Perhaps more than with any other feature, social relations were inscribed into a letter through the ways in which correspondents addressed one another. In a world built upon hierarchy and class, address terms were loaded with cultural as well as individual significance. One way of classifying address terms is through Politeness Theory (developed by Brown and Levinson [1987], and applied within the field of linguistics known as pragmatics), and it is worth considering three of the key concepts here, of negative politeness, positive politeness and impoliteness:

Negative Politeness

Negative politeness refers to the use of deferential titles that acknowledge social distance and power on the side of an addressee. By extension, it shows respect for an addressee's desire not to be impeded by or obliged to fulfil the wishes of others. Negative politeness was thus employed when writing to a superior. For example, when Bess petitions Elizabeth I in 1603 to have her granddaughter, Arbella Stuart, removed from her custody, she opens by addressing the queen as 'Most Gratius Souereigne' and subscribes her letter as 'your Majesties most humble saruant and subiect' ID 128. These terms of address very clearly acknowledge and reiterate Elizabeth's power (as Queen) to either grant or refuse the request from Bess, who (as a subordinate) was ultimately subject to the Queen's will.

In cases of negative politeness, the repetition of an addressee's title throughout a letter could be used to further signify social deference. So with regard to the letter just described, in only 24 lines of letter-text, Bess addresses the queen a total of 14 times: 13 times as 'your Majestie' and once as 'Most Gratius Souereigne'. To take another example, when Bess (using a scribe) writes to Elizabeth I's chief advisor William Cecil, Lord Burghley, she performs deference by way of negative politeness by repeatedly addressing Burghley, in nearly every line of the letter, as 'My honorable good Lord'or 'your Lordship', before she subscribes as 'your Lordship's most assured' ID 162. Equally, Bess herself could be on the receiving end of such displays: when her servant (the keeper of Chatsworth) Edward Foxe writes to Bess in c.1565 he opens with an address to his 'Ryght worshipfull my very good Lady' and continues frequently throughout to address her as 'your good ladyship' and 'your ladyship', before he subscribes as 'your ladyships faythfull servand' ID 028.

Positive Politeness

Positive politeness, on the other hand, refers to the expression of familiarity or intimacy. It involves relaxation, or even subversion, of more formal socio-cultural strictures, in a manner that (generally speaking) acknowledges an addressee's desire to be liked or accepted. So we find positive politeness most commonly used between equals or when addressing someone below one's social rank, such as when Elizabeth I jointly addresses Bess and Shrewsbury as 'Our very good Cousins' ID 172. More intimate in-group terms of affection were often used between spouses, as we find in the early letters between Bess and Shrewsbury, where Bess refers to her husband as 'my deare harte' ID 182, he calls her 'My Iuell' (i.e. 'my jewel') ID 070 and 'My swete harte' ID 071 and they both use 'my dere none' (i.e. 'dear one') ID 068 or 'my none' (i.e. 'mine own') ID 178, ID 184, ID 203.

As a contrast to the letter from Bess's keeper Foxe, discussed above in relation to negative politeness, two letters from another of Bess's servants, James Crompe, written around the same time as the letter from Foxe (c.1565-66), display more positive politeness. Crompe, for example, opens both letters without any deferential title (a sign of familiarity) and instead of referring to Bess as 'your Ladyship' (as Foxe does consistently), Crompe simply addresses Bess as 'you' and subscribes as 'your obedyent seruant' ID 017, ID 018. Usage of positive politeness from Crompe to Bess is strongly indicative of their relationship and what must have been a mutual trust between mistress and servant.


Impoliteness, of course, was also possible; and when Elizabethans did defy or subvert politeness formulae, it was usually purposeful. While instances of impoliteness are rarer than negative and positive politeness, Bess's correspondence occasionally offers us examples. So, in one letter from Shrewsbury to his wife Bess, c.1574, he recounts how she (Bess) had called one of their servant's a 'knave' to his face ID 072. A knave was a male servant of low condition, but, when used as an insult (as Bess does here) it also meant a base, dishonourable or deceitful man. Therefore, it would have amounted to an attack on the servant's sense of positive 'face', namely the desire to be accepted by others, here his employers.

Intentional use of impoliteness perhaps occurs most memorably in letters from Shrewsbury to Bess following their marriage breakdown in the 1580s. In particular, Shrewsbury makes a point of attacking the goodliness of Bess's womanhood, as a wife and a mother. In a letter to Bess in 1584, for example, he accuses her of having defied both himself and their children through her 'vnnaturall meanes & mallice' (where the word unnatural, in particular, is a pointed reference to what Shrewsbury sees as Bess's failure in performing her duties as a woman) ID 119. Then, in 1585, Shrewsbury opens another letter to her:

They offences & faltes that you haue committed against me which noe good wief would doe, wher admonitions sufficient to all men to be advised in their mariage ID 117

Of compelling interest, here, is the way Shrewsbury goes about performing his impoliteness by engaging with the moral code of wifedom and motherhood against which all women in Bess's period were judged. It is an attack strategy which subverts his previous addresses to Bess, from the early years of their marriage, as 'my swete trew none & fethefull wyfe' ID 071. For her part, Bess very clearly registered her husband's attack on her 'positive face', and in a letter to him of 1585 she writes (using a scribe) that she is 'the furst Innosent wyffe, that euar was so very extremly vsed in thys realme' ID 229. Whether or not Shrewsbury had good reason to use this type of language, or, as Bess claims, she was being ill-treated at the hands of an irascible man, remains a question for debate.

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References and Further Reading

  • Politeness theory based on the notion of 'face' has had a significant impact on historical linguistic scholarship in recent decades. The principle study is by Penelope Brown and Stephen C. Levinson, Politeness: Some Universals in Language Usage (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1987).
  • An application of politeness theory to address terms in Bess's period is offered by Terttu Nevalainen and Helena Raumolin-Brunberg, 'Constraints on Politeness: The Pragmatics of Address Formulae in Early English Correspondence', in Historical Pragmatics, ed. by A. H. Jucker (Amsterdam: John Benjamins, 1995), pp. 541-601.
  • Historically-orientated essays on (im)politeness are presented by Jonathan Culpeper and Daniel Kádár (eds), Historical (Im)Politeness (Bern: Peter Lang, 2010).
Author(s): Graham Williams, April 2013

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