1611: Authority, Gender and the Word in Early Modern England

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See J. Bossy Cambridge, , pp. March, Actions for slaunder London, , p. On involvement in the secular law, see C. Herrup, The common peace: participation and the criminal law in seventeenth-century England Cambridge, , and R. On these narratives and their meanings see L. We all know the verb, but assign it to a nursery context: we get scolded for not eating our cabbage or spoiling our nice new clothes. Yet it was also redolent of female strength and power, since it was traditionally supposed that a scold was capable of outfacing the devil. It is that pathway that this paper follows, concentrating in accord with the theme of the collection on legal issues—the punishment of scolding as a crime.

I Recent and not so recent work has gone a long way towards establishing a framework for understanding relations between the sexes in Tudor and Stuart England. It is accepted that the society was broadly speaking patriarchal, though there is much debate about what this meant in actual practice in terms of relations between husbands and wives, parents and children within the household.


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Then, as now, far fewer women came before the courts than men. Females were under represented most markedly in crimes involving physical violence, major larcenies or, more generally, activities that required a high degree of initiative and self assertion. When they were in trouble for criminal behaviour it was more likely to be as perpetrators of petty theft in household, workshop or market and of offences involving verbal rather than physical abuse, or as mere aiders and abettors of more serious crimes.

In contemporary society it was perceived as highly dangerous and destructive, a serious affront to God and mankind. Modern historians, however, have usually explained it in terms of the tragic dependence of needy women in a maledominated society that was experiencing rapid social and economic change—as at most a fantasy of power. Underdown links this with the contemporaneous phenomenon of witch-hunting, and, more generally, with the cluster of socio-economic changes associated with the population rise and price inflation of the sixteenth and early seventeenth centuries.

Fielden villages, which Underdown sees as more hierarchical, more stable economically, more traditional in ethos, were relatively immune from the epidemic of scolding. The later parts of the chapter will break new ground, delving a little deeper into the actual circumstances of scolds and scolding in order to get closer to the reality of the lives both of women and of men in the past. Suggestions for such research are made throughout this chapter.

II Let us start with some basic terms and definitions. As has already been noted, the verb to scold had a much stronger meaning than it does today: it meant to chide and to brawl and had undertones of violence and uncontrolled rage. A scold was a turbulent, chiding, brawling person.

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The term could apply to either sex, but from the fourteenth century it was characteristically used of women and by about had become virtually exclusive to them. This was especially true of the noun: the phrase common scold was a technical term in common law, and meant an individual liable to prosecution and punishment as a nuisance for continually disturbing the neighbours by contentious behaviour Plate 2.

However, the term often carried much stronger implications of legal chicanery and the stirring up of unjust lawsuits. In brief, barratry prosecutions were redolent of the wider public world from which women were largely if not entirely excluded. Rather the key points are that chiding, brawling and verbal abuse were particularly though not exclusively associated with females because the latter tended to eschew physical violence and did not ordinarily have easy access to effective substitutes such as manipulation of the legal system; and that such verbal aggression, when perpetrated by women, had come to be labelled as a specific category of female offence with as will be seen peculiar modes of punishment.

There is no disagreement on the last of these points. Expressions of concern about scolds can certainly be found in the late seventeenth century and even into the eighteenth,19 but actual legal proceedings against scolds were on the decline to such an extent that by about formal prosecutions were becoming something of a curiosity. The idea of a marked rise in scolding cases after , analogous to the well documented increase in witchcraft prosecutions, is harder to sustain.

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Detailed comparisons between the periods before and after are difficult because of important differences in the nature and survival of court records, coupled with shifts in jurisdictional patterns and major changes in population levels that make crude figures hard to interpret. What can be said with certainty is that prosecutions for scolding were commonplace in many jurisdictions in the late fourteenth, fifteenth and early sixteenth centuries, especially in the church courts, in city and borough tribunals and with many variations in incidence in manor courts serving rural communities.

Underdown never commits himself to any figures, but the vocabulary he uses implies brisk dealing in scolds in the courts of Elizabethan and early Stuart England. Again this proposition is not easy to test, not least since so many overlapping jurisdictions had cognizance of the offence of scolding.

Despite these difficulties it is possible to determine figures that give at least a rough idea of the intensity of prosecution. To this end Table 3. Males identified in closely similar ways have been included in the totals, but their numbers are separately identified in the bracketed figures.


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The totals exclude offences described as barratry, specific acts of defamation or abuse against individu als including office holders such as constables when there is no indication that the offender was an habitual quarreller, pew disputes in churches, and various other miscellaneous quarrels and brawls in church, churchyard or elsewhere. To have included these sorts of cases, many of which involved men and which overlap heavily in kind with partyand-party suits for slander in both the ecclesiastical and the secular courts, would have altogether destroyed the coherence of the figures.

Suffice to say that these miscellaneous brawls and abuses would together far outnumber the cases of female scolding. Table 3.

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Note: Figures relate to persons prosecuted; bracketed figures indicate how many males if any are included in the totals. Sources: see n Note: Figures relate to persons prosecuted that for Mere, etc. On the other hand, there were some hotspots, such as Nottingham, where prosecutions were relatively numerous, while some expanding towns such as Manchester clearly stepped up prosecutions in the early seventeenth century.

