Volume 11, Issue 2
  • ISSN 1566-5852
  • E-ISSN: 1569-9854
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This paper studies the public communication act of petitions made in the Middle Ages by subjects to their governors in situations of high personal need. Analysing an edited corpus of correspondence in Anglo-Norman and Italian chancelleries of the early thirteenth to the late fifteenth century, I attempt to identify verbal means that are related to what is today defined as “face” and “facework”, and to discuss this evidence in the tension modern pragmatics establishes between common “politic” and marked “polite” behaviour. Parting from the three-fold conception where all speech events have to be considered in their whole as social, discursive and textual practices, I briefly retrace the social and legal conditions of petitions and describe their particular discursive character on the threshold of two transitions: from orality to literacy and from Latin to vernacular. The data analysis is concerned with the textual cues bound to structural, syntactic and semantic constraints. Pointing out the most striking features of these three aspects and listing the most frequent forms that are cross-culturally congruent, I identify medieval facework as a ritual, but consciously iconic shaping of a power ideal at the intersection of political, juristic and religious implications. As formality is a shared value based on social position and role, no sign of reflexive politeness behaviour can be verified in this early period. Variations are simply attributed to the habits of the different chancelleries and their scribes. Though identified as unmarked politic behaviour, the common procedures in the medieval petition letters can nevertheless be seen as general face-saving strategies in response to the threatening character of requests. Thus the historical data shed light on the conception of linguistic politeness in the first-order and the second-order senses of the term and are useful to advance new hypotheses in the pragmatic discussion since Brown and Levinson’s classical study.


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  • Article Type: Research Article
Keyword(s): facework; letter-writing; politeness; politic behaviour; requesting; ritual
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