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"Play, utopia or anguish"? Accounting for the persistence of the discourse against slander from the Middle Ages to the early modern period.

The great number of texts published in early modern England to denounce the "evils of the tongue" testify to the fear of uncontrolled speech in a context of religious and political instability. Owing much to medieval pastoral writings on the "sins of the tongue," these texts leveled violent criticisms at those who abused the tongue, whether they be liars, swearers, blasphemers, or slanderers. Particularly harsh was the condemnation of slander, also called detraction, calumny, defamation, or backbiting. A good example of the virulence of the attacks against backbiters is The Evil Tongue Tryed and Found Guilty (1672), in which Stephen Ford denounces "the hainous, horrid, and hurtful nature of the sin of slandering" (92). Like many other authors of "tongue treatises," Ford explains that he was personally abused by "malicious, slanderous, and backbiting tongues" (17-18). The personal experience of most of the authors of "tongue treatises" might indeed account for such a vehement expression of their discontent. A slanderous tongue was commonly held to be more dangerous than a lethal weapon, first because it harms a man's soul and good name, and second because it can kill from a distance since it destroys a man's reputation in his absence. Despite the great number of royal proclamations and laws against slander issued at the time, it was believed that backbiting increasingly jeopardized social order and personal reputations. This fear was not unfounded as the number of slander suits rose considerably over the period, litigation being encouraged by an easier access to courts (especially church courts), the prominence of reputation, the redefinition of the social structure of society, the suppression of dueling, and so forth. (1) The increasing number of slander cases sued at court, as well as the fear of social disruption and loss of reputation may account for the great number of treatises on slander being published at the time. (2)

Stimulating studies on slander and the complaints about this "abominable" plague in the early modern era were published in the last two decades. (3) Common to most of these analyses are three main assumptions: the first one is that slander was inextricably linked with the stage in early modern England. This assumption will not be examined here: suffice it to say that slander plots and false accusations became prominent in early modern English plays (Stretton 57). According to Ina Habermann (2), the theatricality of detraction is revealed in the "slander triangle," the idea that defamation requires a slanderer, a victim, and a listener. The second assumption is that the discourse on the evils of the tongue evolved over time, from medieval pastoral writings to seventeenth-century treatises, and in particular it is often argued that it was progressively "secularized," implying that later treatises on slander no longer found their imagery in the Bible only but also in secular texts. Asserting that treatises on slander were progressively secularized also means that slander itself came to be seen as a crime instead of a sin. This essay will attempt to retrace the medieval origin and rhetorical model of "tongue treatises," in order to question the alleged "secularization" of these texts and suggest instead that in order to understand this tradition, one should focus on its persistence and nature. Finally, it is commonly assumed that from the late Middle Ages onward, slander became feminized in tongue treatises. For instance, Habermann, whose book on slander and gender has become one of the main references on the subject, states that there was a "profound gendering of slander" (2) in early modern England. Saying that "slander was gendered" implies that it was associated primarily with women in contemporaries' minds, either because the notion of slander was represented as feminine or because the slanderous words used against men differed from those used against women, or because women were thought to actually slander more often than men. As a matter of fact, it has been convincingly demonstrated by Laura Gowing that in London, between 1560 and 1640, defamation cases were increasingly sued by women (Domestic Dangers 32-37). Yet, as this essay will show, discourses on slander rarely mention women and, on the contrary, tend to assume that detraction is predominantly male, or that both men and women are prone to slander, disregarding the reality of defamation in English courts. Therefore, the essay will address the intricate and paradoxical relationship between the enduring tradition of discourses on slander, their remarkable continuity over time, and the fast-evolving judicial practices concerning defamation.

The discourse on the evils of the tongue in early modern England can be traced back to medieval pastoral writings that defined deviant speech and listed the sins of the tongue with the aim of encouraging Christians to amend themselves or stay away from any abuse of the tongue. As Edwin D. Craun has shown, these texts spread after the Fourth Lateran Council (1215): they were "constructed from the thirteenth century on by the new, university-educated higher clergy, for priests, especially parish priests, to apply in preaching, in directing confessions, etc." (Lies, Slander, and Obscenity 3). The Fourth Lateran Council stated that all Christians should attend confession at least once a year, hence the proliferation of texts listing and defining sins. These pastoral texts used a rhetoric that made this kind of writing immediately recognizable. They resorted to two main sources: Greek and Latin classics on the one hand, and the Scripture and patristic literature on the other. Augustine's writings, especially his two treatises on lying, De Mendacio and Contra Mendacium, also had an overwhelming influence on authors of pastoral texts. According to Craun, "the pastoral rhetoric of deviant speech [was] a 'rhetoric of the vices,"' and a "rhetoric of detestation" (Lies, Slander, and Obscenity 56-58, 59), which aimed to cause fear and revulsion in the audience, and therefore ensure greater clerical control over the flock and prevent the disruption of the community that abuses of words were believed to cause.

It is assumed by most scholars that early modern tongue treatises--although they owed much to the discourse on the sins of the tongue that emerged in the thirteenth century--were progressively secularized, mainly because the evils of the tongue were no longer treated as sins but instead came to be seen as crimes (Vienne-Guerrin, introduction XXX) and because the imagery, while still borrowing largely from the Bible, was now also inspired by other domains (Habermann 104). Indeed, the Reformation, humanism, and the growing culture of empiricism may have altered the traditional discourse on the tongue. This evolution of tongue treatises is described by Habermann, from the observation of the titles of these texts:

As can be seen from the titles, the transformation and secularization of the pastoral discourse on the sins of the tongue which began in Tudor times continued throughout the seventeenth century. Thus, the issue is very old, but the metaphorical frames of reference which are employed are distinctly early modern: the political expressed in the idea of "government," the medical, drawing on an imagery of medicine and poison, the scientific, based on the image of the anatomy, and the forensic, using the images of arraignment and bridling. (122)

