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Domestic Dangers: Women, Words, and Sex in Early Modern London.

By Laura Gowing (New York: Oxford University Press, 1996. 301pp. $62.00).

In early modern England, women, not men, represented danger to marriage, domestic tranquility and the ideal household. Since a woman's honor and reputation were tied to her sexual behavior, misbehavior or even accusations of misbehavior were serious threats to the household. Adultery, with which only women were charged, could end a marriage. While marriage played a central role in defining a woman's identity, a man's identity and his reputation were based on many other factors.

Laura Gowing, drawing primarily from the records of the church courts in London from 1560 to 1640, has amassed a great deal of information about the domestic lives of people. The testimonies of witnesses in domestic disputes are rich in details about living arrangements, the life of neighborhoods, street life, sexual activities, arguments, and insults. Story-telling was important in a society in which few could read, and the testimonies are stories. The two sides in law cases often told different versions of the same story. Women who testified were treated differently from men; court officials seem to have thought that women were less honest than men. Women who testified were often accused of having been bribed by one of the parties.

One of the most interesting sections is that describing libel cases. Defamation suits between women increased significantly in the early seventeenth century; in 1571, only 7.5% of the cases in consistory court were those of women suing women for defamation, but, in 1633, such cases constituted 42.5% of the court's business. The number of women going to court in all matters also increased. Gowing speculates that as the prestige of church courts declined, they became increasingly receptive to cases brought by women.

Many of the defamation cases did not reach the final judgment stage. Apparently the litigants found ways of settling the disputes or merely wanted to have the dispute brought into a public forum. "Whore" was the most common word of insult, but it was rarely used in its literal sense. It usually was directed at accusing a woman of adultery with the plaintiff's husband. The testimony of witnesses in these cases provides information about economic and social arrangements as well as standards of sexual conduct. Often the primary concern seems to have been financial; husbands were thought to have been spending resources on other women rather than their families. Gowing rejects the idea that the increase in slander suits reflects an increased intolerance for illicit sexuality. Women called each other whore in every sort of dispute. Crowded living conditions, lack of privacy, disputes with servants, disagreements over money and property could all lead to women insulting other women; the language of insult was usually sexual regardless of the cause.

David Underdown has argued that there was a gender crisis in early modern England. While some evidence does suggest this, Gowing thinks that the increase in lawsuits about sex and morality do not support the crisis thesis. Instead, she argues that gender conflict was a constant in conjugal patriarchy. A moral system which holds women responsible and which defines women largely through their sexuality cannot escape conflict and tension.

That moral system explains the tension and may also explain why some women who wanted to insult other women used sexual terminology. But, then again, it may not. In twentieth-century society, where patriarchy is not what it used to be, both men and women use sexual language to insult other men and women. Gowing is correct in saying that sexual language was used in non-sexual ways, but may exaggerate in tying that usage to a household idea and a morality which treated women unfairly.

Steven R. Smith Savannah State University
COPYRIGHT 1998 Journal of Social History
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Copyright 1998, Gale Group. All rights reserved. Gale Group is a Thomson Corporation Company.

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Author:Smith, Steven R.
Publication:Journal of Social History
Article Type:Book Review
Date:Jun 22, 1998
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