How Did The Tudors Gossip?

When imagining the Tudor world as a whole, start with most people living in small, rural communities. It’s difficult to be exact because of the way that records were kept (or not kept), but the general consensus seems to be that about 90% of the population lived outside of large cities. This has an impact beyond what shows up in the landscape or in land ownership records. When you combine it with most people’s irregular, unreliable incomes, the result is an almost inevitable intense interdependency and network of favours and debts that would develop in small communities. And where tightknit relationships form, gossip will follow. 

In 1992, anthropologist Robin Dunbar developed a theory that is now often called ‘Dunbar’s Number’. It argues that people have a natural limit to how many other humans they can easily maintain stable social relationships with and that this number tops out somewhere around 150. He theorised that the larger the group, the more difficult it is to remain cohesive and the more important it becomes to carry out what he called ‘social grooming’. In humans, we do this with language by trading information and experiences to create intimacy, or in other words: we gossip!   

The origin of the word itself is rooted in the Christian rite of baptism, where an infant was adopted into the faith. ‘Gossip’ or ‘god sibb’ stood for ‘godmother’ or ‘godfather’, the individual who would witness and take part in the baptism. By the Tudor era, it had also come to mean ‘close friend’, or the kind of information that you would share with a close friend, and was primarily linked with women.

B.S. Capp’s excellent “When Gossips Meet: Women, Family and Neighbourhood in Early Modern England” shows how childbirth (and remember that pregnancy and childbirth were much more frequent than they are now) meant a series of events where only women were able to attend. There was group support during the delivery, followed by an often-boisterous celebration at the mother’s house once the baby had arrived. Several days later, it was typically the mother’s friends that would convey the baby to the church for the christening. When the mother was churched, marking her return to ‘normal’ life, more celebrations with these women would take place. The strengths of the relationships that were formed in this context were linked, linguistically, to the kind of bonding talk that took place. These relationships weren’t universally harmonious (are they ever?) but they served a practical purpose.  

Beyond pregnancy and childbirth, the movable nature of feminine daily tasks meant that it was often possible to meet others to chat and work at the same time. Women could sit in circles and spin thread or knit. Laundry required gathering near a water source, and milking has also been recorded as sometimes happening in groups. If you live in a dwelling without large windows, the best source of light is obviously outside; this means that sitting on the front doorstep to work was not uncommon, which in turn opens up possibilities of visiting, arguing, and laughing with passers-by. The weekly ritual of church provided yet another chance to see, by seen, and talk with others.  

Broad imagining of Tudor households and traditional thinking about gender roles has often divided the world up into the house, which was feminine space, and the outside, which was masculine space. While this gendered divide does get held up as the ideal in writing of the time, the practical truth was that women— whether running a household or employed in it as a maid— frequently had social and outward-facing days, with opportunities to chat with friends and share information. All meant opportunities to be a good (or bad!) neighbour. And if things went sour, battle-lines would inevitably be drawn while people sought support from their community. Capp’s work argues that community opinion was initially negotiated by the women within it, citing a dispute with a neighbour where a Newcastle woman stated in her defence that that ‘all the women of the close’ shared her view (p.59).  

Modern research tells us that both genders are roughly equally likely to engage in social information sharing talk today, but women are much more comfortable with calling it ‘gossip’, while men resist the definition. This isn’t new. Tudor men’s anxieties about women gathering to speak, and the fear that women may be speaking about them (and especially— gasp— speaking about their sexual inadequacies), has been explored in some depth. Botelho examined contemporary theatre depictions of male rumour to argue that ‘loose tongues’ were conceptually bound to women because complaining about feminine gossip was a central part of early modern English masculinity. Depictions in plays showed women gathering and sharing tales about how to trick men. Scandalous stuff indeed.  

A woodcut from Samuel Rowlands’s ’Tis Merry When Gossips Meete (c. 1613), showing a widow, wife and maid drinking in a tavern. Image sourced from https://blogs.kcl.ac.uk/english/2017/07/26/early-modern-verbatim-theatre-a-reflection/ 

This is not to say that men’s friendships and information sharing in masculine spaces didn’t occur; locations for drinking (alehouses, taverns) meant gathering in groups and talking, and some businesses did have more social elements, especially if it involved guilds, workshops, negotiations, or trading. But agricultural work was frequently solitary, and this would have made up the bulk of male employment. When it did occur, men were able to position their talk as being necessary, formal and legitimate- even though it was very likely similar in content to women’s ‘gossip’!  

What this short piece doesn’t have room to discuss, of course, is that gossip could have truly terrible consequences at its very sharpest edge. Accusations of witchcraft or religious dissent could lead to trials and executions. Being a shrew or a scold (a woman who berated others) was a legally punishable offence, even if actual punishment being carried out seems to have been rare. Accusations of sexual immorality could lead to ostracization. Gossip could be the last resort of women who had been victim to terrible injustices, where it functioned as an attempt to find community support in the face of overwhelming patriarchal disadvantage. But accusations and slander are big topics worthy of their own blog posts, and these extreme examples shouldn’t distract from the ways gossip happened in ordinary, mundane settings, and its function in building, smoothing, maintaining, and challenging relationships. 

Imagining and envisioning the Tudor world can spin off in all sorts of directions. Writers have constant opportunities to decide which of those elements are worth including to best suit their story. Thinking about gossip is just one way to consider the social consequences that might result because of the way the environment is organised- and as a gossipy person myself, it’s no surprise that I wanted to read more on the topic and tell you all about it!  

QUESTIONS FOR WRITERS:  

  • Stories can only have so many characters (readers, after all, can only be asked to keep track of so many names). What are some ways that you might suggest your character is embedded in a community, with old relationships and a rich knowledge of the people in it, without going into too much detail about these other individuals?  
  • One strategy in storytelling is to have a POV character who is an outsider- perhaps a guest or visitor- meaning that introductions and expositions can occur where the reader learns with your character. In this situation, how might you suggest that your character is entering an environment with rich relationships, even if they are not a part of it themselves?  
  • Interpersonal conflicts frequently sit at the core of a story. They also drive the people around the conflict to get involved and choose a side. This will be even more the case in tight-knit Tudor communities. Consider how this outside pressure might affect the conflict. A fight between two families is everyone’s business.  

I’m on twitter at @writingtudors, come say hi!

Sources:  

Capp, B. S.. When Gossips Meet : Women, Family, and Neighbourhood in Early Modern England, Oxford University Press, Incorporated, 2003. (I lost a whole week to happily reading this book. Highly recommended if you want to learn more about this subject!)  

Charmian Mansell, ‘Beyond the Home: Space and Agency in the Experiences of Female Service in Early Modern England’ Gender & History, Vol.33 No.1 March 2021, pp. 24–49. (Some good examples of women in service moving through public spaces.)

Botelho, Keith. Renaissance Earwitnesses: Rumor and Early Modern Masculinity. Springer, 2009. (The first chapter discusses rumour, gossip and gender quite broadly and helpfully.)

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