Gossip, Defamation and the Law in Medieval England

I’m currently doing heavy duty research, so as light relief I’m reading Henrietta Leyer’s “Medieval Women, A Social History of Women in England, 450 – 1500”. Chapter seven discusses women and work, and explores the power this gives them at home and in the community. Although she recognises the fate of very poor peasants and women who moved to towns with no protection or plans for earning a living, her focus is on the wives of wealthier peasants, merchants and artisans. Expanding the stereotype of “the medieval women who has little agency” using primary and secondary sources, she recreates the lives of peasant, towns and noble women and explore their roles in the workforce.She discusses the similarities between the wives of wealthier peasants and townsmen, they often held their own lands ran small businesses as brewsters or bakers, sold surplus produce at market. Artisan’s wives worked with their husbands, often taking over his trade or establishing her own in widowhood. These women ran the home from the central position of the hearth, trained girls of similar rank as servants, preparing them for married life and helped to create the story and identity of their communities, especially when their husbands were absent all day at work.

What particularly piqued my interest was the power of women of all ranks to shape society by the use of their tongue, whether for good or ill. Leyer used a task she states was wholly female, the laundry, as the basis for her commentary. Women either did their own laundry or employed another woman or women. She notes that men did not approach the women whilst they worked, creating the perfect opportunity for talk. Rural communities in particular had a set washday so all the women would be present. It had to fit around the demands of land, livestock, church and their overlords, as village life was communal (Ponstan 1973), and market days, in nearby towns were set by Royal licence. Women were therefore often needed outside the home, to buy and sell at market, work on the land, and meet their religious obligations. The washing place, could be purpose built, or a spot where the river or stream was accessible, women’s domestic roles made them responsible for the household water supply and the hearth, hence they collectively supplied hot water for laundry. The work involved in washing was repetitive, wetting, soaping with harsh lye or gentle soapwort, scrubbing, rinsing, soaping and rinsing again, until their linen was clean, against a background of conversation. They would give advice, dispense feminine justice, and gossip about the community and each other. Berger (1979) states that this gossip creates the story of the community, the women’s words are feared and reviled, they hold the power to either build or destroy reputations, their image of village life constantly changing and evolving.

Gossip was not simply a pastime or tool of the lower classes, noble women held little power in the public sphere but had considerable influence in the domestic setting. However they were often called upon to help their husbands improve the family’s status. Cooper (undated) states she did this through her ability to run his household and estates, which allowed her husband to go to Court or war, currying favour with the King. She could also use her sexuality to attract and influence her husband’s behaviour or to ensnare other men to support his cause. She would gossip with her peers, either enhancing his reputation or spreading disinformation to disadvantage a rival. However she needed to guard against being the subject of gossip, which would disadvantage her husband. We can examine the conduct of two Queens, Phillipa of Hainault and Marguerite of Anjou to illustrate the pitfalls of gossip. Queen Phillipa was known for her humility and piety, she was charitable, loyal to her husband and aware of her reputation. By contrast Queen Marguerite had favourites, creating disharmony and factions to develop within the nobility. She voiced her suspicions of the Duke of York, and attracted negative comments about her chastity and the paternity of her son in return. And as Norton points out her close relationships with both the Dukes of Suffolk and Somerset did nothing to help her cause. Hence unrestrained rumour mongering from the upper echelons of society could have a destabilising effect on the realm, although it is worth noting that much of the innuendo aimed at Marguerite of Anjou, arose from the Yorkist men.

The religious communities of medieval England were another hotbed of gossip, supported by secular servants, who shared their secrets beyond the walls. The notes from multiple Bishop’s visitations and chronicles are full of accusations and counter-accusations, and the bishop’s officers would play on the divisions in order to dig beneath the surface of monastic life. Power (1922) cites many such examples which impacted on the reputation of the House; Romsey Abbey in 1302 employed “a useless, superfluous, quarrelsome and incontinent servant and one using insolent language to the ladies”, incontinence here implying gossip. In 1441, a nun at Grace Dieu Abbey complained “that the secular serving folk hold the nuns in despite… and chiefly they are rebellious in their words against the kitchener”; whilst in 1511 the nuns at Sheppy complained that “the men servants of the prioress, do not behave properly to the prioress, but speak of the convent contemptuously and dishonestly, thus ruining the convent.” Often the religious had little choice but to follow the conditions imposed by the bishop, and were required to modify their behaviours, on pain of excommunication or dissolutio”n. Ineffective Abbots, Abbesses, Priors and Prioresses were removed from office, their replacement imposed by the bishop. Those found guilty of gossip could also expect some form of public shame or penance within the cloister, for example in 1527, Lady Alice Gorsyn, a nun at Romsey, was absolved following her confession but was warned that further transgressions would require her to wear a red, cloth tongue on the barbe under her chin for a month.

