Venomous Tongues: Speech and Gender in Late Medieval England
Familiar to students of colonial America is the cucking stool, the undignified means of punishment for scolds and gossips. Re-enactors now bring scolds to life as tour guides in at least one New England historical theme park. Bardsley traces the medieval roots of scolds and society's gendering of deviant speech in a work that embraces literary and artistic evidence as well as the legal sources of courtroom prosecution. Although "sins of the tongue" were noted and admonished for centuries, and classical and Christian models existed for counseling women to silence, formal notice of verbal crimes increased in post-plague society. Bardsley associates it with the unprecedented socioeconomic advancement of the lower classes and their concomitant assertiveness in expressing themselves. This aggression prompted more traditional elites to punish verbal expressions as disruptive to social control and political order. That more women than men were prosecuted for verbal abuse Bardsley takes as a sign of patriarchal oppression and the devaluing of women's [End Page 104] contributions. In this respect, her work resembles the studies of Bennett about gender roles in medieval manors.1
The book contains much of interest. The endnotes are filled with references to complementary works on speech, literacy, and gender studies. But Bardsley makes fewer artistic and literary references than might have been expected. In addition to major authors such as Geoffrey Chaucer and William Langland, Bardsley mentions lesser- known and anonymous poems and songs, such as those collected and printed by the Early English Text Society. The only artistic references are misericord and wall-painting motifs of a demon eavesdropping on two women. Bardsley offers abundant speculation about what village children felt like growing up with such images, and about what medieval women might have concluded upon hearing misogynist literature, but she defers to other people's studies for deeper analysis of the relationship between orality and literacy or the patronage structure of local art.
Scolding as prosecuted and identified in medieval society may strike modern ears more like slander or defamation of character. "Thief" and "whore" were the accusations most likely to bring prosecution, although the formulaic quality of legal records may have influenced what was preserved on parchment. Based on Bardsley's sampling of the records, scolding garnered legal notice when such words were exchanged in a public setting, when the victims decided to bring a formal accusation of abuse, and when local legal elites determined that court time was worthwhile. Depending on the village or town venue, women accounted for 80 to 95 percent of the accusations and were more likely to be single or married than widowed (that husbands did not bring legal procedure against their own wives contradicts our modern view of spouses as chief victims). Bardsley presents valuable data on other verbal issues taking up court time, such as the decline of hue and cry procedures, and changes in defamation charges.
The patriarchal argument, of men wanting to silence and devalue "uppity" women, runs into difficulties when males accused of scolding have to be acknowledged, or when the near immunity of widows is noted. The work calls attention to important trends in legal history and should inspire closer examination of late medieval power structures both within and beyond gender lines.
1. See, for example, Judith M. Bennett, Women in the Medieval English Countryside: Gender and Household in Brigstock Before the Plague (New York, 1986).