Women’s Unruly Speech in Early Modern Europe


To what Extent can Women’s Unruly Speech be seen as Quasi-Public Power?

Women’s unruly speech can take a variety of different forms: gossip, slander or treason, to name a few. The term ‘quasi-public power’ is seemingly, partly or almost public power, as women did not have obvious public power; their only weapon was their speech. The key themes in this question are the ways in which women were targeted over treason, monarchs being victims of gossip, gossip in writing, cases and statistics, comparisons of male and female speech, as well as the connections between gossip and witchcraft. This essay will argue that women’s unruly speech was largely considered to be quasi-public power because attention was drawn towards it by the fact that the male population was threatened by it. There were repeated attacks on gossiping which showed a widespread concern that ‘unsupervised female solidarity posed a threat to the order and values of a patriarchal society’.[1] Hence, groups of gossiping women were seen as a threat to male order. However, there are a few historical problems in this area. Women’s speech is recorded a lot less than men’s unless it gets to court, so we have a lot more records of male speech than female. Also, women’s speech only became powerful when men gave it credence, so we cannot see evidence of it unless men gave it credit.

Ducking Stool
Ducking Stool

Simply the fact that many women went to court over cases of scandalous, slanderous or treasonous speech gives them quasi-public power, as courts more often than not made the cases public. Treason cases particularly were always very high-profile and, if it was a case of female treasonous speech, this brought women’s unruly speech to the attention of the population. For example, in the case of one Elizabeth Herd in December 1685 she was accused of using ‘Irreverent, Scandalous and Seditious Words against His most Sacred Majesty’.[2] In some ways this case is unusual as the normal punishment for treason was execution so the punishment was relatively lenient as Elizabeth Herd was just whipped and fined, which is even more unusual when you consider that her character was not very respectable, she is described as a ‘common Prostitute’.[3] This case was towards the end of the early modern period, where it was less likely that people would be executed for crimes, hence this possibly explains the more lenient punishment. However, David Cressy does say that punishment for unruly speech could vary from a reprimand right up to public execution.[4] But we would expect that treasonable words would be at the harsher end of the scale of punishments. These punishments were a way for authorities to regulate female speech, and to set an example to women who might digress from the prescribed conventions and hierarchy and attempt to get quasi-public power.

Gossips and gossiping were commonly written about during the early modern period. Samuel Rowlands’ pamphlet Tis Merrie When Gossips Meet (1602) tells the story of a wife, a widow and a spinster who gather in an alehouse to talk and gossip, but there is a ‘clear undertow of disapproval’ in the story.[5] This is because the women, but particularly the wife, know that they should be doing something else. The wife should be tending her husband or children, or cooking cleaning the house. Rowlands is trying to discourage idle female behaviour because it leads to leisure time which leads to gossip. In his gossip pamphlets, Rowlands demonstrates the real fear that men felt when women gathered together. Even more threatening to men was that these pamphlets became a female ‘commodity’ as they were female-gendered and addressed questions that women wanted to know.[6] This meant that a lot of women had access to these pamphlets and men knew that women would take the information in them to heart. Moralist writers were very concerned about the effects and consequences of female speech so they wrote about how a woman should conduct herself. Women were expected to be respectful, avoid ‘overmighty’ speech, avoid interrupting men, and keep silent unless speech was absolutely necessary.[7] To back up Rowlands’ point, the play Mariam by Kim Hall says that sexual chastity is not enough; that women also needed to have a chaste way of acting and speaking.[8] It seems that most of the literature which was directed specifically at women’s speech in the early modern period was aimed at stemming women’s quasi-public power and controlling the use of female speech.