Habermann adds that early modern tongue treatises also showed a strong insistence on the body in connection with new scientific practices and the early modern philosophy of humors. Images of dissection, for example, abound in these texts: in the anonymous A Plaine Description of the Auncient Petigree of Dame Slaunder (1573), an analogy is made between the analysis of slander and the anatomy of a body (second part, sig. [[B7.sup.r]]). Almost a century later, in The Government of the Tongue (published anonymously in 1667), Richard Allestree plans on "anatomizing" the sin of slander (42X4 Like Habermann, Sandy Bardsley explains in her book on speech and gender in late medieval England that a "newly laicized and popularized discourse" (26) emerged in the early modern period, one of the manifestations of this evolution being the fact that this discourse permeated other literary genres, such as ballads and poems. (5)

Yet what is immediately noticeable in these writings on slander is the continuity of this discourse from the Middle Ages to the early modern era, the similarity between the texts, and their repetitiveness throughout the early modern period. The same metaphors, quotations, and references are endlessly recycled, so much so that these texts appear as mere rewritings of earlier texts. Indeed, like pastoral texts, early modern tongue treatises usually open on a definition of slander and a distinction between several forms of detraction: the difference between "whispering" and "backbiting" is often mentioned, the former being defined as secret detraction, while the latter is defined as open defamation. (6) In A Plaine Description of the Auncient Petigree of Dame Slaunder, slander is given a rather neutral definition: "an accusation made for hatred, unknowen to him that is accused, wherein the accuser is believed, and he that is accused is not called to give answer" (second part, sig. [[B7.sup.v]]). Since the Middle Ages, emphasis had been made on the tarnished reputation of the victim of slander: "Slandering is the blemishing of another's good name, or the speaking against another out of envy and malice" (Gearing 93) (7)

Pastoral texts and early modern tongue treatises revealed a similar attention to structure and a clear organization of ideas, while at the same time presenting a profusion of metaphors, quotations, and references. Indeed, medieval texts followed a common pattern of examples, authorities (or sententiae) and arguments, as Craun has shown (Lies, Slander, and Obscenity 65-66). But even though these texts are often carefully organized, the great number of juxtaposed quotations, references, and images give an impression of repetitiveness:

like rhetoricians, the pastoral writers love to list and aim for copiousness, for representing, as much as possible, the culturally authoritative "dicta et facta" in a topos. The repetitiveness that results is itself a means of persuasion, conveying how insistent an ethical formulation is in texts, in readings of the natural world, even in human society as shaped by God the artificer. (Craun, Lies, Slander, and Obscenity 67)

The juxtaposition of quotations and the impression of repetitiveness are illustrated, for example, in Peter of Waltham's Remediarum Conversorum, an early thirteenth-century synthesis of Gregory the Great's Moralia in Job, when the author addresses "sins of speech":

For hence it is written: "And the service of justice (shall be) quietness." Hence Solomon says: "As a city that lieth open and is not compassed with walls, so is a man that cannot refrain his own spirit in speaking." Hence he says again: "In the multitude of words there shall not want sin." Hence the Psalmist bears witness, saying: "A man full of tongue shall not be established in the earth." (Part 1, Book 2, Section 14, 62)

The exact same biblical references are quoted again a few pages later to show how speech can be harmful to human beings (66). Besides, images common to most texts on the evils of the tongue also abound in Remediarum Conversorum, such as the "sharpness of words" (about detraction, 73), "bridling the tongue" (66), and the idea that the tongue is "full of deadly poison" (66). The elaborate structure of these texts is also illustrated, for example, in the Dominican Guillaume Peyraut's Summa de Vitiis et Virtutibus (1236-48), which is carefully organized and divided into many parts and subparts. The chapter on sins of the tongue is itself divided into three parts: the first is a general discourse on the tongue, the second lists twenty-four sins of the tongue and the third gives remedies to abuses of the tongue.

Most early modern treatises show a similar attention to organization. Edward Reyner's Rules for the Government of the Tongue (1656), for example, is divided into numerous categories and subcategories, as the table shows: Reyner first addresses the "government of the tongue, which contains three things, 1. Preparatives to it, 2. Rules for it, 3. Reasons of it"; then, he gives "a table of the Directions in particular cases relating to speech," and develops six such directions. Similarly, Chapter 7 of William Gearing's A Bridle for the Tongue (1663), which focuses on "the slandering tongue," is divided into eight sections, each one being divided into several categories, such as Section 6, which lists "causes of slandering others in general," and "special causes why evil men slander the People of God" (129-31). It has been argued that this attention to structure in early modern tongue treatises revealed the influence of Ramism (Vienne-Guerrin, introduction xxviii). (8) However, Carla Casagrande and Silvana Vecchio have demonstrated in their study on the sins of the tongue in medieval culture that the organization of the text as a tree with several branches illustrating the interdependence and hierarchy of definitions and ideas was already widespread in the Middle Ages (55). (9) Ramus being himself strongly inspired by medieval writings, the systematic exposition of slander and its ramifications in early modern tongue treatises cannot be seen as a renewal of the tradition. Moreover, the copiousness of pastoral texts, underlined above, is also found in tongue treatises of the early modern period. Thus, Jean de Marconville's A Treatise of the Good and Evill Tongue (1592), a translation from the French, is a disorderly accumulation of stories, quotations, and ideas, "based on a random collection of examples" (Vienne-Guerrin, introduction xxvii). A few years later, in 1611, William Vaughan published a treatise in which he expressed his strong discontent with accusations against his late wife, who had been struck by lightning (rumor had it she had been punished for being an adulteress). In a surprising passage that reveals both the undeniable anger of the author and a tendency to play with words and with the reader, Vaughan shows how tongue treatises are the very illustration of the excesses of the tongue that they denounce. He addresses the slanderer directly:

Through the consideration of these Antidotes against Detractions, temper the manifold malapertnesse of thy tongue, of thy tempting tongue, of thy tickling tongue, of thy tattling tongue, thy taunting tongue, thy vaunting tongue, thy jesting tongue, thy gibing tongue, thy jarring tongue, thy warring tongue, thy checking tongue, thy chiding tongue, thy clattering tongue, thy clacking tongue, thy carping tongue, thy babling tongue, thy boasting tongue, thy blazing tongue, thy reviling tongue, thy scoffing tongue, thy scolding tongue, thy nicking tongue, thy nipping tongue, thy quipping tongue, thy tripping tongue, thy defaming tongue, thy detracting tongue; temper the phreneticall furie of this little Tyrant.... (341)

Moreover, a similar imagery was also used in pastoral texts and in later treatises against slander. Casagrande and Vecchio have shown that the obsession with slander at the time appeared in the recurrent use of images involving the devil, death, diseases, weapons, natural catastrophes, and ferocious or poisonous animals (250-51). For example, stark representations of "poisonous reptiles crawling out of the mouth of a corpse" were common (Casagrande and Vecchio 64); analogies between the unbridled tongue and a horse without a rein or a ship without a rudder were also excessively frequent in pastoral writings. Animal imagery, in particular, remains extremely similar throughout the period: abuse of words is commonly associated with the seducing and lying serpent; adders and asps are also usually compared to the tongue, and slanderers are represented as lions, dogs, and pigs. For example, in the fifteenth-century Book for a Simple and Devout Woman, derived from Peyraut's Summa de Vitiis et Virtutibus and Friar Laurent's Somme le Roi (1279), the author compares the detractor to "a butcher's dog, a pig, an adder, a monster with a sword in its mouth, a bearlike monster with three rows of teeth, and a raven" (281). In the late seventeenth century, Ford made similar lists in The Evil Tongue Tryed and Found Guilty, where he states that slanderers are "as Lyons, Wolves, Serpents, Toades [and] Adders" (111), and then "asps, Dragons, Vipers, Adders, Serpents, Lyons, Dogs, Arrows and Spears, Fire" (181-82). The same images are also found in Richard Ward's The Nature, Use, and Abuse of the Tongue and Speech (1673), where the "evil and abusive tongue" is compared to a sword (often a two-edged sword, which kills both the slandered person and the slanderer, from Proverbs 5:4), a serpent and a "Night-raven," the latter being a reference to Pliny, according to Ward (160-61). Ward also compares the evil tongue to an arrow, a razor, "the iron point of a Lance," "an unbridled Colt," "a spark of fire," a rod, and "Juniper Coals" (Psalms 120:4) (160-61). Earlier in the century, in Chapter 32 of A Christian and Heavenly Treatise (1622), entitled "The poisonous tongue," John Abernethy also compared slanderers to "deafe Adders," "a generation of Vipers," "vile Dogs," and "Lions of the Forrest" (466). More elaborate similes found in pastoral treatises were also reproduced almost word for word in the early modern period. For example, in Destructorium viciorum (first published in 1480), Alexander Carpenter writes:

nam experientia docente si porcus viridarium intret in quo ex una parte flores videat suauiter redolentes: & ex alia parte fetentia stercora: floribus neglectis properanter ad stercora accurrit & illa in ore suo assumit & rostro subuertit. sic detractor si in aliquo viderit aliquas virtutes & imitationis dignas que velut flores redolent. & ex alia parte reprehensibilia & fetida vitia dismissis virtutibus imitatione dignis que reprehensibilia et fetida sunt versat in ore et rostro sue detractionis subuertit.... (f. [Dviii.sup.v])

(Experience teaches that if a swine goes into a garden in which he sees sweetly smelling flowers on the one side, and stinking dung on the other, he neglects the flowers and runs hastily to the dung, putting it in his mouth and turning it over with his snout. Similarly, if the detractor sees in someone virtues that are worth imitating and that smell sweetly as flowers do, and, on the other side, reprehensible and stinking vices, he dismisses the virtues that are worth imitating and turns over in his mouth those things that are reprehensible and stinking, and destroys them with the snout of his detraction)

In 1663, without explicitly referring to Carpenter or any other pastoral texts for that matter, Gearing made the very same comparison in A Bridle for the Tongue: "a slanderer may be compared to a Swine, that coming into a Garden where he seeth sweet Flowers, and stinking Ordure, neglecteth the Flowers and runs presently to the Dung" (126-27). The precise description of a commonly observed natural fact and its association with the detractor probably aimed at causing revulsion and disgust in the reader.

The identification of the slanderous tongue with the devil is also a common feature of all these texts, diabolos in Greek meaning "the slanderer." Unsurprisingly, references to the devil are usually associated with serpents, asps, vipers, and other reptiles. In the thirteenth-century Remediarum conversorum, for example, Waltham argues that slander is suggested by the devil. He quotes Job 20:16: "He shall suck the head of asps, and the viper's tongue shall kill him," and adds: "And what is represented by the viper's tongue if not the violent temptation of the devil?" (13). Similarly, in The Spirit of Detraction (1611), Vaughan describes tongues as "the Detracting instruments of Sathan" ("To the Readers," sig. [Air]). A few years later, in The Araignment of an Unruly Tongue (1619), George Webbe writes, following Erasmus, that "there is no sinne which maketh a man so like the Devill as this doth, for from slaundering and backbiting hee hath his name DIABOLOS" (Vienne-Guerrin ed. 112). A very similar statement is made by Gearing in his 1663 treatise: "slandering makes a man more like the Devil then any other sin doth," referring also to the word "diabolus" (109). Finally, in The Evil Tongue Tried and Found Guilty (1672), Ford insists on the "Diabolical work" of slanderers (47), and asserts that "They have the Devils name upon them" (102). Many other similar examples could be given. Most of these images were taken from the Bible, in particular from Psalms and Proverbs, and these passages were endlessly quoted, as well as the ninth commandment ("Thou shalt not bear false witness").

