Literatures and Cultural Studies Faculty Publications and Presentations

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Outside of legal history, studies of early modern libel have focused on libelous verse and are concerned with the literary and politico- historical features of the material. 1 I hope to both add to and diverge from this body of scholarship by exploring libelous letters, tying the legal ramifications of letters deemed libelous to a more extensive perception of their cultural meanings. Drawing my evidence from court cases, printed and unprinted alike, I explore defamation lawsuits with an eye to the form, function, and meaning of libelous letters in early modern English culture: the relationship between material libel and spoken slander, between public dissemination and private circulation, between defamation and reformation, and between criminal libel and cultural critique. Most broadly, I argue that in letters deemed libelous, the personal and the social—and, in other circumstances, the personal and the political—converge. Letters—typically private, personal documents— were distinctly and deeply informed by sociopolitical processes, especially when certain letters were prosecuted as libelous. A dynamic interrelationship developed among the intention, composition, delivery, reception, interpretation, and prosecution of such letters.2 More specifically, I argue that letters, as a species of written discourse distinct from oral verbalization, were often exploited expressly for their textual properties, among them a documentary character and (compared to oral verbalization) relative permanence. In addition, the conventional paratextual and nontextual elements of letters, such as signature, sealing, and delivery, were purposefully managed by letter writers. The increased use of letters to articulate complaint, compose satire, and inscribe emotion led to a proliferation of libelous letter cases and, in turn, led to complications in determining what, legally speaking, constituted a libelous letter—especially considering letters forged in another’s name, anonymous letters, letters that intended reformation instead of defamation, and letters that aimed at religious, social, or political critique rather than at seditious libel.


© 2008, The University of Chicago. Original published version available at

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Modern Philology





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