Yesterday, I was re-reading Bernard Capp’s excellent 2003 book When Gossips Meet: Women, Family, and Neighbourhood in Early Modern England, and tweeted out a few examples he gives of the ‘lexicon of synonyms’ employed by women and men when insulting other women.
Although it must have been unpleasant to be referred to in such sexually derogatory ways, looking back from the 21st century, I love the creativity that was employed in thinking up these insults. They bring to life some of the quality of ordinary life in Early Modern England.
I am using a range of magistrates’ notebooks for my PhD thesis, covering a period from 1685 to 1836. Most contain cases involving the use of insults, but it is rare that the actual words are recorded, partly because the magistrates regarded these cases as somewhat trivial, tending to dismiss them or else attempt to mediate between parties (the insults often occurring as part of a wider dispute between the complainant and defendant).
I put in the examples of sexual insults that Capp gives in his book into Wordle, and this is what I got back:
In other words, a whole range of insults. Sexual insults had a particular power in a society where a woman’s reputation was based on her chastity and sexual honesty; in addition, as Capp notes, ‘a prolonged verbal brawl was regarded as an essentially female form of conflict’ [1. Bernard Capp, When Gossips Meet: Women, Family, and Neighbourhood in Early Modern England (Oxford, 2003), 188] and females appear to have used any term that would emphasise their own social standing and reduce that of others.
Women appear regularly in my magistrates’ notebooks to report other members of their community for swearing, taking on a monitoring role in their society, yet were willing to engage in such insults themselves.
Whereas both men’s and women’s complaints about swearing focused on the public nature of the offence – such as when Hannah Beard was brought before Wiltshire magistrate William Hunt in 1748, accused of swearing in the market place of Market Lavington [2. Elizabeth Crittall (ed), The Justicing Notebook of William Hunt (Devizes, 1982), 85]- the use of insults was designed, as Capp has commented, to be a form of ‘street theatre’ [3. Capp, When Gossips Meet, 197].
Arguments took place in a public forum, where both sides expected to find support amongst the community for their allegations or counter-allegations.
In this way, perhaps, public slanging matches were a form of courtroom in themselves, a means for women to air disputes and assert their position. Only when things went too far, when too much damage was done to a reputation, did a formal courtroom or justicing room become necessary.
I realise that this is a simplification of both Capp’s thesis and the sheer variety of insults and motivations in Early Modern England, but it was designed as a quick, short, post! More to come, anon… 🙂
[Illustration: “The Two Gossips” by Adriaen van Ostade (c1642)]