Dangerous Talk: Scandalous, Seditious, and Treasonable Speech in pre-Modern England
June 1, 2012
“…soon ‘there would be no king and it would be worse than in France.” November, 1792
Marie Antoinette’s Gossip Guide to the 18th Century: June 4, 2010
While authors of scandalous French libels escaped France for the safety freedom of Grub Street, England would soon be taking a closer look at their own press. Hanoverian rule during the early part of the 18th century was a time of freedom for the English to discuss politics and have opinions openly and without fear of (severe) punishment. A slap on the wrist and a fine for saying the king is a turd does not seem too bad considering the woes of earlier offenders.
Dangerous Talk: Scandalous, Seditious, and Treasonable Speech in Pre-Modern England, by David Cressy, takes you on a walk through medieval England and Tudor England before dropping you off in the 18th century where progress and a return to censorship converge.
Each time I opened the book was instantly transported into a sweaty pub or dusty street, surrounded by neighbors discussing the latest in politics, and not in the best light. Some conversations are ignorant, some are palpable, and most are drunk. Dangerous Talk is an eye opening view of what people thought outside of the tower gates and how the monarchy chose to handle them. Each monarchy took a slightly different approach to punishing offenders, creating new laws and resurrecting ancient ones. The unsuspecting or vehement citizens expressed their opinions, feelings and ideas which we, two hundred years later, revisit thanks to Cressy’s rich research.
Like those in Middlesex, who knew of Margaret Hicks, you will not soon forget her scandalous story. In a conversation with her neighbor, she flat out cursed King George, with no remorse. Sensing the heated and treasonable words, her thoughtful neighbor reminded her to watch her tongue, but to no avail. The insufferable Ms. Hicks then continued to curse the king, offered threats with her flatware and dismissed any concern over being punished for it. Imagine the gossip after she was sent…well let’s just say 1719 was not her best year.
And who could forget all the talk about Elizabeth Tudor’s lovers and bastards? Not Thomas Holland of Essex. After hearing a little rumour about her majesty’s pregnancy, his urge to share the news with the town overcame him. But would the penalty be both ears, one hundred pounds, or something worse?
Even with characters like Anne Boleyn sitting on the throne, your words could cost you. That is what Margaret Chaunseler learned after calling Anne a “goggled-eyed whore.”
Cressy brings to light friendly and fiery conversations from behind pub walls. You may safely assume that to be drunk and speak politics is never a good combination, especially with the neighbors! I carried this one around for a while, revisiting the historical world Cressy has put together for us quite often. Scholarly in nature and light in tone, Dangerous Talk is an intriguing glimpse into the private thoughts and public punishment of neighbors in pre-modern England.
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