To some extent the prosecution figures were affected by legal conventions. Obviously this complicates comparisons between different localities. Nonetheless, it would seem that urban areas were, in general, more fertile ground for action against scolds than country districts. In part this was simply a function of the crowded conditions found in many towns and of the intensity of social regulation characteristic of well governed cities and boroughs. However, neither Table 3. The limited number of prosecutions in the populous forest manor of Gillingham Dorset have already been noticed.

While there were occasional prosecutions, overall the evidence of their court leet records suggests that concern about the subject was distinctly muted. In contrast, in this period the leets dealt with numerous prosecutions for a variety of trading offences, unlawful games, the illegal taking of inmates and subtenants, hedgebreaking, woodstealing and other petty pilfering, assault, affray and bloodshed, and a vast range of nuisances and neglect of communal obligations.

It is plain that these matters, the bulk of which were perpetrated by men, were of much more persistent concern and interest than scolding women. He is inclined to assume that the form and severity of punishments simply reflected levels of anxiety about the offences to which they were applied. This may have been a factor, but penal policy like other aspects of the judicial process was shaped also by specifically legal and jurisdictional concerns and, more generally, by a variety of cultural influences. Changes in the legal sanctions applied to scolds were really confined to the temporal jurisdiction, since throughout the period the church courts continued to punish scolders and quarrellers with admonition and penance.

However, it is certainly the case that the branks— sometimes of wood and leather,but often of iron and of cruel construction— was in use in such towns as Bridgnorth, Chester, Preston, Manchester and Newcastle upon Tyne by the seventeenth century Plate 3. The device may have been imported from Scotland, and it may therefore be significant that references to its use in English towns mostly cluster in the mid-seventeenth century when Scottish and English affairs became so closely intertwined.

But on close examination the evidence suggests that the development owed as much to a general trend towards legal definition, aided by the increase of printed materials, as to any demonstrable wish for greater severity towards scolds.

Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century legal codifiers found that they had inherited from the judicial practice of the middle ages a wide range of terms denoting shame punishments that could be used against scolds. They included pillory, tumbrel, trebuchet, castigatory, thew, gumstool and cucking-stool. All had a fearsome ring but by the late sixteenth century the precise meaning of some of these terms had become uncertain.

: authority, gender and the word in early modern England

Some were thought to imply ducking, but this was not true of all. Modern research into the early history of the cucking-stool has revealed that, in fact, there was great variety of usage in different manors, boroughs and cities. In some places the aim was primarily to exhibit the offenders to public ridicule, which might be achieved either by placing them in a fixed position in some prominent place or by carrying them about the town. Elsewhere the emphasis was on the ducking of the culprits, the effect of which might be simply to soak them or, more brutally, to defile them with mud or filth.

These objects were achieved by means of a wide variety of engines and contraptions, not always chair-like in form, their precise nature depending on local traditions and available resources. To add to the confusion, up to the early sixteenth century, these multifarious penalties had been applied not only to scolds—instead of or as an alternative to fines—but also to bakers, brewers and other tradespeople who sold underweight or adulterated goods, and to other offenders such as bawds, prostitutes, cheats and cozeners.

Thus The cucking of a scold c. However, there were several reasons why the impact of these developments was more restricted than might at first sight be thought. On the legal front, the definition of the proper mode of shame punishments was tempered by injunctions to be circumspect in their use. In any case there were other, more practical considerations which even at an earlier date tended to limit the number of cases in which scolds were subjected to ducking.

One was financial.

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The administration of early modern justice, especially its penal aspects, was heavily influenced by the hardest of hard-nosed concepts of value for money. Cucking-stools were fairly elaborate instruments of punishment and hence expensive. They were also singularly liable to rot. It may be surmised that this was a major reason why, as Underdown notes, many smaller communities never provided a cuckingstool, and indeed were sometimes prepared to incur repeated fines rather than going to the expense of doing so.

To take an example, Southampton had a cucking-stool in the late fifteenth century; an elaborate wheeled specimen constructed in at a cost of 5s 4d. Repeated presentments to this effect in the court leet culminated in in a sharp exchange of views on costs and benefits. Despite the apparent ingenuity of this solution, the matter was not resolved and succeeding years saw repeated references to the lack of a cucking-stool.

In many other places the instrument existed but was repeatedly out of commission, as frequent presentments of decay and often fruitless orders for repair abundantly testify. Among these was humanity. Of course early modern England was not particularly squeamish in its use of physical punishments.

If hanging was less common than historians once thought, it was by no means a rare phenomenon; while lesser punishments, especially whipping and the stocks, were commonplace and were applied not only to men but sometimes also to women for offences such as petty larceny and sexual immorality. However, it has been established that contemporaries were often reluctant to put close neighbours in danger of physical punishment.

Contrary to what some modern writers have suggested, there are virtually no reports of actual deaths, though a number of accounts point to physical injury of some sort. Unquestionably more usual was bitter humiliation. By definition scolds were not easily cowed and were prone to defend themselves against being punished. Even when the victims were secured it was hard to stop their tongues. Of course this was an unusual case, but some commentators recognized that even for ordinary scolds the punishment could be counterproductive.