Fighting talk

9th April 2015

News, Student news, Alumni news

In this general election year, we are sure to be treated to a variety of polemical claims. In a new collection of essays co-edited by George Southcombe, the historical roots of polemic are investigated.

Over eleven essays, Polemic: Language as Violence in Medieval and Early Modern Discourse traces the use of polemical writing from the twelfth to the seventeenth century, and from England to Russia.

George Southcombe, Director of the Sarah Lawrence Programme at Wadham College explains: “Literary critical, historical and musicological approaches are taken to the central subject, and the result is a book which is of interest to a wide range of scholars. Its overall achievement is to challenge the claims that have been made for the novelty of the early modern period by showing the indebtedness of sixteenth- and seventeenth-century discourse to medieval developments.”

The book stems from George’s time as a British Academy Postdoctoral Fellow at Somerville College, and it grew out of discussions with colleagues who work in different disciplines and on different historical periods.

Taking a broad European approach, this collection brings together specialists on medieval as well as early modern culture in order to challenge stubborn assumptions that medieval culture was homogenous and characterised by consensus and that literary discourse is by nature aiming to make peace. Instead, the volume shows more clearly the continuities and discontinuities, especially how medieval discourse on the sins of the tongue continued into early modern discussion; how popular and influential medieval genres such as sermons and hagiography dealt with potentially heterodox positions; and the role of literary, especially fictional, debate in developing modes of articulating discord.

The structure of the volume moves from an internal textual focus, where the nature of polemic can be debated, through a middle section where these concerns are also played out in social practice, to a more historical group of essays investigating applied polemic. In this way a more nuanced view is provided of the meaning, role, and effect of ‘polemic’ both broadly across time and space, and more narrowly within specific circumstances.

Polemic: Language as Violence in Medieval and Early Modern Discourse is edited by George Southcombe, Almut Suerbaum and Benjamin Thompson.