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Slander and Sedition in Elizabethan Law, Speech, and Writing

Steven Veerapen

The Elizabethan era is generally understood to coincide with the blossoming of English language – it was the age of Shakespeare, Sidney, and Marlowe. Yet it is known also as a period of brutality and repression: saying or writing anything against the state, the queen, or its governors might result in hanging, fines, or the loss of limbs. Defaming neighbours could and frequently did result in a day in court, with slander emerging as a byword for unacceptable speech and writing.

Academic interest has long been divided into studies which focus on the power relations underpinning literary production, the ways in which authorities sought to suppress and censor transgressive material, or the role slander played in religious polemic. This book will explore the legal backdrop which helped and hindered the production and curtailment of slanderous and seditious material across multiple sites. In so doing, it will seek to uncover exactly how slander and sedition were defined, regulated, punished, and, ultimately, negotiated by those who grappled over control of discourse.

Through examination of the legal, theatrical, and religious conditions of the age of Elizabeth, this study will provide an explanation of the rise of the flagrantly slanderous political discourses of the seventeenth century.

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Chapter 6

CHAPTER 6

Extract

To the law courts, slander could take the form of spoken defamation against a neighbour, the spread of false or subversive news, misuse of the legal system and aspersions cast upon the reputations of those in authority in writing, print or speech. Accordingly, the various law courts dealt with different categories of slander by variant means: a fact with which the increasingly litigious Elizabethans were well cognizant even if they required more lawyers than ever to guide them. Certainly, the fact that plaintiffs seeking financial redress flocked to the common law courts in order to sue slanderers for damages in civil cases, whilst the Star Chamber busied itself punishing defendants as criminals, indicates a level of recognition of contemporary jurisprudence and the means by which it was best negotiated. Similarly, the courts regulated power by both vilifying slanderers and maintaining a pragmatic and expedient attitude towards administering justice: a necessity in a culture which was required to balance an autocratic justice system geared towards eliminating dissent and upholding social order with a common perception that lawmen were ‘ever malicious, litigious and full of mischiefe.’1

In the course of this balancing act, however, one constant remains – the figure of the slanderer was frequently portrayed as a subversive social deviant, a poisoner, a corrupting influence on social order, a vengeful malcontent and a thorn in the side of the body politic. The slanderer thus represented a figure who presented a threat across the social spectrum, as evidenced by suits both...

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