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'No nine days wonder': embedded Protestant narratives in early modern prose murder pamphlets 1573-1700

By Lynn Alison Robson


Prose murder pamphlets first appeared during the final three decades of the sixteenth century and were a successful part of the early modern market for cheap print throughout the seventeenth century. There is a corpus of over 350 extant prose murder pamphlets printed between 1573 and 1700. The literary analysis of murder pamphlets undertaken in this research reveals them as an identifiable genre with recognisable narrative and rhetorical strategies. The Calvinist theology of providence and predestination gave the prose murder pamphlets their distinctive chain-link structure which began with original sin, progressed through sinfulness to murder, condemnation, death and salvation through God’s divine grace. The chain-link narrative proved particularly sympathetic to the absorption and promulgation of other Protestant narratives, including those of divine providence, anti-papist propaganda, and control of youth, sodomy, dying, and English historiography. This structure also proposed that murder should be interpreted allegorically, as the narrative pattern was an allegory of an individual’s journey through life from the prediction of original sin to the assurance of salvation.\ud \ud An analysis of the embedded Protestant narratives of the murder pamphlets shows that murder was presented to early modern readers so that it could be scrutinised for its rhetorical, religious and political significance. The representation of murder, therefore, intersected with the religio-political crises and ecclesiastical politics of the seventeenth century. For over a century it carried forward a particular representation of English Protestantism, constructing the reader as an English Protestant ‘subject’: someone who was a member of the English nation, subject to a monarch and government that should embody godly rule, but who was also an individual Protestant with a godly duty to read and interpret God’s purpose. This research demonstrates that although materially fragile, murder pamphlets were culturally robust and a detailed study of them contributes to a more detailed understanding of early modern literary culture

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