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.
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,