Tis Merrie When Gossips Meet by Samuel Rowlands 1602
Tis Merrie When Gossips Meet by Samuel Rowlands 1602

Gossiping is sometimes linked to witchcraft as women like witches, gossips and scolds were all rebelling against their assigned places in the social hierarchy. Prosecuting witches and scolds was seen to be a way of controlling female speech.[9] Men wanted to control women’s speech, and then their power. Malcolm Gaskill says that both witchcraft and scolding were ways for the powerless to wield power, however little, and women who were accused of both crimes were seen to be even more threatening.[10] In this way, female speech is linked to other crimes, and criminalised just as much as them. Garthine Walker agrees with Gaskill, and says that scolding and witchcraft were linked. Words were seen as female weapons in this period, as they did not have the use of anything else.[11] If the authorities made an example of women like scolds and witches, then they hoped to discourage others from making the same ‘mistakes’ as them. This is demonstrated by an undated case where Elizabeth Device spoke against her children at her trial for witchcraft in order to prevent them speaking against her. She kept threatening her nine-year-old daughter until she was removed in order for the girl to give evidence and Device was found to be a threat on the basis of her ‘aggressive speech’.[12] In this way, the courts and authorities demonised gossip as well as witchcraft, and they spotlighted female attempts to gain quasi-public power through their unruly speech, like gossip and slander.

Cases and statistics differed across Europe and even within England itself. By the 1620s, London’s consistory court was seeing over 200 defamation cases per year. Many, however, were settled in the early stages, but about a fifth called witnesses and, of these, around three-quarters were brought by women.[13] This shows that the only way that women truly had power was by defaming and gossiping about each other. In Cheshire, there were twice as many wives as widows prosecuted for scolding, and five times as many wives as spinsters.[14] This seems unusual as young, unmarried women and spinsters had more leisure time, and hence more time to gossip, so we would expect that they would make up the majority of prosecutions. In Venice, legal advisors said that it would take two female testimonies to equal one male testimony, although this was not always followed in practice.[15] Authorities realised that gossip could be quite powerful, but they did not see female speech as quite as trustworthy as male, hence they asked for double the amount of testimony. The majority of women prosecuted for scolding in England were actually wives. The difficulty in slander and defamation cases across Europe was that it was often difficult to blame or punish anyone, because it was not always known with who the gossip had originated.[16] Cases and statistics demonstrate a woman’s ability to get quasi-public power, as cases being in the public eye would mean that they had a chance to make their opinions heard, which was what men feared.

Male and female speech was often compared, with women’s speech being unruly and gossipy where men’s was powerful and generally arrogant. Women’s unruly speech tended to implicate themselves as well as their intended victim, whereas male speech tended to be more arrogant as men were more secure about their position in the social hierarchy above women and their power.[17] But because women’s position was less secure, when they did have quasi-public power it was much more threatening. Women were often gossiped about when they usurped the place of a male. For example, in 1593 Anne Webb was accused of defaming Margery Dunne by saying that she wore a flat cap, breeches and a codpiece, as breeches were a symbol of ‘male-female relations’ and the household order was upset when a woman took a man’s place.[18] Authorities were very controlling about the positions of men and women. The scold and scolding were ‘male constructs which served to restrict women’s powers of expression and keep them in subjugation’.[19] Men likely thought that, if women had the power of speech and gossip, then they could target male authority figures and get political and economic independence. Ulinka Rublack says that, in Germany, women’s speech was targeted, but particularly the speech and gossip of young, single women because their speech was thought to be ‘mischevious’.[20] Married women were seen as less of a threat than unmarried women, because the married women were under the control of a husband, and were not masterless. However, in Venice, gossip was not gendered as much because both male and female speech was targeted as unruly.[21] Male and female speech was constantly compared. In England and Germany, it was women who were targeted for unruly speech, but in Venice, it was less gendered, and both men and women were targeted.

Elizabeth I Darnley Portrait 1575
Elizabeth I Darnley Portrait 1575

Even female monarchs were not immune from gossip. Women at court and around the royal family had to be controlled in their speech and they had to manipulate speech very effectively.[22] Elizabeth I was a target for gossip during her 45 years on the English throne. In August 1560, Anne Dowe spread gossip that Elizabeth I had received a petticoat from Robert Dudley, to which people replied that he had actually given her a child and that, even if he had not, he soon would do.[23] Another similar incident surrounding Elizabeth I and pregnancy was when Lady Willoughby said that Elizabeth I looked pale, as though she had just come out of her childbed, and when men repeated the rumour, it was referred to the Privy Council.[24] The rumour obviously was not given much credence when it came from the mouth of a woman, but when it came from a man it was more believable to a male-dominated circle. Women had to have some quasi-public power to spread rumours about a monarch, but the female monarch also had power to dismiss and disprove rumours. A lot of the gossip surrounding women was to do with sexual reputation.

