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Title:Do feet have mouths? Slander, metaphor, and the body politic in early modern England
Author(s):Rosell, Carla B
Director of Research:Newcomb, Lori H.
Doctoral Committee Chair(s):Newcomb, Lori H.
Doctoral Committee Member(s):Perry, Curtis; Gray, Catharine; Stevens, Andrea R
Department / Program:English
Degree Granting Institution:University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign
Subject(s):Early modern
Sixteenth century
Seventeenth century
William Shakespeare
Edmund Spenser
Measure for Measure
The Winter's Tale
The Faerie Queene
Queen Elizabeth I
James I and VI
Abstract:In sixteenth and seventeenth century England slander was increasingly understood as a distempering force that had the potential to spread from a subject’s body to the body politic, a fear that pervaded legal, religious, and medical discourses. My dissertation—the first sustained study of slander’s real and perceived ability to affect both individual and social bodies—examines the internal responses incited by slander and their effects on community bonds. Because slander was conceived as a domestic threat undermining unity at all levels of society in early modern England, writing of the period relies on metaphor to explain this verbal ill’s genesis and to illustrate its effects on individual and figurative bodies, including its ability to incite anger, wound, or kill. As my title suggests, slanderous speech could emerge from any social rank; commoners (the “feet” of the social body) and those of gentle status could and did use the language of critique (their “mouths”) to identify and attempt to ameliorate the ills of the body politic, even as the monarch and others in authority countered such charges by labeling them sedition. Each chapter of my project places literary texts from the period roughly spanning the 1560s to the 1630s alongside little-studied treatises about slander and sins of the tongue, all of which I consider within the developing legal framework of slander law. The fear that slander could spread from an offender’s body to the kingdom is newly evident in the sedition statute of 1554, which decreed slander against the monarch a criminal offense punishable by public mutilation, and called for convicted seditionists to be punished at the market of the town where the slander was first voiced. Literary critics have focused on period authors’ demonization of slander, its relation to gender, and its depiction in drama. “Do Feet Have Mouths,” in contrast, cuts across a variety of media and several genres, engaging and extending recent scholarship in literature and the law, the history of slander, and the history of the senses. Furthering Lindsey Kaplan’s arguments concerning slander’s unstable nature, I argue that this volatility allowed it to be put to many uses, from policing the behavior of others to defining exclusive communities. Combining the approaches of historians such as R.H. Helmholz who have delineated the development of slander law, and cultural historians, particularly Gail Kern Paster, who have illustrated how the early modern body was conceived as a vulnerable, almost porous entity, I demonstrate how conceptions of slander developed from a spiritual sin under the purview of church courts to a dangerous and potentially criminal threat against a person’s body, livelihood, and society itself. Chapter One investigates three Tudor case studies that collectively exhibit slander’s dangerous nature and the body of law that emerged to contain threat. This chapter introduces a central claim: in the cultural history of slander, social status plays a determinative and often overlooked role. I examine how legal punishments were influenced by the social status of convicted slanderers as well as numerous, unpredictable factors including the socio-political climate. The first two case studies, John Bale’s King Johan (circa 1538, revised post 1558) and John Stubbs’s The Discovery of a Gaping Gulf (1579), concentrate on a particular type of slander, religiously motivated sedition. Commoners used religion to define sedition as anything— including a monarch’s marriage—opposed to individual religious belief. The community’s sundry responses to Stubbs’s text and eventual punishment emphasize the draconian nature of the era’s slander laws, partly shaped by social status which resulted in the removal of Stubbs’s offending hand. The final case study, the 1590 infanticide rumors alleged against Queen Elizabeth, underscores the importance of the socio-political climate when addressing slander. Chapter Two turns to the body and focuses on the surprising and often conflicting range of emotions that slander could elicit from commoners and monarchs alike. Shakespeare’s Measure for Measure (1603-04) depicts a range of corporeal responses to slander, many of them organized through the play’s neglected heart and tongue imagery. In his capacity as ruler of Vienna, the Duke’s fear of and attempt to eradicate slander portrays the impossibility of exorcising this threat, a fantasy that could only occur if the government routinely employed public mutilation. My examination of “The Five Senses” (1621-23), a widely circulated manuscript libel that brazenly depicted James I’s body as dangerously open to outside influences, demonstrates an unexpected reply to slander: mercy. The King chose not to interpret this libel as slander, instead demonstrating his authority by merely quipping that the author “wished good things for him.” In contrast, John Rous, the man who preserved this forbidden libel and recorded James’s purported reply, showed palpable anxiety because of the risk he ran by recording the poem. I contend that these individuals’ contrasting responses exhibit the conflicted feelings that early modern slander provoked. My scrutiny of Measure for Measure’s heart and tongue imagery in Chapter Two introduced the prevalence of metaphor when discussing slander’s effects upon individual and social bodies. Chapter Three furthers this analysis by focusing on the popular metaphorical depiction of slander as a poison or plague that distempers the individual and the metaphorical body. The effects of this deadly poison are portrayed in several allegorical episodes of Book II of Edmund Spenser’s The Faerie Queen (1596). The House of Alma, a house of temperance shaped as a human figure, is assaulted by an assortment of incorporeal forces including slander, an episode that showcases the body’s vulnerability to outside influence. This event moreover prepares the way for the appearance of the Blatant Beast, slander made flesh, in the second half of the work. I argue that Spenser’s suggestion that patience is the tempered body’s defense against slander resembles the course of action preferred by the court system, which moved notoriously slowly in the hopes of allowing the individuals involved in a slander litigation case time to repair their fractured relationships. Chapter Four develops the notion of slander as poison by investigating what happens when it is the monarch who has become possessed by slander and the resulting harm this causes to familial and social bonds and the nation itself. Focusing on The Winter’s Tale (1610-11), I use the concept that slander is responsible for a triple homicide, murdering the speaker and hearer of the slander as well as the individual slandered, to generate an innovative reading of the play, one that better explains the seemingly arbitrary deaths of Hermione, Mamillius, and Antigonus. I additionally contend that the play’s surprisingly redemptive conclusion shares context with slander suits filed in the ecclesiastical courts. Church courts relied on public penance to repair the damage caused to a slander victim’s reputation. My dissertation thus concludes by focusing on how individuals and the larger community can move beyond slander and begin to heal.
Issue Date:2017-04-21
Rights Information:Copyright 2017 Carla Rosell
Date Available in IDEALS:2017-08-10
Date Deposited:2017-05

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