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…’

Discrediting Women and Fiction: Eleanor Catton and Francesca da Rimini


Plenty of us will have seen, by now, Kate Saunders’ comments on Booker Prize winner Eleanor Catton. Saunders described Catton as ‘a new kind of role model’ for ‘bookish girls’, ‘a slight, pale (unassisted) blonde woman’, ‘quietly spoken’ and ‘dazed’ in front of her eminent judges, stepping into the limelight ‘nervously’.

“She’s an unashamed nerd … with a pretty, user-friendly Glee-like nerdiness; just the sort that’s fashionable among clever teenage girls who don’t aspire to be Katie Price.”

(Seriously, could Saunders cram any more allusions to genre fiction into that line? If she wrote her novels with such economy, Night Shall Overtake Us wouldn’t make such a popular doorstop in Oxfam shops.)

About Catton’s writing, Saunders has the supremely patronizing statement (and trust me, after the last sentence, I do know whereof I speak):

“She’s a chick, but nobody could mistake her work for any kind of chick-lit; this young woman has been recognised for being a genuine artist …”

Saunders also finds time to comment on Catton’s proposed researchs subjects for another novel. These are time travel and systematised magic, if you’re interested – subjects covered, respectively, in Dickens’ A Christmas Carol and in Eco’s Foucault’s Pendulum and de Bernières’ trilogy of South American novels. Saunders declared:

“These are not serious subjects outside fiction for children.”

I could get steamed up about these comments in about ten different ways, but fortunately, I don’t have to because all my social networks were buzzing with eloquently angry posts. So instead I will consider the history of how the stereotypes Saunders is drawing on came to have so much power within our culture.

This unpleasant mixture of undermining comments – from the focus on Catton’s looks to the implication of her childishness and lack of adult and/or masculine stature and attitude – is pretty much your standard woman-hating 101 recipe. The strategy – praising one woman by telling her you’ve written off all the rest – is probably familiar to most of us. Its association with fiction also has a very long history. My research project looks as medieval romances, the ancestors of the modern novel, and here we find the same old tangle of attitudes.

In Dante’s Divine Comedy, one of the earliest circles of hell imprisons the spirits of Paolo and his lover Francesca, a noblewoman who had lived in Dante’s own time. She tells Dante how she is punished in hell for the sin of adultery, falling in love with a man who was not her husband:

“We read one day for pastime of Lancelot, how love constrained him. We were alone and had no misgiving. Many times that reading drew our eyes together and changed the colour in our faces, but one point alone it was that mastered us; when we read that the longed-for smile was kissed by so great a lover, he who never shall be parted from me – all trembling – kissed my mouth. A Galeotto [the go-between in the story of Lancelot and Guinevere] was that book, and he that wrote it, and that day we read no farther.”

(from Inferno, Canto V).

The seductive power of romance fiction sets in motion the chain of events that lead to Francesca and her lover’s violent deaths at the hands of her jealous husband.

The similarities between Dante’s imagined version of Francesca, and the picture Saunders paints of Catton, are disconcerting.

Where Catton is ‘slight’, Dante’s Francesca moves ‘lightly’; where Catton is ‘pretty’, Francesca talks of the ‘fair form’ she had in life. Where Catton is ‘quietly spoken’, Francesca ‘sighs’. Where Catton’s proposed new novel topics are ‘not serious’, Francesca’s romances are part of a fictional world that leads her to forget the dangers of reality.

In the deeply misogynistic worlds of medieval England and Italy, we might not be surprised to find that women are particularly susceptible to criticisms that focus on their reading of fiction. It fits in with the obtrusive cultural associations of women with other forms of untruth, and with the presumptions of female deceit we saw at work in medieval rape law. What is more shocking is that we have inherited these conflated attitudes, tangled up together, to interpret the combination of female beauty and fiction – especially romantic, non-‘serious’ fiction and ‘chick-lit’ – as suggestive of low artistic merit. Kate Saunders’ comments perpetuate the negative connotations of writing marketed to women, and simultaneously, and slyly, perpetuate the idea that if a woman seems ‘feminine’ and ‘attractive’ – and young – it’s very surprising to find she’s a good writer.

Even though, technically, Saunders’ version of Catton gets off more lightly than Dante’s Francesca in that she is only metaphorically damned with faint praise, I find it really difficult not to dislike Saunders’ descriptions more than Dante’s. Dante the character, who travels to Hell, redeems himself by his pity for Francesca. We think of a society that venerated femininity, even while it was uneasy with real women. Dante the author is more subtle: after Francesca’s sighing narrative, he puts the surprisingly powerful and harsh conclusion in her mouth, referring to her husband and murderer:

“Caina [the lowest level of Hell] waits for him who quenched our life.”

