Monday, April 27, 2009

16th Century Insults

It's extremely hard to avoid polemic in online discourse. When people argue, they argue from their heart. We have an emotional investment in our beliefs. On this blog, I tolerated an excessive amount of insults and rhetoric for quite a few years. But I finally realized those who typically begin with excessive amounts of insults and hostile rhetoric usually have nothing more to offer.

There's nothing new under the sun when it comes to such battle. People have been insulting each other for quite a long time. Consider this description of 16th century language from Henry VIII and Luther by Erwin Doernberg (California: Stanford University Press, 1961) page 31:

There has hardly ever been a time in which slogans and abusive verbosity, frequently childishly primitive, were so widespread and in common use as in the sixteenth century. Firstly, slogans: words which look to us quite harmless were considered unforgivable insults, such as sophist, Thomist, summist, theologist, romanist, and so forth. When, through overuse, the novelty had worn off, it was for a time sufficient to reheat the insult by means of the prefix 'arch-'; archsophist, archthomist, etc. Next came invective such as 'murderer of souls, dog, swine, adder' and the like. Highly popular were puns with an abusive intent. To Luther, his opponent Dr. Eck became the contraction 'Dreck', the German term for dirt. Luther's name attracted Sir Thomas More's alliteration 'lowsy Luther'. A 'romanist', disliking to see himself called 'popish', found relief in his exasperation by calling the others 'martinish'. Everybody was busily engaged in the search for new phrases. Cochlaeus—to Luther 'Kochloeffel' (i.e. kitchen spoon)—wrote of 'our bombastic Luther-preachers and Scripture-johnnies'. One Bachmann wrote a tract entitled A Little Handkerchief for Luther s Spittle. The 'Martinists' called the 'papists' 'chalice thieves' because they permitted communion only in one kind. Everybody was to everybody else a 'schismaticus', a 'church-splitter' and, of course, opponents were invariably 'poisonous'. On rare occasions, someone was really witty in this endless game of abuse, but usually a poor play with words, coarse abuse and infinite repetition of boring slogans sufficed to keep all tempers hot.


Black Sheep said...

Follow up on the above post for a good definition of irony.

Tim Enloe said...

James, did you ever read the article I sent you, Constance Furey's "Invective in Erasmus, Luther, and More?" It goes well with your point, but explores in detail the sociological function of the polemical language at that time.

James Swan said...


I don't seem to recall that. If you still have it, I'd like to see it. There are times when I get so busy, things fall through the cracks, so perhaps you sent it at one of those times.

Tim Enloe said...

OK, I'll resend it to the address you have posted on the blog.