Cover image for Transforming Talk: The Problem with Gossip in Late Medieval England By Susan E. Phillips

Transforming Talk

The Problem with Gossip in Late Medieval England

Susan E. Phillips


$55.95 | Hardcover Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-02994-8

$34.95 | Paperback Edition
ISBN: 978-0-271-02995-5

248 pages
6" × 9"
6 b&w illustrations

Transforming Talk

The Problem with Gossip in Late Medieval England

Susan E. Phillips

Transforming Talk is impressive both in what it accomplishes and what it manages to avoid. A topic like gossip might unwisely tempt a writer into pop or pretentious theoretical clichés, but instead Phillips has produced a study that is clearly written, well documented, solidly argued, and, above all, original in general concept and its specific readings. With confidence and subtlety, Phillips deals with a wide range of late medieval writing, from obscure works to Chaucerian masterpieces, exploring not only gossip’s transgressions but also, and especially, its protean abilities to generate new and surprising narratives.”


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In recent decades, scholars have shown an increasing interest in gossip’s social, psychological, and literary functions. The first book-length study of medieval gossip, Transforming Talk shifts the current debate and argues that gossip functions primarily as a transformative discourse, influencing not only social interactions but also literary and religious practices. Known as “jangling” in Middle English, gossip was believed to corrupt parishioners, disturb the peace, and cause civil and spiritual unrest. But gossip was also a productive cultural force; it reconfigured pastoral practice, catalyzed narrative experimentation, and restructured social and familial relationships.

Transforming Talk will appeal to a diverse audience, including scholars interested in late medieval culture, religion, and society; Chaucer; and women in the Middle Ages.

Transforming Talk is impressive both in what it accomplishes and what it manages to avoid. A topic like gossip might unwisely tempt a writer into pop or pretentious theoretical clichés, but instead Phillips has produced a study that is clearly written, well documented, solidly argued, and, above all, original in general concept and its specific readings. With confidence and subtlety, Phillips deals with a wide range of late medieval writing, from obscure works to Chaucerian masterpieces, exploring not only gossip’s transgressions but also, and especially, its protean abilities to generate new and surprising narratives.”
“This is an extremely well-researched book, and the numerous helpful bibliographic and discursive footnotes are evidence of an astute scholarly mind.”
“Susan Phillips has done us a great service in writing this book about medieval gossip, for not only does she extend [its] premises . . . with theoretical, historical, and literary support, and in clear and intelligent prose, but she also focuses her exploration at the site of the beginnings of what we recognize as English, the early modern world of late Middle English, the language of Chaucer, Manning, and Dunbar, the world of fourteenth- and fifteenth-century England.”

Susan E. Phillips is Associate Professor of English at Northwestern University.




1. “Janglynge in cherche”: Pastoral Practice and Idle Talk

2. Chaucerian Small Talk

3. “Sisteris in schrift”: Gossip’s Confessional Kinship

4. The Gospel According to Gossips, or How Gossip Got Its Name





My sone, be war, and be noon auctour newe

Of tidynges, wheither they been false or trewe.

Whereso thou come, amonges hye or lowe,

Kepe wel thy tonge and thenk upon the crowe.

—Geoffrey Chaucer, The Manciple’s Tale, lines 359–62

Gossips beware. The literature of late medieval England abounds with cautionary tales concerning the dangers of idle talk. Whether in penitential manuals, courtesy books, or literary compilations, English writers repeatedly tell the story of gossip’s “euele werke,” revealing the dire consequences facing anyone who engages in unproductive speech. On the pages of moralizing texts, industrious devils record idle words in their account books, while uncompromising authorities sever wagging tongues and place gossiping bodies on ignominious public display. But perhaps nowhere are the repercussions of this speech more vividly depicted than in Manciple’s tale of the chattering crow. Here the effects of idle talk are nothing short of physical transformation: because he cannot hold his tongue about the adultery of his master’s wife, the pure white crow becomes pitch black and his mellifluous speech is reduced to a discordant cry. The Manciple renders into fable pastoral commonplaces about idle talk as a morally corrosive force, declaring that gossip’s idle words turn a trusted servant into a traitor and a miraculous voice into harsh noise. Yet for the Manciple, as for late medieval English culture more generally, idle talk accomplishes far more than the transformation of virtue into vice.

