Published online by Cambridge University Press: 17 January 2006
The scathing insults that fill texts by sixteenth-century Christian reformers can shock even a jaded modern reader. In the prefatory letter to the Babylonian Captivity of the Church (1520), for example, Martin Luther begins by wishing for “grace and peace in Christ” before launching his attack on the “brainless and illiterate beast in papist form” and its “whole filthy pack of … asses,” and concludes by exhorting his reader to rise up against the Catholic hierarchy: “Continue courageously, noble sir; in this way the disgrace of the Bohemian name will be abolished, and the sludge of the harlot's lies and whoring shall again be taken up in her breast.” Or consider the nasty invectives by the English Lord Chancellor and future Catholic martyr, Thomas More, against not only Luther but also Matthew Tyndale, who translated the Bible into English. More calls these men the “devil's disciples”: Luther “a pimp, an apostate, a rustic, and a friar”; and Tyndale “a babbler, and a devil's ape.” Even Desiderius Erasmus, the erudite Catholic humanist, filled his writings with insults both satirical and blunt and proclaimed that theologians “are more stupid than any pig” (sue stupidiores). Fierce words commonly appear in the midst of religious controversies, and one may choose to skim past this hyperbolic outrage in search of the real message. Insulting rhetoric, however, does provide a sensitive barometer of religious concerns in the sixteenth century and yields unexpectedly complex answers to a simple question. What does negative speech accomplish?