Wednesday 29 August 2012

Tudor Women United: Birth, Misogyny and Female Space.

                                           “Gossips are frogs, they drink and talk.”[1]

Tudor men were deeply suspicious of Tudor women. What they did and said, particularly behind their husband’s backs, caused considerable concern and gave rise to a degree of misogyny that permeated all aspects of popular culture. The dialogue exchanged in the birth chamber, at the market place and in the tavern constituted a supportive female culture, which was in turn, reduced to the status of damaging gossip by men. After all, what else could Tudor women have to talk about except the failings of their husbands ?

The rituals, practices and superstitions of birth remained a traditional female preserve throughout the Tudor period. This automatically made it suspect, a source of fear and insecurity amongst those excluded from its secrets. Placed within the wide-spread mistrust of women, childbirth highlighted the tensions that permeated every aspect of women’s lives, although it provided one of the few opportunities where female supremacy was grudgingly acknowledged. Irrepressibly, women found outlets for expression and mutual reliance in those domestic spheres that punctuated their days and life-cycles. That is not to suggest any sort of proto-Feminist consciousness in Tudor England, rather a solidarity forged through common experience or suffering. Women did band together to share chores and objects such as nursing duties and childcare, childbed linen and medicinal herbs, as well as emotional support. When some were mistreated by their husbands, others stepped in to offer shelter and even physically interposed themselves between husband and wife. Female identities were a complex function of their relations with other adults, their children, the church, the neighbourhood and its social codes. As such, there seems to have been an almost floating, oral female culture invoked whenever occasion arose, in and out of which women moved, dependent on need.

The childbirth month was the epitome of male exclusion from the female sphere, involving friends, relations and neighbours from the pregnancy stage through the lying-in, to the subsequent ceremonies of upsitting, gossips’ feasts and churching. In urban centre and larger networks of villages, birth would have been a regular event, with its associated practices and perils forming a backdrop to the lives of girls growing into adulthood. Birth could overturn usual social demarcations between mistress and servant, nobility and yeomanry: frequently ladies of the manor were present as a social courtesy, bringing cordials, medicine and advice. The role of the gossips during lying-in and labour were to cheer the mother and keep up her spirits, to distract her from boredom and pain, whilst bringing whatever maternal wisdom they possessed from experience and traditional wisdom.

Tudor women were also denigrated in oral and printed forms of popular culture, where they formed a very clear underclass as the subjects of jokes, fables and scorn. Criticism about them, associating women with animals, appear in ballads, songs, epigrams and pamphlets, identifying them with noisy, silly geese, deceitful and insatiable cats, slippery eels, angry wasps and inflexible swine. It is clear that not all women deplored this subjection: the reverse was also true; women could be each other’s closet allies or their bitterest enemies, as the courts attest. Some were active participants in the perpetuation of the worst female stereotypes by making their enemies the targets of attack. Such cases arise in the social disputes over sexual immorality and paternity which appear in Tudor Assize court records when women are called to vouch for each others’ reputations or “common fame”. Gossip was thus elevated to the level of legal evidence. Women did play a part in this self-denigratory culture, by retelling stories, jokes and anecdotes that reaffirmed their low status, perhaps as a way of distancing themselves from the worst extremes of femininity, aligning themselves more with male than female characteristics as a way of rejecting those stereotypes. It was a form of self-protection in a society with a high level of permitted patriarchal violence.

In the eyes of the law, most Tudor women were powerless. Their social definition came through marriage, yet ironically it was the spinsters and widows, the femme seul, who had most autonomy, exercising control over their lands and goods and running their own businesses. Providing they had the necessary funds though, these remained the minority. In comparison, the married woman or femme couvert was considered to be little more than an extension of her husband’s possessions. Women did not even have control over their own bodies, with husbands allowed to use physical “discipline” and rape wives without repercussions. Religious debate continued to rage through the sixteenth century as to whether women even possessed souls and any signs of intelligence were repackaged as “cunning”. They were considered to have a particular talent for being subversive: feminine intelligence was often presented proverbially as deception: “women in mischief are wiser than men,”[2]they were “necessary evils” and were “made perfect by men.” The fear of female disobedience to male authority was apparent in popular maxims: “a woman does that which is forbidden her,” “women are always desirous of sovereignty” and “all women are ambitious naturally.” A group of women was greatly to be feared, when they could share ideas and plan ways to deceive their menfolk, as do the women in “Wives in the Tavern.”

Male fears concerning the malevolent power of collective female gossip could take disturbing turns. “Scolds,” denounced by husbands, were fined or punished for their inability to keep quiet and undermining of male authority. The grisly metal bridles that survive in medieval castles and dungeons were illegal by this time but the ducking of women in ponds survived into the 1560s, although rare. It provided an opportunity for a man to reassert his dominance and regain a little social credence in the public eye. One court roll of High Roding in the early Sixteenth century, requested the removal from the village of a woman named Agnes for being a “common scold” and “disturber of the peace to the great annoyance of her neighbours.”[3] At Barking in 1581, the wives of Edmund Body and Geoffrey Wood were reported as common scolds,[4] as was Matilda Glascock of Becontree in 1575,[5] although no punishment was recorded. Bald’s Leechbook, an early medieval collection of recipes, contained a cure for men against a woman’s chatter. The advice was to eat a radish at night whilst fasting and one the next day, to ensure the chatter cannot harm you, suggesting a real belief in the possibility of tangible harm being done through speech to a man’s reputation. The potential overlap of female disobedience, secrecy and witchcraft becomes even more apparent in the pseudo-religious advice of receipt books and almanacs. Men might make a salve against women with whom the devil copulated, using hops, wormwood, lupin, vervain, garlic, fennel and other ingredients. They should place these in a vat under an altar, sing nine masses over it, boil it in butter and sheep’s grease, add holy salt and strain the liquid through a cloth into running water. The man who anointed himself with this salve would be saved from evil temptation.

