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Review of  The Language of Defendants in the 17th-Century English Courtroom

Reviewer: Anna Ewa Majek
Book Title: The Language of Defendants in the 17th-Century English Courtroom
Book Author: Elisabetta Cecconi
Publisher: Peter Lang AG
Linguistic Field(s): Discourse Analysis
Historical Linguistics
Forensic Linguistics
Issue Number: 24.1138

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The book under review is based on a number of studies presented at national and international conferences from 2008 till 2012. It concentrates on the defence system in the 17th century English courtroom and has a twofold object of inquiry: “1) the interactional role of defendants in 17th-century English trial proceedings (1616-1693) and 2) the ideologically-charged representation of their verbal and non-verbal behaviour in the text, at the author-readership discourse level” (p.11). The book is divided into two sections. The first part concentrates on the interactional role of defendants in 17th century trial texts. The second section presents the representation of defendants in treason cases.

The book starts by presenting the objects of analysis, the approach taken, problems of data collection, methodology and a description of the dataset. The chapter closes with an overview of features of the 17th century courtroom and a review of previous literature in the field of Early Modern English courtroom discourse.

Part one
This section consists of two chapters: ‘Defendants and professionals: verbal duelling in the arraignment section’ and ‘Defence construction in the evidence phase.’ The aim of the first chapter is “to examine instances of deviation from normative behaviour and classify the discourse strategies by which the reified power of the Court is challenged and resisted by less powerful participants in specific contexts” (p.50). The analysis is based on three groups of trials which differ from one another in terms of defendants’ status and the crime committed. The first group entails cases of defendants of higher status, i.e. army professionals, gentlemen and ministers. The second group involves trials of middle class defendants and dissenters accused of religious subversion such as refusal to take oaths, illegal assembly and incompetent ministry. The third group consists of defendants of lower status charged of burglary, housebreaking and theft. The analyses are to determine whether and to what extent:

1) Archer’s (2008) suggestion that impoliteness is rare in historical courtroom discourse is corroborated by the author’s findings,
2) ‘resistance’ to the Court’s power and control is a practice involving defendants of lower as well as upper classes,
3) differences in terms of crime committed and social status can determine different relational work between judges and defendants (Cecconi 2011, p. 104). ‘Relational work’ (Locher 2004:51) covers the entire continuum from polite and appropriate behaviour to impolite and inappropriate behaviour during interaction between a minimum of two participants.

The analyses show that in the first group occurrences of prototypical impoliteness are rare. The ruder character of interaction is recognized in the status of defendants as dissenters. The last group of trials shows occasional attempts at a strong refusal to comply with the legal procedures. The exercise of power is not related to the status of the speaker. Cecconi finishes this chapter by stating that this particular dataset is not sufficient for a detailed analysis of the participants’ linguistic behaviour, to make comments on the goals of the speaker and on the receiver’s responses.

The aim of the second chapter in this section is to outline the question and request-types used by the defendants during the examination phase, to provide a quantitative and qualitative analysis of the distribution of directives (questions and requests) and representatives (accounts, denials, answers) in the dataset and to present the defence strategies adopted by defendants. The dataset consists of transcripts of 16 trials dating from 1616 to 1692; about 114,000 words. The investigation reveals that in the first half of the century defendants were still unwilling to appeal to their rights to ask questions to defend themselves. The increase in the number of questions in witness examination started from the 1650s onwards. Defendants were inspired by the professionals’ examining practises and borrowed some of their questioning techniques in order to shed some doubt on a witness’s testimony or to use forms of intimidation.

There were differences found in the facework dynamics between professionals and defendants. The professionals’ discourse behaviour showed more consistency with truth-seeking purposes, whereas defendants used the same challenging questions as professionals but with an attitude which was clearly face-aggravating, as their main aim was to prove the truthfulness of their version of the story. In some cases defendants overused the professionals’ discourse practices and abused their questioning rights, for example by attempting to intimidate witness by reminding them that they were under oath.

Part two
The second part of this book concentrates on representation of defendants as a form of political propaganda. The analysis is based on three court cases for high treason taken from the State Trials: the trial of Thomas Wentworth, earl of Strafford (1641), the trial of James Duke of Hamilton, earl of Cambridge (1649), and the trial of William Laud, Archbishop of Canterbury (1644). All were charged for their roles in Charles I’s Personal Rule and for their unlawful acting against the kingdom. The trials of Wentworth and Hamilton were recorded by an external recorder who presents himself as an eye-witness to the proceedings, whereas the account of the trial of Laud was written by himself. The investigation focuses on the representation of the defendant, be it in the form of other-representation (trial of Wentworth and Hamilton) or self-representation (trial of Laud). The study reveals that the three documents are all propaganda texts of Royalist stance “intended to construct and promote consensus over the defendants through different forms of ventriloquy” (p. 217). They are also of great importance in terms of the defendants’ representation in the courtroom for the propaganda purposes of the author. In the trial of Wentworth and Hamilton, for example, the external perspective of the reporter favours a higher use of evaluative lexis (e.g. ‘moderately’, ‘boldly’, and ‘learnedly’) for representing the prisoner or his counsel so that a reader is presented with a ready-made interpretation of their attitude. This is not the case of Lauds’ trial, who with the exception of the formulaic adverb ‘humbly’ and a few cases of ‘patiently’, did not use any clear evaluative markers of his behaviour. The difference between Laud’s trail and the other two is that it used more comments on the injustice of the proceedings and the unreliability of accusation.


The book offers valuable reading for historical courtroom linguists, legal historians and researchers in the field of language, ideology and political propaganda in the early modern period. It is also a great source of information for anyone interested in historical pragmatics, socio-pragmatics and corpus-based studies.

The book is well-written, well-organized and easy to follow. The author explicitly discusses the aims and methodology of analyses, and provides numerous examples and in-depth explanations. Each chapter is closed by a conclusion of the main contents discussed, which helps the reader to review the information received before moving to the next chapter.

A great attribute of the book is that it presents diversity of trials: from high treason to religious subversion, from murder to felony and misdemeanour. In each case the defendant’s discourse behaviour is analysed in relation to historical, socio-cultural and institutional aspects of the period discussed. Thanks to this wide-ranging presentation the reader gets not only a great overview of the language of defendants but also of the historical evolution of the legal system.

Another positive feature of this book is that it gives ideas for future research and inspires a reader to further reading in the field of courtroom discourse.

All in all, the book is very interesting, involving and useful. It extensively and clearly covers all aspects of the defence system in the 17th century English courtroom and it reaches out to a great number of scholars interested in different areas of expertise.


Archer, Dawn E. 2008. “Verbal aggression and impoliteness: Related or synonyms?” In D. Bousfield and M. Locher (eds.). Impoliteness in Language. Studies on its Interplay with Power in Theory and Practice. Berlin, New York: Mouton de Gruyter, pp. 181-207.

Cecconi, Elisabetta 2011. “Power confrontation and verbal duelling in the arraignment section of 17th century trials”. Impoliteness and facework across legal contexts, Special Edition of the Journal of Politeness Research, vol.7: 101-121.

Locher , Miriam 2004. “Power and Politeness in Action. Disagreement in Oral Communication”. Berlin, New York: Mouton de Gruyter.
Anna Ewa Majek is a PhD research student at Trinity College Dublin. Her primary research interests include corpus linguistics, language variation and change and sociolinguistics

Format: Paperback
ISBN-13: 9783034311106
Pages: 238
Prices: U.K. £ 47.00
U.S. $ 73.95