Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Secrets, Gossip and Gender in William Dunbar's the Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo

Academic journal article Philological Quarterly

Secrets, Gossip and Gender in William Dunbar's the Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo

Article excerpt

Whether shared politically as diplomacy, religiously as confession, intellectually as knowledge, or socially as gossip, secrets structured power relations in medieval society, just as they do today. (1) People who hold them can use them to gain an advantage over others and once shared secrets can define membership in a group. Shared secrets can also become gossip, which, as Patricia Meyer Spacks postulates, "incorporates the possibility that people utterly lacking in public power may affect the views of figures who make things happen in the public sphere." (2) Gossip can spread damaging information, undermining individuals' public personae. It can even affect individuals' views of themselves.

Gossip, the sharing of secrets, and their combined ability to affect hierarchies of power are frequent concerns in the late-medieval Scottish poet William Dunbar's works. For example, Dunbar reveals his awareness of the potency of gossip in the didactic poem beginning "How sowld I rewill me or in quhat wys" [How should I rule me or in what way]. (3) The poem describes a man's frustration with public condemnation of his actions. He complains that however he conducts his life, someone will despise his manners: "I can not leif in no degre / Bot sum my maneris will dispyis" [I cannot live in any manner, but someone will despise my behavior]. (4) Later stanzas make clear that what distresses him is gossip, or "backbiting," an aspect of envy as medieval preachers categorized it. (5) For example, stanza six reads:

   Gif I be sene in court ouirlang,
   Than will thay mvrmour thame ammang,
   My freyndis ar not worth a fle,
   That I sa lang but gwerdon gang.
   Lord God, how sall I governe me? (6)

[If I am seen in too long in court, then will they murmur among themselves that my friends are not worth a fly, since I go so long without a reward. Lord God, how shall I govern myself?]

The poem's impetus derives from the narrator's inability to please those that murmur, whom he identifies as "baith man and lad" and "twa and twa." (7) As a whole, the poem laments these whisperers' tendency to interpret every action and aspect of his appearance in the worst terms. The narrator's desire to please the gossips is implicit in the repeated final line of each stanza when he asks God to help him discover how he ought to behave ("Lord God, how sail I governe me?"). In this poem, Dunbar describes how gossip impels an individual to behave in contradictory ways--whether happy or sad, liberal or conservative--in order to gain public approval, only to be continually foiled.

A concern about the danger posed by women's gossip lies at the heart of one of Dunbar's most frequently discussed works, The Tretis of the Tua Mariit Wemen and the Wedo. (8) The poem depicts three women who meet on Midsummer Eve to gossip about their husbands and lovers and to share secrets about the best ways to control men. Michael G. Cornelius has described the resulting conversation as something that "would clearly horrify medieval men and indeed men of any era." (9) In associating gossip with women, the poem affirms Karma Lochrie's observation that medieval texts persistently depict "the dangers of gossip as a corrosive discourse associated almost exclusively with women." (10) Yet, in the end the poem's frame structure undercuts the potentially corrosive effects of the women's conversation on the patriarchal social hierarchy by identifying the narrator as a male eavesdropper who reveals the women's conversation to a male audience (the poem ends when the narrator asks his listeners or "auditoris" which they would choose for a wife, if they had to marry one). (11) By inscribing male auditors and sharing the women's secret strategies with them, the narrator alerts men to their own vulnerabilities, enabling them to thwart the women's designs and bolstering patriarchal power. The frame structure converts female secrets into male secrets, corroborating Lochrie's theory that throughout medieval literature "masculine secrecy functions rhetorically to define and contain the feminine, to frame crucial power relationships and the notions of the medieval subject, and to foster masculine textual community, authority, and intimacy. …

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