Violent Language and Its Use in Religious Conflicts in Elizabethan England

Discourses on Values and Norms in the Marprelate Controversy (1588/89)

by Sarah Ströer (Author)
Thesis 238 Pages

Table Of Content

  • Cover
  • Title Page
  • Copyright Page
  • Acknowledgements
  • About the author
  • About the book
  • Citability of the eBook
  • Contents
  • Introduction
  • 1 The Religious Field and the Violence of Printed Theological Controversies in Elizabethan England
  • 1.1 The English Reformation
  • 1.2 Elizabethan Inner-Protestant Controversies
  • 1.2.1 Elizabethan Press Censorship
  • 1.2.2 The Vestments Controversy
  • 1.2.3 The Admonition Controversy
  • 1.2.4 The Marprelate Controversy
  • 2 Violent Language in Elizabethan Speech Ethics
  • 2.1 General Remarks
  • 2.2 Biblical Speech Ethics
  • 2.2.1 Violent Language in the Psalms
  • 2.2.2 Violent Language in the Book Sirach
  • 2.2.3 Violent Language in the Epistle of James
  • 2.2.4 The Sins of the Tongue
  • 2.3 Sixteenth-Century English Concepts of Language
  • 2.3.1 Renaissance Rhetoric
  • 2.3.2 Civility and Conduct
  • 2.4 Violent Language in Elizabethan Rhetoric and Letter Writing Manuals
  • 2.5 Violent Language in Two Elizabethan Conduct Manuals
  • 2.6 Conclusions
  • 3 Language and Violence in Forms of Legitimation and De-legitimation in the Marprelate Controversy
  • 3.1 Legitimacy, Legitimation and De-legitimation
  • 3.2 Forms of De-/Legitimation in Theological Controversies
  • 3.2.1 Forms of De-/Legitimation in the Admonition Controversy
  • 3.2.2 Forms of De-/Legitimation in the Marprelate Tracts
  • 3.2.3 Forms of De-/Legitimation in the Anti-Martinist Works
  • 3.3 Concepts of Language in the Marprelate Controversy
  • 3.3.1 Controversy as Physical
  • Marprelate: Honour, Duel, War and Sport
  • The Anti-Martinists: The Word as a Weapon, the Tongue as a Serpent
  • Marprelate’s Threats of Popularity and Print
  • 3.3.2 Explanations of Marprelate’s Violent Language
  • Language-Based Characterizations of Marprelate
  • Violent Language as Satan’s Working in the World
  • Political Dangers of Violent Language
  • 3.3.3 Juxtaposing Controversy and Illegitimate Violence in the Last Marprelate Tract
  • 3.4 Conclusions
  • Conclusion
  • List of Table
  • Bibliography
  • Index


Words are, in my not so humble opinion, our most inexhaustible source of magic, capable of both inflicting injury and remedying it.1

Albus Dumbledore

The dartes, I confess, of deceitfull and slaunderous tongues, are verye sharpe, and the burning of the woundes made by them, will as hardly in the hearts of many bee quenched, as the coales of Iuniper.2

Thomas Cooper, Bishop of Winchester, 1589

In his 1589 response to the Marprelate tracts, Thomas Cooper (c.1517–1594) claimed that language had caused harm. He used metaphors of physical harm to refer to the effects of language – language in print specifically. The Marprelate controversy was one of the most prominent and infamous religio-political controversies of the Elizabethan age. Between October 1588 and September 1589, seven satirical tracts were printed on a secret press that was moved between private manors several times. In these tracts a ‘Martin Marprelate’ attacked the leading clergy of the English Church and its form of church government. The authorities responded with a campaign against the tracts and a search for the press, printer and author but for a long time failed to find anyone responsible. The identity of the authors behind the pseudonym remains disputed until today. The authorities’ responses and the history of persecution of the Marprelate project reveals that the tracts were perceived as dangerous, and in the last decades the precise reasons behind this perception have interested a number of scholars in various fields. Among the factors that caused offence, the content of the tracts certainly played a leading role. Other factors were the secret and illegal manner of the tracts’ production and, importantly, the language Marprelate employed in his attack.

