Speech and Gender in Late Medieval England
2006 | 224 pages | Cloth $59.95
History | Women's Studies/Gender Studies
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Table of Contents
Introduction: Speech, Gender, and Power in Late Medieval England
Chapter 1. "Sins of the Tongue" and Social Change
Chapter 2. The Sins of Women's Tongues in Literature and Art
Chapter 3. Women's Voices and the Law
Chapter 4. Men's Voices
Chapter 5. Communities and Scolding
Chapter 6. Who Was a Scold?
Conclusion. Consequences of the Feminization of Deviant Speech
Excerpt [uncorrected, not for citation]
Introduction: Speech, Gender, and Power in Late Medieval England
Go forth, and let the whores cackle!To the author of the fifteenth-century morality play quoted above, speech was a waste product, something as odious and polluting as goose dung. He was not alone in his disgust: throughout late medieval England, the "sins of the tongue" attracted acute concern. Clerics railed against blasphemers, liars, and slanderers, while village and town elites prosecuted those who abused officials, gossiped in court or church, or committed the newly devised offense of scolding. Poets illustrated the varieties and the consequences of dangerous speech, while artists depicted the gaping mouth of hell and the demons who recorded illicit words. Nor was the playwright alone in connecting problematic and excessive speech with women. Indeed, he was tapping into an association that has perhaps existed as far back as records stretch. Yet during the late Middle Ages, this association grew both more intense and more tangible in its consequences, affecting the lives of both women and men in new and important ways. This book examines the complex relationship between speech and gender in late medieval England, focusing both on the ways in which the discourse about speech was constructed and on the consequences of this discourse for ordinary, nonelite people.
Where women are, are many words:
Let them go hopping with their hackle [finery]!
Where geese sit, are many turds.
In the historiographical debates about the status of late medieval and early modern women, little attention has been paid to perceptions of their voices, and yet a woman's ability to speak and be heard constituted a key component of her status. Certainly it was not the only measure of women's status: as historians have pointed out, we must also examine women's wages, the occupations available to them, their participation (or lack thereof) in guilds and local courts, their age at marriage and frequency of marriage, and their patterns of migration. Yet attitudes toward women's voices also reflected and helped constitute their status, and the late Middle Ages were a period in which perceptions of women's speech underwent a sea change. Views of female speech mattered because those whose speech was disparaged lost social and cultural power as a result. An assertive woman who was deemed to be a scold, for instance, found herself ridiculed for speaking her mind. Her words were received with the cultural caveat that she occupied a problematic category, that she was out of control and a threat to propriety and good governance. As poems, plays, ballads, and court prosecutions showed, a woman who scolded was associated with other crimes against social order too: sexual disorder, assault, and eavesdropping. In the home she was a menace to her husband; in the community she represented a threat to the more generalized (and increasingly popular) notion of good governance. Condemnations of women's speech played an important role in determining women's status, for even if an individual woman escaped such charges, her voice was surely restrained, her words tempered, by the ever-present fear of falling into the category of the scolding woman.
Late medieval England was primarily an oral culture. As Chris Wickham has pointed out, even modern academics inhabit a world shaped by oral communication above all else. Despite the existence of faculty handbooks, meeting minutes, and email, for instance, faculty rely heavily on conversations, face-to-face interactions, and even gossip to negotiate their way through the decision-making processes of university politics. In medieval English villages and towns, where most people had few or no skills of literacy, this dependence on orality must have been even more profound. This is not to suggest that villagers and townspeople never came into contact with written documents or were never affected by their contents. Indeed, many were well aware of the power that the written word could have over their lives. Those who wanted proof that they were freeborn, for instance, sought verification of their status in the eleventh-century Domesday Book, in which ancient rights of manorial tenants were recorded alongside lists of land and stock. Parishioners knew that their priests, in theory if not always in practice, were literate enough to read from the Bible and other religious texts. And they knew that systems of justice and administration—from the bureaucracy of the royal court to that of their own local communities—relied on the written word for recording and communicating decisions. Yet while they were aware of the power of the written word, most medieval English peasants and townspeople depended almost exclusively on speech as a means of communication. When they made short-term loans or contracts, the agreements were almost always oral. When they exchanged news and gossip about crops, goods for sale, weather, and local happenings, they did so with spoken words. And when they received instructions from local landowners, juries, priests, and representatives of the king, they listened to the speech of someone else. While documents were present at the margins of village and town communities—primarily the places in which they intersected with structures of higher authority—speech was at the center of information, culture, and power.
The centrality of speech to medieval life inevitably prompted concern about how it might be used. Because the power of speech was not dependent on formal education, it was unlimited by the social constraints that literacy reinscribed. Accents, vocabulary, and modes of address varied according to status, but anyone who could speak—peasants, servants, women, children—had the capacity to wield the power of the spoken word. The metaphorical "tongue that is your sword" thus sliced through the very social boundaries that written documents reinforced. Orality was not only the topic of the discourse on illicit speech but also the primary medium by which the discourse was perpetuated.
"Discourse" is a term that scholars have used in a variety of ways: in using it here, I mean a set of habits of thought and speech familiar to much of the population. These associations were not merely functional (such as the association between fish and water, for instance), but rather helped constitute the power relations of late medieval England. This book focuses on a discourse that specifically associated speech with evil, with social disorder, and with women. As Pierre Bourdieu has pointed out, all successful discourse has the effect of awakening experiences among those who participate in it. The discourse on the evils of women's speech succeeded, was perpetuated, and left its mark in surviving texts and artwork precisely because it felt meaningful and awakened experiences for a sizable group of people (both men and women). This discourse was more than just a conversation among a small group of friends or among members of one family: it was a set of associations understood (if not necessarily endorsed) by much of the late medieval English population. The meanings it evoked were likely variant: while some may have been invested in promoting the discourse, others may have resisted it or have attempted to contest it. The association between women and illicit speech might perhaps be compared with modern discourses about—say—the association between feminism and man-hating or between Christianity and "family values." While many of us might hasten to complicate and critique such associations, and others of us may approve them, they nonetheless resonate as successful (and powerful) discourses.
Who or what drove this discourse on the associations between women and illicit speech, ensuring its circulation and perpetuation? While some theorists have argued that discourse, ever slippery, takes on a life and an agency of its own, I am skeptical. Certainly any discourse is indeed slippery and readily moves beyond the intentions of its originators. But I would argue that it does so only because those who repeat it have a stake in its perpetuation and adaptation. In order to identify the major perpetuators of the discourse on women's illicit speech, we need to examine briefly the political and social context of late medieval English towns and villages.