It has the ring of vengeful prophecy.


While I was idly googling Kate Saunders, as you do, I was unfeasibly amused to find that she’s quoted amongst a long line of gushing reviewer quotations for a certain John the Revelator, by one Peter Murphy (no doubt a very nice bloke; I’ve never heard of him). Saunders praises the ‘unsentimental’ and ‘powerful’ quality of the writing, while a fellow journalist goes one step further down the macho line with ‘ballsy’.

I rest my case.

On a less gleefully righteous note, I came across this thought-provoking article last year. It’s written by author Meg Wolitzer, and discusses how ‘women’s fiction’ works (or doesn’t work) as a category. Well worth a read.


A friend of mine has just alerted me to this interview, which contains Catton’s own, very thoughtful and dignified response to gendered criticisms of female authors. As a medievalist, I am really excited by her explanation of her novel’s complex, astrological structure:

“The paradox is … the relationship between, on the one hand, the characters being the masters of their fates, and on the other hand that being predetermined. … One of the most baffling things is when people assume that when something is structurally ornate it is less human than something that is not structurally ornate … That puzzles me – I feel as a person the most alive and human and full of wonder when I am contemplating complexities. The ability of humans to read meaning into patterns is the most defining characteristic we have.”

Beautifully put, and I for one couldn’t help thinking of Troilus and Criseyde.

Lady Truth and the Author: Female Networking in Medieval Manuscripts

I’ve spent a lot of time so far looking at medieval images and texts – and records – that show how medieval misogyny shaped women’s lives, and how modern attitudes towards women’s bodies and women’s testimonies are embedded in this long history. There are more positive stories. I’ve suggested that Jeanne de Montbaston, the artist who produced the subversive and witty pictorial responses to the misogyny of the Romance of the Rose as she illustrated it, is one example. So, to find more, I went to look at more medieval artists and their work.

In medieval literature, virtues such as truth, wisdom and reason are often personified, and when they are, they are almost invariably pictured as women: Lady Truth, Lady Reason, gracious figures who act as teachers and guides.


In this image, for example, the author Boethius is pictured kneeling humbly before the crowned figure of Lady Philosophy, who offers him wings.

This isn’t so strikingly woman-friendly as it first appears. Images like this give women the appearance of status, but only the appearance. In effect, despite the humble postures of the male authors, the message is that these men have personified virtues – Truth, Wisdom, Philosophy – dancing attendance on them as they busy themselves with the important work of creating literature. Typically, the conversation follows the conventions of a romance – the male author treating his lady as a lover and trying to please her.

Here’s an image of Jean de Meun, author of the Romance of the Rose, looking suitably engrossed in his writing as his lady stands by with books for inspiration.

Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, MS Fr. 1728

Paris, Bibliothèque nationale, MS Fr. 1728. I like to imagine Jean is thinking ‘darn, why can’t real women be more like the ones in my head?!’

When a male writer or artist gives us a female ‘Lady Truth’, she’s as much a product of his mind as Eve was the product of Adam’s rib. In both cases, we’re seeing an idealized female, and hearing her speak voiced by the male author of the text. This convention is a means for authors and artists to translate a man’s internal monologue into a dialogue charged with erotic connotations – and Dante’s beloved Beatrice is the supreme example.
 One woman writer set out to challenge this picture, and these stereotypes of male creativity and male-voiced female inspiration. Christine de Pizan’s energetic criticisms of sexist male writers – and of Jean de Meun (pictured above) in particular – are accompanied by cleverly polemical illustrations. In Christine’s manuscripts, these implicitly heteronormative dialogues are transformed into something else. The old image of the male author being guided by ‘Lady Truth’ is reversed. In the illustration below, Christine sits lecturing men – she’s actually represented as an academic, sitting in the typical high-backed chair that symbolised male lecturer’s authority over their students. The open book before her reminds us that she is a writer, too. She is both ‘Lady Truth’, the person dispensing advice, and she is the author.


However, although this image pictures Christine herself as dispenser of wisdom, the book also features an actual personification of Wisdom, like those in the books of her male peers.


This image shows Christine, sitting at her desk in the same blue dress, while Minerva (goddess of Wisdom) stands beside her, carrying her sword and shield of truth. In this, the image resembles those of male authors. But because Christine is female, her artists were able to draw on a whole new set of connotations that are not evoked by male author portraits. So here, Christine sitting at her desk with her books resembles none other than the Virgin Mary, who was always pictured sitting with her prayer books at the moment when the Angel Gabriel came to tell her she was to bear God’s son.


Christine’s book, then, takes the established iconography of the male author and enriches it with feminine imagery. In presenting two female figures – Minerva and Christine – the artist also moves away from the implicitly heteronormative, erotic imagery of creative genius. It is worth noting that both Minerva (born parthenogenetically from Zeus’s forehead) and the Virgin Mary are examples of non-sexual reproduction.

