Wednesday, February 17, 2010

David Cressy's "Dangerous Talk"

Born in England and educated at Cambridge, David Cressy is currently Humanities Distinguished Professor of History at Ohio State University. A social and cultural historian of early modern England, concerned with the intersections of elite and popular culture, central and local government, and official and unofficial religion, his books include Birth, Marriage and Death (1997), Agnes Bowker's Cat (2001), and England on Edge (2006).

He applied the “Page 99 Test” to his new book, Dangerous Talk: Scandalous, Seditious, and Treasonable Speech in Pre-Modern England, and reported the following:
The page 99 test works remarkably well for Dangerous Talk. It captures both the flavour and the argument of the book. We learn here that ordinary Englishmen called Henry VIII "a most vicious king," and claimed that the Protestant Reformation sprang from his codpiece. Some called Elizabeth I a "bastard," a "usurper," or "pisskitchen," a word unknown to OED but which is clearly derogatory. Subjects called James I "an ass" and "a fool," and wished "a turd" to him. These words were typical of the scandalous, seditious and treasonable speech that worried the authorities of early modern England. Dangerous Talk argues that ordinary people spoke vigorously and sometimes disgracefully about the monarchs who ruled them, despite strong cultural pressures for their silence and deference. Under Henry VIII such words could take you to the gallows, though offenders under James I would more likely stand in the pillory. Later chapters show how different regimes handled these offences of the tongue, which by the eighteenth century were considered "the birthright of an Englishman."

Page 99 :
Most outrageously, More said that ‘Henry VIII was a tyrant, a most vicious king, a sacrileger, and that the protestant religion now professed within this realm did spring out of King Henry’s codpiece, and that... King Henry was a very devil in hell’. He also said ‘that Queen Elizabeth was a bastard, a tyrant, an usurper of the throne, a parallel with Pope Joan [who was a whore and had a bastard], and a pisskitchen, and... was in hell with her father’. Each of these insults against the reforming Tudors served to scandalize their Stuart successor.

A Turd to the King

As in other ages, a background murmur of seditious speech echoed through Jacobean England, rising in intensity with changing political circumstances. Country magistrates wrote regularly to London citing ‘words against the king’s sacred majesty’, enclosing copies of examinations, and acknowledging their ‘duty to acquaint one of his majesty’s honorable council with it’, and ‘to acquaint the king with it’ himself. The assize courts heard dozens of cases of this kind, and their records preserve scraps of remarks against royal authority. The Council generally pounced upon every hint of sedition, and attempted to distinguish disloyal language from ill-considered badinage. Seditious utterances were often rooted in local and petty grievances, fuelled by alcohol and fury, as well as religious and political frustrations. The words could be reckless, scatological, and undutiful, though the speakers often pleaded mitigating circumstances.

Thomas Huddeswell, labourer of Bonnington, Kent, allegedly declared to a neighbour in 1605, ‘a turd for thee and the king’, but the assize jury found him not guilty. Another man, Daniel Taylor, appeared before the Middlesex sessions in May 1606 ‘for speaking certain scandalous and traitorous speeches against his majesty’, though the offending words are not recorded. Thomas Gibson, a sailor of Erith, Kent, spoke seditiously in 1607, claiming ‘that the king’s majesty was an ass, and that he, Thomas, would make a fool and an ass of him’.In Jacobean Wales in1613, when the mayor and sergeant of Machynlleth attempted to arrest Humphrey Thomas, explaining that they were the king’s officers, Thomas replied, ‘turd to thee, turd to thy master, and turd to the king for appointing such officers as you to poll the town’.
Read more about Dangerous Talk at the Oxford University Press website, and learn more about David Cressy and his scholarship at his faculty webpage.

--Marshal Zeringue