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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 12



With the Elizabethan period coinciding with a veritable boom in litigation and slander suits in the secular courts, and with dramatic production engaging with discourses of slanderous language in a multitude of ways, it is now necessary to turn to one of the central institutional structures in early modern society – the Church. In doing so, we might turn for one last time to the industrious and fictional John in order to consider the various ways in which slander, sedition, and religion collided.

As we have seen, far from being the bawdy stuff of dispute, slanderous language was recognised as having perlocutionary force. It could break the reputations of the lesser or greater in society; it could influence politics; it could provoke civil unrest; and it could play a role in creating drama and providing dramatic instruction. So too could it be put to use in the fraught religious sphere, and in doing so draw on all of its rhetorical possibilities. As the state was interested in slander and sedition as legal issues (whether crimes or torts) and poets sought an ever-increasing stake in language regulation, the politico-religious nature of the times absolutely demanded the Church maintain an interest in what people were saying that they shouldn’t be. Many of those who shouldn’t be saying what they did were equally interested in religion. Luckily for the Church, it had a long and chequered history of arbitrating dangerous speech and writings.

Wedded (though not always harmoniously) to the...

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