Prompted by a fear of small talk and closing with a fifty-line moralitas that cannot hold its tongue about “janglyng” (IX. 350; idle talk), the Manciple’s Tale does not simply recount the exemplum of the crow; it tells the story of idle talk—its uses as well as its consequences. On one level, his story is familiar, the received wisdom of medieval and modern authorities alike. The Manciple engages in a deeply self-interested exemplarity; he uses his cautionary tale to contain the animus he incited when he ridiculed the inebriated Cook in the tale’s prologue. Concerned that the Cook might later revenge himself by speaking “smale thynges” (IX. 73) about his shady business dealings, the Manciple tries to preempt this retaliatory gossip by recounting an exemplum that not only illustrates the dangers of such speech but also reveals its problematic associations. Here, the crow appears not as corrupted virtue, but as the social subordinate whose idle talk has the power to undo his superiors. Attached to this story of the upstart underling, the exemplum’s moral, with its proliferating commonplaces about idle talk, serves less as an occasion for moral instruction than as the opportunity to affirm the connection between “janglyng” and social inferiors. For the duration of the seemingly endless barrage of proverbs, the Manciple ventriloquizes his mother’s voice, attributing the loquacity of the moralitas to her. The Manciple thus introduces his “dame” not as an “auctoritee” on idle talk but as an emblem of it—a comic reminder of gossip’s traditional associations.

The narrative about insubordinate speech, however, is merely a cover story. What it occludes is a much more interesting tale—a story in which gossip is not a vice but a narrative and pastoral strategy, not a tool of the underling but a tactic deployed by authority. Although the Manciple attempts to tell the tale of other people’s gossip, he loses control of this narrative, revealing instead his own dependence on idle talk. Not only does he chatter on about the Cook’s drunkenness in order to insinuate his exemplum into the tale-telling rotation, he also uses idle talk to breathe new life into his fable from “olde bookes” (IX. 106). Pretending to let his fellow pilgrims in on the privy details of his characters’ lives, he recounts the overly familiar details of classical narrative and antifeminist commonplace as if they were the latest news: “if the sothe that I shal sayn, / Jalous he was” (IX. 143–44). More strikingly, he makes his philological speculations appear as inside jokes. Discussing whether the term “lemman” (lover) is more appropriate for a poor wench than a noble wife, he elbows his audience knowingly: “God it woot, myne owene deere brother, / Men leyn that oon as lowe as lith that oother” (IX. 221–22). In addition to making the “textueel” appear colloquial, the Manciple uses idle talk here to make his audience into his conversational kin, closing the gap between himself and the “lordynges” (IX. 309) he addresses. That is, gossip is a device through which the Manciple both reinvents his narrative and renegotiates his relationship with his audience. In this context, his mother’s moralitas, rather than merely suggesting that idle talk is women’s work, transforms a compendium of learned auctoritates—the wisdom of Solomon, Cato’s Distichs, Seneca’s De Ira, Biblical proverb and Flemish saying—into gossip. Both the narrative and its moral participate in the “janglyng” they condemn, as the Manciple’s exemplum functions less as a cautionary tale than as an illustration of idle talk’s talent for discursive appropriation. Despite his claims to the contrary, for the Manciple, gossip’s idle words are productive; they have the ability to blur boundaries not simply between vice and virtue, but between acquaintances and kin, narrative and news, idle talk and pastoral practice.

The story of gossip in late medieval England is the story of this transforming talk. As I argue throughout this book, idle talk performs a wide range of social, pastoral, and literary functions. Gossip appropriates pastoral practice, turning idle talk into confession and confession into idle talk. It performs generic alchemy—making fabliaux read like exempla and changing sermon exempla into the latest news. And it restructures social relationships, converting neighbors into sisters, confessors into lovers, and idle women into trusted advisors. I begin my discussion with the Manciple’s failed exemplum because it illustrates gossip’s ability to subvert pastoral practice and remake conventional narrative, and to disempower literary authority and forge social bonds. But the Manciple’s Tale does more than suggest the complicated ways in which gossip functioned in late medieval England; it reveals the inadequacy of contemporary gossip theory to account for these functions, for this cautionary tale about insubordinate speech with all its occlusions is one that critics continue to tell.

