Filthy and indecent words: Insults, defamation, and urban politics in the southern Low Countries (1300-1550)
By Jelle Haemers
The Voices of the People in Late Medieval Europe: Communication and Popular Politics, eds.J. Dumolyn, J. Haemers, H. R. Oliva Herrer, V. Challet (Brepols, 2014)
Abstract: This essay focuses on the social history of language and politics. It studies insults that circulated among all social classes in Brabantine and Flemish towns from the fourteenth to the sixteenth centuries. The ‘linguistic archaeology’ of these ‘filthy and indecent words’, as they were called in the sources of that time, uncovers the political messages inherent in them.
After the publication of James C. Scott’s ‘Domination and the arts of resistance’ in 1990, students of political culture, conflicts and protest have segregated the world of powerful elites from the world of ‘the plebs’, i.e., those who did not have formal rights to participate in political life. Insults, gossip, slander and similar types of informal protest were seen as ‘weapons of the weak’, used by powerless people, whose ‘hidden transcripts’ criticising the regime rarely appeared openly.
However, this essay argues that both elites and members of the lower classes used a similar language of defamation, insults and other verbal injuries in public. Widespread insults, such as ‘son of a bitch’, ‘scoundrel’, and ‘ruffian’, were used by late medieval and early modern clerics, aldermen, nobles, citizens, and craftsmen to attack the honour and social status of their opponents. The insults uttered by these people and their ‘filthy speech acts’ actually belonged to a register of ‘radical language’ known to all social groups, who used it continuously with the same goal: to weaken their political opponents. Consequently, this essay analyses insults not only as speech acts of defamation but also as carriers of political subversion and mobilising critiques.
Top Image: British Library MS Royal 18 E IV f. 229