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In sixteenth-century England, language was primarily considered a powerful tool. Traditions of humanism and rhetoric influenced notions of persuasive orators, skilful authors, and the idea that language was the most important faculty humans possessed. However, notions and concepts influenced by biblical speech ethics were also widespread, and these were decidedly more pessimistic about human beings and their use of language. In these contexts, notions of harmful language prevailed. The printing press was seen in a similarly ambivalent light. The reformers especially viewed it as the perfect tool to spread their ideas, while the authorities were considerably more anxious for the same reason: The press was seen as being able to publicize issues and ideas that might lead to disorder and chaos in society. The limits and rules of language use, particularly in printed form, were contested and negotiated in a number of cases, most notoriously in several ‘pamphlet wars’ and polemic religious controversies, the most famous of which was the Martin Marprelate controversy, which will be the focus of this study. In this controversy, the large range of language concepts and their influence on the ethics of speech and writing, especially regarding religious themes, becomes evident.

The Marprelate tracts have attracted scholarly attention from several fields and for numerous reasons over the last decades. Early research was often devoted to finding the author behind the pseudonym. One of the first modern full accounts of the controversy was Donald McGinn’s John Penry and the Marprelate Controversy from 1966.3 McGinn argued that John Penry, a Welsh controversialist, was the author of the Marprelate tracts. While it is certain that John Penry was involved in the production of the tracts, it has since been disputed that he was the sole author. In 1981 Leland Carlson argued for Job Throkmorton, a country gentleman, as the main author.4 While Carlson’s study has also been criticized, Throkmorton is now generally seen as the one responsible for the distinctive style of the tracts.5 Since the 1970s, literary scholars have been interested in this unique style and humour of the Martin Marprelate tracts as well as in what influenced it and upon what, in turn, the tracts proved to be an influence.6 ←10 | 11→Marprelate has often been named a literary genius, and John Coolidge and Raymond Anselment have shown how expediently Marprelate makes use of rhetoric in his satires. Coolidge drew attention to Marprelate’s indebtedness to the theatrical tradition and his use of the principle of decorum personae, according to which a controversial writer is required “to adapt his own manner to the presumed personality of his opponent.”7 This allows Marprelate to claim that this principle “justifies satirical writing, even on a religious subject, where one’s opponent is a dunce.”8 Marprelate justifies his jesting with this principle, asking “leave to play the Duns for the nonce, as well as he [John Bridges, (1535/6–1618, later bishop of Oxford 1604–1618,) his opponent], otherwise dealing with Master Doctor’s book, I cannot keep decorum personae.”9 Marprelate’s argument is that since John Bridges had written a ‘senseless’ book and had argued like a fool, Marprelate was allowed – even compelled – to answer in the same vein. Marprelate’s style can thus be summarized in the words of David McKerrow, as “combining exhortation and coarse abuse, earnestness and laughter” and he argues further that Marprelate was able “to reach a public which no more solid form of exposition could attract and no more serious argument convince.”10 While the claim for Marprelate’s large popularity has been disputed and shall be revisited below, other scholars concurred in McKerrow’s assertion that it was Marprelate’s combination of serious argument and scurrilous style and laughter that made the Marprelate tracts unique.

Raymont Anselment also focussed on Marprelate’s use of humour in his article published in 1970 and his 1979 study on religious ridicule ‘Betwixt Jest and Earnest’. He stressed the influence of classical rhetoric on Marprelate, especially of Aristotle and Cicero and the rhetorical effectiveness of laughter.11 Anselment gives ←11 | 12→an overview of how Marprelate achieves his jesting manner and highlights that he assumes different “ironic poses” such as the clown and the country simpleton.12 As clown, Marprelate is boastful and mocking, laughs at his own jokes and asks for praise, for example when he asks “[h];a, ha, Doctor Copcot, are ye there …”?13 As the country simpleton, he feigns humility and plainness, uses northern dialect or too familiar speech, for example in addressing the bishops as brethren and friends.