Medieval law defined gossip as slander when a person was unjustly spoken ill of, in a malicious act of public defamation. Reputation or fama was guarded carefully and a bad reputation spread quickly, potentially creating serious problems, including reduced marriage prospects, limited opportunities for employment, and loss of income. Alfred the Great passed the first law against slander, decreeing that “the slanderer should have their tongue cut out“ as punishment, unless they could pay their “head price”, a preset financial value of their life, decided by their sex and status (Lovell 1966). However by the reign of Henry II, defamation had become a spiritual offence, the Constitution of Clarendon placing responsibility for cases with the Ecclesiastical Courts, which were expected to investigate and impose the punishment of excommunication on the guilty party. This excluded the person from Christian society, even his family were banned from aiding, feeding, clothing or housing him, until the sentence was lifted after a period of atonement. If they died before this period was up, they were outside the protection of the Church, the guilty party dying unshriven and believing they would go to hell. At the village level most cases were tried at the manorial courts, where punishments typically involved public shaming, through the stocks or pillory. The Church also grew more lenient over time and commuted excommunication to public penance, often involving an apology and kneeling to beg the forgiveness of the plaintiff in Church on a Sunday (Helmholz 1971).

Christine de Pizan in “The Book of Three Virtues”, identifies a high level of litigation amongst villagers and specifically counsels their wives, who she claims have little opportunity to go to Church and learn of salvation, to serve God by doing unto their neighbours, as they would wish them to do unto her family and admonish her husband to behave likewise. They should live in peace with their neighbours without conducting the perpetual lawsuits over trifles, which has become the case of many villagers who only seem happy when in court. Hyams (1996), describes male villagers collectively approaching their local Dean to take matters concerning their manorial overseers and Lords to the Ecclesiastical Courts, anonymously. The key reason for this agreement is not simply financial, but ensures that all are aware of the risk of comeback from the defendant(s), against all the villagers, which would make life difficult for a time. In towns Artisans and Merchants were in a difficult position, if accused of shoddy work, as they had no recourse to law but had to hope that the guild would support them, if not, they faced expulsion, financial and social ruin. However they could defend allegations about working practices, such as Sunday trading or their personal lives, meaning the townsman was as likely as the villager to bring a suit against their peers.

The Courts took these defamation cases seriously for two reasons, firstly the prevention of further crime, as the aggrieved might resort to violence; and secondly, defamation usurped the role of the courts, as the person was tried and found guilty by the community before an inquisition had taken place. For cases to be heard and have a successful outcome depended on the words used to frame the allegation and their context, as there needed to be a direct or indirect accusation of criminal activity. Helmholtz (1971) explains that simply calling a man a “peasant” or a woman a “scald” when they are not, would not be slanderous or defamatory, but calling a woman a “strong harlot” when she wasn’t, was. False accusations of adultery were of great concern, especially for the woman, who was shunned by her community. In one case cited by Helmholtz, the claim that a woman had “laid down in a barn with a man, with the doors closed” was construed as an allegation of adultery, she had the right to clear her name and did so. However not all cases were settled in court, some being dropped when the defendant recanted, wary of the damage to their reputation if found guilty.

