Excitative Speech: Theories of Emotive Response from Richard Fitzralph to Margery Kempe

  • Fiona Somerset
Part of the The New Middle Ages book series (TNMA)


Judith Butlers recent book Excitable Speech examines our society’s attitudes to how public utterances on the most sensitive of controversial topics may provoke intense emotion, or even incite violent reactions: What are the possible consequences of such speaking, and to what extent are the speakers responsible for them?1 These kinds of concerns are, as it turns out, nothing new. In 1357, when required to defend himself at the papal court against accusations by friars provoked by his views on voluntary mendicancy—one of the hottest topics of the day, and the main bone of contention between friars and their rivals—Richard Fitzralph wrote the Defensio curatorum, which became one of the most widely disseminated polemical statements of the later medieval period on the church’s contested role in lay education.2 Frequendy copied and disseminated with the Defensio was a further reply to the friars’ questions on mendicancy that has previously been overlooked by scholars, in which Fitzralph develops a theory of “excitative speech,” whose importance among late medieval views about the dangers and benefits of emotionally provocative language has never been recognized. Nor, at the other end of the line I want to spin, has Margery Kempe’s interest, as a vernacular theorist, in using some of the same tools to assess the consequences of excitative expression. Tracing these developments can give us new insight into the perceived consequences, and responsibilities, associated with late medieval vernacular publication.


Medieval Period Medieval Literature Papal Court Medieval Theory Public Utterance 
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  1. 1.
    Judith Butler, Excitable Speech: A Politics of the Performative (New York: Routledge, 1997).Google Scholar
  2. 16.
    Richard Rolle, Incendium amoris 145.1-147.32, quoted in Nicholas Watson, Richard Rolle and the Invention of Authority (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1991), pp. 114–15.CrossRefGoogle Scholar

Copyright information

© Renate Blumenfeld-Kosinski, Duncan Robertson, and Nancy Bradley Warren 2002

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  • Fiona Somerset

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