Manors—as well as many towns—were owned by members of the nobility who served as landlords and drew profits from rents, peasant labor on the demesne (land controlled directly by the lord and not rented out to peasants), and various other perquisites. Among these perquisites were fees and fines from the manorial or borough courts. Yet lords typically meddled little in the day-to-day affairs of the village or town: as long as they received what seemed an appropriate sum from the courts, they largely left villagers and townspeople to regulate themselves. Manorial and borough courts were instead dominated by members of a local elite, a group drawn from the wealthier members of the peasantry, craftspeople, or townsfolk. As Christopher Dyer has pointed out in examining power relationships within villages, this local "oligarchy" was by no means a small or closed circle and it was not sufficiently powerful to run village affairs entirely for its own benefit. The boundaries between more "respectable" and prosperous families, on the one hand, and poorer families, on the other, were highly permeable, but there were also tensions between the two groups. Belonging to the local elite brought some very real benefits. Members of more prosperous peasant families were far more likely to hold such positions as bailiff, juror, or churchwarden and were thus more able to participate in defining local legal and social norms. Anne DeWindt's work on the jury of Ramsey (Huntingdonshire) has highlighted the very real authority of such local elites in the small town setting, too. Although townspeople did try to circumscribe the power of the jury in various ways, it nonetheless wielded considerable local clout. These jurors and other local officials, then, were best poised to promulgate the discourse on speech, its evils, and its association with women. This is not to imply that they were always completely successful in doing so: jurors' presentments could be challenged successfully, and people outside the local elite could resist the message that officials sought to send. Nonetheless, the cultural and legal power of local elites was considerably more real and immediate in the lives of ordinary villagers and townspeople than that of landlords.
The demographic disaster of the Black Death, which hit England particularly hard in the years 1348-9, complicated further the relationship between local elites and their communities. The death of one-third to one-half of the population left behind a society that was disrupted, confused, and sometimes in spiritual crisis. From an economic standpoint, the plague would ultimately benefit the peasantry and townspeople, including both local elites and those less fortunate. Fewer people meant more resources were available for each family. In the longer term, fewer people meant higher wages and lower food prices for those who remained. Tensions between landlords and peasants thus increased sharply as landlords tried to prevent wage rises and keep their tenants from moving away in search of better conditions. Newly empowered by the changing ratio of resources to people, however, peasants and townsfolk increasingly questioned established systems of authority. Rebels marching on London in 1381 uttered a catch cry that echoed throughout Europe: "When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then a gentleman?" In other words, they pointed out that there was nothing natural or God-given about social class, that no nobles existed in the Garden of Eden. Such a concept, invoking the idea of a "state of nature" several centuries before the Enlightenment, horrified their social superiors. In the wake of plague and rebellions, these same peasants and townspeople found themselves disparaged not only for their insubordinate and unruly deeds, but also for their disruptive and defiant voices. Drawing on a preplague discourse on the "sins of the tongue," the nobility vented their frustration at the increased social and economic power enjoyed by their social inferiors after the demographic crisis. Peasant voices, articulating as they did a dangerous social message, were condemned by chroniclers and poets as resembling both the pathetic bleating of sheep and the dangerous roaring of thunder.
For the local elite, however, this condemnation of peasant voices proved uncomfortable. In the century after the plague, the Black Death helped members of this wealthier group of peasants disproportionately, enabling them to buy lands abandoned by their neighbors, take over positions of local authority left vacant by high mortality rates, and hoist further their social and economic status in the local arena. During the fifteenth century, many would manage to rise into the yeomanry; a few, like the well-documented Pastons of Norfolk, would even aspire to the ranks of the lower gentry. For such individuals, a discourse that condemned all peasant voices conflicted with efforts to distinguish 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. As Marjorie McIntosh has shown, these local leaders—jurors, bailiffs, and heads of established families—found "language for misconduct" in the "broader textual environment" that surrounded them. Even those who could not read participated in discourses about appropriate behavior and "good governance" through sermons, plays, wall paintings, works of lay piety read aloud in socially aspirant households, and discussions that took place in the context of jury presentments. As I will argue, however, this local-level concern with "good governance" was heavily gendered: whereas disruptive speech by men was typically labeled "rebelliousness" or "contempt," disruptive speech by women in the postplague context was more likely to garner the label of "scolding" or "defamation." Attitudes toward problematic speech were thus a result of class tensions as much as they were a result of gender tensions, and this slippage between class and gender tells us a great deal about late medieval English society.
As well as mapping changes between speech, sin, and gender in general, this book focuses closely on the crime of scolding, which was prosecuted widely from the second half of the fourteenth century. Scolding was a highly adaptable label, flexible enough to encompass the behavior of those who gossiped maliciously about their neighbors as well as those who had loud, public arguments. Although similar to defamation insofar as it involved malicious spoken words, scolding was nonetheless treated by the courts as a separate offense. Between 80 and 95 percent of those prosecuted as scolds were women. Not every jurisdiction prosecuted scolding but those that did seemed to find it a useful category: in the small town of Middlewich (Cheshire) in the early fifteenth century, at least one-third of the population appeared in court connected to scolding in some way, whether as alleged scold, pledge (guarantor) for an alleged scold, or target of an alleged scolding. In nearby Macclesfield, one case in every forty-five heard by the borough court in the late fourteenth century involved a scolding allegation. Scolds continued to be prosecuted throughout England as late as the nineteenth century. During these five hundred years, the character of the scold was defined, condemned, celebrated, and satirized. The scold morphed into the shrew and the fishwife. She lent elements of her character to the early modern witch, to the Shakespearean-era merry widow, and to the modern bitch. She also bequeathed something to the gossipy man conventionally described as an "old woman," the man whose masculinity is undermined by his participation in an activity still associated with women. From the earliest emergence of scolding as a social and legal category in the fourteenth century, however, the scold served as an archetype and a focus for the more generalized cultural concern about illicit and dangerous speech. Literary and artistic constructions of troublesome female speech reinforced prosecutions of scolds; prosecutions of scolds underscored messages about women's garrulity in popular literature and art. Together they sent an important message: women's voices were potentially problematic and should not be trusted.