Caution was also needed, as noted above, if bringing a case against a noble, as the person of lower rank needed to avoid committing the crime of “Slandorum Magnatum”, enacted in 1272 by Edward I and again in 1388 by Richard II, to stop the slander of “Great Men of the Realm”. If a case was found to be vexatious, the plaintiff would face imprisonment, a trial in the King’s Court and an unspecified punishment. The purposes of this law were to shore up the concept of aristocratic honour and reduce the potential for uprising by the common people, and armed conflict between nobles and their retinues; although by the late medieval period it became a means for the nobility to sue each other (Macnamara 2007). Had this law been used to deal with the ongoing conflict between Humphrey, Duke of Gloucester and Henry Beaufort, Bishop of Winchester, when Aldermen loyal to Humphrey closed the gates of London on the Bishop’s soldiery in1426, then history might have played out differently (Vickers 1907). The King’s Courts also reserved the right to prohibit defamation cases that impinged on or arose from criminal cases, a privilege strengthened by law in 1327. Helmholtz cites examples where the accused tries to sue witnesses, or the jurors for defamation, especially if found guilty. Although in this context he would be unlikely to succeed as their words were not malicious.

Hence gossip in the medieval period was far from a safe pastime, often resulting in litigation, public humiliation and religious sanctions. Yet despite the legal position it still continued and it is perhaps unsurprising when we look at the Old Testament of the Bible, which records communal life during pre-history. There are several passages referring to the harm gossip does and describing strategies to tackle those who indulge in it. And whilst I first came across the role of gossip when reading about the lives of Medieval women, the evidence strongly suggests that the men were equally culpable. Gossip was also an activity carried out across the whole of society, those involved could be noble or pauper, cloistered nun or common harlot. I’m left with the realisation that society hasn’t changed that much!

References and Bibliography

Berger J (1979) Pig-Earth. Bloomsbury, London p9

Cooper T (undated) The Use of Power and Influence by a Medieval Woman [online] http://www.r3.org/richard-iii/15th-century-life/15th-century-life-articles/the-use-of-power-and-influence-by-a-medieval-woman/ (accessed 12/6/2017)

Helmholz R.H (1971) Canonical Defamation in Medieval England. University of Chigago Law School, Chicago Unbound. [online] http://chicagounbound.uchicago.edu/cgi/viewcontent.cgi?article=5721&context=journal_articles accessed 11.6.2017

Leyer H (1995) Medieval Women, A Social History of Women in England 450 – 1500. Phoenix Press, London

Fossier R (1988) Peasant Life in the Medieval West IN Leyser H, (2002) Medieval Women, A Social History of Women in England and Wales 450 – 1500, Phoenix Press, London pp 150

Lovell C.R., The “Reception” of Defamation by the Common Law, 15 VAND. L. REV. 1051, 1053 (1962) (quoting from the Laws of Alfred the Great)

McAndrew FT (2015) How Did The Gossip Become a Woman? Psychology Today [Online] https://www.psychologytoday.com/blog/out-the-ooze/201502/how-did-the-gossip-become-woman Accessed 11/6/2017

McNamara L (2007) Reputation and Defamation, Oxford University Press, Oxford

Mortimer I (2008) The Time Travellers Guide to Medieval England, A Handbook for Visitors to the Fourteenth Century Simon and Schuster London

Norton E She Wolves, The Notorious Kings of England 2008, The History Press, Gloucestershire

Ponstan M (1973) Essays on Medieval Agriculture and General Problems of the Medieval Economy. Cambridge University Press, Cambridge.

Power E (1922) Medieval English Nunneries, c. 1275 to 1535. Cambridge University Press, London

Veeder, V. (1903) “The History and Theory of the Law of Defamation. I.” Columbia Law Review, vol. 3, no. 8, pp. 546–573 JSTOR, http://www.jstor.org/stable/1109121.

Vickers KH (1907) Humphrey Duke of Gloucester, A Biography BookRix GmbH &Co, KG 81675 Munich

Dame Julian of Norwich

Dame Julian was a 14th century mystic, theologian and anchoress.

Dame Julian St And & Mary Nor Evelyn

Dame Julian Of Norwich Day

Dame Julian of Norwich, (1342 -1416) , was female mystic and anchoress, now revered by both the Anglican and Catholic Churches. Her life is shrouded in mystery, she was a likely a woman from a wealthy background, and may either have been a nun at Carrow Priory, or educated there as a girl. Her writing shows a good understanding of the mother – child relationship but we do not know if she had children. Nor do we know her name, instead adopting for her, the name of the church where she spent the last thirty three years of life, walled up by choice, as an anchoress.

