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History in Focus

the guide to historical resources • Issue 8: Gender •


Book cover: When Gossips Meet: Women, Family and Neighbourhood in Early Modern England

Author's response


When Gossips Meet: Women, Family and Neighbourhood in Early Modern England

Bernard Capp
Oxford: Oxford University Press, 2003
ISBN 0 19 925598 9; vi+398 pp.

Laura Gowing

Department of History, King's College London

I must thank Laura Gowing for a review that is thoughtful, courteous and skilfully crafted. It repays careful reading and raises a number of wider issues, some of which I would like to touch on briefly here.

As Gowing focuses on broad issues of sources and methodology, it may be helpful to explain that my main objective was not to argue the general proposition that ordinary women sought to 'negotiate' a patriarchal world, which, as she quite rightly notes, is already widely accepted. Rather, I was setting out to explore what this could mean in women's daily lives: how they might try to 'negotiate' it, in what contexts, and with what prospects of success. That is the basis on which I hope the book will be judged.

Gowing's unease over my title may rest on a misunderstanding. As she remarks, contemporaries applied the term 'gossips' both to companions in childbirth and in a broader, far more derogatory sense to women talking. I would add that the term was also widely employed to denote a woman's female friends and associates, without any such negative connotations, and it is primarily in this 'neutral' sense that I use it throughout the book. I therefore have no quarrel with Gowing's view that 'the notion of "friends"' provides the soundest basis on which to explore women's relationships; that is what I was seeking to do. Finding the most appropriate modern terminology for this 'notion' is less straightforward. Though today we may regard 'friends' as an unproblematic term, that was by no means the case in early modern England, and when a woman in 1600 spoke of her 'friends' she was usually referring to family and kin, of both sexes.

In exploring the social dynamics of the household my book goes beyond marital relationships to investigate domestic alliances that drew in other family members, notably servants. Gowing welcomes this approach, while observing that parenthood remains largely missing from the picture. Parenthood was peripheral to my central concern (the negotiation of patriarchy), but the hypothesis that it played a major part in defining women's position in the neighbourhood is a constructive suggestion well worth pursuing. As childbirth usually followed within a year or two of marriage, we might hesitate over the proposition that 'initiation' into motherhood divided women as much as age or marital status- except for the small minority who remained permanently childless. But the reputation subsequently earned as a 'good' or 'bad' mother may well have been critical in determining a woman's standing within the neighbourhood. Skill, care and success as a parent were certainly among the most important positive attributes that enhanced a woman's 'good name' in early modern England.

The methodological points raised towards the end of the review I find more problematic. In my book I draw heavily on court records and also on a wide range of contemporary writings, including prescriptive texts, diaries, letters, social commentaries and popular literature such as ballads. I make no apology whatever for this methodology; court records, though immensely valuable, cannot show us the whole range of human experience. How successfully I have woven together these disparate sources I hope readers will judge for themselves, though naturally I reject the suggestion that I treated them as 'simple' evidence to be taken at face value. The critical evaluation of sources does not have to be spelled out on every line of every page. I am also puzzled by the example Gowing has selected to support her charge, a wedding sermon by William Crompton, which I cite in my discussion of divisive strands within 'female culture'. Gowing challenges both the messenger and the message, linking the sermon to 'stock pieces', which, she suggests, tell us more about misogynist attitudes than about life on the street. Yet my book, like Gowing's own published work, also furnishes abundant evidence from court records to document the competitive aspects of women's lives and values. Ecclesiastical court evidence relates mainly to moral issues, of course, but cause papers frequently indicate friction over much wider issues, now documented still more comprehensively in Garthine Walker's recent monograph, based on secular court material. And if Crompton, as a male preacher, is discredited, must we also brush aside the much fiercer strictures of the pioneering feminist Mary Astell? For her part, Gowing appears to detect misogynistic stereotype at every turn, and the sweeping language she employs in dismissing 'the mass of contemporary drama and literature' as generally 'predictable' and 'largely misogynist' suggests doubt that texts can ever have much historical value, except in documenting stereotypes. I disagree. If many writers were content to recycle stereotypes, many others were perceptive observers of a society they knew at first hand.

The final paragraph is also problematic. Gowing complains that I gave insufficient acknowledgement to pioneering feminist historians and theorists. While the claims set out here are surely inflated - feminists were not the first to recognise the value of church court records for social and cultural history, and the proposition that women should not be lumped together in a single category required no sophisticated 'feminist underpinning' - I am happy to pay tribute to the enormous contribution of the feminist pioneers, and to the major contributions of younger feminist scholars today, Laura Gowing herself prominent among them. She ends with the pointed remark that 'it's now possible to write early modern women's history without feminism', apparently a cause for some regret. Like many others in the field I prefer to think in terms of 'gender history', but it is the proprietorial flavour of this paragraph that creates unease. There must always be room for a plurality of perspectives. The past belongs to us all, and the aspiration to deepen our understanding of early modern women's lives is one that all historians can share.

January 2004

Original review

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