3.2 Middle English Period: Saints and tyrant

Examples for insults in the Middle Ages, a period when religion and religious thoughts dominated life, can be found in the reports of saintsí lives. Confronted with immoral tyrants, saints proved their faith and moral superiority by courageously telling the truth to the tyrants' faces; often in an insulting way. "In the course of time they acquired a pattern in which heavenly and worldly power, Christ and tyrant, are put in contrast. (..) The prelocutionary effect on the tyrant is anger which ultimately leads to the death of the saint. The saint remains in tact and firm in her/his faith" (Jucker/Taavitsainen 2000:80).

Here is one example, taken from the legend of St. Kathrine, a saint living in the 13th century. She describes the tyrant as a foul and his world as a deadly dunghill:

Now vnderstond, I pray the, judge whiche of these I ouzt to cheose: a feyr euerlasting kyng and a gloriose, or ellys a fowle dedly donghyll?

(Now understand, I pray you, judge which of these I ought to choose: a fair and everlasting king full of glory or a foul and deadly dunghill?)

St. Kathrine's speech can be seen as a 'double insult' (Juncker 2000:97)

  1. On the one hand because of the content of her utterance (comparison: king - foul, his world - a dunghill]
  2. On the other hand because of the low social status of the person who utters. As a woman, St. Kathrine is judged to be inferior to the king concering power and social status. Furthermore, a great distance between subject and king exists which calls for more politeness and indirectenss by the subject. (see: Distance, power and imposition).