Bernard Capp. When Gossips Meet: Women, Family, and Neighbourhood in Early Modern England. New York and Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003. ix + 398 pp. $85.00 (cloth), ISBN 978-0-19-925598-6.
Reviewed by David Turner (School of Humanities, Law and Social Sciences, University of Glamorgan)
Published on H-Albion (January, 2004)
How Early Modern Women Negotiated Patriarchy
How Early Modern Women Negotiated Patriarchy
In When Gossips Meet Professor Bernard Capp presents us with a vivid account of the workings of patriarchal society in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England and the multiple ways in which non-elite women negotiated the strictures it imposed upon their lives. Drawing upon diaries, popular literature, and, above all, some remarkably rich depositional material from ecclesiastical and criminal jurisdictions, Capp sets out to analyze the ways in which ordinary women acted in a variety of social situations and how, in spite of their disadvantageous position in the gender order that assigned them to a position of domestic and political passivity, they were able to demonstrate a good deal of agency in household disputes and play an active role in the public life of their communities.
The book examines women's lives by examining the culture of gossip in which they participated. Though it was dismissed by male critics as mere tittle-tattle, gossip had a variety of uses in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries. It was a source of news and "gossiping" engendered a powerful sense of belonging. In a society where both men and women placed great store on their public reputations, it also served as a potent "weapon of the weak," providing a means of attacking one's opponents or, by threatening to expose their secrets, gave servants some power over their masters and mistresses. One's "gossips" were also a source of support, helping in childbirth, providing refuge for women with abusive husbands, or appearing as character witnesses in court cases. "Gossips" formed important networks and, on occasion, might act collectively to police the boundaries of acceptable behavior and uphold the morals of communities. The depositional material found in court records provides a unique insight into the workings of gossip, and Capp presents us with a subtle and multi-layered account of women's networks in the early modern period.
The book begins by examining life inside the patriarchal household. In spite of the message of domestic conduct literature, most people "recognised that the balance of power within every family owed as much to the play of individual personalities as to social conventions" (p. 76). In an analysis that looks beyond the causes of marital discord recognized by the ecclesiastical courts as grounds for separation (adultery and cruelty), Capp examines how common factors such as religion, children, and money caused tensions within early modern marriages. While the evidence presented here attests to the depth of suffering experienced by some early modern women at the hands of their husbands, Capp is at pains to stress that women were not merely passive victims in martial disputes. Rather than meekly accepting the sexual double standard, women possessed a variety of means of coping with a spouse's adultery, which targeted the "other woman" as well as the erring husband. Friends and neighbors might also intervene to rescue women who were victims of domestic abuse, and in some cases wives might use recognizances (court orders compelling the recipient to uphold the public peace) to bind their husband to good behavior. As well as marital disputes, Capp also considers the position of maidservants in the household. Though female servants were the victims of severe physical disciplining (often at the hands of their mistresses), or unwanted sexual advances from their masters or fellow servants, there were subtle ways in which the resourceful maid might cope with unfavorable conditions, whether by covert actions such as pilfering or by using the threat of exposing damaging "revelations" concerning their employers' personal conduct.
Outside the home, women were involved in a variety of neighborhood disputes with men and other women. Using records of defamation suits brought to the church courts--a source that has already received attention from historians of gender relations--Capp shows how sexual insult provided women with a powerful means of attacking their opponents in a variety of disputes. Words, and the street theater of insult, were used to humiliate adversaries and as a tool for bringing disputes about other matters to resolution. While women were vulnerable to physical and verbal abuse from men as well as sexual assault, they might also employ sexual gossip to attack the reputations of male opponents, especially those who were vulnerable to this kind of imputation, such as clergymen. Building on recent work that has sought to redefine the arenas of political life in early modern England, exploring the politics of the parish rather than parliament, Capp demonstrates how women of the middling sort played an active role in political life in this period--lack of political rights, he observes, should not be equated with a lack of interest in politics on either a local or national level. Though women's role in riots and as petitioners have been analyzed before, Capp reveals other aspects of women's public responsibility and political involvement, as members of female juries, charged with searching for the witch's mark or determining whether female felons were pregnant, and as midwives detecting illegitimate births. Finally, the book considers aspects of women's religious lives and how they used their leisure time. In aspects of oral tradition and cheap print, Capp finds evidence suggestive of a distinctive female culture.
The result is a fascinating account of the lives of early modern women, which also gives us much insight into the workings of early modern households and communities. It is, by the admission of the author, a "celebratory" history, which highlights the multiple strategies of limiting, evading or negotiating patriarchal values. Yet it never loses sight of the fact that while women's networks might provide a vital source of support, "gossip" could also be divisive and competitive, and family loyalties could override gender in local disputes. One of the strengths of the book is its rich use of court records to illuminate the gender politics of early modern society, and it is to be recommended to students of this period as a testament to just how much these sources can tell us about the lives of the "silent and unlettered majority" (p. 2). Though many recent gender histories of the period have sought to show that women did not live by the letter of patriarchal prescription that enjoined them to be "chaste, silent and obedient," this book goes further than previous studies in demonstrating the variety of strategies that women might employ to negotiate patriarchal power structures in early modern society.
The book still leaves us with a number of intriguing questions. As with any study that relies on the scattered evidence of diaries or court materials, questions inevitably arise about how typical were the strategies of coping with patriarchy described in the book. Capp's approach of foregrounding the vivid qualitative evidence found in diaries and depositions, on the grounds that "thick description" of individual cases can reveal much more about the complexities of human relationships than arid figures, has many advantages. However, the book's failure to provide statistical data does make the reader wonder how common some of the practices (such as launching a suit for defamation) actually were, or whether they differed by region. Though it is recognized that the growth of London in this period may have created different sorts of female networks and gender identities, differences between the center and the localities might have been more fully woven into each chapter. Furthermore, while Capp briefly addresses issues of change over time in the book's conclusion, these issues might also have been addressed more fully in each thematic chapter rather than left until the end. This is overwhelmingly a study of "middling sort" women. Future studies might address how the social and cultural lives of women of this social background differed from the experiences of poorer women and whether they experienced male domination in different ways.
These points should not detract from this stimulating contribution to the history of early modern women and gender. All social and cultural historians of early modern England will find much of interest in Professor Capp's wonderfully written account of the hidden stories of women's accommodation and resistance to patriarchy. It is hoped that Oxford University Press will produce a paperback edition shortly to ensure a wide classroom use.
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David Turner. Review of Capp, Bernard, When Gossips Meet: Women, Family, and Neighbourhood in Early Modern England.
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