Gossip seems to have been most often linked to sexual behaviour for women.  In the Tudor and Stuart periods, ‘scold’ was a very negative word, second only to ‘whore’ as the worst term that could be applied to women.[25] It is interesting that these are the top two, as unruly speech and sexual conduct were often tied in together. If your speech was unclean, your sexual behaviour could also be questioned. However, Frances Dolan says that the punishments for criminal women were targeted at their speech rather than their sexual behaviour or any other ‘crime’.[26] In male-written books and pamphlets women are warned of the dangers of ‘sexual transgression’ as sexual chastity was also linked to a woman’s speech. Silence did not necessarily mean chastity, but it was seen as a ‘virtue’.[27] Slander and sexual crimes were treated entirely differently, and slander which dealt with different aspects of life, like criminal charges or moral charges, was dealt with in different courts. Slander which led to charges of specific immoral conduct like adultery or fornication was dealt with in the church courts, while slander which led to criminal charges like theft, murder or infanticide was dealt with by the secular courts.[28] This is because courts were becoming more secular but crimes like adultery and fornication affected the soul, and not just the body, hence they were dealt with by the church. When a woman’s sexual behaviour was questioned alongside her speech, she lost some of her quasi-public power, if she had any in the first place, because her position was being undermined.

Men feared the power of gossip and what it could do within a community. There was a fear of gossip, especially women’s gossip, and particularly the damage it could do to relationships, marriage, social standing or reputation.[29] Reputation was incredibly important in the early modern period; if you had a bad reputation your business ventures could fail or you could be a social outcast. In Germany, there was a case of infanticide where the woman was socially vulnerable and gossips spread rumours that her growing belly was a sign of the crime she was about to commit, so when the baby died, it was seen as expected.[30] Cases like this heighten awareness of gossip and intensify the fear of it. Sometimes in cases of gossip, it is not so much the words as the general ‘power of language’ which was damaging. In these cases, it was the psychological awareness of reputation and status that was damaging.[31] Knowing that your reputation could be at risk and revealing that you know this, could automatically damage your reputation. When gossip was aimed at a person of authority in a community, neighbours could relish seeing him defeated, and there was often very little chance of them being punished, provided that their speech was discreet.[32] In this way, women had the power to bring down male authority figures within the public arena and damage reputations.  With women having this much power, it is easy to understand why men felt quite so threatened by female speech.

To conclude, female speech was made into unruly speech by the fact that men did not approve of it, but it also took various forms, like slander, gossip, sedition or treason. The key themes in this question are the ways in which women were targeted over treason, monarchs being victims of gossip, gossip in writing, cases and statistics, comparisons of male and female speech, as well as the connections between gossip and witchcraft. This essay has argued that women’s unruly speech was largely considered to be quasi-public power because attention was drawn towards it by the fact that the male population was threatened by it. Groups of gossiping women were seen as a threat to the patriarchal order. However, there are a few historical problems in this area. Women’s speech is recorded a lot less than men’s unless it gets to court, so we have a lot more records of male speech than female. Also, women’s speech only became powerful when men gave it credence, so we cannot see evidence of it unless men gave it credit.