In recent decades, scholars have endeavored to explicate gossip’s work. While early theorists focused on the destructive qualities of idle talk, providing epidemiological models for this discursive “virus,” more recently the discussion has turned to the vital social role that gossip plays. Two competing models have predominated in gossip theory. The first, largely espoused by anthropologists, identifies gossip as an instrument of social control. Idle talk, the theory argues, both establishes membership in a community and polices that community’s morals. In certain groups, gossip acts as a feared social regulator, enforcing standards of behavior and promoting competition through its approval and disapproval. Critiquing this model of social control, sociologists and social psychologists have focused on the ways in which gossip serves the individuals engaged in it. This second model defines idle talk as a “social exchange,” in which information is traded for status, money, and services. The last decade has seen a reformulation of these two methodological extremes, as gossip theorists across several disciplines have sought models that combine social and individual perspectives. Robin Dunbar’s recent intervention into the debate reveals the possibilities of this combined approach; he argues that gossip is the evolution of primate grooming, a mechanism through which humans establish and maintain social bonds. As social networks expanded, humans needed a more practicable method of maintaining social connections than physical grooming. According to Dunbar, human language developed in order to fill that role. In short, humans learned to talk so that they could gossip with one another.

Literary critics have imported these sociological models in order both to investigate and to account for gossip’s all-pervasive presence in Western literature; in the process they have shifted the terms of the debate. Building on the pioneering work of Patricia Spacks, scholars have interpreted gossip as a mode of resistance, a subversive speech that “will not be suppressed.” Feminists, queer theorists, and scholars of minority discourses have suggested the larger social and literary stakes of this subversive speech, arguing that gossip is the “resistant oral discourse of marginalized groups,” a means of critiquing majority culture and protecting community interests. While critics have explored gossip across the range of historical periods, discussion has focused primarily on nineteenth- and twentieth-century fiction, as scholars have pursued Spacks’s claim that gossip is integral to novelistic narration. Those few scholars, such as Karma Lochrie, who address medieval gossip, have embraced the current trend in gossip theory, interpreting idle talk as a transgressive social phenomenon—the resistant speech of that most marginalized of social groups, medieval women. Such an assumption, however, obscures as much as it reveals.

As I argue in this book, transformation rather than transgression is the principle underlying this discursive phenomenon. Although the models provided by contemporary gossip theorists provide insight into individual aspects of gossip’s multifaceted work, none of them adequately accounts for the role of idle talk in late medieval England and the concern it produced in civil and ecclesiastical authorities alike. While medieval English writers do exploit gossip’s capacity for social transgression, depicting women whose idle talk threatens to subvert official discourse, to reduce gossip to the status of marginalized speech is to overlook the ways in which it influences and structures orthodox literary and religious practices. Idle talk is not simply women’s speech in late medieval England; it is both the obstacle and the tool of priests and pastoral writers. And it is a device that enables vernacular poets to reinterpret Latin textual culture. Moreover, to reduce all idle talk to women’s work is both to miss the complicated ways in which Middle English writers represented women’s gossip and to underestimate its power. Gossip was certainly as transgressive in the Middle Ages as it is in contemporary culture, but to focus exclusively on the idea of transgression ignores these discursive appropriations that make idle talk both so problematic and so productive in late medieval England.

My focus on gossip’s idleness has both a practical and methodological dimension. In Middle English, “gossip” refers not to speech but to a pastoral office, connoting not triviality but spiritual responsibility. A gossip was a godparent, a baptismal sponsor bound in spiritual kinship to both the godchild and its parents. The talk we now recognize as “gossip” was known as “jangling” or “ydel talke,” a Sin of the Tongue that encompassed a range of verbal transgressions: excessive chatter, impudent and unproductive speech, tale-telling, news, disturbing reports, bawdy jokes, lies, and scorning one’s neighbor. To claim that idleness was the defining feature of medieval gossip does not distinguish it from this speech in contemporary culture. As Spacks has argued, “Gossip insists on its own frivolity. Even the most destructive gossip does not announce its destructive intent; the talk’s alleged ‘idleness’ protects its participants.” But while frivolity might protect modern speakers from recrimination, in late medieval England, idleness was what made jangling so deeply problematic, so detrimental to participants, implicating them in all manner of venial and deadly sin. As penitential manuals were fond of warning, on Judgment Day, gossiping parishioners would be required to render accounts for every idle word they spoke. In medieval England, it was gossip’s triviality that made it so consequential.

Ecclesiastical and civil authorities denounced jangling as a dangerously paradoxical discourse: unproductive speech with an unlimited capacity for sin. As one fourteenth-century penitential manual warns parishioners, “Men clepen [call] hem idele wordes, but _ei be_ not ydel, for _ei be_ wel dere and ful of harm and wel perilous.” At once idle and prolific, jangling was identified as the cause of a range of spiritual ills. Priests and penitential writers complain bitterly that gossip’s idle tales corrupted parishioners and interfered with pastoral instruction, distracting attention from devotion and stripping the heart of all virtue to fill it with vanities. Preachers railed against the frivolous chatter that disrupted their sermons, deploying all the tools in their pastoral arsenal to silence it. What is more, idle talk was as much a social menace as a spiritual one. Jangling not only maligned good men; it disturbed the peace, causing civil and spiritual unrest with its unsettling tales.

