Venomous Tongues: Speech and Gender in Late Medieval England

Venomous Tongues: Speech and Gender in Late Medieval England

Venomous Tongues: Speech and Gender in Late Medieval England

Venomous Tongues: Speech and Gender in Late Medieval England

Synopsis

Winner of the 2006 First Book Prize of the Berkshire Conference of Women Historians

Sandy Bardsley examines the complex relationship between speech and gender in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries and engages debates on the static nature of women's status after the Black Death. Focusing on England, Venomous Tongues uses a combination of legal, literary, and artistic sources to show how deviant speech was increasingly feminized in the later Middle Ages. Women of all social classes and marital statuses ran the risk of being charged as scolds, and local jurisdictions interpreted the label "scold" in a way that best fit their particular circumstances. Indeed, Bardsley demonstrates, this flexibility of definition helped to ensure the longevity of the term: women were punished as scolds as late as the early nineteenth century.

The tongue, according to late medieval moralists, was a dangerous weapon that tempted people to sin. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, clerics railed against blasphemers, liars, and slanderers, while village and town elites prosecuted those who abused officials or committed the newly devised offense of scolding. In courts, women in particular were prosecuted and punished for insulting others or talking too much in a public setting. In literature, both men and women were warned about women's propensity to gossip and quarrel, while characters such as Noah's Wife and the Wife of Bath demonstrate the development of a stereotypically garrulous woman. Visual representations, such as depictions of women gossiping in church, also reinforced the message that women's speech was likely to be disruptive and deviant.

Sandy Bardsley teaches history at Moravian College.

Excerpt

Go forth, and let the whores cackle!
Where women are, are many words:
Let them go hopping with their hackle [finery]!
Where geese sit, are many turds.

To the author of the fifteenth-century morality play quoted above, speech was a waste product, something as odious and polluting as goose dung. He was not alone in his disgust: throughout late medieval England, the “sins of the tongue” attracted acute concern. Clerics railed against blasphemers, liars, and slanderers, while village and town elites prosecuted those who abused officials, gossiped in court or church, or committed the newly devised offense of scolding. Poets illustrated the varieties and the consequences of dangerous speech, while artists depicted the gaping mouth of hell and the demons who recorded illicit words. Nor was the playwright alone in connecting problematic and excessive speech with women. Indeed, he was tapping into an association that has perhaps existed as far back as records stretch. Yet during the late Middle Ages, this association grew both more intense and more tangible in its consequences, affecting the lives of both women and men in new and important ways. This book examines the complex relationship between speech and gender in late medieval England, focusing both on the ways in which the discourse about speech was constructed and on the consequences of this discourse for ordinary, nonelite people.

In the historiographical debates about the status of late medieval and early modern women, little attention has been paid to perceptions of their voices, and yet a woman’s ability to speak and be heard constituted a key component of her status. Certainly it was not the only measure of women’s status: as historians have pointed out, we must also examine women’s wages, the occupations available to them, their participation . . .

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