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  • The Invention of the Scold
  • Kim M. Phillips (bio)
Sandy Bardsley , Venomous Tongues: Speech and Gender in Late Medieval England, University of Pennsylvania Press, Philadelphia, 2006; 214 pp., £34.49; 978-0 81223936-2.
Karen Jones , Gender and Petty Crime in Late Medieval England: the Local Courts in Kent, 1460–1560, Boydell Press, Woodbridge, 2006; 242 pp., £50.0; 1-84383-216-X.

The figure of the nagging, shrewish, sharp-tongued woman became a familiar presence in English local court records from the mid-fourteenth century. As Sandy Bardsley explains in her stimulating interdisciplinary study, the scold's invention needs to be seen in the context of wider developments in the repression of disruptive speech. Late medieval English legislators began to police speech in earnest in the late thirteenth century, through laws prohibiting the defamation of the king or his magnates passed by the Statutes of Westminster of 1275, and through fourteenth-century legislation which reiterated the ban on slander against the powerful men of the kingdom. Around the same time the offence of barratry emerged. While the legal sense of a 'barrator' was someone who was perceived to be wasting the court's time by pressing weak or false suits, it also had the broader meaning of 'troublemaker' or 'agitator', and by the late fourteenth century was extended from noble litigators to plebs accused of rabble-rousing through troublesome speech in their districts. Treason, too, although primarily an offence of deeds rather than words, came to cover treacherous thoughts and speech by the late fourteenth century in the wake of the 'Great Rumour' of 1377 and Peasants' Revolt of 1381. The criminalization of voices which threatened the status quo was itself an extension of the Church's teachings on the 'sins of the tongue' – 'blasphemy, hypocrisy, rumour, lying, flattery, mocking of good people, and sowing of discord' (Bardsley, p. 27) – condemned in sermons and in vices and virtues literature from the time of the Fourth Lateran Council of 1215.

The late medieval period in England thus saw an intensification of speech repression corresponding to an increasingly sophisticated system of Church and royal governance. Bardsley shows that with the primarily oral culture of medieval England subject to ever more concentrated control, the voices of the common folk also became the focus of new repressive energies through the vast web of manorial, borough and minor ecclesiastical courts which [End Page 253] regulated the daily lives of most people. These courts were under the authority of local elites rather than an ecclesiastical or noble hierarchy, and thus the better-off and more influential members of late medieval peasant society exerted authority over their own status group and social inferiors. These local authorities began to turn their attentions to women as well as men, and the potent cultural category of the scold, which would have such longevity in English society and culture, was born.

Bardsley contends that the legal category of the 'scold' was rarely applied in England before the mid-fourteenth century. Properly cautious though she is about asserting an earliest date, and acknowledging some early fourteenth-century instances of scold prosecution, her studies of borough, manorial and ecclesiastical court records from over forty English jurisdictions show a clear leap in cases in the era after the Plague. Bardsley suggests that the refinement of status distinctions lay behind the speech-repressing energies of local elites following the Black Death and in the aftermath of 1381.

For such individuals, a discourse that condemned all peasant voices conflicted with efforts to distance themselves from the rabble at large. In their efforts to distance themselves from the evils of insubordinate and disruptive speech, jurors, bailiffs, chamberlains, and officers of the peace adopted and adapted the discourse of deviant speech by prosecuting illicit speakers, along with a multiplicity of other petty criminals, in local and ecclesiastical courts.

(Bardsley, p. 5)

Their concern was to 'protect and reinscribe hierarchy' during this era of social upheaval (Bardsley, p. 42). Scolding, she argues, was already strongly gendered feminine through visual and literary media. Gossips and shrews were mainstays of vernacular literature, church misericords and wall paintings, such as those depicting Tutivillus and female gossips which perhaps made a particular...