Ritchie D. Kendall has related Marprelate’s style to other nonconformist writing in his study The Drama of Dissent. He also emphasizes the theatrical style of the tracts, calling Marprelate a “dramanist without a stage”.14 He discusses the implications of Marprelate’s use of other voices in the tracts – most notably that of his adversaries – and the strong presence of an imagined audience. Marprelate addresses this audience frequently by posing rhetorical questions, imagining what kind of questions the reader or hearer might ask and quotes the audience’s comments in the margins and within the text itself. Kendall stresses that using theatrical elements in nonconformist writings is no new strategy but that “[t];he theatrical displays of Martin Marprelate are unmatched in their profusion and in the verve, humor, and subtlety with which they are mounted.”15 Literary scholars, however, have often tended to focus their attention on the Marprelate tracts rather than on the Marprelate controversy, and thus the works that were produced by the authorities in response to the Marprelate tracts have not received much attention, especially not as being part of a larger anti-Martinist or even anti-puritan campaign. Ronald McKerrow, for example, concludes that the main answer by the authorities, the Admonition to the People of England, was “almost totally ineffective as a reply”,16 and Leland Carlson calls it “defensive and ineffective in coping with Martin’s satire and ridicule.”17

A number of scholars have put the materiality of the Marprelate tracts in the foreground and have shown how Marprelate played with print conventions. In 1993, Evelyn Tribble was one of the first to employ a book studies approach to the tracts in her monograph Margins and Marginality, looking for strategies of authorization of the text in the way Marprelate makes use of his margins.18 ←12 | 13→Cyndia Clegg also focusses on the production of the tracts in one chapter of her 1997 study on Elizabethan press censorship.19 She addresses the tracts’ language as well and asserts that “something in their rhetoric or allegations distinguished them from the hundreds of other sermons, treatises, and admonitions that likewise berated episcopacy and advocated Presbyterian polity.”20 Clegg argues that by attacking the basic institutions of the English government via the Presbyterian reform agenda, which the tracts advocated, as well as by the style of their language and the manner of their production, the tracts endangered the state, or at least were feared to do so. Jesse Lander treats the controversy as an example of a new form of polemic brought on by the interplay between Protestantism and print.21 While he criticizes views that all too deterministically see the printing press as an instrument, or even as the cause of the Reformation, he argues that “together they created a culture that formed not homogenously but continually in debate, a culture that can itself be seen as polemical.”22 He acknowledges that the rhetorical tradition “contributed to the creation of print polemic” but sees religious polemic as distinctly different, precisely for its religious components, in which the common ground of academic disputes was completely removed.23

The consideration of Marprelate’s literary style addressed above necessarily leads to the question who his audience was – both imagined and actual – and whether he was indeed as ‘popular’ as he claims in his tracts. Ritchie Kendall asserts that Marprelate’s “exuberant and affective prose defies (as most Puritan discourse) the boundaries between ‘lerned’ and ‘lewed.’ Its audience is all England.”24 Marprelate himself justifies his jesting manner of writing in the fourth tract Hay Any Work For Cooper by claiming its effectiveness in making controversial theological texts more interesting so more men would read them:

The most part of men could not be gotten to read anything written in the defence of the one and against the other. I bethought me therefore of a way whereby men might be drawn to do both, perceiving the humours of men in these times (especially of those that are in any place) to be given to mirth.25

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Jesse Lander also highlights the manner of production and distribution of the tracts and their consequent ‘popularity’. He argues that “Marprelate is neither an incoherent religious controversialist nor a frustrated poet, but a polemical writer exploiting a wide repertoire of techniques in an attempt to reach a broad audience.”26

Joseph Black, in his valuable 2008 edition of the Marprelate tracts, includes a number of issues in his introduction, and he is one of the few scholars to give more room to the contemporary reactions to the tracts.27 In an earlier article, which is partly reprinted in the edition, Black especially emphasizes the responses’ “uneasiness over [the tracts’] attempt to use print to spread the Presbyterian message among a popular audience.”28 Black, as others before him, sees the popularization of the Presbyterian platform as the tracts’ main interest and as the feature the authorities feared most about the tracts. Peter Lake and Steve Pincus have argued that the Elizabethan era saw the development of a “public sphere” or “public spheres”29 and that a certain “mode of political maneuver and public politics”30 emerged:

Print, the pulpit, performance, and circulating manuscripts were all used to address promiscuously uncontrollable, socially heterogenous, and, in some sense, popular audiences. Such activity implied the existence of, and indeed notionally at least called into being, an adjudicating public or publics able to judge or determine the truth of the matter in hand on the basis of the information and argument placed before them.31