As shown by several passages quoted earlier, slander was still explicitly referred to as a sin in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century treatises on evils of the tongue, and the imagery used to condemn abusive tongues was still primarily biblical. As a matter of fact, although they were no longer written for priests by the higher clergy, most early modern tongue treatises were still authored by ministers of the Church. Indeed, John Abernethy, Richard Allestree, John Brinsley, Stephen Ford, Edward Reyner, Richard Ward, George Webbe, and so on were all churchmen. Among the authors of the tongue treatises cited in this essay, only Richard Brathwait and William Vaughan were not members of the clergy, but the latter's book The Spirit of Detraction is presented in the title as a "work both divine and morall." When denouncing detraction in Lingua (1525), a text that served as a model for later publications on evils of the tongue, Erasmus insists on the notion of "Christian charity," and encourages his readers to pursue a "Christian tongue" (Fantham ed. 402). The end of the treatise underlines the gravity of slander among other sins of the tongue as "That is how Christ, the source of all innocence, was destroyed ..." (345). However, if the discourse on the evils of the tongue was not exactly "secularized" in the early modern period, it may be said to reveal the ambivalence of secularization, which is still often seen as a linear evolution from Church to State that would have occurred in the early modern period, while it is more accurately defined as a process of both emancipation from the Church and transfer of religious notions to the secular world, so that the secular and the sacred overlap. (10) An illustration of this overlapping of the secular and the sacred may be found in Webbe's The Araignment of an Unruly Tongue (1619), a treatise that heavily relies on the biblical quotations and images that are also found in the other tongue treatises of the time, while staging a trial of the tongue, as announced in the title. Indeed, in Chapter II, the tongue is brought to the bar to be examined because it is accused of high treason against God and the King, petty treason, felony, murder, as well as "Riots and Routes":

And because generall accusations (as Lawyers teach us) will beare no Actions, unlesse they bee confirmed by particular informations; wee will frame particular Indictments against this unruly member the Tongue, and lay open (as neere as we may) his particular misdemeanors. Neither shall wee need to seeke farre for matters criminall to object against it, seeing there is no crime so capitall, no offence so heynous, but the Tongue is either principall in it, or accessory unto it. (Vienne-Guerrin ed. 88)

Webbe's book is a rare example of a treatise in which abuses of the tongue are described as "crimes" and not as "sins" in the early modern period. Indeed, this arraignment of the tongue uses legal terms ("accusations," "Lawyers," "Actions," "Indictments," "misdemeanors," "matters criminall," "no crime so capitall," "offence"), not religious ones. Yet when Webbe goes on to develop the charges held against the tongue, he merely draws a very long list of quotations from the Bible. In this case, religious notions are not exactly transferred to the secular world but they are used as arguments and pleas in a secular context. Thus, Webbe's text may reveal the ambiguity of the relations between the sacred and the secular but it hardly shows that the discourse on evils of the tongue was secularized at that time.

It appears that early modern authors of tongue treatises remained as close as possible to what had been written before on the subject, aiming, as it seems, at repetition and paraphrase. Yet very few authors of treatises on slander in the early modern period acknowledged their debt to their predecessors. One of them is Brinsley, who in 1664 referred to William Perkins's treatise of 1595: "So our Mr. Perkins took notice of it in his time, who complains that such tale-bearing was the common table-talk in England.... And I wish there were not too just cause for the like complaint at this day" (155). (11) Many authors even lament the general indifference to the subject of evils of the tongue, which, they say, has never received much attention: Ford, for example, explains that, among the reasons why he wrote his treatise on slander, is "the general silence of other men," adding, with his usual virulent tone: "shall the flood-gates of so exceeding great and abominable wickedness be set open, and none set their hands to shut them?" (16-17)--as if no one had ever written on slander before him. Other authors recognize that slander did give rise to written complaints in the past, but they add that it is regrettably no longer the case. Thus, Allestree admits that some books have been devoted to showing the danger of slander in the past, but, in the 1660s, at the time he published his own treatise, writing on detraction was out of fashion:

I shall not therefore need to say anything, to justifie my choice of this subject, which hath so much better authorities to commend it: I rather wish that it had not the superaddition of an accidental fitness grounded upon the universal neglect of it, it now seeming to be an art wholly out-dated. For tho some lineaments of it may be met with in Books, yet there is scarce any footsteps of it in practice, where alone it can be significant. The attent therefore of reviving it I am sure is seasonable, I wish it were half as easy. ("The Preface," sig. [[A2.sup.r-v]])

There is no doubt that these authors had read previously published tongue treatises: the similarity between their texts and those of their predecessors is evidence enough. By saying that no one had ever written on the subject before them--at least not recently--, authors of tongue treatises feigned novelty and originality. Besides, it was not necessary to mention previous works on the subject as readers would have easily recognized the tradition to which the text belonged thanks to the titles, which often referred to the "government of the tongue" and the "bridling of the tongue."

Discourses against slander have also been studied along gender lines: Habermann made it the central contention of her book on slander, in which she argues that the gendering of defamation in early modern England resulted from the popularization and secularization of the discourse on the tongue, and its increasing insistence on the body rather than the soul (113, 123). Similarly, Bardsley states in Venomous Tongues that "[d]uring the late Middle Ages, the discourse on the sins of the tongue was increasingly gendered" (45). Studying Erasmus's Lingua, Patricia Parker also explains that abuses of the tongue are presented as a female fault in the text, even though the examples given by Erasmus are mainly of male excesses (447). (12) The gendering of slander thesis may be partly based on the fact that an increasing number of women sued defamation cases in English ecclesiastical courts in the early modern period. Indeed, even though women's participation in defamation cases did not increase as rapidly outside London as it did in the capital, Gowing has shown that an ever greater number of women sued slander cases at the church courts: in 1633, "70% of cases at the court concerned defamation" and "85% of those were sued by women" ("Language, Power, and the Law" 27). (13) Gowing offers explanations for this increasing number of women litigants in London: she argues in particular that these suits could be seen as empowering by women, who were allowed to fight them in their own names (Domestic Dangers 265). The increasing number of slander cases fought by women may also have been the consequence of living conditions in an expanding city, which generated tensions between privacy and publicity, as well as conflicts over territory (Domestic Dangers 71, 117).