The imagery of female collaboration in Christine’s book is the product of real-life collaboration between women, and of Christine’s passionate advocacy of the credibility of women as more than the objects of male desire. Unlike Jean de Meun, whose female artist Jeanne de Montbaston is almost forgotten by history, Christine makes sure that her readers know who it was that created some of the most famous images of her. Christine stresses the skill and importance of women artists as serious professionals. Her preferred illustrator was a woman, whom she praises warmly.

“I know a woman today, named Anastasia, who is so learned and skilled in painting manuscript borders and miniature backgrounds that one cannot find an artisan in all the city of Paris – where the best in the world are found – who can surpass her, nor who can paint flowers and details as delicately as she does, nor whose work is more highly esteemed, no matter how rich or precious the book is. People cannot stop talking about her. And I know this from experience, for she has executed several things for me, which stand out among the ornamental borders of the great masters.”

(from The Book of The City of Ladies)

Christine’s praise is part of her case against contemporary misogyny, but it’s also concrete evidence of networks of female support and cooperation, even in the male-dominated context of bookmaking. The portraits of Christine gives her authority by picturing her as a compound of personified ‘Lady Wisdom’ and of the Virgin. Christine’s words returned the favour. In modern terms, Christine and Anastasia’s partnership – each promoting the other as a credible professional – is not dissimilar to our own networks of women supporting each other.

Did Christine and Anastasia know Jeanne de Montbaston, the often-overlooked fourth participant in this sprawling debate over male and female creativity? It’s possible. Although Jean de Meun died in 1305, his artist Jeanne and her husband were living and working in Paris at the end of the fourteenth century. Paris was a large city at the time, but guilds of artists were tightly controlled, and two female illuminators both living and working in the same place at around the same time may well have known each other, and each other’s work. Were Christine and Anastasia supportive of Jeanne? Amused by her part in shaping responses to the Romance of the Rose? Did she know of Christine’s work? We may never know.

I started writing this blog because a network of supportive women encouraged me. It was a baptism of fire, because I knew that if I didn’t push myself, I wouldn’t keep at it. So, for this past week, I’ve done seven posts in seven days. I couldn’t have done it without supportive networks, and I am very grateful to everyone who’s cheered me on or shown me how to make the blog better.

Thank you.

Update: I should stress that this post is partly speculative. We don’t know much about Anastasia, other than what Christine says, although we do know that Christine worked closely with her illuminators to produce her manuscripts.

I can’t help feeling there must be a novel about Anastasia, Jeanne, and late-medieval Paris for someone, though!

Jeanne de Montbaston – Penis Trees Against the Misogynists?

Paris, Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 25526, f. 160r (Roman de la Rose, France 14th century)

The above image – a sheepish-looking monk handing an unfeasibly large penis to a disconcerted nun – may look familiar to anyone who’s read my first post in this blog.

It’s one of a sequence of illuminations made in the margins of a manuscript by the medieval artist Jeanne de Montbaston. Jeanne worked with her husband, Richard, in Rue Neuve in fourteenth-century Paris. She did the illustrations for a fairly large number of manuscripts, including dozens of copies of the popular Romance of the Rose. This poem is an allegorical reflection on love, but it is also justifiably famous as one of the most misogynistic books around, the subject of medieval author Christine de Pizan’s brilliant attack on male writers who treat women only as sex objects.

A short passage can illustrate what Christine meant. In the poem, the allegorical figure of ‘Genius’ (who is male) argues that all men should take advantage of women as sexual objects, and he compares the (male) act of writing with the act of penetration, while picturing women as passive, blank like an unwritten page. In a vicious rant, he declares:

“those who do not write with their ‘tools’ … on those beautiful, precious tablets Nature has made for them … should suffer the loss of their penis and testicles.”

The word Genius uses for ‘tool’ literally means both ‘pen’ and ‘penis’ – the pun is in the original French. This rant is primarily homophobic – or more precisely, it’s an argument against sodomy, since medieval people didn’t have the same sense of sexual orientation, rather than sexual activities, that we do now. It’s also, obviously, the speech of someone who really doesn’t think a great deal of women, and who thinks the activity of writing and the fact of having a penis are intrinsically related (if you think this sounds familiar, you’ll be pleased to know that V. S. Naipaul and dear David Gilmour, of Dickhead Detox fame, feel the same way).

Now, the question is, why would a woman artist – and one who was obviously pretty good – spend her time working on a book that puts forward such an unpleasant view of women?

I’ve heard it suggested that Jeanne was probably illiterate and that – because of this – she didn’t really know what she was illuminating and so popped in a silly story about nuns and penis trees instead of choosing a more suitable image based on the story itself.