Prior to her religious experience she had prayed for three things to help her deepen her love for God and Christ: a stronger understanding of His Passion; a mortal illness, that she would survive, enabling her to experience the spiritual attacks on the soul at the point of death; and three “wounds”, absolute contrition, kind compassion and steadfast longing towards God. She did become gravely ill, at the age of “thirty and a half” on 8th May 1373, and her books, describe the visions she had once she had received the last rites 6 days later on 14th May. This sacrement gave the person sanctifying grace, strengthening body and soul at the point of death, to withstand spiritual attack by demons. The visions she described occurred when she was critically ill and expected to die, her first vision of seeing Christ bleeding on the cross, the priest held in front of her, to focus on as she died, came as her sight failed. She then experienced fifteen further visions of Heaven opening to reveal Christ to her. Fourteenth century people would have seen her as blessed and holy following this encounter Christ, and turned to her for spiritual guidance and comfort.

Dame Julian shared her visions and their message in two ways, publishing the short version of her “The Revelations of Divine Love” soon after her illness, and by becoming anchoress. This was a woman’s way of withdrawing from the world into solitary spiritual contemplation and prayer, whilst still being able to offer counsel to those who sought her out. She was walled up into a cell inside a church, following a Requiem Mass, comfirming her “death from the world” She would follow the Ancrene Wise, a 13th C Rule of Life for anchoresses, which decreed that she would have 3 windows, one onto the church allowing her to observe the Mass and receive Communion; one betweeen her cell and her maid’s room, for meeting bodily needs and one onto the world, allowing her to pray for or counsel those who sought her help. The citizens of late 14th and early 15th Norwich lived through a time of great fear, due to plague, poverty and famine, and onogoing wars with France and civil unrest after Henry V usurped the throne and were in great need of her counsel, a joyful message of God’s love and grace.

The longer version of “The Revelations of Divine Love”, was written circa 1395, some “nineteen years and 9 months” after her visions, as she required that time to meditate and pray and understand them. Dame Julian’s writing’s recount her experiences of discussing sin with Christ and describing both He and God as mothers whos’ relationships with their children are founded in unconditional love. Although Bernard of Clairvaux had described God as mother and father in 12th century, it was commonly accepted that his meaning was allegorical, where as Dame Julian’s meaning was literal, and opposed Church doctrine, which focused God’s wrath, sin and punishment, as consequences of original and continual sin. People believed that they would spend a period of the after life in the refining fires of Purgatory, atoning for unforgiven sin. Dame Julian describes how she grappled with the feeling that sin was a burden worse than Hell, could not understand why God, with His great wisdom and foresight would allow the first sin to be committed and thus enter the world, believing that the world would be a better place without sin and its consequences, a perfect world, the absence of which she mourned. Her answer came from Christ, “All shall be well, all shall be well and all manner of things shall be well”. His explaination that sin is necessary but does not attach blame to her or to anyone else who will be saved. Witnessing His compassion then enabled her to become joyful, and understand sin, as a way for man to come to know himself and accept the need for God in his life. However, despite her theology, the Church did not silence her, perhaps viewing her as an obscure woman, although her texts may have been supressed.

However they had some spiritual value and this has allowed copies of both the short and long texts to survive, initially in monastic libraries and later in private collections. The short text was copied into the 15th century Amherst Manuscript, a Carthusian anthology of theological works in English, which can be viewed at the British Library. The long version was translated during the 17th century and these works have been used for modern translations.

Dame Julian’s books were the first to be written by a woman in English, and a recent discovered by Dr Janina Ramirez has discovered a manuscript, copied from the original long version, which survived two periods of religious turmoil, thanks to the actions of other religious women. The Brigittine nuns of Syon Abbey, took it when they moved to France following the Dissolution of the Monasteries, from them it passed into the hands of the Parisian daughter house of the Benedictine House of Cambrai. When the nuns there fled the French Revolution and came back to England, the manuscript came with them, finding a permanent home at Colwich Abbey, Staffordshire. Her books became increasingly popular in the early 20th century via the suffrage movement, after they adopted Grace Warrack’s 1901 translation. For those who wish to study if further, The Julian Centre in Norwich has a useful bibliography of commentaries on its theology and context: http://juliancentre.org/about/popular-resources.html.