The Status of Late Medieval English Women: "Golden Age" vs. "Patriarchal Equilibrium"
Indeed, women's association with disorderly and disruptive speech helps explain why their status did not improve after the Black Death of the mid-fourteenth century. Over the past few decades, demographers and historians of women have debated whether economic conditions after the plague helped facilitate a temporary "golden age" for women. In theory, demographic crisis ought to have reduced social inequalities throughout late medieval England, as everyone's labor was valued more highly. Certainly the deaths of between one-third and one-half of the English population enabled modifications to the class structure. While historians' views might differ on the extent to which peasants' social and economic standing was enhanced in the late fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, or the precise decades in which this change took place, few would dispute the characterization of J. E. Thorold Rogers that the fifteenth century was a "golden age" for the English laborer. Yet the effects of demographic crisis on the gender order have proven more controversial: some suggest that women's status was improved, whereas others see more continuity than change.
Those historians who argue that women's status was temporarily elevated after the Black Death have suggested two main loci for enhanced female agency. First, J. E. Thorold Rogers, William Beveridge, Rodney Hilton, Simon Penn, and others have argued that the postplague wages of rural women increased relative to those of men. Indeed, some historians have even claimed that women's wages were temporarily equal to men's wages. The lack of information on postplague wage rates makes it very difficult to compare directly the wages of male and female workers, but I have argued elsewhere that the relative rates of men's and women's wages remained eerily constant throughout the fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries. In the few instances where male and female wages appear equivalent, able-bodied women were probably being compared to boys, old men, or men with disabilities who were not paid as much as healthy adult men. Second, some historians have suggested that the towns of late medieval England, particularly London and York, were spaces of opportunity for women. Caroline Barron has suggested that the lifestyle of women in fourteenth—and fifteenth-century London was "quite rosy" and differed only slightly from that of men at equivalent levels of prosperity. In her later work, however, she has revised this thesis; insofar as the medieval period was a golden age for women, she has argued, it was a golden age confined to towns (possibly even just to London and York) and limited to c. 1370-1470. It was also, by implication, accessible primarily to widows. In his work on women in York and Yorkshire, P. J. P. Goldberg has also identified towns as a locus for enhanced female agency. Women, he has argued, were more independent not only in an economic sense but also, as a result, in an emotional sense. With regard to marriage, in particular, they had more control in both choosing a partner and deciding when to marry. Maryanne Kowaleski has built on Goldberg's theory, arguing that scolding presentments became common in the postplague era as a kind of backlash against women's increased economic and emotional autonomy. Drawing on records from the town of Exeter, she has posited that resentful employers saw scolding presentments as a way to unleash anxieties about the newfound independence of urban women. The prime determinant in arguments for a postplague "golden age" for women has thus been women's economic power, but any increase in female earnings (rural or urban) relative to those of men has yet to be proven. While it certainly makes sense that women's status ought to have improved in a period of economic and demographic demand, little evidence supports such arguments.
Indeed, the lack of evidence for women's postplague enrichment is itself suggestive. In a period in which chroniclers, poets, balladeers, lawmakers, and authors of sermons were acutely sensitive to disproportionate elevation in the status of any estate, mentions of women's improved fortunes are mysteriously absent. While peasants who took advantage of demographic disaster to claim higher wages were condemned as "malic[ious]" and "idle," lazy and avaricious, the worst complaint that chroniclers made about women in relation to the plague was that widows of plague victims remarried men too far beneath them in status. Late medieval English authors were not shy about lambasting women for their speech, their dress, or their perceived sexual appetites, yet they conspicuously did not attack them for an increase in economic power in the decades following the plague. While English laborers experienced a "golden age" relative to their employers, then, women's postplague experience relative to men was decidedly less golden. Disruption in socioeconomic hierarchies prompted some elites to worry that the world was tumbling into chaos and disorder, but little evidence survives of a comparable threat to hierarchies of gender. And while discourses that marginalized the voices of unruly peasants and laborers were certainly employed against women, such slippage does not indicate that the gender order as a whole was under any meaningful threat. Indeed, the catchcry of rebels in 1381 might be interpreted as evidence of the very resilience of late medieval gender hierarchies. When peasants and townspeople asked, "When Adam delved and Eve span, Who was then a gentleman?" they questioned the very notion of a class order by asking, "What is natural or God-given about the status of the gentleman?" But at the same time, they reinscribed the perceived naturalness of gender distinctions in work: Adam, as the man, dug the soil, while Eve, as the woman, spun yarn.
While women's status ought theoretically to have risen, therefore, the lack of evidence for a postplague increase in status suggests that the theory is built on a house of cards. While convenient in explaining everything from a later age of marriage to the rise of scolding presentments, the data does not support the arguments. In place of the "golden age" theory, Judith M. Bennett has proposed that we might explain the relative status of women and men across time through the model of a "patriarchal equilibrium." According to Bennett's model, positive changes in some aspects of women's historical experience have typically been balanced by negative changes in other aspects of their experience, resulting in little or no transformation in women's status relative to that of men. In her study of women who brewed ale in late medieval England, Bennett has demonstrated how women's position in the brewing industry remained remarkably constant between 1300 and 1600, despite major changes in the trade and women's place within it. Forces that might have improved women's status, such as increased profitability within the brewing trade, were counteracted by other forces, such as negative representations of brewsters (women brewers), new guild regulations that sought to preclude single women from the brewing trade, and increasing insistence that men should control the work of the household. Brewsters' experiences thus changed, but their status as low-paid workers remained consistent. The model of the "patriarchal equilibrium" thus helps explain why women's work status remained static during the late Middle Ages, an era in which we might have expected their status to rise if there had indeed been a "golden age" for women.
Women's earning power is important because it correlates closely with their status within both the household and the community at large, but it is not the only component of women's status. Also vital in determining women's experiences, quality of life, and autonomy were the ways in which they were perceived and represented within late medieval society. Indeed, cultural and discursive factors are sometimes overlooked in historians' examinations of women's status. More difficult to measure and more ambiguous to interpret, representations of women and attitudes toward their behavior nonetheless played an important role in shaping their lives. In particular, representations of women's speech sent important messages about their power, or lack thereof. Anyone could use the "tongue that is your sword," but when women did so it was more likely to be perceived as an illegitimate weapon. The cultural category of the scolding, gossiping, disorderly woman was one of several factors that helped counterbalance demographic and economic forces, ensuring that the overall equilibrium of women's status remained constant and that late medieval women did not experience any "golden age."
