The caged bird

Times Staff Writer

In a small medieval English town, the ruling elite -- men, of course -- were all but coming unhinged. Clearly, in Exeter, the courts would have to slay the dragon -- the saucy chatter of barmaids and the like.

The loose-lipped women were now and then hauled in front of juries. The crime: gossiping.

Consider the case in 1387 of an unmarried washerwoman named Magota Spynster, who called the wife of a well-off merchant a "wretched thief" -- ouch -- and then some, according to 600-year-old records examined by Maryanne Kowaleski, a history professor at Fordham University in New York. (Imagine the fun she must have had reading the court rolls, recorded in Latin translated from the original Middle English.)

Kowaleski's work points to a changing interest in medieval women's studies. By looking at ordinary women of the time, scholars hope to create a fuller understanding of the Middle Ages, beyond just the literate and ruling class. And by doing so, they have uncovered the early makings of a women's movement of sorts that has striking parallels to later eras.

Behind the documents, a glimmer of the real fear emerges: The social order was being threatened.

The ranks of ale servers and egg sellers forged a sense of community through gossip, "the ultimate resource of the subordinated, a crucial means of self-expression and solidarity," said Kowaleski, director of Fordham's Center for Medieval Studies.

Women were beginning to step out of the shadows, find their voice.

But jurors of the era "criminalized women's chattering" when it became a threat. The courts usually stepped in only when gossips or "common scolds" insulted A-list townsfolk, according to Kowaleski's research, which she presented at a recent UCLA conference on Women's Works and Networks in the Middle Ages. In the eyes of the court, though, the servants were free to knock themselves out with mutual slander.

Kowaleski's study helps to extract from history a culture based on spoken word, pointed out Christopher Baswell, the conference's co-director. "What she has done is to study the hostile records of prosecutions to try to extract the lost voice, the unwritten history.... It's an amazing piece of history she has pulled up."

Kowaleski and other scholars looked at the ways ordinary women tried to build networks in the Middle Ages. Literate women -- nuns, for instance -- wrote letters outside their cloistered walls, said College of William and Mary professor Alison I. Beach. In the 12th century, the nuns of Admont in Austria corresponded in Latin on parchment leaves to keep in touch with friends and patrons.

The presentations point to a new direction in medieval studies on women, said Baswell, a UCLA professor of English. Oxcarts full of papers herald the famous -- Joan of Arc, St.Hildegard of Bingen, writer Christine de Pizan -- but what about the wool spinners and other tradeswomen who made their way to Exeter, a market town and cathedral city in southwestern England?

In Exeter, Kowaleski theorized, the male jurors who handed down the indictments likely were attempting "to check the growing independence of urban working women," who began pocketing salaries, delaying marriage, subverting authority. Any of that sound familiar?

Even into the 1970s, the newly minted female workforce was warned by experts to watch the way they talk, to perhaps mimic the confrontational speech of men, said Carmen Fought, assistant professor of linguistics at Pitzer College in Claremont. In both eras, "the whole social order changed, and one of the ways women tried to make sense of this is to talk about it. Talking about other people is one of the ways we sort out how to view the world."

Women also could use such exchanges as weapons against one another, Kowaleski found. "It's really important to keep in mind that while gossip may empower some women," she cautioned, "it can also foster indiscretion, promote rivalries, intensify competition and serve as a forum for aggression and hostility."

Medieval literature and popular culture applauded the virtues of women's silence. Preachers condemned women for their "curious and bold telling of tales." (In 1400, that was the province of such men as Geoffrey Chaucer, who wrote the bawdy collection of stories "The Canterbury Tales.") Proverbs of the time likened women's gossip to the "cackling of hens" or "honking of geese." In 1593, the stereotype of the scold was immortalized in Shakespeare's play "The Taming of the Shrew."

In Exeter, of 150 scolding indictments between 1368 and 1390, 96% of the accused were women. No town law actually banned gossip, so the accused were hauled into court for disturbing the king's peace, alongside thieves, prostitutes and brothel keepers. Indicted gossips usually were fined, though a few landed in jail, Kowaleski said.

Later, in the 17th century, the crackdowns got ugly. Scolds, mostly women, were paraded through town wearing what's known as a bridle, an iron mask with metal spikes sometimes forced into the tongue.

While Kowaleski studied gossip cases as far back as the early 1300s, other scholars have looked at such indictments from the 16th century and later. Unfortunately, Kowaleski noted, court records usually did not note the actual gossip or the context. But she unearthed a couple of cases with specifics.

In another Exeter case, Isabella, who was married to John Rondell, called John Lewis and his wife, Willelma, "thief" and "whore" and threw stones at them. Isabella is a "common sower of lies and a marker of discord between neighbors," court records state. And in London, a woman named Margery, who probably was single, was charged with being "a common scold by day and night" and regularly tossing the contents of her chamber pot outside "to the great nuisance of her neighbors walking there."

The scolding indictments Kowaleski studied were handed down mostly in late 14th century England, a time of major demographic and economic change for market towns. The country was reeling from the effects of the Black Death, or bubonic plague, which devastated the population. The labor shortage prompted single women and others from the countryside to seek work in towns.

In Exeter, the new class of working women wasn't always heralded. According to Kowaleski's research, the targets of the scolds' gossip often happened to be the wives of merchants or other powerful men. In most cases, the accused were charged with impugning a person's good name -- such as calling a woman a strumpet or whore -- or continuous "harping or chiding" in public places.

And as for Spynster, the indicted washerwoman? Perhaps she gossiped, perhaps she didn't. But the records show that Spynster was indicted by a jury that included Reginal Prat, who was married to -- guess who -- the so-called "wretched thief."

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