"She Said WHAT?" The Danger of Quotes and Historical Context

Anne dropped her pen into the ink bottle and rubbed her temples in exasperation. “I trow, that girl . . . She is my death, or I am hers.”
Emma rolled her eyes. “Let not Chapuys hear that, or he will write to the Emperor again that you threatened once more to kill Mary.”
-- Under These Restless Skies

Anne Boleyn is quoted as saying those words, and many writers paint them as a threat, perhaps made in the heat of temper. The problem is that we don't really know if Anne really said it, or in what context.

As with many of Anne's "quotes" the source is Eustace Chapuys, who faithfully reported every snippet of negative gossip about Anne to the imperial court. He insisted his sources were "trustworthy" gentlemen, but other accounts of the same incidents don't always corroborate his claims.

Because of his hostility to Anne, and his willingness to believe anything bad of her, we have to take his version of events with a large grain of salt. We're not even sure whether Anne supposedly said it in reference to Katharine of Aragon or Mary. (Weir says Katharine; Ives and Fraser say Mary. The Calendar of State Papers has it as Mary.)

But, let's assume that Anne said the words attributed to her in this incident. How should we interpret them? On their face, the words "She is my death and I am hers," sound very grim and foreboding. But taking words simply at their face value may not convey the actual intent of the one who spoke them.

How many of us have felt the need to add an emoticon on an email to assure the recipient that our words are meant as a jest? That's because the written word, stripped of facial expressions or context, can give an impression the writer did not intend. Without proper context, we cannot know what Anne meant.

The bluntness of the written word does not account for exaggeration or hyperbole. A friend of mine said a few times to her defiant teenage son that she brought him into this world and could take him back out. By no stretch of the imagination was this woman actually threatening to harm her son, but if her words were written five hundred years later, stripped of their context, would they be perceived as a sincere threat?

Another problem is that context is sometimes added by writers. Writer A quotes those words and adds a few of their own, indicating they were a threat. Writer B quotes Writer A's interpretation - and thus the "threat" enters history.

Layers of assumptions have been piled on these quotes. Because Anne is seen here as "threatening" Mary, some assume she must have hated the girl, and so maybe there's something to Chapuys' claims that Anne wanted to poison her ... These speculations can lead us down a dangerous path of erroneous assumptions based on conjecture.

How much of what we "know" about Anne Boleyn is based on these assumptions, passed down through writers quoting others?

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