Scholarship on Speech and Scolding
Medievalists have recently rediscovered the importance of speech and its representations, and work in this field is vibrant and interesting. Historians have examined records of both church and secular courts for traces of defamation, treason, heretical speech, and scolding, while literary scholars have paid particular attention to representations and performances of the spoken word in texts such as those of Chaucer, Langland, and Margery Kempe. Interdisciplinary conference proceedings and collections of essays attest to the importance of illicit speech and to its role in the construction of honor and reputation. Scholars of speech in late medieval England owe much to the recent monograph of Edwin D. Craun, Lies, Slander, and Obscenity in Medieval English Literature: Pastoral Rhetoric and the Deviant Speaker. Craun suggested that late medieval authors drew heavily on a discourse initiated earlier concerning the "sins of the tongue." From the late fourteenth century, he argued, writers such as Chaucer, Gower, Langland, and the Patience poet were increasingly familiar with this discourse and sought to model examples of proper speech at the same time that they condemned deviant speech. Craun's argument was well-reasoned and based on careful examination of both Latin treatises and Middle English literature. He was less concerned, however, with the ways in which this discourse was gendered or with the influence of events outside the strictly discursive, such as political anxiety about heresy and treason, and economic and social disruptions caused by the Black Death.
While Craun's work does not focus particularly on the gendering of deviant speech, other scholarship has focused more closely on the relationship between illicit words and women. L. R. Poos and Laura Gowing have highlighted women's close association with defamation—as both defamers and defamed—in church courts of the late medieval and early modern periods respectively, while Steve Hindle has examined a well-documented case of gossip in early modern Cheshire. Karma Lochrie, in her study of medieval secrecy, has focused on women's association with gossip in texts and sermons of the late Middle Ages, emphasizing continuities between the practice of confession and the practice of gossip. Joy Wiltenburg has also examined representations of disorderly women, looking particularly at early modern English and German ballads and pamphlets. She has suggested that while texts ridiculing contentious wives served to warn women against shrewishness, they might also have served a liberating function. Women, she has argued, need not have shared the dominant cultural devaluation of their role, and they could have interpreted the figure of the disorderly woman in an empowering way. Popular literature could thus nurture self-respect among women even at the same time as it bolstered patriarchal interests. Bernard Capp and Pamela Allen Brown have raised similar arguments about the ways in which gossip and stereotypical depictions of scolding or shrewlike women could prove empowering to women in early modern England. Such work reminds us that those punished for deviant speech were not simply victims of an authoritarian class and gender regime. In addition to their victimhood, they may have claimed an authority of their own, however successful or unsuccessful.
While both historians and literary scholars have addressed gossip, defamation, and the "sins of the tongue" in general, the crime of scolding has received less sustained attention. Antiquarians of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries described scolding—and particularly its punishments—in detail, but they tended to regard it as a quaint peculiarity of the medieval period and an occasion for self-congratulation about modernity's retreat from barbaric castigations. Despite such problems in antiquarians' treatments of scolding, their work is often helpful for its preservation of scolding presentment records and evidence of instruments of punishment.
Modern treatments of scolding have revolved around two main issues: the extent to which scolding prosecutions varied over time and the broader social changes that scolding prosecutions reflect. First, the chronological contours of scolding prosecutions in the courts have sparked considerable debate. David Underdown, the first modern historian to focus on scolding, argued in a 1986 article that scolds were seldom prosecuted until the sixteenth century. His chronology was soon disputed by Martin Ingram, who argued that scolding prosecutions were common in many jurisdictions from the fourteenth century and that evidence for greater concern in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries was insubstantial. Ingram conceded that scolding presentments may have been more visible in the sixteenth century, but suggested that this was the result of a general trend toward legal definition and uniformity in local jurisdictions. Marjorie McIntosh's 1998 study of misbehavior in late medieval and early modern England confirmed that scolding was an earlier phenomenon than Underdown had supposed. McIntosh included scolding, along with eavesdropping and nightwalking (wandering about at night without a lawful excuse), among crimes that threatened communal harmony. Such crimes, she argued, increased in the fifteenth century with high levels of population growth and migration. McIntosh surveyed 267 jurisdictions, beginning in the 1370s, and found that scolding presentments peaked in the first half of the fifteenth century and again in the 1520s and 1530s. McIntosh's work has provided the best attempt yet to set out a picture of the periods in which scolding attracted most concern. Her chronology was somewhat limited, however, by her method. McIntosh charted the number of jurisdictions within her sample that prosecuted at least one scold during two or three sample years per twenty-year period. She did not take account of increasing numbers of presentments within any one jurisdiction, and because she chose only a few sample years within each twenty-year period, she almost certainly undercounted the number of jurisdictions that presented scolds. Nonetheless, the breadth of her study, in terms of chronology, geography, and the numbers and types of courts surveyed, has provided ample corrective to Underdown's claim that scolding was primarily an early modern phenomenon. The most recent publication on scolding in medieval and early modern England involved a reexamination of the Underdown-Ingram debate by Karen Jones and Michael Zell. In their analysis of thirty-seven scolding presentments from the biannual courts of the small borough of Fordwich (Kent) between 1450 and 1570, Jones and Zell found that concern about women's speech in Fordwich peaked around 1500, a century earlier than Underdown had suggested, and between the peaks identified by McIntosh. In other words, while recent work has demonstrated conclusively that scolding predated the sixteenth century, scholars do not agree on the patterns of concern about scolding throughout the late Middle Ages. Maryanne Kowaleski's forthcoming article will address some of these concerns as she discusses evidence and possible reasons for the origins of scolding prosecutions in English local courts. Aside from Jones and Zell and Kowaleski, historians have paid minimal attention to patterns of prosecutions within individual jurisdictions and the correlation of scolding with local conditions. Work on the chronological contours of scolding is thus promising but leaves a number of questions unanswered.
In addition to examining chronology, historians have claimed scolding as symptomatic of a variety of broader social changes. For Underdown, scolding was a by-product of the onset of capitalism and a corresponding decline in social harmony and good neighborliness. He argued that scolding should thus be viewed alongside witchcraft accusations and charivari as part of a sixteenth—and seventeenth-century crisis in gender relations. Ingram disagreed, focusing more closely on the characteristics of alleged scolds themselves. Sixteenth-century scolds, he suggested, were usually women who were poor or old and had a long history of "troublesome" or "antisocial" behavior. Their prosecution, he argued, was due more to personal circumstances and individual psychology, even mental illness, than to a general crisis of gender relations. Scolds, Ingram claimed, were "dismal negotiators of social relationships" and "temperamentally inclined to confrontation rather than compromise." McIntosh, on the other hand, paid less attention to the personalities of individual scolds or the dynamics involved in their prosecution; rather, her concern with scolding reflected her broader interest in issues of local governance in late medieval and early modern England. For McIntosh, scolding was a crime that threatened communal harmony, reflecting late medieval social dislocation in a period of population growth and high migration. Social dislocation and migration played a role in Kowaleski's assessment too: in particular, Kowaleski argued, scolding prosecutions reflected the concern of urban officials about the immigration into towns of young single women outside the control of men. A significant minority of Exeter scolds consisted of unmarried servants, and Kowaleski has suggested that high levels of scolding prosecution might account for unease and resentment on the part of employers who found themselves paying higher wages in the wake of the Black Death. For each of these historians, therefore, scolding prosecutions serve as evidence for a broader agenda. Only Jones and Zell have considered scolding on its own terms, but their data is limited to thirty-seven presentments within one jurisdiction and they do not speculate about the reasons for the emergence of scolding as a phenomenon.