Implicated in countless sins, yet never reducible to any of them, gossip was problematic for medieval authorities not simply because it was an ever-present interruption but also because it proved an elusive foe, contaminating the pastoral discourse levied against it. In the precise and ordered rhetoric of penitential manuals, which carefully enumerated the divisions and subdivisions of sin, jangling was a disruptive force, blurring categories and crossing boundaries. Attempts to define and describe it produced confusion and contradiction. Where other vices are described in concrete terms as the leaves, branches, or parts of sin, idle talk has “maners,” a word referring as much to form as content, suggesting that how one engages in idle talk is just as consequential as what one says. Moreover, while most manuals catalogue the same five manners of idle speech, readers seem to have had great difficulty drawing the appropriate distinctions between them; medieval scribes and printers, as well as modern editors, both exaggerate and underestimate the number of sins gossip entails. Explication proves even more difficult than enumeration. In their attempts to warn parishioners of the dangers posed by this supposedly frivolous speech, pastoral writers define idle talk through competing terms that make this unprofitable speech seem profitable. Jangling, penitential manuals declare, is at once light and heavy, trifling and consequential, worthless and costly. These paradoxical binaries are doctrinally consistent; however, because idle talk exists solely in these oppositions, it becomes speech with the ability to move between opposites, changing one into the other. Gossip’s capacity for transformation thus becomes apparent even at the level of pastoral explication.

Pastoral practice provides the backdrop for my discussion of medieval gossip because—whether on the pages of penitential manuals or in the stanzas of narrative poems—for vernacular writers, idle talk and pastoral rhetoric are deeply intertwined. For ecclesiastical authorities, idle talk poses both a practical problem and an institutional threat; two of the Church’s most important tools of instruction and social control—confession and sermon—are both contaminated by and implicated in idle talk. Preachers do not simply rail against gossip; they traffic in it, enticing parishioners with detailed stories that come dangerously close to the congregation’s unlicensed tale-telling: exemplarity emulates jangling. Similarly, although authorities express anxiety about gossip’s propensity to breach confessional secrecy, they demand that parishioners deliver complete and detailed penitential narratives that share much with idle talk.

What is more, poets exploit the slippage between these ecclesiastical tools and the gossip they are designed to contain. English authors represent jangling as the sinful, unproductive, distorting, and proliferating speech condemned by their clerical contemporaries. Yet even as they appear to confirm this rhetoric, writers reveal the literary and social transformations gossip enables. Indeed, Chaucer recuperates those aspects of jangling deemed so problematic by ecclesiastical authorities. Idle talk in all its pastoral infamy enables the narrative experimentation so fundamental to Chaucerian poetics. Few Middle English authors treat gossip as sympathetically as Chaucer, but many share his interest in the intersections between pastoral practice and the idle talk it condemns. When late medieval literary characters gossip, they do not merely converse, they recount unorthodox exempla, deliver co-opted saint’s lives, and participate in an alternative form of confession—a mutual exchange of secrets that is both more compelling and more effective than its orthodox rival. Gossip’s ability to appropriate pastoral discourse is acknowledged even by those writers who attempt to neutralize jangling by dismissing it as the pastime of idle women. The Gossips who appear in late medieval literature not just wives who chatter idly about their husbands’ “wares,” but women whose conversation remakes orthodox textual and pastoral practice.

By exploring the ways in which pastoral practice is informed by idle talk for preachers as well as poets, this book does not simply illustrate gossip’s powers of transformation; it shifts the focus of current critical paradigms for late medieval confession and exemplarity. The advent of New Historicism in Medieval Studies has produced much-needed revisions to existing models of late medieval pastoral practice, taking into account the social and political dimensions of these ecclesiastical tools. Whereas earlier scholarly models of the exemplum represented this narrative form as a passive instrument of Church doctrine, recent scholarship has demonstrated that these sermon stories have an ideological power all their own. Although this rich work has recuperated the often-overlooked complexities of medieval exemplarity, scholars have been primarily concerned with the intentions of the religious and political authorities who deploy these narratives, rather than the audiences who experience, and indeed resist, them. As a result, this scholarship has failed to account for the ways in which late medieval exemplary practice caters to the tastes of unruly parishioners, competing with and adopting the tactics of the congregation’s idle talk. Confession, too, has been both illuminated and obscured by the scholarly focus on “authority.” Heavily influenced by Foucault, historicists have interpreted confession as a tool of surveillance—a technology of truth-production that requires self-revelation. But gossip’s penitential disruptions—the stories it tells both during and about confession—generate a strikingly different paradigm. As I demonstrate in the pages that follow, confessional practice consisted of tale-telling as much as surveillance, and confessional theory was as concerned with narrative as with truth-production.

