Title Background

Discretion in the Early Modern Public Sphere: <i>The Contention betwyxte Churchyeard and Camell</i>

Discretion in the Early Modern Public Sphere: The Contention betwyxte Churchyeard and Camell

i>The Contention betwyxte Churchyeard and Camell (1560) is usually read as characteristic of the emerging early modern public sphere, connecting the rhetoric of the vox populi with the material reality of cheap print. The Contention collects a series of broadsides and pamphlets from the early 1550s, recording a spat initially prompted by the publication of the broadside Davy Dycars Dreame. The Dreame takes as its protagonist a minor character from PPl B.6, and was itself almost certainly prompted by Crowley’s 1550 edition of the poem. The subsequent controversy nominally concerns the interpretation of the Dreame, a prophetic vision the final lines of which may contain a veiled attack on John Dudley, earl of Warwick, and his allies on Edward VI’s Privy Council. Crucially, however, the debate is structured around an opposition between the plain ploughman’s speech of Dicar — an idiom grounded polemically if ahistorically on an idea of native English tradition embodied for mid-Tudor readers by PPl — and a contrasting language of scholarly authority and vertical social hierarchy. The Contention can, therefore, be read as an extended experiment with the semantic and stylistic possibilities of the PPl tradition in a dawning age of mass print, in which the potential meanings of ‘popular’ speech were being radically revised. Phillips argues that, despite the insistence of the protagonists on the debate’s accessibility and its rhetorical commitment to the common voice, in practice the Contention is designedly oblique. This is partly due to the contemporary legal atmosphere, which informs both the exchange’s obsession with clarity and its persistent verbal slipperiness. Yet, this ambiguity also functioned as a marketing strategy, offering its readers a sense of social and political trespass. While the Contention assumes a public sphere predicated on mass availability and the possibility of sharing knowledge, its actual effect is to reinforce discretion. In its sophisticated engagement with the dynamics of print popularity, the Contention articulates a tiered, hierarchical, and multiform vision of the public sphere.


Review of English Studies, n.s., 67.281 (2016), 660–78.


Phillips, Harriet