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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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2 Violent Language in Elizabethan Speech Ethics


The normative level of the discourse on printed violent language stemmed predominantly from two backgrounds: Biblical speech ethics and normas of academic argumentations and persuasion. A concept of harmful language was prevalent in rhetoric and in conduct manuals and the effects of such harmful language were mainly seen as targeting an individual’s social or spiritual existence. However, there existed certain nuances in how the powers of language use were evaluated.

2.1 General Remarks

The language of the Marprelate tracts has often been characterized as ‘violent’ by modern research. However, it is not an easy task to define what ‘violent language’ might have meant in Elizabethan England. While the tracts provoked harsh reactions from State and Church, the question in how far the tracts used ‘violent language’ in the eyes of contemporaries remains unanswered. A first step towards answering this question is to analyze Elizabethan concepts of language and its capacities in general. These language concepts reveal notions of harm inflicted by language and ideas about the circumstances under which this harm was seen as illegitimate and therefore violent. Moral and social norms of language use can highlight concepts of what kind of language use was legitimate in what kind of situations. Language use that breached certain norms and that was merely socially sanctioned can be understood as unacceptable or undesirable. This does not automatically mean that such language was seen as harmful or violent. If, however, these notions of socially unacceptable language are brought...

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