This book investigates the intersection between unofficial speech, pastoral practice, and literary production in late medieval England. Beginning with preachers who employ jangling as a device for reframing their authorized tales and concluding with the Gossips who use idle talk to restructure their social world, its chapters move from an exploration of gossip’s role in narrative practice toward an examination of the social ramifications of this narrative strategy. Accompanying this progression is an increasing concern with the gendering of idle talk, as the chapters turn from gossip as the tool of male priests and narrators to gossip as women’s work. Yet as each of the book’s chapters attests, whether on the tongues of clerics, poets, or female characters, idle talk’s discursive appropriations inspire both unofficial narratives and unorthodox pastoral care.

Chapters 1 and 2 explore gossip’s role in pastoral and poetic practice. “‘Janglynge in cherche’: Pastoral Practice and Idle Talk,” analyzes the methods late medieval preachers and moralizing poets used to both depict and diffuse the threat of idle talk. More than an incidental problem for ecclesiastical authority, gossip poses a fundamental challenge to pastoral practice. Jangling in church, the chapter argues, is institutionally embedded, integral to both theory and the practice of pastoral instruction; it not only contaminates but also provides the model for the very pastoral tools designed to silence it. “Chaucerian Small Talk” investigates the ways in which Chaucer incorporates gossip into his poetry, both as a means to explore a discourse condemned by ecclesiastical authority and as a way to experiment with narrative itself. This second chapter discusses Chaucer’s theory of gossip as it is sketched in the House of Fame and his practice of it in the Canterbury Tales. Idle talk catalyzes not only narrative exchanges that seem to reproduce actual gossip but also the generic alchemy so central to the Canterbury Tales, as fabliaux become exempla and exempla become idle tales. Turning literary “auctoritee” into “small talk,” Chaucer, I argue, uses gossip as means to transform his old sources into new tales.

Taking the Wife of Bath’s secret-sharing as a template, the book’s final two chapters raise the question of how gossip becomes women’s work. “‘Sisteris in schrift’: Gossip’s Confessional Kinship,” investigate the conversational communities of the wives and widows depicted in Chaucer’s Shipman’s Tale and Dunbar’s Tretis of Twa Mariit Wemen and the Wedo. Represented as establishing kinship through their adaptation of confession, the women in these texts supplant relationships based on consanguinity and marriage with alliances forged through idle talk to become “sisteris in schrift.” As the chapter demonstrates, these conversational siblings do not limit their co-optation of pastoral practice to confession alone, but rather are depicted as translating into a kind of wifely vernacular the products and practices of Latin textual and pastoral culture. “The Gospel According to Gossips, or How Gossip Got Its Name” takes as its subject the medieval Gossips—those suspect women who proliferate in late medieval carols, ballads, and narrative poems—focusing in particular on the communities of women depicted in the Gospelles of Dystaves and the Fyftene Joyes of Maryage. The women discussed in this final chapter are gossips in the original sense of the word, baptismal sponsors who reinvent their pastoral offices. Rather than inducting a newborn into the community of the faithful, these sponsors initiate young women into the community of Gossips, instructing them in female textual and cultural practice. That the label “gossip” becomes a particularly English way of diffusing this problematic female erudition is the chapter’s ultimate claim as it explores how baptismal sponsors become the idle talk in which they engage.

This book is not just about frivolous talk. It explores a discursive phenomenon that fundamentally shaped the culture of late medieval England. If we as scholars want to understand medieval pastoral theory and practice, we have to consider not only the ecclesiastical authorities who regulated it, but also the wayward parishioners and less than perfect priests who “jangle” in church. More often than not, sermons were delivered before chattering congregations to whose tastes preachers’ “authorized” narratives were obliged to cater. And while confession certainly enabled priests to probe the souls of their flock, it also licensed narratives, penitential and otherwise, which both participate in and circulate as idle talk. Similarly, if we want to account fully for the status of the vernacular in medieval England, we need to consider not simply the justifications offered by erudite theological and literary theoretical texts, but the surprising strategies through which popular vernacular poetry staged its contest with Latin textual culture—strategies that are indebted to idle talk.

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