This book owes much to the foundational work of Underdown, Ingram, McIntosh, Jones and Zell, and Kowaleski. Yet, because I focus more closely on scolding and its relationship to other types of deviant speech, I hope that I can also address scolding more firmly on its own terms. In order to understand better the phenomenon of scolding presentments, we need more thorough examination of when, why, and how scolding prosecutions first appeared. While the dynamic of scolding was not static across the late Middle Ages, and while it was certainly adapted to suit local conditions, prosecutions must nonetheless be considered in the light of a preexisting and pervasive discourse about the dangers of speech. As part of the discourse on the "sins of the tongue," scolding existed in literary texts before it was prosecuted in courts, and it continued to be addressed by contemporary authors throughout the fourteenth to seventeenth centuries. Historians' examinations of literary texts about dangerous speech in general and scolding in particular have either been confined to the early modern period or have considered a relatively superficial selection of materials. Certainly social and economic changes played an important role in the rise of scolding prosecutions—the demographic crisis of the Black Death was crucial in propagating concern about the "sins of the tongue"—but discursive factors played an important role too, and these have sometimes been overlooked by historians. Further, the role of gender in scolding prosecutions deserves more rigorous study. To say that women outnumbered men is not enough, since not every woman was accused of scolding. What was it about certain women (and indeed, certain men) that made them liable to scolding charges? And what role did scolding play in the construction of medieval manhood and womanhood?
How We Know about Illicit Speech
In seeking to answer these questions, this book adopts an interdisciplinary approach, examining legal records alongside literary and artistic sources. Each source—whether a court record, a literary characterization, or a wall painting—represents only one aspect of the cultural meanings of illicit speech and the fullest (if always necessarily incomplete) picture will result from consideration of multiple types of construction. In late medieval England, as in modern society, people gathered their ideas and information from many different media.
First, this study draws on data about legal prosecutions of problematic speech. The justice system of late medieval England was eccentric and complicated, consisting of three main systems of courts: local, royal, and ecclesiastical. Ordinary people dealt most often with local courts, courts theoretically under the control of the feudal elite but in practice run largely by local communities themselves. Local courts were held regularly, which could be once every two to three weeks, once a month, once every six months, or at some other interval. A large proportion of each community regularly attended court sessions. On manors, attendance was obligatory for all unfree tenants and most free peasants, while in boroughs the obligations varied. Local courts dealt primarily with people who were charged with such petty crimes as cheating customers, committing assault (where this did not result in serious injury), or acting as a general nuisance to the community in some way. Punishments typically took the form of monetary fines, although repeated offenders were sometimes subjected to humiliating physical punishments, such as public confinement in the stocks. Local courts were about more than the punishment of crimes, however: they also served as sites for collection of fees, rents, and taxes, for ensuring that all roads were kept clear, for the pursuit of grievances among individuals, for the appointment of local government officers, and for dealing with many other mundane details. In addition, they provided something of an occasion for local people to group together—to observe each other, to gossip, and to catch up on community news—in a way that was matched only by weekly gatherings in parish churches. Indeed, those who distracted others with their gossip during court sessions were sometimes punished by the court, just as those who gossiped in church drew censure from the priest or ecclesiastical courts. In some places, such as Middlewich (Cheshire), courts were held in the purpose-built moothall, but elsewhere they were held on the village green, in the manor house, in the nave of the church, or in some other spacious location.
On rare occasions, crimes such as scolding were presented to local courts in civil cases, in which one individual brought a suit against another, but more typically they came to the courts' attention in two main ways. First, juries of presentment, composed of twelve or more men of relatively high local status (that is, wealthier peasants or townspeople, but not usually members of the gentry) might include scolds among their lists of recent offenders. Juries of presentment were theoretically guided by a charge, which stated the kinds of crimes they should bring to the court's attention. Some charges, for instance, specified that jurors should look out for tavern-keepers who allowed disorderly behavior, while others emphasized the need to punish people who wandered around at night without a lawful excuse. The earliest surviving charge in which scolds were mentioned explicitly dates to 1536. But, as with all legal processes, space existed for wide variations in interpretation of charges, and juries often went beyond their explicit directions. Some juries appear to have regarded scolding as falling under their jurisdiction, while others did not. Juries of presentment generally met only a few times a year, at courts known as leet courts, great courts, legal courts, courts with views of frankpledge, or other such titles. Their purpose was to deal with a wide range of petty disturbances and payments of fees. While accused individuals had the right to defend themselves, the lists compiled by jurors were generally accepted, and punishments were determined. Second, scolding cases might come to the court's attention at the more regular courts that met in between the leets, due to reports by local officers appointed to regulate community peace. In Dunster (Somerset), for instance, most scolds were presented by juries of presentment at six-monthly "legal courts," but two specially appointed "constables of the peace" occasionally presented scolds at sessions in between. In Middlewich, scolds were seldom charged at sessions headed by juries of presentment but were instead presented by bailiffs at the court sessions held once every three weeks.
Local courts, therefore, presented opportunities for variation and even innovation within a traditional system. Jurors, bailiffs, and constables were bound to some extent by precedents and conventions, but they also had flexibility to respond both to new behaviors and to new anxieties about old behaviors. While these officers relied heavily on reports from other members of the public, they also exercised a degree of discretion over which offenses were worth pursuing and which were not. Anne DeWindt has described medieval juries and their communities as engaged in a dialogue in which each group responded continually to reactions it inspired in the other. Because this dialogue depended heavily on the personalities and dynamics at play in each locale, constructions of crimes played out differently in different jurisdictions. Scolds presented in the town of Congleton (Cheshire) in 1422, for instance, were typically described as "common scolds" (communes litigatrices) and charged by juries of presentment, while alleged scolds in nearby Halton in the same year were brought before the court by appointed bailiffs and accused of specific instances of scolding (for example, Agnes Bathe "scolded" [litigauit cum] William Pole and called him a thief). In other jurisdictions, other conventions applied, and within each jurisdiction, conventions changed over time.