I have a bit of a problem with this, not least because shedloads of medieval illuminators go off-piste in their choices of subject-matter and no-one suggests they’re all illiterate (though some of them surely were). But, more to the point, I think Jeanne’s illumination has quite an amusing relationship to the text and its messages.

On one level, of course, it seems to confirm what Jean de Meun says about women in general: we’re all about the cock, even the nuns. And the little pictorial narrative from which the image above comes concludes – predictably – with the monk and nun sleeping together. Though, honestly, they don’t look much happier about it than they did in the first picture!

Bibliothèque nationale de France, Français 25526, f. 111v (Roman de la Rose, France 14th century).

However, I think there’s a bit more to Jeanne’s illuminations than that. In modern culture, as in medieval society, women are all too often viewed as a set of body parts, dissected by the male gaze and by popular media into legs, and breasts, nipped-in waists and airbrushed smiles. In modern culture it’s rare to see male anatomy treated that way. In fact, naked penises cause far more consternation than naked breasts.

This wasn’t the case in medieval England, where dozens of illuminators enjoyed drawing pictures of cocks merrily surging along the margins of pages. But Jeanne’s image of a nun who calmly gathers a crop of penises into her basket is more pointed that most. Standing in the margins of a romance full of mansplaining about female desire and the superior creative powers of men, it’s as if Jeanne’s nun is saying: ‘well, if you have to have a penis to tell a good story … look how many have!’

BnF MS Fr. 25526

BnF MS Fr. 25526

The King of Tars’s Daughter: Pregnancy, Deformity and Faith

I’ve got a post about my new project brewing, but I’m going to jump right in with this one, which I was turning over in my mind last night while I was watching the first episode of Helen Castor’s brilliant documentary ‘Medieval Lives’. It’s still up on iplayer, and well worth a watch.

Castor’s documentary looks at medieval childbirth, and she explores the state of medical knowledge, as well as the social attitudes and practices surrounding pregnancy and labour. The manuscripts she looked at include some fascinating medical textbooks, which show how medieval doctors imagined babies might be positioned in the womb.


Medieval Foetuses in the Womb (London, BL MS Sloane 2463, f. 217)

I wanted to think about another side of childbirth in medieval England, that is, about the stories people told and the fears and hopes these stories reflected. I look at Middle English romances, which were the popular fiction of late-medieval England. Bringing together drama and fantasy with sensationalism, sex, misogyny and racism, these stories are packed with information about cultural stereotypes and attitudes towards women.

The King of Tars tells a story familiar to medieval readers, in which a woman encounters the evils lurking in the world beyond Christendom. The Christian daughter of the King of Tars marries her father’s enemy, the Muslim Sultan of Damascus, hoping to convert him to Christianity. She becomes pregnant, and when she gives birth, the child is not a healthy baby, but a grotesque ‘lump-child’, a bundle of flesh without limbs or features. The narrator dwells on the horror of the scene:

      “lim no hadde it non … In chaumber it lay hem bifore/ Withouten blod &    bon. … it hadde noither nose no eye,/ Bot lay ded as any ston.”

      (“It had no limbs … It lay before them in the birth-chamber,/ Without   blood or bones … It had neither nose nor eyes,/ But lay dead as any stone.”)

The gruesome birth appalls and enrages the Sultan, who initially blames his wife. She, however, convinces him to let her have the baby baptised, and the act of baptism restores the ‘lump-child’ to a normal human baby who begins to cry. Convinced by this concrete proof, he converts to Christianity.

It’s easy to get caught up in the shocking aspects of this story – the extreme Islamophobia, the miraculous transformation of the baptism. But the description of the deformed, lifeless baby, the angry husband and the distraught new mother makes this story an unsettling one.

The Sultan’s initial anger towards his wife draws on a tradition of medieval men who were repelled by, and fearful of, the female processes of pregnancy and childbirth. St Jerome, noted medieval misogynist, declares ‘Women with child present a revolting spectacle’. Writing to a thirteen-year-old girl, he rants about the disgusting physical effects of pregnancy, the swelling of the belly, and the use of medicines to bring about abortions. This disgust and distrust of pregnant women extended to men’s attitudes towards the mothers of babies born with ‘deformities’. The Bible itself said ‘women in their uncleanness will bear monsters’.

Set against these powerful misogynistic messages, the miraculous conclusion of the romance seems flimsy and inadequate. How did medieval women listening to this story respond to its descriptions? Did they think of their own experiences of childbirth – or those of their mothers, sisters, or daughters? Was the mother of the story, who proves herself innocent of blame as well as true in her Christian faith, a source of inspiration, or a focus of pity?