Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Transforming Talk: The Problem with Gossip in Late Medieval England

Academic journal article Medium Aevum

Transforming Talk: The Problem with Gossip in Late Medieval England

Article excerpt

Susan E. Phillips, Transforming Talk: The Problem with Gossip in Late Medieval England (University Park, Pa: Pennsylvania State University Press, 2007). x + 238 pp. ISBN 0-271-02994-8. $40.00.

In this book Susan Phillips examines the role of gossip, or 'jangling' in Middle English, in late medieval literature and culture. Phillips defines gossip broadly as 'idle talk': 'a Sin of the Tongue that encompassed a range of verbal transgressions: excessive chatter, impudent or unproductive speech, tale-telling, news, disturbing reports, bawdy jokes, lies, and scorning one's neighbour'. Previous works on gossip have focused on its importance to marginalized groups as a form of subversive, resistant speech, and studies of gossip in the Middle Ages have largely fallen into this category, generally viewing jangling as feminine speech pitted against a hegemonic male discourse. In this book, however, Phillips argues that gossip is more central to medieval culture than has previously been supposed. Transforming Talk problematizes our assumptions that gossip is merely women's speech, putting forward the notion that gossip is a structuring force for much of medieval discourse, and in particular for pastoral practice.

Phillips maintains that both of the discourses structuring relations between the Church and laity, sermons and confession, are indebted to idle talk. Using the anonymous sermon cycle Jacob's Well and Robert Mannyng's Handlyng Synne, Phillips argues that while preachers warn against 'jangling in church", they do so in sermons whose own exempla come dangerously close to gossip. Confession itself, although nominally a model for transparent speech, in its insistence on personal narratives licenses gossip: 'gossip ... provides the model for the very pastoral tools designed to silence it.' In her second chapter, Phillips examines the House of Fame and the Canterbury Tales, in which, Phillips argues, Chaucer's employment of proliferating meanings and shifting narratives echoes the structure of gossip. …

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