However, there are very few instances of slander being feminized in the texts against abuses of the tongue that were published in the early modern period. One rare example is Ford's treatise, in which he presents women as more prone to slander (and gossip) than men: "It is well-known that professing Women do usually make it the matter of their discourse, when they do visit one another, or when they meet together; namely, to back-bite and cast reproach on others" (284). But Ford immediately qualifies his statement: "I speak not this to cast any reproach on women, nor to condemn all, no, but to convince and humble such as are guilty of this practice.... I know some women, who do hate and greatly abhor this wickedness, and would not practise it for the gaining of the whole world" (285). Most treatises on slander do not target women in particular, and it can even be said that slanderers are generally assumed to be men. A number of texts also insist on the universality of slander. For example, Perkins states that the abuse of the tongue is found in "all sorts and degrees of men every where" ("To the Reader," sig. [[A2.sup.r])--the word "men" seems here to be used in its general acceptation of "humanity." Similarly, Gearing shows that "gentlemen," "gentlewomen," and "husbandmen" are all equally likely to abuse the tongue ("The Epistle Dedicatory," sig. [[A4.sup.r]). Vaughan even insists that no distinction should be made between the sexes when it comes to slander: "In your tongues I find no more distinction or denomination of male and female then I finde in your soules, which likewise are neyther male nor female, but al one, all alike in both your sexes" ("To the Readers," n.p.).

The use of feminine pronouns to refer to slander and allegories of slander as a woman are often mentioned as evidence of the gendered nature of defamation. Habermann's argument about the "feminization of the tongue" is indeed partly based on this analysis. She argues for instance that "the images are persistently gendered female" in Brathwait's Essaies upon the Five Senses (1620) (Habermann 100). She also mentions the personifications of evils of the tongue, such as Dame Slander and Lady Flattery, which testify to the gendered nature of these abuses, she argues. But it could be objected to these arguments that, first, the use of pronouns in early modern England was not stable enough to draw such conclusions: for example, the tongue was sometimes feminized, but it could also be referred to as "he," as is the case in Webbe's treatise. (14) Second, feminine pronouns were not systematically associated with negative notions: in the last part of his Essaies, Brathwait uses "she" to refer to the soul, honor, reason, virtue, truth, and so on. This shows that the grammatical gender of notions did not necessarily indicate a moral point of view (condemnation or praise) on what they referred to, therefore suggesting that there was no clear distinction between bad/feminine notions on the one hand, and good/masculine notions on the other. In other words, the fact that slander was sometimes grammatically gendered female does not mean that it was primarily associated with women in contemporaries' minds.

Finally, a distinction should be made between abuses of the tongue such as gossip, which was indeed generally considered a female vice, and defamation. Contemporaries themselves did insist on the distinctions between the several sins of the tongue: gossip and scolding were different from slander and backbiting in tongue treatises as well as in courts of law. (15) Samuel Rowlands's texts show that gossip could be treated humorously, although gossips were also seen as a threat by men; on the contrary, all discourses on slander underline the gravity of defamation. A distinction between the innocuous and easy railing or reviling and the serious sin of slander is made by Jeremy Taylor in one of his sermons, published in 1653: "To reproach and rail is a revenge that every girl can take. But falsely to accuse is spiteful as Hel, and deadly as the blood of Dragons" (Sermon XXIV, Part III "Of Slander and Flattery" 315). Besides, in her book on crime and gender in early modern England, Garthine Walker has shown that when a man was convicted of being a scold, which progressively came to be seen as a female offence in the seventeenth century, an allegation of slander was usually added to the charge, as if scolding did not befit a man while slander was deemed more appropriate (103-104). In this regard, it may be said that slander was gendered: it was too serious a crime to be associated primarily with women in contemporaries' minds, even though most defamation cases were fought by women at the time. (16) Therefore, the idea of the feminization of slander stems partly from a conflation of slander as a practice with slander as a notion or literary topos, or from a confusion between practice (slander suits were often fought by women, especially in London), cultural stereotypes (abuses of the tongue such as gossip or scolding were associated with women), and discourses on slander (men and women were equally prone to slander).

Authors of treatises on slander do deplore the fact that detraction was getting more and more common in England at the time (which is also a topos of this kind of writings) and they sometimes briefly mention the law on detraction but, on the whole, their discussion of slander is strangely disconnected from the English context of defamation. There seems to be no link between the reality of slander in English society--the suits, the laws, and the fact that the great majority of defamation cases were about sexual insults among neighbors, usually women--and the notion of slander in the discourses against defamation--its seriousness and possible political consequences for the whole country, and the fact that it was deemed a male crime mainly. One might argue that, most of these authors being churchmen, they believed that moral law and religion were the most efficient way to deter people from slandering, especially at a time when the law on slander was unsatisfactory and the division of roles between courts was unclear. One might also suggest that these treatises were reactions to personal attacks, written on the spur of the moment, when the authors were guided by anger and bitterness at being slandered, and that the very nature of slander, which grows from being repeated, convinced them not to engage with explicit contemporary facts and allegations. (17) My contention is that the nature of the texts themselves also provides clues on the aim and motivations of the authors, and the reason why they ignored the context of defamation in England. In her study of slander and satire in early modern France, Emily Butterworth states that the repetition of references and examples in the texts creates "a recognizable discourse with its own internal consistencies and recurrent motifs which was nevertheless open to modification by the writers who participated in its creation" (24), referring to the definition of "discourse" by intellectual historians. In Venomous Tongues, Bardsley also argues that texts on the evils of the tongue constitute "a discourse," defined as "a set of habits of thought and speech familiar to much of the population" (3). Quoting Pierre Bourdieu's definition of a successful discourse, she contends that "the discourse on the evils of women's speech succeeded, was perpetuated, and left its mark in surviving texts and artwork" (3), (18) mainly because it was immediately understandable to a large part of the population. Similarly, but referring this time to Michel Foucault, Craun explains that, as "an instrument of pastoral power," writings on the abuses of the tongue can be aptly defined as "a discourse" (Lies, Slander, and Obscenity 25). (19)