For secular issues, most peasants and townspeople dealt only with local courts. Occasionally, however, they might find themselves facing one or another of the multiple layers of royal courts. The king's courts—such as those of the itinerant eyre justices or the county courts—heard weightier matters, both civil and criminal. In particular, they dealt with cases of felony, such as murder, treason, or more serious assaults that resulted in the shedding of blood. Cases involving illicit speech came to the attention of such courts in two ways. First, the king's courts punished those committing treasonous speech, barrators (those who created trouble or wasted the court's time with spurious court cases), and those who started or spread rumors that directly affected the king himself or his chief officials. Second, on rare occasions, the king's courts heard cases of scolding. Usually scolding was not the primary purpose of such cases being brought before the courts, but people accused of other crimes were sometimes also accused of scolding or of scoldlike behavior in addition to their primary offense. In 1407, for instance, when a woman from the town of Hurdesford (Cheshire) was presented before the county court for assault, it was recorded that she was also "a common scold [communis litigatrix] among her neighbors, . . . telling malicious stories . . ." The king's courts had the power to execute felons, but those committing more minor offenses were typically fined.
In addition to local courts and royal courts, late medieval English people were also subject to the jurisdiction of the church. Ecclesiastical courts, with an elaborate hierarchy of their own, claimed responsibility for the sexual and moral behavior of all English people, both clergy and laity. Defining morality, however, was not always easy, and the contours of church jurisdiction do not always make absolute sense to us today. Much of the business of lower-level church courts was taken up with allegations of adultery and fornication. The church also adjudicated disputes involving marriage, such as breaches of contract or allegations of bigamy. In addition, it sometimes heard cases of defamation and—perhaps by extension—of scolding.
Scolding, defamation, and other crimes involving speech were generally the preserve of lower-level church courts, such as consistory courts and visitations (in which bishops or other church officials would tour their dioceses, hearing complaints against laity and clergy alike). Cases were brought to the courts' attention either in the form of instance litigation (suits between plaintiffs and defendants) or as ex officio cases presented by local jurors or other committees convened for the purpose. By the late fourteenth century, these local committees were asked explicitly to present scolds, along with perjurers, heretics, adulterers, and other such sinners, and by the early sixteenth century, bishops also specified the need to present those who gossiped during church services. Church courts did not levy fines per se; rather, individuals were offered the opportunity of compurgation, the chance to swear to their innocence with their testimony supported by the oaths of fellow parishioners. Those who admitted guilt, and those failing to find the requisite number of people prepared to testify to their innocence, were required to do penance. In 1499, for instance, Agnes Rawson of Haverhill (Suffolk) was charged as a "common reviler of her neighbors" and instructed to bring four of her neighbors as compurgators to the next court. Apparently Agnes's neighbors either saw the charge as justified or lacked sympathy for her cause, for she failed in her compurgation. The judge thus found her guilty and ordered her to offer two candles, presumably before the altar in her parish church. Other scolds convicted in church courts received physical punishments such as public floggings, or they were required to process around the church barefoot, dressed in penitents' garments. On some occasions, however, these corporal punishments or humiliations were remitted in favor of monetary payments. Church courts also oversaw the behavior of the clergy, hearing cases about priests who neglected their parishes, revealed secrets of their parishioners, or otherwise behaved in an immoral fashion.
Although theoretically separate, the three systems of local courts, king's courts, and church courts sometimes overlapped in terms of jurisdiction. Theft, for instance, was a felony and ought to have been reserved for the king's courts, but petty theft was often punished by local courts and theft of church property was often considered by church courts. Scolding was a crime against public order and therefore fell under the jurisdiction of local courts, yet cases were often heard in church courts and occasionally in royal courts. Indeed, the lines between secular and ecclesiastical control over cases such as scolding were not always clear. In 1425, for instance, the regular three-weekly court of Middlewich dealt with a case that sounded much like it belonged in the church courts. Alice, wife of Hugh Wytton, was accused of having scolded (obiurgata fuit) Margaret, wife of Richard Shene, and of having defamed her enormously in church, "disturbing divine services in contempt of the lord king and of divine Christ." For several weeks, Alice did not appear to face the charges, but when she did she was fined the heavy sum of 16d. Disturbance of church services was typically a matter for the ecclesiastical courts, but it is possible that if the nearest church court was at Chester—twenty miles away—it was easier and quicker for Alice's case to be heard and punished in the local court. Court systems, therefore, were multiple and overlapping. Some individuals were able to use these fuzzy boundaries to their advantage by making strategic choices about where to take cases, weighing the advantages and disadvantages of the frequency of sittings, the composition of the jury, and the costs involved in litigation.
Investigation of illicit speech in late medieval English courts thus requires a broad array of sources. To study both general patterns among court presentments and variations over time, place, and jurisdiction, I collected more than six hundred cases of individuals accused of scolding between 1311 and 1530. These come from more than forty jurisdictions, both secular and ecclesiastical, and enable assessment of the various ways in which the crime of scolding was recorded, the amounts of fines assessed of convicted scolds, the ratio of women to men accused of scolding, and something of the chronology and geography of scold prosecution. They also enable comparison of the presentment and punishment of scolds in secular courts to those in ecclesiastical courts. I have also surveyed a comparable number of records for other offenses involving speech, such as defamation, abuse of community officials, disruptive speech in the courtroom and church, and the raising of false hues (explained in Chapter 1). Readers may notice a number of examples drawn from the courts of Battle (Sussex), Bridgwater (Somerset), Chedzoy (Somerset), Clare (Suffolk), Colchester (Essex), Crowle (Lincolnshire), Dunster (Somerset), Halton, Congleton, Widnes and related jurisdictions (Cheshire and Lancashire), Methwold (Norfolk), Pleshey, High Easter, and related jurisdictions (Essex), Ramsey (Huntingdonshire), Wakefield (Yorkshire), and Yeadon (Yorkshire).