Tudor misogyny was exacerbated by the difference between the lives of men and women. Given the constant threat of death and disease, poor medical understanding of female conditions, the rigours of childbirth, child rearing and infant mortality, coupled with the similarity of daily experience, it is little wonder that women sought each other’s help and support. Without the modern labour saving devices and opportunities that later transformed domestic duties, greater amounts of women’s time were spent in regular social activities. Networks of women came together at female-dominated locations such as the market place, dairy, bake-house, laundry and in childbed, churching and christenings. Through their work routine and life-cycle events, an oral female culture flourished, giving rise to male suspicion about subversive gossip. Men feared the contents of their wives discussions, believing them obsessed with their husbands’ sexual performance and constantly critical of their behaviour; husbands would complain of wives deliberately broadcasting arguments to draw in female neighbours. In their absence, though, women could supposedly enjoy unregulated freedom of speech, abandoning decorum and good taste when the boundaries came down.

Undoubtedly, then as now, when a group of women talked together, men might be discussed, but male fears about the dominance of women suggests insecurity and arrogance. What else could their wives find to talk about but the men ? No doubt they were comparing notes, broadcasting men’s misdeeds and performances. The doggerel poem “Tittle-Tattle, Or, the Several Branches of Gossiping,” was a satire on women’s idle and continuous chatter, although it also highlighted the regular formation of female groups at the moments of key events and rites of passage. Women were an unruly force that men had to tolerate for their role in essential social ritual such as childbirth.

Nor did the association of female gossip and defamation end with the Tudor period. In fact, it has remained a feature of gender division until the present day, although the potential harm of “gossip” has undergone a shift with the advent of differing forms of media. Well into the seventeenth century though, gossips were still targeted as manifestations of masculine fears; in a 1674 ballad “The Gossip’s Meeting,” a man overhears women in a tavern criticising their husband’s sexual prowess:

“My husband doth sit like a Mome (mummy?) all the day

And at night in the bed he is cold as the clay

I would rather he would go and drink a pot or two

And come home and night and do what he should do.”

As if this was not enough to stir up trouble, they plan to deceive their husbands and use their pregnancies to explain their absence from home:

“Pretending our Burthens hath tired us sore

As if we were ready to fall on the flore

And so by that means they will patient remain

And pitty us too, when they hear us complain.[6]

Such depictions, typically by male authors, exploit and fan masculine suspicions of women’s rapacious sexuality, allowing them to uphold the common stereotypes with some sense of justification, according to this “evidence” from the mouths of fictional characters. The women’s manipulation of their pregnant condition in order to deceive, emasculates their husbands and equates childbearing with familial disharmony.

Many common elements to women’s lives excluded men, not least their domestic space, work and bodily experiences. Female spaces within houses were demarcated by gendered roles, by the routines and tasks of the average day. Their work of cleaning, washing, cooking, caring and nursing, created small safe pockets of personal space within the wider male preserve of the household; female self-definition was enhanced through the creation of locations and tasks from which men were barred. The derogatory term “cotquean” was applied to a man who meddled in women’s domestic concerns but certain females were also excluded:  not even high status could fully assimilate a childless woman into the rituals of motherhood, although women of all ages and experiences participated in the sharing of domestic objects, clothing, linen and knowledge.

Many tensions existed between Tudor men and women, exacerbated by an imperfect understanding of each other. The polarised expectations of their lives contributed to this, by excluding males from key areas which created suspicion. This was apparent in many areas of popular and legal culture, which was used by both men and women to perpetuate these stereotypes. Yet in a pre-Feminist world, little sense of organised female solidarity existed; men were essential to women and vice versa. Whilst many women shared their experiences and resources, many others opposed each other within this tradition. By the end of the sixteenth century, the rule of Elizabeth would go some way to challenging these ideas but women would have to wait many hundreds of years before any sense of female equality and rights began to emerge.

[1] Herbert. G “Outlandish Proverbs” 1640
[2] Tilley
[3] ERO D/DU 886/3
[4] ERO Q/SR 79/95
[5] ERO Q/SR 55/1                 
[6] Anon, “The Gossip’s Meeting,” or “The Merry Market-Women of Taunton” 1674.


  1. If I was around in those times I would do what I wanted. Stuff all those stupid rules about you can't do this and that!!! No way!!!

  2. Ha ha, I think some women then thought so too. However, it was a far less tolerant society and unfortunately, it got a lot of them into trouble! Incredible how much some things have changed while others stay just the same.