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Power and politeness

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Abstract

The power structures in northern Baltic Europe in the Middle Ages can be studied through the correspondence between the Swedish authorities and the Hanseatic Councils. The letters were written in three languages: Latin, Low German and Swedish. Low German was the dominant language in the correspondence from the fifteenth century onwards. The aim of the paper is to examine the ways in which power relationships are manifested, including choice of language, conventional expressions of politeness, use of laudatory adjectives when addressing the recipient, use of adverbs to express deference or hedging, and elaborations in orthography. Medieval letter-writing followed models described in various instruction books called <i>summae dictaminis.</i> These reflect the hierarchy of medieval society by classifying senders and recipients of letters according to their social position, and giving instructions for address of one group by another. The European tradition of rules for letter writing can be traced back in an unbroken line to the Roman Empire, and in spite of certain local differences most rules concerning the form of the letter and expressions of politeness were shared all over the continent.

References

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