Marprelate made use of a communicative mode that had been in existence well before him – making material publicly known that was supposed to be restricted and private. Lake and Pincus also emphasize that such activities were never part of legitimate political discourse; they always “represented emergency measures, resorted to, in extremity, by a variety of groups anxious to push their case with the prince and/or the people.”32 However, the indications that the Marprelate tracts ←14 | 15→as well as the Admonition were addressed to some sort of public audience does not yet indicate how widely these texts were read. For the Marprelate tracts, Josef Black has pointed out that “almost all references to the controversy remark on Martin’s popularity among ‘the common people.’ ”33 Some of the reactions to the tracts alledge that they were read in taverns and other public places. Furthermore, some of the extant documents from the trials against the supporters of the tracts contain examples of readings of the tracts and that they were read by at least the members of the households that were involved in the secret printing endeavours. For example, the trial of Sir Richard Knightly, in whose house the second tract was printed, contains mentions of reading of the tracts in his household. Also, in 1588, Richard Cawdres “was brought before high commission for a variety of offenses, including holding private meetings at which the Marprelate tracts were read aloud.”34 Nevertheless, evidence of or references to actual reading of the tracts are scarce and the claims in the contemporary reactions that they were popular does not prove that they were actually read.

In a large portion of the literature on the Marprelate tracts, regardless of the scholarly field, the notion is present that the tracts used ‘violent language’ and that the authorities feared and consequently condemned the tracts mainly for their language use. In an early study, Ronald McKerrow remarked on the first tract that “the very violence and scurrility of this first attack are part of a carefully arranged design….”35 Other scholars have employed similar language, calling the tracts “attacks”36 or violent, such as Evelyn Tribble who claims that Marprelate used “the language of violence”37 by which she means Marprelate’s use of metaphors of physical harm. Tribble argues that in these instances in the Marprelate tracts “the boundaries between literary and physical violence”38 begin to blur. However, Tribble does not define “violence,” nor does she acknowledge the fact that the ways in which Marprelate used these physical metaphors and the ways in which the authorities interpreted them were radically different. There is no study yet that has analyzed these issues in depth. These gaps are what this study aims to close by a detailed analysis of the contemporary notions ←15 | 16→of language and violence and how and to what ends they were expressed in the Marprelate controversy.

Before turning to sixteenth-century notions of language and violence, a few remarks on modern conceptions of ‘violent language’ are useful. The modern notion that the Marprelate controversy, due to the language used, was violent depends fundamentally on certain modern perceptions of language and of violence. Understanding language as violence presupposes a pragmatic perspective on language itself, a perspective that views language as action and distinguishes between the meaning of a spoken utterance or written statement and the function that it fulfils. In linguistics, such a pragmatic perspective has become more widespread since the 1950s, influenced by natural language philosophy and scholars such as J.L. Austin, J.R. Searle, and H.P. Grice.39 It is safe to say that Austin’s speech act theory was among the most influential theories in pragmatic linguistics in the twentieth century. Generally, in speech act theory two different ways of acting via language are distinguished: the illocutionary act and the perlocutionary effect. The illocutionary act is best exemplified by explicit performative utterances such as the ‘I do’ in a wedding ceremony. Other examples of illocutionary speech acts include apologies, orders, requests, promises, and threats. These speech acts are often said to have illocutionary force, which refers to the notion that their efficacy depends on social conventions and conventions of language use. Perlocutionary effects occur when an utterance or statement produces an effect that was not inherent in the utterance itself. Austin mentions convincing or deterring as examples. These perlocutionary effects are sometimes defined as encompassing all effects and consequences a certain statement or utterance produces. In contrast to illocutionary force, perlocutionary effects can be unintentional and unexpected. Perlocutionary effects and illocutionary acts can occur via the same statement. A speaker might issue the warning ‘I would not do that if I were you.’ This statement has illocutionary force by convention as it is a common version of a warning in modern English. In certain contexts, it might even qualify as a threat as well. The perlocutionary effects of this warning, on the other hand, are not so clearly predictable and depend largely on the addressee, ←16 | 17→who might be convinced ‘not to do that’ but also might consider him- or herself warned but still proceed.

