Civil death in early modern Europe from Jack Cade to Luther, Hamlet, and Raleigh

Brady J Spangenberg, Purdue University


Civil death is a legal designation used to nullify a malefactor's social presence or body (corpus politicum), even if his or her natural body continues to exist. Civil death occurs in two main contexts, one criminal and the other religious. In both cases the affected individual's public or civil existence was understood to have "died." Civil death accomplishes this social nullification by denying such public rights and activities as possession of property, the disposition of estate, the right to bring suit, and marital status. In some cases, civil deaths could be reversed or restored, meaning that it is one of the few legal instruments able to destroy but also create material wealth and social status. This research traces the legal development of civil death in England and on the European Continent from the designation's beginnings in the thirteenth century to its most celebrated cases and figures, such as Martin Luther and Sir Walter Raleigh, in the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries. This research provides historically-verifiable evidence that early modern writers defined social existence based on certain public activities such as wealth management, public service, and disposition of estate. Although civil death has legal roots in the Middle Ages, it came to legal prominence in the early modern period as a non-capital means to halt blood feuding, strengthen governmental control, and ultimately distress troublemakers where it hurt the most, namely their property and posterity. This historical understanding of civil death acts as a lens through which to read the early modern prose writings of key historical figures as well as important poetic and dramatic literary works. The primary historical figures discussed include Jack Cade, Martin Luther, and Sir Walter Raleigh, and the primary literary works include Shakespeare's Henry VI trilogy and Hamlet. All of these figures and literary works participate in an ongoing discussion about the cycle of acquiring and losing wealth and social recognition. Analysis of their prose and poetic writing reveals that persons civilly dead tend to live on, picking up new resources and allies in a fight to restore what has been lost. The legal language of civil death creates a context that reveals how early modern governments and individuals dealt with the complexities of making, holding, and transferring money, all of which contributed to perceptions of social status and public memory.




Ross, Purdue University.

Subject Area

Comparative literature|Germanic literature|British and Irish literature

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