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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 14



By now familiar with the arguments advanced by M. Lindsay Kaplan in her influential Culture of Slander in Early Modern England, the notion of state-authorised slander (and counter-slander) is not a strange one. However, with Kaplan’s study focusing analysis on the power relations between poets and theatrical censor, the Church’s role as state slanderer is unfortunately overlooked. Whilst it is inarguable that the Revels Office provided an important means of regulating language, the Church courts and religious authorities were likewise engaged in an attempt to develop an increasingly systematic process of supervision and control over the printed, handwritten and spoken word.

As we have seen, the ecclesiastical courts had the power to grant, remove and restore public fame to those who had been maligned. In effect, they posited themselves as the metaphysical arbiter in cases in which reputation had been unfairly tarnished by slanderers – and they could, in turn, bring the slanderer himself into communal disrepute. Thus carrying the implicit threat of religious exclusion in order to ensure conformity, the Church undoubtedly played a societal role as governor of public fame. Coupled with its traditional social control over language, as evidenced by its judicial authority over local defamation (when no temporal crime was imputed), it is therefore no surprise to find that the religious divisions of the sixteenth century proceeded in tandem not only with an increase in ecclesiastical litigation, but the inception in 1559 of a new and powerful court: that of the High Commission.1 Armed with...

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