In order to understand the dynamic of scolding accusations within local, marital, occupational, and social contexts, I also undertook a more detailed investigation of one jurisdiction, that of the town of Middlewich, in the palatine county of Chester, in the first half of the fifteenth century. Middlewich was located on an important road between London and Lancashire and served to connect the busy county town of Chester with a network of late medieval highways. The core of the local economy was the trade in boiling and marketing salt from the brine springs at the town center, but two competing salt towns—Northwich and Nantwich—lay within a ten-mile radius. The fourteenth and early fifteenth centuries were difficult years for the town: Middlewich and surrounding villages lost many residents in the Black Death of 1348-9, and fluctuations in the salt trade, combined with periodic disruption along the nearby Welsh border, kept the local economy unstable. Middlewich prosecuted seventy-eight incidents of scolding in 196 surviving courts between 1413 and 1443. While the numbers of scolds presented in Middlewich were higher than in most jurisdictions, Middlewich scolds were representative in other respects: they were fined at similar rates to scolds elsewhere, the ratio of male to female scolds (1:13) was well within the range of other jurisdictions, and—with only one or two exceptions—the words allegedly spoken by Middlewich scolds were every bit as formulaic as those most often used by scolds elsewhere. From borough court records, sheriffs' tourns, eyre courts, county courts, ministers' accounts, land deeds, rentals, wills, and other sources, I compiled a database of 799 residents of Middlewich and its surrounding villages between 1400 and 1450, which I used to locate scolds and other deviant speakers within their familial and socioeconomic contexts.
Traditional legal sources are the basis for a large part of this book, but I also draw heavily on literary representations of troublesome speech. In England, as elsewhere in Europe, the late Middle Ages witnessed the blossoming of vernacular literature. In addition to well-known works by Chaucer, Langland, Gower, and others, we possess far more texts by lesser-known and anonymous poets. Plays and ballads which would have been seen and heard by ordinary people also survive in significant numbers. These provide historians and literary scholars alike much more insight into late medieval popular culture than we can glean from surviving texts of the high Middle Ages. Anonymous stories, poems, and advice literature were often collected and written into commonplace books, and the proliferation of certain texts gives us a sense that—even prior to the invention of the printing press in the mid-fifteenth century—some texts were well known throughout England. Devotional literature was written and circulated more readily in the late Middle Ages too: manuals of lay piety, collections of sermons, and treatises on religious topics were eagerly consumed by both urban and rural audiences. Some of these works were translations of Latin or French originals; others were composed—either by clerics or members of the laity—in response to local demands. As Janet Coleman has pointed out, the mid-fourteenth-century treatise The Pricke of Conscience survives in more than 114 handwritten manuscripts, pointing to the broad dispersion of devotional literature. Mystery plays, discussed further in Chapter 2, provided opportunities to link religious stories with local dynamics and concerns and reached an even broader audience with their annual performances.
These texts and their contexts are closely interwoven. Just as the speech of medieval people influenced the ways in which it was represented, so too the representations of speech influenced how ordinary people spoke and how they interpreted the speech of others. Laura Gowing's work on women and slander in early modern England, for instance, has identified ways in which legal narratives were shaped by stock plots in ballads and other popular literature. Gowing, an historian, thus recognizes the ways in which literature helped to constitute reality, rather than merely reflecting it. Literary scholars have shown that they have much to teach historians about the cultural environment of late medieval England. For instance, Felicity Riddy's careful analysis of the fourteenth-century "How the Good Wife Taught Her Daughter" (a text which I discuss in more detail in Chapter 2) has shown how we can glean insight from the poem into what she terms the "bourgeois ethos" of late medieval towns. Much recent scholarship has been influenced by the New Historicist approach to literary analysis, with its emphasis on context and on the ways in which conflicts and anxieties manifest in contemporary texts. For the postplague era, when English society struggled to restore social and economic equilibrium and coped with problems in the ongoing war against France, these conflicts and anxieties are not difficult to find: indeed, the late Middle Ages saw the flowering of an "abuses of the age genre" or a "literature of complaint." More than three hundred surviving late medieval poems deal in some way with contemporary conditions, whether political, religious, or social. This readiness to lament the "abuses of the age" pervaded other genres besides poems: late medieval authors of sermons, plays, and advice literature sometimes sound remarkably like editorial writers of the modern era. Among their complaints, as Chapter 1 will explain, was concern about deviant speech.
In examining late medieval texts, I have limited material to sources in Middle English, rather than including materials in Latin (the language of the medieval church) or Old French (the language of the English aristocracy in the high Middle Ages). Although I have tried to do justice to literary context, I admit to an historian's bias in the use of these texts: my interest is primarily what we can learn about speech, rather than what we can learn about the development of literature. In particular, I have concentrated on the ways in which women's speech was constructed in comparison to the speech of men. While men were often singled out in warnings about the dangers of cursing and swearing, women were identified as the main culprits of gossip, slander, and scolding. The ambivalence and richness of literary sources provide a welcome balance to what are sometimes fairly terse condemnations of deviant speech in presentments before the courts.
Artistic representations of illicit speech add further to the richness of literary texts. For many medieval people, artistic "texts" were the most accessible of all. The interiors of parish churches, for instance, were routinely covered with colorful wall paintings, so that people who could not read or had no access to written texts would nonetheless have interacted with images on a regular basis. These sources played an important role in constituting the cultural environment of late medieval England: just as literary texts not only reflected but also helped comprise discourses, so too artistic representations played this double role. Indeed, contemporaries were well aware of the power that images could have: throughout the Middle Ages, moralists worried that ordinary people might come to revere (or—worse still—worship) artistic representations for their own sake. Others argued that, in the words of Pope Gregory the Great, images were the "book of the illiterate," and thus played an essential didactic function.
Whether benignly didactic or dangerously powerful, images participated in local discourses about morals, virtues, and sins. In the words of Miriam Gill, "Every wall painting, however conventional its subject matter and position, represents individual or communal choice." In the process of making such choices, individuals and communities sent powerful messages about their own concerns. They also demonstrated their familiarity with other forms of discourse. As recent work by literary scholars and art historians has emphasized, medieval artists and authors incorporated aspects of each other's work. Themes from Piers Plowman made their way into wall paintings, sermons and devotional materials were depicted in stained-glass windows, and preachers referenced church art as part of their sermons. With regard to the discourse on inappropriate speech, artistic sources contribute recurrent images of deviant speakers gossiping, swearing, or being punished for their verbal improprieties.
