At The Hazard Of His Ears

What has the hazard of a person's ears to do with science history?

The history of Arctic science, exploration and discovery is sprinkled with many as yet unsolved mysteries, many concerning the meanings of words in old documents.  In this, the first article in a short series, I present my thoughts on some of these mysteries for discussion.  By clarifying an obscure passage in an old document we may add to its credibility as a source of historical or scientific data.  Thus the solving of these mysteries will - I suggest - add to our knowledge of Arctic history, and hence of Arctic science.

As used in the phrase 'at the hazard of his ears', the term 'hazard' means 'risk of loss'. The swearing of an oath 'at the hazard of one's ears' has its origins in medieval law.  Forms of words often continue long after they have lost their literal meaning, as in a fairly well known example from medieval religious practices.  A petition to a court of law is often called a 'prayer', even in our times.  Formerly, a petitioner to a court would be expected to pray for the soul of the judge or judges in return for the favor of being allowed to present a petition.  The petitioner would promise to say regular prayers for the soul of the judge.

The legacy form of words persisted until very recent times in petitions to Parliament1:
And your petitioner(s), as in duty bound, will ever pray, &c.
It often happens that people will use an archaic form of words without understanding the literal origins - perhaps having no need to understand.  It could well be that, just as the 'prayer' continued long after anyone was expected to pray in reality, so the oath 'by my ears' continued long after anyone genuinely expected to lose their ears for a breach of trust.

Swearing by one's ears

In Three Puzzles from Early Nineteenth Century Arctic Exploration2, by C. Ian Jackson, the three puzzles concern the offer of prize money for the discovery of the North West Passage and the fact that whalers, who knew parts of the route, did not pursue the prize money.  It seems that the whalers were in receipt of what we today would call a government subsidy.  As a condition of receipt of that subsidy an oath had to be sworn.
... the oath that both owners and masters were required to swear before each voyage to the collector of customs in each home port, that “‘the master and ship’s company shall proceed and use their utmost endeavours to take whales, or other large creatures, living in the seas, and on no other design or view of profit.’

Under this oath, the encouragement meant to be given by the legislature is a complete nullity; and the attempt of the master of a whaler to avail himself of it must be made at the hazard of his ears.16
This presents a fourth puzzle: what does the phrase 'at the hazard of one's ears' mean?  The suggestion in a footnote by C. Ian Jackson seems unsatisfactory:
16 Quarterly Review, p. 223. Emphasis presumably added by Barrow. The phrase “at the hazard of his ears” probably implies embarrassment – ears blushing or burning – as the false oath is taken.
For a long time in England the penalty for 'encompassing the King's death' was loss of the ears.  By way of example, even as the young King Edward VI lay dying, the ears of 'three citizens' were torn off for daring to suggest that the king was dying.
A rumour was spread recently that the King was on the way to recovery and his illness was decreasing, to appease the people who were disturbed; and such things were being said, that three citizens who were accused of saying that the King was dead or dying had their ears torn off.
Jehan Scheyfve, London, 12 May, 1553.
Richard Hakluyt3 records that in 1578, Sir Humphrey Gilbert was granted the right by Queen Elizabeth I, in letters patent, to make laws in newly discovered lands:
for the better gouernment of the said people as aforesayd: so alwayes that the sayd statutes, lawes and ordinances may be as neere as conueniently may, agreeable to the forme of the lawes and pollicy of England
Sir Humfrey Gilbert duly made laws in Newfoundland in 1583, including a law that:
if any should speake dishonourably of her Maiestie, the partie so offending, to loose his eares,  his ship and goods, to be confiscate to the vse of the Generall.

The grant of money - bounty - by Parliament was considered to be a grant from the Crown according to law.  Any conditions attached would state or imply a duty of loyalty to the Crown.  A breach of contract with the Crown might well have been viewed as being at the low end of a spectrum of treason - with a 'low-end penalty'.

I suggest that, even if the literal loss of ears had become unlikely under the laws of England in the 19th century, perhaps the taking of an oath 'at the hazard of my ears' might have persisted as a legal form of words in matters having to do with allegiance to the crown.

Footnotes / sources:

[1] - Public Petitions to the House of Commons

[2] - Three Puzzles from Early Nineteenth Century Arctic. Exploration. C. Ian Jackson

[3] - The Principal Navigations, Voyages, Traffiques
and Discoveries of the English Nation, Vol. XII America Part 1,
Richard Hakluyt, 1589