(17) As Swift suggests, writers proceeded on the presumption (however mistaken) that they could evade prosecution by the strategic use of familiar catchphrases, blanks, nicknames, and asterisks so that even though "everybody alive" knew who was meant, "the plaintiff" could have "no redress to any court of justice." (18) Behind this presumption lay the legal doctrine of Mitior Sensus, inherited from slander trials, designed to clarify whether particular words explicitly accused another party of an actionable crime.
As this exchange suggests, while the doctrine of mitior sensus might have been abolished by Chief Justice Parker in cases of individual libel, jurists (and their political spokesmen of the press) now struggled with the more complex challenge of prosecuting satirists for libels on public figures, a process that required new methods of ascribing certain identities to satiric victims as well as critical maneuvers capable of ascribing determinate meanings to ambiguous or ironically encoded discourse.
As Andrew Bricker has observed, there was "natural interpretive interference" between strictly black-letter law, the "production of legal meaning and its reception by non-legal actors." There were, as he says, "grey zones between socio-literary and legal history," moments of uncertainty in which the working out of the "law as lived," revealed the "intersections between perceptions of law, no matter their accuracy, and the aesthetic and social arenas in which such views played out." (34) The whole discussion of the "libelous" character of The Craftsman occupies one of these grey zones, revealing the ways in which traditional interpretations of the mitior sensus doctrine were transformed, even inverted, under the pressures of political prosecution.
In an apparent inversion of the earlier mitior sensus doctrine, prosecutors now argued for the widest interpretive latitude while lawyers for the defense routinely insisted that the words in the passages under indictment ought to be understood in their most literal and natural sense, as if the equivocations in the text were of no consequence to its meaning.