While speech act theory provides theoretical insight into acting via language, it does not yet provide answers to the question of why individuals can feel hurt by language. How one understands violent language fundamentally depends on the concept of violence employed. The Oxford English Dictionary (OED) defines violence first and foremost as “[t];he deliberate exercise of physical force against a person, property etc.; physically violent behaviour or treatment” then also as “[g]reat strength or power of a natural force or physical action, esp. when destructive or damaging….” Only the fourth meaning is not directly related to physical action: “Vehemence or intensity of emotion, behaviour, or language; extreme favour; passion.”40 Violence seems inextricably linked to physicality, at the very least to doing harm to a person. Traditional sociological concepts also reflect this, such as the definition in the Blackwell Encyclopedia of Sociology, which presents violence as “power in action … based on the power physically and materially to hurt other creatures or to be harmed.”41 A case in point for a narrow concept is also presented by Gertrud Nunner-Winkler in her overview of concepts of violence. She understands violence as “absichtsvolle illegitime wie rechtfertigbare physische Schädigung….” (‘intentional, illegitimate, and justifiable physical harming’).42 All these definitions also illustrate that traditionally the violent act and the violent actor were at the centre of research on violence. Since the 1970s the concept of violence has been broadened in a number of different respects.43 Most importantly, in these concepts the focus has shifted away from the ways and reasons why an individual uses violence towards the harm done to the victim. An influential and very broad definition of violence was put forward in the 1970s by Norwegian sociologist Johan Galtung. Galtung introduced the concept of structural violence by which he denoted the harmful ←17 | 18→effects of structures of inequality in societies. His definition understood violence as those instances in which an individual is influenced in such a way so that his or her self-fulfilment is less than potentially possible.44 With such a broad definition, as Nunner-Winkler puts it, the ‘who’-component of violence is anonymized and violence can originate from institutions and structures in society. Symbolic violence is a similar concept, brought forward by Pierre Bourdieu. In Bourdieu’s theory, symbolic violence is “the violence embodied in concepts, language, and systems of symbols aimed at obscuring, veiling and glossing over unspoken conditions of rule.”45 Broad concepts, such as Galtung’s and Bourdieu’s, run the risk of encompassing so much that they become inapplicable. On the other hand, Galtung’s concept of structural violence raises awareness of the fact that individuals are harmed by much more than just direct exercise of physical force against them, while Bourdieu’s symbolic violence, which is sometimes translated as ‘symbolic power,’ puts emphasis on the societal functions of use of power and violence. By a new focus on the victims of violence, the possibility of psychological harm has also increasingly been recognized, especially in studies concerning domestic abuse or schoolyard bullying.

In considering the relationship of language and violence, a number of constellations are conceivable.46 Physical violence might be thought as following a certain language use, thus for example in threats of physical violence, in hate crimes, or when language is believed to incite physical violence. On the other hand, violence is often thought to be the anti-thesis of language, for example when conflicts escalate to wars after diplomatic solutions have failed. Language might also describe violence, especially in media, such as in novels and on television, or in the journalistic or scholarly treatment of violence. From this perspective, language has the important function of naming and defining certain acts as violence. Finally, language itself can be thought of as a medium for violent action, and this is the perspective this study will mainly be focussed on.

