Governing the Tongue: The Politics of Speech in Early New England

By Jane Kamensky | Go to book overview

ONE
THE SWEETEST MEAT,
THE BITTEREST POISON

Its author claimed that the story was as old as history, if not as old as speech itself. Once upon a time in an ancient land, the sovereign, King Amasis, directed his young manservant to "goe into the market and to buy the best and profitablest meat he could get." When the boy returned to the palace bearing a parcel of "nothing but tongues," the disappointed king "asked him the reason why he bought no other meat." The servant, one Lyas, readily replied: "I was commaunded to buy the best meate, and from the tongue come many good and profitable speaches." Logical enough, to be sure. But Amasis, still craving variety for the royal table, decided to try once more. This time, he dispatched the youth to "buy the worst and unprofitablest meat." And again, the hapless servant "bought nothing but tongues." When the astonished king "asked him the reason," the boy offered an impeccable answer. Tongue was indeed the least palatable of meats because "from nothing . . . commeth worse venome then from the tongue," particularly from "such tongues" as "most women have." The hungry king had learned his lesson. Both delectable and poisonous, the tongue was a model paradox, at once the finest and the basest human instrument. 1

Joseph Swetnam used this parable of the wise peasant and the carnivorous king to illustrate the dangers of a particular type of speech: scolding by "froward" women. But readers of his enormously popular tract, which saw ten printings between 1615 and 1634, must have sensed a broader

-17-

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Governing the Tongue: The Politics of Speech in Early New England
Table of contents

Table of contents

  • Title Page iii
  • Acknowledgments vii
  • A NOTE ON THE TEXT x
  • Contents xi
  • Introduction 3
  • One The Sweetest Meat, the Bitterest Poison 17
  • Two A Most Unquiet Hiding Place 43
  • Three The Misgovernment of Woman's Tongue 71
  • Four "Publick Fathers" and Cursing Sons 99
  • Five Saying and Unsaying 127
  • Six The Tongue is a Witch 150
  • EPILOGUE 181
  • Appendix - Litigation over Speech in Massachusetts, 1630-1692 195
  • Notes 203
  • Index 281
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