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Violent Language and Its Use in Religious Conflicts in Elizabethan England

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


Sarah Ströer

Elizabethans saw eloquent language as the mark of the civilized gentleman. At the same time, they believed language to be able to harm, analogous to physical violence. Such concepts of language have important implications for the study of religious controversies of the time, in which the authors often attacked each other harshly via printed language. Employing historical discourse analysis, this study analyses Elizabethan concepts of violent language and shows under which circumstances Elizabethans understood language use as violence. In a second step, the main contributions in one of the most notorious theological controversies of the time, the Marprelate controversy, are analysed in terms of how these concepts of violent language were used as strategies of legitimation and de-legitimation.

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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...

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