Codpieces and Demons: The Dangers of Female Gossip


The picture we have of female friendship in medieval England is pretty limited. In a culture where women were almost invariably seen, both legally and socially, in terms of their relationships to men, and where fewer women than men could write, first-hand records of female friendships are few. In a previous post, I discussed the ‘woman-only space’ of the medieval birth chamber, and I suggested that, in the eyes of many medieval writers, this was a focus of distrust and fear of what women might get upto in spaces men could not penetrate (pun intended).

Female friendships were strongly associated with the social customs surrounding childbirth, partly no doubt because women have always sought out other women for support at this time, and partly because the enforced ‘confinement’ of a woman after childbirth placed her in an all-female universe for forty days. Yet the intimate and supportive relationships women developed with one another were associated with a term that endures as a gendered insult. The medieval word ‘god-sib’ originally meant the person who sponsored a child at baptism. But by the late Middle Ages, ‘god-sib’ or ‘gossip’ had come to refer by default to women only. ‘Gossip’, originally denoting a close and solemn spiritual intimacy, came to mean casual, idle, feminine chit-chat.

The connotations of ‘gossip’ were shared with another medieval word: ‘jangler’, which meant a person (a woman) who talked too much and too loudly. Disapproving male writers queued up to criticise this fault. In a text written for would-be religious recluses, the author imagines how a young woman might be corrupted by gossip:

‘either an old woman or a new ‘Jangler’ and storyteller sits by the window, feeding her with tales  … from which arise laughing, mocking, and unclean thoughts through day and night, so that in the end the woman is filled full of lust and desire, talebearing, slander and hatred …’

(from Aelred of Rievaulx, De institutione inclusarum)

Still later, there’s a brilliant story in cleric Robert Mannyng’s Handbook of Sins, on the dangers of gossip, which reuses the same stereotype of women who gossip being distracted from their religious duties. Mannyng describes how women sit in church gossiping, and explains that, unseen, a demon sits nearby, pen and parchment in his hands, compiling a damning dossier of evidence for the devil to use at judgement day.

Tutivillus with two gossips, at Enville Church in Staffordshire.

Tutivillus with two gossips, at Enville Church in Staffordshire.

This image shows the demon in question – he’s called Tutivillus, which trips nicely off the tongue, and he moonlights as a pub inspector, carting off dishonest ale-wives to hell. His legend left women in no doubt: to gossip was to leave oneself open to every sin in the book.

Worse was to come: by the fifteenth century, a third writer recopied this story, and he claimed that he knew the shameful and immodest topic of women’s gossip:

“… these women, as I dare say, /Have been busy talking of ‘husbandry’./ They gaggle like the geese and jangle like the jay./ About how their husbands are full of jealousy./ On gallants, they make it their business to spy./ Seeing their clothes ride up so high./ And their codpieces stiffly standing out.”

(Peter Idley, Instructions to His Son)

The writer’s shock at women’s frank appraisal of men’s bodies takes his story one step further than the source he copied it from. Now what is horrifying about gossiping women is not merely their insatiable lust, or their sinfulness, but their bold and unwomanly appraisals of specific men’s bodies.

What’s amusing here (aside from the last writer’s monumental prudishness) is that the same stories – the gossiping women who talk in church, the ‘janglers’ whose chitchat stirs up unwomanly lust – are passed down from man to man. These stories are embroidered with each retelling in precisely the ‘gossipy’ manner men attribute to women’s talk.

The silencing aspect of this attitude to women’s conversations may explain why we have so few records of medieval women’s friendships.  It’s disturbing to see that the exact same stereotypes are thrown at women now. Women ‘gossip’; their voices are ‘shrill’ (or jangling?); their talk has no substance. The women-only space of the Bake-off Final has been subject to thousands of nasty comments. Still today, it’s possible to find men who are genuinely shocked – and disgusted – to find that women occasionally discuss men’s attractive bodies … even if those men would happily discuss women’s bodies. Even the medieval alewife, targeted by the demon Tutivillus alongside female gossips, has her parallel in the Daily-Mail-esque outcries against ‘ladette culture’ and the disgusting spectacle of women being less than demure when socializing. Update – not to mention, as someone has just emailed me (thank you!) to point out, in Joanne Baxter’s sniffy criticism of ‘explicit threads about sexual practices’ on parenting forum Mumsnet. 


