The Book as Authoritative Sign in Seventeenth-Century England: A Review Through the Lens of Holistic Media Theory

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Book Chapter


Seventeenth-century England is primarily a textual era for legal authority, but the book also has the capacity to act as sign, and in a few notable instances it does so, providing authority to check both royal prerogative and parliamentary power during the Interregnum. Although its precise meaning is debated, royal ­prerogative includes the right of the monarch to act as a higher court than common law courts and may encompass the right to legislate. It was the central issue in the ­seventeenth-century power struggle between English courts, parliament, and the monarchy.

The image of the book has always appeared among icons signifying sovereign authority. However, in seventeenth-century England, the printed law book came to represent a check on government power, especially absolute monarchy and royal prerogative over the interpretation and application of law. To be properly studied within semiotics, signs must be understood holistically, using tools from a variety of disciplines. Holistic media theory, when expanded to include the concepts of cognitive authority and connotative meaning, illuminates the book’s evolving signification and function leading up to and including the seventeenth century.

This chapter first sets forth foundational concepts with an explanation of holistic media theory, cognitive authority, and their connections to legal semiotics. It then contrasts the book with another sign of authority—the royal orb—which signifies dominion and prerogative, and finally illustrates specific instances of the emerging association of books, particularly Lord Coke’s Institutes and Reports and the King James Bible, with authority and conscientious objection.

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Law, Culture and Visual Studies