

Lordynges, quod he, in chirches whan I preche,

I peyne me to han an hauteyn speche,

And rynge it out as round as gooth a belle,

For I kan al by rote that I telle.

My theme is alwey oon, and evere was —

Radix malorum est cupiditas.

... 
Magical Objects, Miracle Cures, Get Rich Quick
Thanne shewe I forth my longe cristal stones, 
Ycrammed ful of cloutes and of bones, -- 
Relikes been they, as wenen they echoon. 
Thanne have I in latoun a sholder-boon 
Which that was of an hooly jewes sheep. 
Goode men, I seye, taak of my wordes keep; 
If that this boon be wasshe in any welle, 
If cow, or calf, or sheep, or oxe swelle
That any worm hath ete, or worm ystonge, 
Taak water of that welle and wassh his tonge, 
And it is hool anon; and forthermoore, 
Of pokkes and of scabbe, and every soore 
Shal every sheep be hool that of this welle 
Drynketh a draughte. Taak kep eek what I telle -- 
If that the good-man that the beestes oweth 
Wol every wyke, er that the cok hym croweth, 
Fastynge, drynken of this welle a draughte, 
As thilke hooly jew oure eldres taughte, 
His beestes and his stoor shal multiplie. 
and, sires, also it heeleth jalousie; 
For though a man be falle in jalous rage, 
Lat maken with this water his potage, 
And nevere shal he moore his wyf mystriste, 
Though he the soothe of hir defaute wiste, 
Al had she taken prestes two or thre. 
heere is a miteyn eek, that ye may se. 
He that his hand wol putte in this mitayn, 
He shal have multipliyng of his grayn, 
Whan he hath sowen, be it whete or otes, 
So that he offre pens, or elles grotes.

Geoffrey Chaucer, The Canterbury Tales

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