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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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In any study of early modern slander and sedition, it is axiomatic that one must draw together such variant strands as the legal status of the terms, dramatic slander and censorship (with the added complications of private and public material) and the contentious role of the Church in judging defamation and producing state-authorised defamatory texts. It is therefore somewhat surprising that, in the main, scholarship has focused on specific institutions of state – be they the Church, the theatre, the law courts or even the press – with a considerable degree of exclusivity. As has been seen, such an approach can give only a restricted and incomplete view of the complicated, overlapping and, in many ways, unclear procedures by which slanderous discourses entered the public sphere of Elizabethan and early Jacobean England.

It is more fruitful to begin with the processes by which slander – broad and catch-all term though it undoubtedly was – was recognised as a wider cultural phenomenon. Here we might begin with a brief reconsideration of the ways in which the state has been seen to define slander and sedition. The secular law courts, certainly, were keen to extol the legal definition of slander – from application of the rule of Mitior Sensus and the identification of malicious intent in the civil courts, it is clear that authorities were keen to stem the flow of litigious subjects waging wars of words against their neighbours. In such cases, false defamation of character before a third party which resulted in demonstrable...

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