The reason I wanted to write about women’s conversations with other women, and how the supportive networks that began with medieval mothering were dismissed by medieval men as ‘gossip’ because today I heard from a forum who might (I hope) not be too offended if I call them the modern ‘janglers’. The very kind people at Mumsnet have suggested they may be prepared to put this blog on their list of bloggers. Mumsnet is a huge forum, and the Guardian recently published an article about its influence on contemporary feminism. I’m honoured by their offer, and if you are reading this from a link on that forum, welcome!


Here’s a little medieval song about Tutivillus. I just love it. It doesn’t work so well in translation, so here you are in the original.

‘Tutivillus, the devil of hell,
He writeth har names, sothe to tell,
Ad missam garulantes.

Better wer be at home for ay
Than her to serve the Devil to pay,
Sic vana famulantes.

Thes women that sitteth the church about,
Thay beth all of the Develis rowte,
Divina impedientes…’

4 thoughts on “Codpieces and Demons: The Dangers of Female Gossip

  1. Interestingly this brought to mind my childhood – I wonder whether this is where the seeds for such attitudes were originally sown? I can remember many a day when, back in the early 1960s, before I was of school age, I would be dragged off to something which my mother would be doing with other women e.g. cleaning the church brass and silverware. Female children would be involved with the adult women; boy children would be left with the other boy children to amuse themselves, very much on the periphery of things, outsiders observing but not participating. No man would be present but you would observe your mother interacting freely with other women, unconstrained or inhibited by any convention. I recall it as a slightly alien and alienating experience and as I say, perhaps this is where the male attitudes, outlined in your piece, have their origin; the subliminal feeling that there was something “coven-like” in what was being observed. Add to this the gender conventions of the period and probably comments from fathers, grandfathers, uncles and others about what was assumed to take place on such occasions and suddenly you have cemented the attitudes of the next generation of males to all-female social intercourse.

    • That’s interesting – hearing how it was for you. It would have been similar for medieval boys in some ways – they would early on have been with their mothers or nurses. But what struck me reading was, I can’t think of a situation where girls have routinely been in an all-male environment, seeing male-male interaction. I mean, Austen says she can’t even write a conversation between two men because she doesn’t know how men talk together! 😀

      But can you think of any examples? All I can think is this may now be changing with there being more stay-at-home dads, perhaps.

      In general, though, male culture is always ‘culture’ and female culture is ‘subculture’ – the threatening coven-like atmosophere you’re describing.

      Thanks for such a thought-provoking comment!

  2. Thanks for this post, and for the image of Tutivillus at the church in Enville. That looks like it’s on a misericord. Readers might be interested in the mid-15th-century misericords at St Laurence’s Church, Ludlow, recorded in this Flickr set:
    While these images don’t feature women as gossips or janglers specifically, among them are representations of archetypes of women as vain and profligate (a mermaid with mirror, and women sporting extravagant headdresses, for instance). – And as dishonest, robbing the honest worker of their full measure of ale – a serious misdemeanour in every parish in the land! Hence the church also has its own Tutivillus (image N3), clutching a list of an alewife’s sins as she’s picked up (still holding aloft the evidence of her crime, and to the accompaniment of a bagpipe) and carted off to join others who are pitched into a gaping, sharp-toothed mouth …
    On Twitter, St Laurence’s Vision Project is at @StLaurencesVP – readers are invited to head over there and follow if interested in more news from this ‘cathedral of the Marches’.

  3. Joanna, thank you so much for a wonderful, informative reply, I’m in awe! I’ve just found you on twitter – what a beautiful church. These are lovely images, and so fascinating. I had never seen the image of Tutivillus with the alewife, though I’ve read of them, so this is really exciting for me.

    Thank you so much, and please, everyone, do head over to St Laurence’s on twitter, or to their website, for more information.

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