• Criticism is an action that has been practiced for centuries.
  • Libels arose as a way to defame and insult anonymously, attacking the honor of different people and groups.

Criticizing is an action that every human being enjoys from time to time. Who has not uttered some other evil about that person who drives us crazy? Well, even if it’s hard to believe, this exercise even has its own literary genre. Next we will talk about the libel , a writing whose history dates back to the Middle Ages and which evolved to become a social medium to slander and insult.


Although this term also has a legal meaning, we will focus on its literary conception. To refer to this meaning RAE describes the libel as written in which someone or something is denigrated or infamed. Expanding the concept, it is a popular composition that was most frequently reported between the 16th and 17th centuries , although it continued to be used later as well.

Characteristics and diffusion

Libel comes from libellum , a Latin word that translates as small book ; from this it can be inferred that the length of these texts was rather brief. In addition, they were small, concise, direct and could be accompanied by small drawings that increased the tone of mockery.

The popular language was the most used for this type of compositions, since it was intended to reach as many people as possible in order to deeply hurt the honor of the person or institution to which allusion was made. Prose or verse was used, thus being able to spread in the form of a song.

Those who wrote them did so in a satirical tone and very often published them anonymously or hid behind a pseudonym ; The reason behind this is that in this way they protected both their identity and their security, since at certain historical moments this practice was punishable by law with measures as extreme as death.

As for their dissemination, they were manuscripts that were left in full view of everyone in busy places , such as the crowded squares of towns and cities. When presented in the form of a song, they were sung in public places or in protest acts.


In the Middle Ages , the libel only referred to a document used in canon law, that is, the branch that is in charge of legal affairs of the Catholic Church. The document was a text in which the reason for the demand and what was requested of the defendant should appear; This step was fundamental since with it the judicial process officially began.

Towards the Modern Age (15th century to the 18th century) the use of the libel extended to tasks that had nothing to do with legality and began to occupy the public space. In this way it became a defamatory composition, spread clandestinely and whose sole purpose was to damage the honor and reputation of a person or group of people. This practice therefore became the perfect tool to show discontent with the established order or to externalize hatred towards some groups. Thanks to the fact that the tensions and conflicts of the society of the time were manifested in them, they are a valuable object for the field of historical and sociological research.

From the 16th century onwards it came to be considered a literary genre and in the 17th century they were already consolidated as the preferred format for scholars to deal with each other. Insults and accusations between writers were frequent in Spain at this time; In addition to being texts endowed with great aggressiveness, they also reflected a great deal of ingenuity. Some of the writers who suffered these infamies were Francisco de Quevedo and Miguel de Cervantes, as well as Lope de Vega who was harassed in a libel that greatly undermined his morale. It was Spongia, a text published in 1617 by Pedro Torres Ramila and which sought to destroy the image of the illustrious poet and playwright. The author distributed it to bookstores, gatherings and academies in Madrid and, despite being an illegal edition, it became extremely popular thanks in part to the internationality that being written in Latin conferred on it.

In the eighteenth century the most notable disputes are those that took place in the literary and philosophical fields. As a result, more and more pamphleteers arose, many of whom took on Voltaire. However, he was not intimidated and wrote anonymous libels addressed to his enemies, which would later end up being attributed to him. Among all the texts of this nature that he created, The Sentiment of the Citizens stands out , disseminated in Geneva and which focuses on the figure of Jean-Jacques Rousseau. His foray into the world of defamation earned the philosopher intervention in various court cases, even entering the Bastille prison for eleven months for a text that directly attacked the Regent Philip II, Duke of Orleans.

Finally, in the 19th century , with newspapers alluding to political issues, libels were replaced by journalistic polemics. Outside of journalism, they changed their names and became known as pamphlets. These are characterized by their critical and defamatory nature and their scathing style. As for their objective, instead of focusing on dishonoring the person or group of people, they focus attention on spreading an idea or position. These being their characteristics, it is not surprising that they were used for political propaganda, as happened later during World War II.

And up to here the fascinating history of the libels, the writings that raised blisters in the societies of different centuries.