Medieval pastoral texts may indeed be accurately read as a "discourse of authority," but, as a discourse on discourse, early modern tongue treatises are probably best understood as "commentaries," in the sense Foucault gave to the word. In his inaugural lecture at the College de France in 1970, which was published under the title L'Ordre du discours (The Order of Discourse) the following year, Foucault tries to uncover the processes of control and delimitation of discourse at work in contemporary societies. The definition of' 'commentaries" given by Foucault perfectly applies to treatises on the abuses of the tongue:

[Commentaries are] major narratives, which are recounted, repeated, and varied; formulae, texts and ritualised sets of discourses which are recited in well-defined circumstances ... they give rise to a certain number of new speech-acts which take them up, transform them or speak of them, in short those discourses, which over and above their formulation, are said indefinitely, remain said and are to be said again. We know them in our cultural system.... (The Order of Discourse 56-57)

Commentary is based on the principles of repetition and sameness: "The infinite rippling of commentaries is worked from the inside by the dream of a repetition in disguise; at its horizon there is perhaps nothing but what was at its point of departure--mere recitation.... The new thing here lies not in what is said but in the event of its return" (58). Authors of tongue treatises were commentators and compilers (in the tradition of distinctiones), which enabled them to play a game with their readers by hiding the sources of some passages that the readers were then expected to find out. For instance, in the anonymous A Plaine Description of the Auncient Petigree of Dame Slaunder (1573), the printer says in his preface that marginal references are missing in the text but this should be seen as an opportunity for the reader to discover the sources of quotations: "[this] kinde of exercise ... if it were oftener used, it woulde not onely bee very beneficiall to the attayning of further understanding and knowledge, but also very profitable, for the memory of all such, as are dilighted with reading" ("The Printer to the Reader," sig. [[A7.sup.r]). As Michel Simonin has shown in his study of "the art of compilation," this guessing game was made possible by the fact that the texts borrowed from previous universally well-known writings (13-18).

Commentary is also defined by Foucault in The Order of Discourse as an internal procedure "for controlling and delimiting discourse" (56), as opposed to external procedures, such as censorship. The categorization, ordering of references, and hierarchy of ideas that characterize commentaries work as a control of discourse from the inside. However, as commentaries and instruments of domination, tongue treatises were both internal and external "procedures for delimiting discourse" since they also tried to impose some form of censorship and control on speech. Thus, tongue treatises, working as a double (internal and external) control of discourse and transgressive speech, may have been seen as an efficient instrument against political instability in early modern England. That tongue treatises aimed at political control of the crowd is made clear by Vaughan, for instance, who states that England being neither a "confused Anarchy" nor a "petulant Democracie" no one should assume that they are allowed to comment on the deeds and lives of "wise men" (113). Allestree blames company and conversations for the spread of slander: "that which was intended to cultivate and civilize the world, has turned it into a wild desert and wilderness" ("The Preface," sig. [[B1.sup.r-v]]), as if the places of male sociability that were starting to flourish in mid-seventeenth-century England encouraged a larger dissemination of calumny and the criticism of political authorities. Allestree also states that slander is one of the weapons used by religious groups to fight one another: "Yea so Epidemic is this Disease grown, that even Religion (at least those Parties and Factions which assume that name) has got a taint of it; each Sect and Opinion seeking to represent his Antagonist as odious as it can" (57-58). (20) However, the persistence of writings on the tongue throughout the early modern period shows that they failed in their attempt at controlling speech, probably because, ironically, they aimed at mastering the proliferation of discourse with their own proliferation.

As they thwart the temptation to search for signs of the emergence of modernity in the early modern period, tongue treatises may seem rather disappointing: they reveal not so much the emergence of a fledgling modernity as the persistence of a medieval tradition into the early modern era. In this regard, they are yet another reminder to scholars that they should beware of periodization in cultural history. (21) Moreover, as treatises on the abuses of the tongue borrow from common sources and endlessly repeat the same ideas and images, they give scholars invaluable information on dominant references, cultural norms, knowledge, and genres with which early modern readers were familiar. These texts reflect the persistent prominence of reputation and the fear of uncontrolled popular speech. Far from putting an end to discourses on the sins of the tongue, the Reformation increased the need for control of the crowd, as the Catholic discourse was reappropriated by Protestant authorities, mainly Luther. Progressively, with the emergence of the press, and therefore a different relation to rumor and news, the discourse on slander may have lost some of its relevance. Treatises and sermons on the government of the tongue were still written and published in the eighteenth century, but it seems that they progressively lost their general character and more often focused on specific current cases of defamation.

Sandrine Parageau


SANDRINE PARAGEAU is an associate professor of British history at Universite Paris Nanterre (France). She is the author of a monograph on the contribution of women to the emergence of modern science in England, Les Ruses de l'ignorance (Presses Sorbonne Nouvelle, 2010). She has co-edited several volumes of essays, including Women and Curiosity in Early Modern England and France (Brill, 2016), and she has published chapters and essays on early modern English intellectual and cultural history, (


Quotation in title from Foucault, The Order of Discourse 57.