Wall paintings from parish churches are a particularly useful source because of their ubiquity and the fact that they were viewed, on a regular basis, by people of all social statuses. Hundreds of late medieval wall paintings survive, and these are just a fraction of the number that once existed: the vast majority of medieval wall paintings have eroded or been destroyed. Ironically, early modern Puritans who whitewashed walls in an effort to simplify church interiors sometimes ended up preserving paintings, enabling them now to be restored. Painted in an era before the Renaissance conception of the artist as genius, medieval wall paintings are almost all anonymous. The craftspeople who painted church walls commented on illicit speech particularly in images of gossiping women and swearing men (discussed in Chapters 2 and 4, respectively).
Another particularly interesting genre is that of misericords, ledges on the underside of hinged seats in the choirs of churches. Once the seat was lifted, these ledges provided relief to priests, monks, and nuns by enabling them to lean back and give the general impression that they were standing up (much as lecturers sometimes prop themselves against the edge of a table today). By the mid-fourteenth century, the ledges and the area beneath the ledges had become sites of intricate carvings, both religious and secular in theme. Misericords were usually found in larger parish churches or in cathedrals, and thus may not have been seen frequently by members of the laity. Their creators, however, were almost certainly lay craftspeople (who sometimes satirized the clergy in their carvings). The "marginal art" of misericords, present in a religious context but not readily visible, provided an opportunity for humorous and even subversive images. Among the more common of these were women beating men, scatological imagery, and representations of fools and folly. As will be discussed, misericords also sometimes depicted illicit speech, representing gossiping women or demons trying to close women's mouths.
Most of the art considered in this study was commissioned to appear in public spaces, especially parish churches, rather than in the homes of elite patrons. This emphasis on popular and vernacular art, rather than, for example, the art that ornamented manuscripts designed for members of the elite, parallels my concentration on literary works in Middle English. Whereas literary scholars have long been mindful of representations of illicit speech, art historians have generally paid it less attention. As with my use of literature, my approach has been to focus on what images tell us about medieval views toward speech rather than to trace the development of art for its own sake. Despite the invisibility of spoken words themselves, orality (and especially illicit orality) was such a critical part of the culture of late medieval England that wood carvers, painters, and even stonemasons and glaziers found multiple ways in which to depict deviant speech.
While I sometimes discuss these different genres—legal, literary, and artistic—under separate categories, I have aimed wherever possible to integrate and combine them while remaining conscious of the conventions involved in the interpretation of each. The gaps between constructions of deviant speech in different sources are perhaps some of the most fruitful points for considering its meanings for late medieval people. Court records and borough ordinances, for instance, almost universally condemned scolds and those who verbally abused local officials. While alleged scolds or abusers were sometimes deemed innocent, dangerous speech itself was repeatedly vilified and punished. Court records also serve as reminders that scolding and verbal abuse had very real consequences—economic, social, and sometimes physical—for those judged guilty. Artistic and literary sources similarly condemn disruptive speech, yet they also hint at moments of ambivalence. The character of the Wife of Bath may have flaunted many social conventions concerning speech and sexuality, yet she was ambiguously celebrated for her spirit rather than being wholeheartedly vilified. Representations of women gossiping in church emphasized women's connections with the demonic, but the women depicted often look young and seem to take joy in one another's company; they were not the ugly and bitter crones associated with gossip in other contexts. These overlaps and contradictions suggest that something about transgressive speech both horrified and attracted late medieval townspeople and villagers. Verbal insubordination captured the popular imagination and lent itself to more general resistance to hierarchical constraints in a similar way, perhaps, to the romanticization of highway robbery in the seventeenth century or smuggling in the nineteenth century. Whereas the condemnation of deviant speech helped perpetuate local power, it also served as something of a focus (indeed a voice) for resistance to hierarchy and delight in the deviant.
The first chapter, "'Sins of the Tongue' and Social Change," examines the rising tide of concern about speech in the late Middle Ages, focusing on the ways that people at all social levels adopted and adapted the ecclesiastical discourse on the "sins of the tongue." As we shall see, the discourse proved useful for any group that sought to underscore or promote its own power, particularly during an era of social dislocation. Chapter 2, "The Sins of Women's Tongues in Literature and Art," shows how this newly laicized and popularized discourse on the evils of speech came to be associated particularly with women. During the late Middle Ages, poets, playwrights, stone and wood carvers, wall painters, and others vilified female speech in particular. It is no accident, I argue, that the stereotypical gossipy character best known in the guise of Noah's Wife and Chaucer's Wife of Bath emerged during these centuries.
Chapter 3, "Women's Voices and the Law," shows how the same concern about female speech played out not just in literary and artistic contexts but also in the courtroom. From the late fourteenth century on, women lost access to the hue and cry—a means of community policing that had previously empowered female voices—and they were increasingly charged with disruptive speech in the forms of defamation and scolding. In Chapter 4, "Men's Voices," I examine the consequences for men of this legal and cultural discourse about women's words. Whereas men who spoke in problematic ways risked being seen as effeminate, certain categories of male speakers and certain individual men were able to overcome this association with womanliness.
The final two chapters focus more closely on the crime of scolding. In Chapter 5, "Communities and Scolding," I examine definitions and elements of the crime of scolding. I also discuss the ways in which scolding varied according to jurisdiction, arguing that the key factors were the presence of individuals invested in prosecuting scolds and geographical and jurisdictional connections with other scold-prosecuting courts. Chapter 6, "Who Was a Scold?" explains the backgrounds of individuals charged with the offense. Whereas scolds were more likely to be single or married than widowed, and more likely to be associated with certain other crimes, nonetheless the label remained flexible and applicable to almost anyone. Indeed, the flexibility of the crime meant that jurisdictions could exercise considerable latitude in deciding who best fit the label of "scold." Whereas poor women were most likely to be charged in some places, other jurisdictions charged women of all socioeconomic levels below that of the gentry. The conclusion, "Consequences of the Feminization of Deviant Speech," explores the significance of the late medieval association between illicit words and women, both for individual women and for society as a whole. It also discusses why concern about women's speech emerged when it did and why it has survived.
The history of efforts to control speech is simultaneously part of the history of sin and the history of power, for regulation of speech involved condemnation of particular words, modes of speech, and speakers. It is also closely tied to the history of gender: when the Wife of Bath claimed that "half so boldly can no man / Swear and lie, as a woman can," she simultaneously associated women with problematic speech and implicitly associated problematic speakers (both male and female) with womanliness. During the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries, English people began to think and talk about speech in a different kind of way. As they did so, they changed the ways in which they constructed gender. By the fifteenth century, women were to words as geese were to excrement. Women were gossips and chatterers, scolds and shrews, and gossipy or scolding men were like women.