The article explores the ways in which in early modern England masters exercised power over servants by means of threats and reproaches. More precisely, it investigates power-(im)politeness and the power-aggressiveness interfaces using data collected manually from a non-electronic corpus of advice manuals for masters (and mistresses), servants and apprentices published in English between 1660 and 1750. As we approach the mid-eighteenth century there is a growing concern for servants’ feelings and insistence on masters’ empathy towards servants. This was probably due to the new form of politeness emerging in the period, one which emphasised complaisance and social harmony. From a strictly linguistic viewpoint, I argue that in these texts (but this may apply to others too) threats are not presented as inherently impolite acts but as aggressive ones, and that impoliteness is only a contextual property aggravating intimidation and affirmation of power. Whatever the master’s degree of power and social status, therefore, they cannot be considered forms of ‘politic unmarked behaviour’. Reproaches share with threats a potentially intimidating perlocutionary effect, but unlike threats, they are not inherently aggressive, and can be a form of politic or contextually appropriate behaviour on the part of a master.
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