That language has the power to do harm seems inevitable. However, the considerations above do not yet address the question what exactly can be harmed by language if it is not the physical body. Furthermore, the reasons why language might have this capability to do harm, or why humans have the capability to ←18 | 19→do harm with language have to be addressed. Sybille Krämer has emphasized that in order to understand this power of language to hurt one has to consider the social-symbolical body of individuals. This social body is represented by a person’s name and exists in a certain place in a social network. Because of this existence Krämer argues for a literal understanding of the social body as well as of violent language.47 One of the most influential approaches to linguistic vulnerability, employing similar notions, has been put forward by Judith Butler. In her book Excitable Speech, Butler addresses the question of how and why language has the power to hurt individuals. She argues that individuals are linguistically vulnerable because it is only through language that they come into being as social subjects: “One ‘exists’ not only by virtue of being recognized, but, in a prior sense, by being recognizable.”48 By being spoken to, especially by being called by a name, one is given social existence, a social body in other words. In the same way, this social existence can be altered by language, and herein lies one’s linguistic vulnerability. Understanding violent language as having illocutionary force then means that in the moment of a statement being made, it has the power to influence the addressee’s social existence. The illocutionary perspective on the words being used emphasizes that their power to injure rests in their conventionality. Especially name-calling illustrates this fact. Every culture and time has its own swear words and words that ‘count’ as insults. Butler emphasizes that such names have a “historicity, what might be understood as the history which has become internal to a name, has come to constitute the contemporary meaning of a name….”49 The illocutionary force of an insult thus lies in its usage over time, its connotations and implications which repeat, in Butler’s terms, a “trauma.” However, Butler rejects a purely illocutionary understanding of the power of language to inflict harm that understands the injurious effect as always necessary when such a word is spoken or written to someone. If one understands the harm language can inflict on an individual as perlocutionary, these effects become non-necessary, and thus, as Butler stresses “appropriating, reversing, and recontextualizing”50 certain expressions becomes possible. A number of expressions in the English language were recontextualized in such a way and turned from derogatory insult to ingroup self-attribution. The most popular ←19 | 20→examples are probably nigger and queer, the latter of which was a derogatory term for bi- and homosexual until it was reclaimed to denote non-normative gender identities. In the historical epoch at hand, the term puritan had a similar development. It started as a derogatory term for the more radical and ‘hotter’ sort of Protestants and then was reclaimed by some of them to describe themselves.51

On their own, these modern concepts are only of little help in understanding what violent language meant in Elizabethan England and what Elizabethans believed to be true about the power of language and the power of print. Historical research concerning speech act theory usually examines the realization of a particular speech act, such as for example the promise or the insult.52 However, violent language is not easily restricted to one sort of speech act. The effect of having been hurt by language could result from an insult, a threat, or even a warning. Historical pragmatic research can show by which linguistic means these speech acts were commonly realized in the past, but it can say little about the ideas, concepts, and norms of the contemporaries regarding language use. In order to assess intangible things like ‘concepts’ of the past the notion of discourse in a Foucauldian sense has proved to be helpful. The methodology of this study has been greatly influenced by historical discourse analysis as German historian Achim Landwehr introduced it in 2001.53 Landwehr employs a Foucauldian understanding of discourse54 as structuring knowledge about a certain topic and thereby also structuring what can be said about a topic at a given time and place. As Stuart Hall sums it up:

←20 | 21→

It [the discourse] governs the way that a topic can be meaningfully talked about and reasoned about. It also influences how ideas are put into practice and used to regulate the conduct of others. Just as a discourse ‘rules in’ certain ways of talking about a topic, defining an acceptable and intelligible way to talk, write, or conduct oneself, so also, by definition, it ‘rules out’, limits and restricts other ways of talking, of conducting ourselves in relation to the topic or constructing knowledge about it.55

A discourse thus structures what a society, or a part of society, at a certain point in time believes to be true about a certain topic. It is important to note that in linguistic pragmatics there also exists an approach called ‘historical discourse analysis.’ This is sometimes used as a synonym for ‘historical pragmatics’ and relies on the more quotidian meaning of discourse as ‘(spoken) language use’ sometimes also encompassing pragmatic aspects of written language. Such a linguistic approach would focus more on textual structure and the realizations of specific functions, rather than on the concepts underlying these realizations. In this study, a pragmatic perspective on the source material is retained, which distinguishes between the meaning and the function of a text, and in some places, emphasis will be on detailed realizations of linguistic functions. However, the main objective of this study is to assess the contemporary concepts of violent language within the sources. The Foucauldian notion of discourse as described above is immensely valuable in this endeavour. It can help establish patterns of thought and knowledge about violent language on the grounds of how it was spoken and written about.


ISBN (Book)
Publication date
2019 (May)
Elisabeth I Reformation Puritanismus englische Geschichte Historische Diskursanalyse Religionsgeschichte
Berlin, Bern, Bruxelles, New York, Oxford, Warszawa, Wien, 2019. 236 pp., 1 table

Biographical notes

Sarah Ströer (Author)

Sarah Ströer studied English Philology, History and Religious Studies at the Westfälische Wilhelms-Universität in Münster. She was a research assistant at the "Religion and Politics" Cluster of Excellence in Münster.


Title: Violent Language and Its Use in Religious Conflicts in Elizabethan England