Curst Shrews and Venomous Scolds: The Societal and Legal Reactive Processes to Dangerous and Unideal Female Speech in Early Modern England
Rhodes, A. (2016). Curst Shrews and Venomous Scolds: The Societal and Legal Reactive Processes to Dangerous and Unideal Female Speech in Early Modern England (Thesis, Master of Arts (MA)). University of Waikato, Hamilton, New Zealand. Retrieved from https://hdl.handle.net/10289/10599
Permanent Research Commons link: https://hdl.handle.net/10289/10599
This thesis argues that in seventeenth century England, the tongue, or more specifically the female tongue, was understood as a fleshy weapon wielded to inflict misery and chaos on men. In response, early modern society reacted strenuously when faced with this form of living danger. The two primary processes were containment and correction. Female verbal expression was often framed or contained in artifices created through rhetorical texts, for example, satirical, judicial, or moralistic texts. These texts were made to disempower and dismiss female verbal expression categorised as dangerous, or abnormal. Two of the main constructs used in texts were the ‘cursed shrew’ and the ‘common scold’, both of which were created to vilify and dismiss verbal rebellion by presenting them in negative narratives. The shrew was defined through satire. The common scold was defined through a mixture of legal definitions, and community intervention. First, this dissertation investigates these two female constructs of Early Modern England, which emerged from verbal disorder observed by external parties. The second element of this dissertation explores the ‘correction’ of the female verbal rebel: the formal mechanisms that were employed for public justice, and also the informal rites or actions carried out in the neighbourhood or household. Framed in chapters which resemble the sequence of a stage play, I begin my thesis with a comedic opening act about the cursed shrew and her illustrious satirical career. The arrival of the common scold heralds the dramatic second act. This act ends in a spectacle, as the shrew and scold are delivered their deserved punishment; the shrew ‘tamed’ and the scold ‘crowned’. The shrew was a warning, while the common scold was defined in relationship to the community, or through personal hardship. While taming narratives eked a good wife out of a shrew, the punishment of the common scold was a of combination communal rite and formalised legal legislation. The study of past female crime and punishment is a crowded domain of history; the witch and the whore jostling for the ‘most historical research dedicated to her person’ award. This thesis contribution is centred on verbal female characters and punishment, a topic which has received far less attention. The shrew and the common scold are often mentioned as a means of comparison to other female criminals, to draw similarities and divergences in behaviour and punishment, but they have rarely achieved protagonist status. This is what my thesis accomplishes, through an assemblage of ideas about the binary of unwanted female speech and English society.
University of Waikato
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