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  • The Unbridled Tongue: Babble and Gossip in Renaissance France by Emily Butterworth
  • Heather Kirk
Emily Butterworth. The Unbridled Tongue: Babble and Gossip in Renaissance France. Oxford: Oxford UP, 2016. 233 pp.

Emily Butterworth's The Unbridled Tongue: Babble and Gossip in Renaissance France is an interesting and important follow-up to her first monography, Poisoned Words (Legenda, 2006), in which she analyzed slander and its effects on reputation. In The Unbridled Tongue, Butterworth explores the excessive talkers, the babblers, the chatterers, the foul-mouthed, the blasphemers, and the malicious gossipers of Renaissance France (5). Her literary analyses are socio-political in nature, but what sets this work apart from recent works by Luc Racaut and Tatiana Debbagi Baranova is the refining of the Habermasian definition of the public sphere. If Habermas's public sphere is "rational, polite, and exclusively bourgeois" (11), Butterworth's conception of public speech is much less so: idle talk is a contemptible vice; the prattlers and gossipers—traditionally women—are less orderly and governed than previously portrayed.

Butterworth's text is divided into eight chapters that each consider a different author or work from Renaissance France. Chapter 1 covers Plutarch's De garrulitate as translated by Erasmus and Jacques Amyot. In these texts, garrulity is linked to deviance: loquaciousness is symptomatic of disease that is contagious and harmful to society. Those who talk too much are gluttonous and lack control, which can lead the sinner to betraying secrets. Thus, the question of babble becomes political and ethical, as he who speaks excessively or loudly can compromise himself and others. Chapter 1 is particularly interesting for its exploration of the social power of gossip, especially for women: gossip is a type of exchange or a currency that allows women to trade news and information, but also to establish intimacy and credit.

Chapter 2 explores the dangers of prophecy and charismatic religious speech. In Renaissance France, speaking in tongues and prophecy are [End Page 347] increasingly political processes. The prophet can be seen as subverting the established order by inciting fear. In Chapter 3, Butterworth compares the public voice and the people's voice through Rabelais's satirical works. In the medieval and early modern world, the vox publica—or the "voice of a community" (64)—played an essential role in establishing legal authority. Rumour, reputation, and common knowledge were used as proof in settling land disputes and in arranging betrothals. The people's voice also depends on rumour and feminine gossip; however, it hinges on infamy and renown, both of which are fickle and carry little legal influence.

Chapter 4 considers bruit in Marguerite de Navarre's Heptaméron. Bruit is noise, rumour or public talk; this noise is often insidious as it passes from the privé into the public sphere. In the Heptaméron, noise causes wives to betray secrets and reveal their shameful behaviour to their servants and neighbours. Butterworth further develops the notion of private and public in Chapter 5 through her study of Ronsard and his polemic writings. This chapter bounces off ideas presented in Poisoned Words, specifically on the rhetoric of slander and criticism. Ronsard argues against illegitimate Huguenot speech that "produces a cacophony that is dangerous and misleading" (107). Ronsard believes that Huguenots spread rumour and gossip, destabilizing society with their "unregulated and unruly speech" (116). Ronsard characterizes true licence to speak as parrhesia, an audacity that puts the speaker at risk. However, he also finds that Huguenot parrhesia is too unruly, too riotous for the public good.

The final three chapters cover rumour, gossip, and frivolous conversation. In Chapter 6, Butterworth considers Montaigne's criticism of hyperbole and amplification in public speech. To Montaigne, exaggeration in storytelling is dangerous when it inflates the story and the speaker's credibility. Hyperbole and amplification can lead to distortions and dissimulations based on rumours or whispers; yet these are not "aberrations" (146), as they reveal the general mood of the public sphere in which the rumour is circulated. Chapter 7 and Chapter 8 examine gossip at court and between women. For Brantôme (in Chapter 7), speech is gendered and segregated: the female network is closed and allows women to use...


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pp. 347-349
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