Desperately seeking Susan: Looking for women’s voices in early modern dialogue - Professor Cathy Shrank

Sixteenth- and seventeenth-century emblem books depicted ideal femininity through the image of Venus with her foot resting on a tortoise, symbolising the need for women to stay home and keep silence.


Whilst this instructs women how they should behave, rather than necessarily describing how they did comport themselves in practice, there was an enduring and powerful association in early modern Europe between female speech and female unruliness. Garrulous women were seen to disrupt social hierarchies. ‘Too much speech implieth an usurpation of authority,’ wrote William Gouge in 1622. Frequently, this disorderliness is perceived in terms of a connection between women’s propensity for speech and their sexual appetites, as can be seen in Elijahu Wilcocks’ injunction in 1595 that wives should be ‘chaste and shamefast, modest and silent, godly and discreet’. Sexual continence, silence, and godliness go hand-in-hand.

Venus sits on bed with her left foot on a tortoise
From Alciato, Emblematum Libri (Lyon, 1556), courtesy of University of Glasgow Archives & Special Collections: SM 36, folio L2v

I am currently completing a book about dialogue – i.e. works written in the form of conversation – in late medieval and early modern England. What does the premium put on female reticence during this period mean for the ways in which women feature in a genre which is primarily conducted through people talking?

The sixteenth century saw a vogue for civil conversations, modelled on Baldassare Castiglione’s Il Cortegiano (1528). These characteristically, and innovatively, feature female speakers alongside male ones, but – even there, as Virginia Cox has noted – rather than having ‘substantive roles’, in which women hold the floor and give their opinions, the female speakers habitually have ‘structural’ ones: hosting the event, moving a topic along, or asking for clarification of a point. 

This is not to say that the women in these civil conversations are push-overs. We see them managing situations, defusing potential conflict (often through mollifying laughter), even fending off sexual assault, as when one of the male characters gropes the only female present in Étienne Pasquier’s Monophile, translated into English by Geoffrey Fenton in 1572. Nonetheless, it is telling that the authority the women hold in this type of dialogue is temporary and part of the game: their position as ‘sovereign’ for the evening is usually chosen by lot.

To a large extent, the presence of women in these civil conversations is enabled by the sheer number of speakers: the male voices dominate, diluting the ‘danger’ of female speech. And these civil conversations take place in elite spaces: amongst the gentry and aristocracy. It’s not every woman who is given social licence to speak.

The subject-matter of these civil conversations is also confined to subjects deemed pertinent to women’s lives, so that we find them featuring in discussions about love and marriage, or female behaviour and morals. Few early modern dialogues would pass the Bechdel-Wallace test, in which a text:

  1. Has to have at least two [named] women in it;
  2. Who talk to each other
  3. About something besides a man.

A rare exception to this rule is T.N.’s Pleasant Dialogue (1579), in which ‘Lady Listra’ quizzes a traveller she encounters about the socio-political structures of the various lands through which he has passed.

More usually, we hear women being talked about rather than doing the actual talking. Their (mis)behaviour is a focus for male debate, as in Thomas Elyot’s Defence of Good Women (1540), or William Thomas’ Argument, wherein the Apparel of Women is both Reproved and Defended (1551). In that latter text, an unnamed gentlewoman objects to the way in which one of the men present uses a discussion about the nation’s current economic woes to launch into an ‘intemperate’ attack on women for their alleged indulgence in clothes, accessories, and luxury goods. Her interjection – reported second-hand by the male author – is carefully framed: readers are assured that she intercedes ‘mildly’. This is no shrew, in other words. Her contribution to the conversation then ceases, as the matter is settled by two men speechifying.

The relegation of women’s words to indirect speech over direct speech (seen in the example above) is not unusual within early modern dialogue. T.F.’s News from the North (1579) is set in a Yorkshire inn. The behaviour of the inn-keeper’s household is used at the outset to indicate the idealised nature of the establishment, as the male ‘reporter’ enters to find the inn-keeper’s wife and daughters busy with their domestic duties (‘sat spinning at their wheels’) and listening to – not joining in with – the men of the household singing Psalm 104. The only time the hostess contributes to the conversation is at the very end of the dialogue, when she is called upon to judge (not participate in) the tale-telling competition, at which point the dialogue shifts from direct to indirect speech. Her words – scant as they are – are reported, second-hand, in contrast to the verbatim, first-person speeches of the three male interlocutors.

The portrayal of women in these dialogues is also frequently used to feed misogyny. When women speak in pairs or larger groups, they often live up (or down) to stereotypical male nightmares of female misbehaviour. The Gospels of the Dystaves (1508), translated from the French by Henry Watson, sets out by promising to record female, orally transmitted wisdom. The seemingly supportive stance adopted by the male amanuensis quickly unravels: the women talk over each other; they want the upper hand; they physically dominate and paw at the male narrator; and – on one occasion – they gorge themselves on food and drink smuggled out of their own homes, while their husbands sleep. 

One of the more surprising spaces for female voices are the colloquies of Desiderius Erasmus, designed to teach schoolboys good, conversational Latin. A cluster of these – published in the 1520s – feature witty, but still virtuous, women: Maria who punctures her lover’s histrionic posturing and evades his attempts to take their courtship to a more physical level; Magdalia, who outsmarts a lazy cleric; Fabulla, the new mum, who enters into a battle-of-the-sexes debate with an older, better educated man and gives as good as she takes. 

The fact that Erasmus’ colloquies were intended to be read aloud, the parts shared between pupils, means that – for all the silencing and marginalising of female speech – women’s voices were being heard in the very male space of the early modern schoolroom, even if those were fictional representations, ventriloquised by men and boys. However, this is no proto-feminist vision. Erasmus’ female speakers conform to patriarchal expectations. The topics that they discuss – courtship and marriage, female behaviour and education – are ones which were deemed suitably ‘feminine’; and the colloquies featuring women all fall squarely into the category of dialogues which endeavour to correct female behaviour. Further to that, once more than two women feature, Erasmus retreats to familiar stereotypes. ‘The Parliament of Women’ is the only one of his colloquies to depict a group of women speaking. As in the Gospels of the Dystaves, left to their own devices, these women prove incapable of serious thought and orderly discourse. They interrupt each other, focus on trivial things like dress and etiquette, and parrot misogynistic views about female sexuality by joking about the lack of virgins in contemporary society.

When women are given voices in early modern dialogue, in other words, it doesn’t necessarily ‘help’ the female cause. They either epitomise caricatures of errant women, or endorse the denunciation of them. None of Erasmus’ witty, vocal women are allowed to disrupt the status quo. Rather, their very presence in a school textbook could be seen to enable male power as they become vehicles for training male voices, equipping them for future roles in the public domain.

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