- Venemous Tongues: Speech and Gender in Late Medieval England
In this well-researched study, Sandy Bardsley aims to describe and explain the increased attention paid to "disruptive speech" in late medieval, that is to say postplague, England. In the introduction and chapters one through four, she examines changes in attitudes towards the speech of women and men roughly between the years 1350 and 1500. In chapters five and six, she focuses specifically on the predominantly female crime of scolding. No official definition of scolding existed; apparently the crime never appears in English medieval statute law. Loosely put, the crime involved voicing disagreement over something to a specific person or persons in a problematic (usually public) manner. Scolding was virtually unheard of as a crime before the Black Death but was widely prosecuted during the later medieval period.
As is usually the case with history, the description comes more easily than the explanation. Bardsley's use of a wide range of sources—legal, artistic, and literary—provides the reader with a rich picture of late medieval English attitudes towards disruptive and illicit speech and the legal actions taken to validate these attitudes. For example, one of the more fascinating ways in which she demonstrates what she calls the "legal devaluation" of women's speech is the decline of the practice of raising the "hue and cry" as a way to bring the perpetrator of a crime to court. In preplague England, this was an empowering institution for women, especially those who were victims of crimes. After 1350, however, the number of "hues" deemed unjustified by the courts increased. More and more, the people (usually women) who raised hues found themselves the object of condemnation, rather than the accused perpetrator of the crime, and gradually the institution fell out of use altogether. Bardsley's research on the types of women prosecuted for scolding is also highly valuable. Contrary to what one might expect, [End Page 205] her statistics reveal that the stereotypical victim of prosecution for scolding was not old and poor, as was the stereotypical victim of witchcraft prosecutions in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. In fact, women accused of scolding in late medieval England were more likely to be single or married than widowed, and they came from diverse age groups and economic backgrounds.
Unfortunately, Bardsley relies more on speculation than fact to explain the phenomena she describes so well. This is not entirely her fault; historical sources rarely offer up neat explanations, and Bardsley is to be commended for attempting this difficult task. Her argument—that the overall increase in concern with problematic speech was part of a wider effort by local officials to assert control and preserve hierarchy in an age of socio-economic upheaval—is an intriguing one, and is probably at least partially true. Nevertheless, Bardsley fails to produce convincing evidence to back up her assertion that the most decisive factor in scold prosecution was the presence of local elites, "who—for a variety of reasons—were personally invested in scold prosecution" (114). One may ask: is there any real way to gauge the number of towns and villages in late medieval England that did not possess ambitious local elites? And if not, how can one make a definite link between local ambition and scolding prosecutions? In the end, the hypotheses of previous historians, who have argued that migration and trade patterns played the biggest role in determining high or low rates of scolding prosecutions, seem more convincing. Moreover, local dynamics cannot explain the "gendering" of speech crimes, the fact that women's speech was more often deemed dangerous than men's. Bardsley's own use of artistic and literary sources attests to wider cultural trends at work. Yet, in the end, she falls back on theory—for example, Michel Foucault's notions of labeling and classification—to explain why illicit speech was feminized in this period. Although her descriptive evidence goes a long way towards destroying the idea that the late medieval period was a "golden age" in which the status of...