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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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Between October 1588 and September 1589 seven tracts appeared from secret presses which were moved through the country several times during that period of time. In these tracts a group of religious reformers, under the name of the fictitious author Martin Marprelate, attacked several members of the leading clergy of the Established Elizabethan church, especially a number of bishops. Shortly after the second tract appeared, the bishops answered with a refutation in book length, the Admonition to the People of England by Thomas Cooper, Bishop of Winchester. In the Admonition Thomas Cooper condemned both content and style of the tracts and presented the language Marprelate used as dangerous. The search for the secret press, the printer of the tracts and their author began in the winter of 1588/89 but remained unsuccessful.

As has been explored, the Marprelate tracts have attracted much scholarly attention over the last century. Their literary style and use of rhetoric have been studied as well as their materiality, use of the printed page, and the history of their production and persecution. Scholars have generally unanimously claimed that Marprelate used ‘violent language’ and that the authorities feared and consequently condemned the tracts mainly for their language use. Up until now there has not been a study that analyzed what Elizabethans themselves understood as ‘violent language’ and in how for such language concepts are present in the Marprelate controversy. Thus, the research question guiding this study was under what circumstances printed language was seen...

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