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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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1 The Religious Field and the Violence of Printed Theological Controversies in Elizabethan England


This chapter is concerned with the Elizabethan religious field, earlier controversies, and the contexts of control over book production. A general wider tendency of controversy in the Elizabethan Established Church, prompted by the nature of the Religious Settlement, becomes visible with the Vestments Controversy and Admonition Controversy as predecessors to the Marprelate Controversy.

1.1 The English Reformation

In order to understand the Marprelate tracts and what made them a special case in the history of English theological controversy one has to understand the unique developments in the religious field in sixteenth-century England and the ensuing religious climate during Elizabeth’s reign. Since the Elizabethan Church understood itself as a Protestant church, the question arises how England came to be Protestant and if one can speak of an English Reformation that was particular and different from events on the continent or of ‘the Reformation’ in England, or if the developments in England have to be seen in an entirely different light. Generations of scholars have tried to answer this question and have presented sometimes drastically different results.86 Early to mid twentieth-century scholars, such as Geoffrey Dickens, tended to see the Reformation as an inevitable process, which had its roots in the status of the medieval church and an assumed “deep well of resentment among lay people.”87 This narrative was ←33 | 34→then challenged by a newer generation of scholars among which Christopher Haigh was Dickens’s most important critic.88 Christopher Haigh, especially in his 1993 study...

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