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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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3 Language and Violence in Forms of Legitimation and De-legitimation in the Marprelate Controversy


The Marprelate Controversy takes on a different character when read alongside normative sources. Both sides in the controversy saw language use as effective and powerful and framed it as violence to legitimate their own position and de-legitimate the opposing side. In order to achieve this, they made use of various argumentative and rhetorical strategies based in differing value discourses.

3.1 Legitimacy, Legitimation and De-legitimation

As has been explored in more detail in the Introduction, the concept of legitimacy derives from sociology and political sciences. Drawing on Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, legitimacy is understood here as an entity’s state of integration with the institutional order of society. Legitimation is understood as the process of integrating an actor, object, action, or position into these institutions. If an entity is dis-integrated from institutions and their norms, it is being de-legitimated.421 Applying these concepts to the Elizabethan puritan controversies, a legitimate position or even a legitimate individual was one that was integrated with institutionalized norms, values, and beliefs. The most important and obvious institution in this regard was the Established Church. It was this seemingly self-evident legitimacy of the Church that the puritans challenged. As touched upon above, the puritan and Presbyterian contributors to the controversies argued against the official theological positions sanctioned by official works. Among these works were the Thirty-nine Articles and the Book of Common Prayer, which were in turn defended by members of the ←123 | 124→Establishment. Positions that could be based...

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