(1.) Reasons for the great number of defamation cases in early modern England are given in Holdsworth 404; Gowing, Domestic Dangers 37, 61, 70-71, 111-18.

(2.) On the law against defamation in early modern England, see Holdsworth. On reputation in early modern England, see for instance Gowing (Domestic Dangers, Chapter 4, "Words, Honour, and Reputation" 111-38). On reputation in early modern France, see Butterworth 2-3.

(3.) On slander in early modern England, see Gowing, Habermann, and Kaplan. On slander in medieval England, see Bardsley; Craun.

(4.) See also for instance Ford 1.

(5.) Ballads against the evils of the tongue were published mainly in the sixteenth century: see for example Heywood; Bette. Poems also denounced the abuse of words; see Tusser, Yates, and Jordan.

(6.) See for instance Brinsley 141.

(7.) Richard Allestree also insists on the consequences of slander on a man's reputation: "[detraction] denotes the impairing or lessening a man in point of fame" (42). About detractio and reputation in the Middle Ages, see Casagrande and Vecchio 240, 250-51.

(8.) For examples of a tight textual organisation, see also for instance Brinsley; Ford; Perkins; Ward; Webbe.

(9.) Casagrande and Vecchio give the example of Raoul Ardent's Speculum universale (published at the end of the twelfth century).

(10.) For a precise definition and analysis of secularisation, see for instance Taylor; Gauchet.

(11.) Perkins is also mentioned in Brinsley's "Epistle." The idea that slander is more widespread than ever can be found in most tongue treatises of the period.

(12.) Not all scholarship on slander insists on the gendering of abuses of the tongue. See for example Vienne-Guerrin, and Mazzio, who both downplay the role of gender in tongue treatises. Butterworth, Craun, and Kaplan do not particularly deal with the link between slander and gender.

(13.) See also Gowing's Domestic Dangers: between 1590 and 1624, "the numbers of both female plaintiffs and defamation cases nearly tripled" (32). See also Stretton 29-30.

(14.) See Vienne-Guerrin 99. This example from Webbe contradicts Habermann's idea that "treatises on defamation displace the menace of slander onto women, which is effected through the feminisation of the tongue as an 'unruly member'" (8).

(15.) On scolding, see Bardsley; Boose. On gossip, see Capp.

(16.) Craun rightly states that men were associated with "violent types of speech," such as blasphemy, while women were associated with "transgressive forms of garrulousness." However, Craun includes slander in women's types of speech (along with loquacity and lies), even though he underlines how serious and violent a crime slander was as it threatened social stability (The Hands of the Tongue, introduction xiii-xiv).

(17.) This is how Jean-Paul Gillet, the author of the first French translation of Lingua, accounts for the digressions, repetitions, and hesitations found in the text (introduction 14, 31). He argues that Lingua was written hastily, as a defence against the slanderous accusations that Erasmus had to face in the context of the Reformation.

(18.) See Bourdieu 39.

(19.) Craun refers to Foucault, "The Subject and Power," 212-14.

(20.) About the use of slander as a weapon in religious strife, see for instance William Shewen's treatise, which is a defence of the Quakers.

(21.) For a recent reflection on periodization, see Jacques Le Goff and his plea for the recognition of what he terms "the Long Middle Ages."


Author names between brackets indicate that the books were published anonymously.


Anon. Book for a Simple and Devout Woman. A Late Middle English Adaptation of Peraldus's Summa de Vitiis et Virtutibus and Friar Laurent's Somme le Roi, edited by F. N. M. Diekstra, Egbert Forsten, 1998.

Anon. A Plaine Description of the Auncient Petigree of Dame Slaunder. Printed by John Harrison, 1573.

Abernethy, John. "The Poysonous Tongue." A Christian and Heavenly Treatise. Containing Physicke for the Soule. Printed by Richard Badger for Robert Allot, 1622, pp. 463-85.

[Allestree, Richard]. The Government of the Tongue. At the Theater in Oxford, 1667.

Bette, Thomas. A New Ballade, Intituled, Agaynst Rebellious and False Rumours. Printed by Wylliam Gryffith, 1570.

Blackwood, Christopher. Some Pious Treatises, Being 1. A Bridle for the Tongue: Or, A Treatise Directing a Christian How to Order his Words in a Holy Manner. Printed for Giles Calvert, 1654.

Brathwait, Richard. Essaies upon the Five Senses, With a Pithie One upon Detraction. Printed by E. G. for Richard Whittaker, 1620.

Brinsley, John. Glosso-chalinosis; Or, a Bridle for the Tongue. Printed by A. Maxwell for G. Sawbridg, 1664.

Carpenter, Alexander. Destructorium Viciorum, 1516.

Erasmus, Desiderius. La Langue. Translated, edited, and annotated by Jean-Paul Gillet, Labor et Fides, 2002.

--. "The Tongue--Lingua". Translated and annotated by Elaine Fantham. Collected Works of Erasmus, edited by Elaine Fantham and Erika Rummel, with the assistance of Josef Ijsewijn. Toronto: U of Toronto P, 1989, pp. 249-412.

Ford, Stephen. The Evil Tongue Tryed and Found Guilty: Or, the Hainousness, and Exceeding Sinfulness of Defaming and Back-biting Opened and Declared. Printed for Nath. Crouch, 1672.

Gearing, William. A Bridle for the Tongue; Or, A Treatise of Ten Sins of the Tongue. Printed by R. H. for Tho. Parkhurst, 1663.

Heywood, John. A Ballad against Slander and Detraction. Printed by John Allde, 1562. [Jordan, Thomas], A Cure for the Tongue-Evill. Or a Receipt against Vain Oaths. Being a Plain and Profitable Poem. Printed for Christopher Ecclestone, 1662.

March, John. Actions for Slander, Or, A Methodicall Collection under certain Grounds and Heads, of What Words are Actionable in the Law, and What Not? Printed by F. L. for M. Walbank and R. Best, 1647.