[1] B. Capp, When Gossips Meet: Women, Family and Neighbourhood in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003) p. 50

[2] www.oldbaileyonline.org, 1685, Elizabeth Herd, date accessed 30th November 2011

[3] Ibid

[4] D. Cressy, Dangerous Talk: Scandalous, Seditious and Treasonable Speech in Pre-Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010) p. x

[5] B. Capp, When Gossips Meet: Women, Family and Neighbourhood in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003) p. 49

[6] S. Gushee O’Malley, ‘Weele Have a Wench Shall Be Our Poet: Samuel Rowlands’ Gossip Pamphlets’ in C. Malcolmson and M. Suzuki (eds.), Debating Gender in Early Modern England 1500 – 1700 (Basingstoke: Palgrave Macmillan, 2002) pp.121 – 140, p. 122

[7] A. Flather, Gender and Space in Early Modern England (Rochester NY: Boydell & Brewer, 2007) p. 28

[8] G. Kennedy, Just Anger: Representing Women’s Anger in Early Modern England (Illinois: SIU Press, 2000) p. 63

[9] F. Dolan, Dangerous Familiars: Representation of Domestic Crime in England 1500 – 1700 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994) p. 200

[10] M. Gaskill, Crime and Mentalities in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) p. 71

[11] G. Walker, Crime, Gender and Social Order in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) p. 101

[12] F. Dolan, Dangerous Familiars: Representation of Domestic Crime in England 1500 – 1700 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994) pp. 199 – 200

[13] L. Gowing, ‘Gender and the Language of Insult in Early Modern London’, History Workshop Journal, Vol. 35, No. 1 (1993) pp. 1 – 21, pp 1 – 2

[14] G. Walker, Crime, Gender and Social Order in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) p. 111

[15] E. Horodowich, ‘The Gossiping Tongue: Oral Networks, Public Life and Political Culture in Early Modern Venice’, Renaissance Studies, Vol. 19, No. 1 (2005) pp. 22 – 45, p. 28

[16] U. Rublack, The Crimes of Women in Early Modern Germany (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999) p. 46

[17] L. Gowing, ‘Gender and the Language of Insult in Early Modern London’, History Workshop Journal, Vol. 35, No. 1 (1993) pp. 1 – 21, p. 7

[18] Ibid, p. 11

[19] M. Ingram, ‘‘Scolding Women Cucked or Washed’: a Crisis in Gender Relations in Early Modern England’ in J. Kermode and G. Walker (eds.), Women, Crime and the Courts in Early Modern England (Abingdon: Taylor & Francis, 2005) pp. 47 – 80, p. 49

[20] U. Rublack, The Crimes of Women in Early Modern Germany (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999) p. 20

[21] E. Horodowich, ‘The Gossiping Tongue: Oral Networks, Public Life and Political Culture in Early Modern Venice’, Renaissance Studies, Vol. 19, No. 1 (2005) pp. 22 – 45, p. 36

[22] T. Krontiris, Oppositional Voices: Women as Writers and Translators of Literature in the English Renaissance (London: Routledge, 1997) pp. 14 – 15

[23] D. Cressy, Dangerous Talk: Scandalous, Seditious and Treasonable Speech in Pre-Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2010) p. 70

[24] Ibid,  p. 70

[25] M. Ingram, ‘‘Scolding Women Cucked or Washed’: a Crisis in Gender Relations in Early Modern England’ in J. Kermode and G. Walker (eds.), Women, Crime and the Courts in Early Modern England (Abingdon: Taylor & Francis, 2005) pp. 47 – 80, p. 47

[26] F. Dolan, Dangerous Familiars: Representation of Domestic Crime in England 1500 – 1700 (Ithaca: Cornell University Press, 1994) p. 199

[27] T. Krontiris, Oppositional Voices: Women as Writers and Translators of Literature in the English Renaissance (London: Routledge, 1997) p. 5

[28] G. Walker, Crime, Gender and Social Order in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2003) p. 100

[29] D. O’Hara, Courtship and Constraint: Rethinking the Making of Marriage in Tudor England (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002) p. 41

[30] U. Rublack, The Crimes of Women in Early Modern Germany (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1999) p. 17

[31] D. O’Hara, Courtship and Constraint: Rethinking the Making of Marriage in Tudor England (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 2002) p. 42

[32] B. Capp, When Gossips Meet: Women, Family and Neighbourhood in Early Modern England (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003) p. 274

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