Michael Kuczynski

title.none: Bardsley, Venemous Tongues (Michael Kuczynski)

identifier.other: baj9928.0712.005 07.12.05

identifier.issn: 1096-746X

description.statementofresponsibility: Michael Kuczynski, Tulane University,

publisher.none: .

date.issued: 2007

identifier.citation: Bardsley, Sandy. Venenmous Tongues: Speech and Gender in Late Medieval England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006. Pp. 214. $49.95 0-8122-3936-9. ISBN: .

type.none: Review

relation.ispartof: The Medieval Review

The Medieval Review 07.12.05

Bardsley, Sandy. Venenmous Tongues: Speech and Gender in Late Medieval England. Philadelphia: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006. Pp. 214. $49.95 0-8122-3936-9. ISBN: .

Reviewed by:

Michael Kuczynski
Tulane University

Speech, Chaucer explains in the House of Fame, is only broken air. The definition is intended (however scientifically accurate) as pedantic: it's spoken by a burlesque Dantean eagle, one of many instances in the poem of ironic understatement. Joking aside, however, medieval poets, like such modern novelists as Philip Roth and Salman Rushdie, know that there's nothing soft about language. In satire, especially, it's often wielded as a weapon. And outside the literary ambit, in life, it can get even more unruly. Courts of law have to concern themselves constantly with the blunt and destructive social impact of words. How they do so, and the often self-serving aims behind their policing efforts, is in any age a complex cultural narrative.

Sandy Bardsley's fascinating new book is not so much interested in medieval satire (there is a brief interlude on literary texts, on which see below), but rather in historical fact, insofar as incomplete medieval records allow this to be reconstructed. She uses case documents from medieval courts of law, both firsthand and by means of previous investigators' forays, to demonstrate how a particular kind of violent speech, scolding, became matter for jurisdiction in late medieval England. More specifically, she emphasizes a key cultural moment in post-plague England when women were losing access to an informal but respected means of drawing public attention to outrageous crimes, the "hue and cry," while at the same time enduring demonstrable "overrepresentation in the scolding category" (89). Within this jurisdictional frame, Bardsley argues, scolding came to be associated primarily if not exclusively with women, although pre- plague it was an offense just as likely to be charged against men. Through careful analysis of patterns of litigation, she is able to show the extent to which male society, in the venues of both secular and church courts, worked to silence women's dissenting discourse by labeling it as mere nagging: a stereotypical rather than idiosyncratic vice. Her argument is richly supported with statistics drawn from more than 600 late medieval records and graphs that represent convincing patterns inferred from these numbers.

Venomous Tongues is a welcome addition to a small group of recent monographs that have focused attention on medieval preoccupations with the sins of speech or "the tongue," as these were traditionally called in the Middle Ages. Medieval theologians regarded the impulse to sin as pervasive and intractable, inherited from Adam and, despite some ingenious matrices, resistant to definitive analysis. The most common matrix in medieval sin analysis was the Seven Deadly Sins scheme. This classification isn't relevant to Bardsley's argument. Others attempted to describe not only types of vice, but its modalities: the triad of sins of thought, word, and deed and, more antique than this classification, the simpler dyad, word and deed. In two superb recent books, Edwin Craun and Susan Phillips have charted the moral and ethical backgrounds to medieval attitudes about verbal sins such as slander, blasphemy, and gossip. Bardsley's approach is a helpful complement to their work, narrower in subject (e.g. much of what she has to say focuses on a single town, Middlewich, in Chester), but at the same time just as sharp in its analysis. I was especially impressed with those pages in which Bardsley explains how in the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries charges of defamation shifted in character from "private suits brought between two or more individuals" (77) to actions generated by more vaguely defined but powerful local male elites, who were concerned to stabilize there own economic interests post-plague by a kind of legal scapegoating--an effort to connect the disruptive effects of scolding with women especially, whose verbal status in society could thereby be contained and marginalized. Bardsley concludes her study, unsurprisingly, with the observation that "Attitudes toward women's speech helped maintain the patriarchal equilibrium of late medieval England, and...bequeathed to the early modern period a tool to help maintain it in the future" (151). In the context of her evidence and analysis, however, this unsurprising conclusion takes on considerable new weight and force.

Bardsley is an honest scholar who alerts readers more than once to the fact that the archive on which she draws is incomplete or "patchy" (80), and thus that her conclusions must be tentative. Just as it would be perilous to reconstruct from the number of surviving monastic copies of, say, Augustine's City of God too confident an analysis of the early medieval attitude toward that text, it would be risky for Bardsley to declare on the basis of available records the irrefutability of her argument about women's speech and scolding. (The point bears mentioning not because of any assertion Bardsley makes, but due to the sometimes stunning effect of numbers and graphs on critics such as myself, who normally deal with words.) Bardsley never, in my reading, strains the evidence. At the same time, her writing is fueled by the passionate awareness that there is another kind of recklessness or neglect to be avoided in the face of this legal record: not advancing an hypothesis, one moreover that is supported by the varieties of imaginative writing and visual arts from the same period, which likewise connect women and unruly speech.

It is unfortunate, therefore, that the weakest part of Bardsley's study is its treatment of texts. Her comments about Noah's wife from the mystery plays and Chaucer's Wife of Bath have a recycled feel: they lack the energy and acuteness of her treatment of legal data, and thus can sound perfunctory. One does not expect new or sustained literary insights in a study based on the law and statistics, but those that are offered should be incorporate with the argument, not awkwardly appended to it. And the details of non-statistical evidence need to be discussed, if not at length, more accurately than they tend to be here. Chapter 1, for instance, opens with a brief analysis of the medieval visual motif of hell-mouth (in wall paintings and mystery plays) in terms of verbal sin, Bardsley maintaining that in broad terms "By the late Middle Ages, everyone understood the metaphor: the mouth could be a site of evil" (26). Nowhere, however, does she acknowledge the scriptural locus for the hell-mouth motif, the biblical Book of Revelation, which suggests a more likely medieval understanding of that image. Popular responses to hell-mouth were various and indirect, not immediate and categorical, as Bardsley implies. This may seem like a minor instance, but I found it typical of the author's generally casual engagement with non-legal and non- statistical sources. A standout exception, I should add by way of qualification, is Bardsley's brief excursus on the devil Tutivillus in medieval poetry and wall painting and on misericords (52-57). This deft response to other kinds of cultural evidence left me expecting more from Bardsley's use of Middle English texts.

These criticisms aside, however, Venomous Tongues makes an impressive contribution to a growing body of criticism on medieval sins of the tongue and scolding in particular. The danger of studying sins of speech only by way of moral treatises and poems is that authors have a vested interest in the written word, which--despite the corruptions of scribes--was more stable in the Middle Ages than the jangling, hollering, and chat that is a vital part of any culture, but especially important in societies where the rate of literacy was low. Venomous Tongues guards against this danger by shining much needed light into some obscure corners of the medieval documentary record. In doing so, it confirms and amplifies the work of other literary and cultural historians and insists on the need for more interdisciplinary approaches to the study of medieval morality and its social enforcement.