Marconville, Jean de. A Treatise of the Good and Evell Tongue, A Translation from the French. Printed by J. Wolfe for John Perin, 1592.

[Perkins, William]. A Direction for the Government of the Tongue, According to Gods Worde. Printed by Robert Waldegrave, 1593.

Peter of Waltham. Source Book of Self-Discipline. A Synthesis of Moralia in Job by Gregory the Great. A Translation of Peter of Waltham's Remediarum Conversorum, edited by Joseph Gildea, Peter Lang, 1991.

Reyner, Edward. Rules for the Government of the Tongue. Printed by R.I. for Thomas Newberry, 1656.

[Rowlands, Samuel]. Tis Merrie When Gossips meete. Printed by W. White, 1602.

--. A Whole Crew of Kind Gossips, All Met to be Merry. Printed by W. Jaggard for John Deane, 1609.

Shewen, William. A Brief Testimony against Tale-Bearers, Whisperers and Backbiters, 1686.

Stubbes, Philip. The Anatomie of Abuses: Contayning a Discoverie or Brief Summarie of such Notable Vices, and Imperfections, as now Raigne in many Christian Countreyes of the World. Printed by John Kingston for Richard Jones, 1583.

Taylor, Jeremy. "Sermon XXII, The Good and Evil Tongue" and "Sermon XXIV, Of Slander and Flattery." XXV Sermons Preached at Golden-Grove. Printed by E. Cotes for Richard Royston, 1653, pp. 286-334.

Tusser, Thomas. "A Sonet against a Slanderous Tongue." Five Hundred Points of Good Husbandrie. Printed by Thomas Purfoot, 1620, p. 113.

[Vaughan, William]. The Spirit of Detraction, Conivred and Convicted in Seven Circles. A Work both Divine and Morall. Printed by W. Stansby for George Norton, 1611.

Ward, Richard. "A Treatise of the Nature, Use, and Abuse of the Tongue and Speech," in Two very Usefull and Compendious Theological Treatises. Printed for William Miller, 1673.

Webbe, George. The Araignment of an Unruly Tongue. Wherein the Faults of an Evill Tongue are Opened, the Danger Discovered, the Remedies Prescribed, for the Taming of a Bad Tongue. Printed by G. P. for John Budge, 1619.

Yates, James. "A Sonnet of a Slaunderous Tongue." The Castell of Courtesie. Printed by John Wolfe, 1582.


Bardsley, Sandy. Venomous Tongues. Speech and Gender in Late Medieval England, U of Pennsylvania P, 2006.

Boose, Lynda E. "Scolding Brides and Bridling Scolds: Taming the Woman's Unruly Member." Shakespeare Quarterly, vol. 42, no. 2, 1991, pp. 179-213.

Bourdieu, Pierre. Language and Symbolic Power, edited by and introduced by John B. Thompson, translated by Gino Raymond and Matthew Adamson, Harvard UR 1991.

Butterworth, Emily. Poisoned Words. Slander and Satire in Early Modern France, Legenda, 2006.

Capp, Bernard. When Gossips Meet. Women, Family, and Neighbourhood in Early Modern England, Oxford UP, 2003.

Casagrande, Carla, and Silvana Vecchio. Les Peches de la langue. Discipline et ethique de la parole dans la culture medievale. Translated by Philippe Baillet, Cerf, 1991.

Craun, Edwin D. Lies, Slander, and Obscenity in Medieval English Literature. Pastoral Rhetoric and the Deviant Speaker, Cambridge UP, 1997.

Craun, Edwin D., editor. The Hands of the Tongue. Essays on Deviant Speech, Medieval Institute Publications, 2007.

Foucault, Michel. "The Order of Discourse." Untying the Text: A Post-Structuralist Reader, edited by Robert Young, translated by Ian McLeod, Routledge, 1981.

--. "The Subject and Power." Michel Foucault, Beyond Structuralism and Hermeneutics, edited by H. Dreyfus and P. Rainbow, U of Chicago P, 1982, pp. 212-14.

Gauchet, Marcel. Le Desenchantement du monde. Une histoire politique de la religion, Gallimard, 1985.

Gowing, Laura. Domestic Dangers. Women, Words, and Sex in Early Modern London, Clarendon Press, 1996.

--. "Language, Power, and the Law: Women's Slander Litigation in Early Modern London." Women, Crime and the Courts in Early Modern England, edited by Jenny Kermode and Garthine Walker, UCL Press, 1994, pp. 26-47.

Habermann, Ina. Staging Slander and Gender in Early Modern England, Ashgate, 2003.

Holdsworth, William S. "Defamation in the Sixteenth and Seventeenth Centuries." Law Quarterly Review, vol. 40, 1924, 302-15 and 394-412.

Kaplan, M. Lindsay. The Culture of Slander in Early Modern England, Cambridge UP, 1997.

Le Goff, Jacques. Faut-il vraiment decouper l'histoire en tranches?, Seuil, 2014.

Mazzio, Carla. "Sins of the Tongue in Early Modern England." Modern Language Studies, vol. 28, no. 3/4, 1998, 93-124.

Parker, Patricia. "On the Tongue: Cross Gendering, Effeminacy, and the Art of Words." Style, vol. 23, no. 3, 1989, 445-65.

Simonin, Michel. Introduction to the edition of Pierre Boaistuau's Le Theatre du Monde, Droz, 1981.

Stretton, Tim. Women Waging Law in Elizabethan England, Cambridge UP, 1998.

Taylor, Charles. A Secular Age, Harvard UP, 2007.

Vienne-Guerrin, Nathalie, editor. The Unruly Tongue in Early Modern England. Three Treatises. Fairleigh Dickinson UP, 2012.

Walker, Garthine. Crime, Gender and Social Order in Early Modern England, Cambridge UP, 2006.
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