We may know it when we see it, but corruption is not a fixed concept. Mark Knights explains how 300 years of scandal have forged perceptions of what is – and what is not – corrupt.
What is corruption? It is a difficult concept to define. Today, it is often equated with bribery or the abuse of public office for private gain, but historically corruption has been a much broader concept. In the period between the 16th-century Reformation and the Reform era of the early 19th century it had many different meanings, several of which have largely dropped out of modern usage. In the 16th and 17th centuries the word corruption was most often used in a religious sense to describe sin – either the Original Sin inherited from Adam and Eve, or the sin committed by people in everyday life. Similarly, the legal definition of ‘corruption of the blood’, that, when treason had been committed it was said to infect the blood of descendants – in existence since ancient times – is no longer relevant.