Session 5

January 16, 5 pm, 715 Hesburgh Library


Violent Speech

 violent speech 2(For the related graduate seminar to be held on Friday, Jan. 17, see below)


Irina Dumitrescu (Southern Methodist University, English): “Thirteen Ways of Looking at a Smack Word: The Mutability of Speech that Hurts”

The focus of this talk is not one approach to violent language, but the way painful words evoke multiple discourses when they appear in literary texts. It will explore violent speech’s changeable nature via a catalogue of interlinked keywords with illustrative examples: insult, debate, humour, discipline, memory, education, performance, division, citation, passion, affect, pain, rhetoric.


Melissa Vise (Northwestern University, History): “Blasphemy in the Commune: Linguistic Violence and a Republican Ethics of Speech”

In our investigations of cultures long past, what can and what should medievalists do with the category of speech in general and with illicit speech in particular? As scholars in the tradition of R.I. Moore have examined it, the prosecution of illicit speech like heresy and blasphemy evidences the darker forces of a post-Lateran IV persecuting society. Others, taking their cue from the fields of anthropology or critical theory, have used public court transcripts to recover the voices and belief systems of the subaltern or, alternatively, to reveal the constructed nature of this linguistic evidence. Social historians and scholars of literature have exposed the use of insult as a technique of intersocial manipulation via ritualized speech, honor-shame dynamics and violent gendering. And, as text, recorded illicit speech has played a leading role in the history of censorship.

This paper, however, asks us to take a wider angle view and to consider the illiciting of violent speech as one part of a larger developing ethics of speech. In particular, I focus on the surprising case of the communes of late medieval Italy and examine one form of linguistic violence, blasphemy. Perhaps contrary to modern expectations, the republican energies constructing these cities corresponded with an increased interest in binding the tongue. My approach draws together the writings of influential notaries and lawyers, religious treatises, and blasphemy cases from the court of the podestá and of the Dominican inquisitor to demonstrate the crafting of a republican ethics of speech which recognized the noxious and destructive power of speech precisely because it depended on the strength of speech like the ars arengendi and preaching to build the commune.


Graduate Student Seminar with Irina Dumitrescu

Friday, January 17, 10:30am-12:00pm, Medieval Institute Seminar Room

Topic: Ælfric Bata’s Colloquies

To reserve seat and receive the reading for the seminar, email Katie Bugyis ( or Hailey LaVoy (