Slanderisation and censure-ship : when good texts went bad in early modern England

Veerapen, Steven (2017) Slanderisation and censure-ship : when good texts went bad in early modern England. Journal of the Northern Renaissance (9). ISSN 1759-3085 (

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In 1653, the playwright, poet and antiquarian Arthur Wilson’s The History of Great Britain, being the Life and Reign of King James I was published. The text included a reflection on what had become an axiom of political culture in the Stuart age: that poetry and libel had an interdependent relationship. To Wilson, peace begot plenty, and plenty begot ease and wantonness, and ease and wantonness begot poetry, and poetry swelled to that bulk in his time, that it begot strange monstrous satires against the King’s own person, that haunted both court and country. (Wilson 1653: 289-90) Wilson’s jaundiced view of poetry seems fanciful; yet the rise of the verse libel in the Stuart era is well documented. Not only do legal reports of the early modern period recognise the problematic growth of libel, but recent scholarship has made significant inroads in tracing the blossoming of verse libels as a distinct and multifaceted cultural mode, often containing licentious accounts of individuals or political events (Hawarde, Reportes: 143). Indeed, the developing vehicle of the verse libel rapidly became, as Andrew McRae notes, a recognised feature of political and literary culture in the Stuart age (2004a: 1). These often pithy little poems were naturally anathema to the law, not least because they were characterised by their invariably anonymous manuscript circulation. Anonymity itself proved to be an extremely useful means of circumventing legal reprisal, and explosive libels ‘were at one and the same time both written and spoken, simultaneously oral and textual’; and yet the relative success of adopting anonymity as a means of circumvention was not one with which Elizabethan slanderers were routinely armed (Fox 1994: 65). Instead, it emerged gradually, and was met with a flexible legal system that was willing to prosecute anyone who could be found to have knowledge of material deemed seditious or slanderous, whether they were its creators or not.