Eras Journal – Monro, J: Review of “When Gossips Meet: Women, Family, and Neighbourhood in Early Modern England”, Bernard Capp
Bernard Capp, When Gossips Meet: Women, Family, and Neighbourhood in Early Modern England,
Oxford University Press, Oxford, 2003.
In recent years an increasing interest in women in early modern England has been demonstrated by the many publications on the topic. Within this body of writing the subject of “the gossip” has been of increasing importance, and, as the title of the book under review suggests, Bernard Capp has taken it as his central theme.
In early modern English society the term “gossips” was used to describe groups of women. For women it implied friendship and chatter, and for men it seemingly entailed some anxiety. Post-childbirth celebrations attended only by women were known as “gossipings”, and women referred to each other as their “gossips”, going so far as to use it as a term of address: ‘what ho, gossip Ford, what ho’ calls Mistress Page to her friend in Shakespeare’s The Merry Wives of Windsor (4.2.7).
Using this theme as his basis, Capp seeks, in When Gossips Meet, to consider ‘the myriad ways in which women negotiated the constraints embedded in the patriarchal society of early modern England’ (p. v). By taking this as his premise he distances himself from a number of other social histories of the period. Firstly, as Capp himself points out, he is avoiding the question of ‘how did patriarchal control adapt and survive?’ in order to focus on ‘how did ordinary women negotiate it?’ (p. 275). Secondly, whilst admittedly focusing on many of the same topics, Capp avoids simply rewriting the lives of women, referring when necessary to the most successful of these approaches, Sara Mendelson and Patricia Crawford’s Women in Early Modern England 1550-1720 (1998).
When Gossips Meet begins by briefly defining patriarchy as it was in early modern England , in order to establish a context for the subsequent topics. Family, marriage, domestic service, neighbourhood, disputes, politics, recreation, religion and culture are considered in turn. Within these themes, Capp consciously gives space for discussion of the situation for women of different social levels. The section on marriage, for example, includes consideration of couples such as Samuel and Elizabeth Pepys, as well as the difficulties encountered by poorer women wishing to sue for divorce. At times, the theme of gossips seemed to be lost amidst the rich mixture of examples, however the threads of argument always find their way back to this central question: how did women, and particularly groups of women, work around the issues and problems of the society they lived in? The final thematic chapter concentrates on recreation, religion and culture, and it is within this chapter that another of Capp’s key questions becomes obvious – to what extent was there a sub-culture of women? Capp carefully and (I believe) successfully argues that pieces of evidence illustrating female agency do not imply a ‘steady march towards female emancipation’ (p. 381). Although brief, this section of When Gossips Meet could become an oft-discussed one.
One aspect of a number of books about gender related issues in the early modern period is the issue of the relatively large period under discussion. When Gossips Meet covers the years from the mid-sixteenth century to the beginning of the eighteenth century – a shorter time span than some works. Capp articulates his awareness of this still fairly lengthy time period, by alluding to the differences major events such as the Civil Wars and the Restoration may or may not have made to his topic, concluding that women consistently adjusted to the changing circumstances around them. This conclusion also deals with perhaps the most pertinent problem faced by historians of the early modern era: was there simply social anxiety present, or a crisis, or many crises, and how did people deal with this?
Capp is conscious throughout of the problem of finding primary source material relevant to his topic. A range of genres are drawn upon, often to meet the needs of specific topics. At times Capp has reconsidered the sources others have previously found successful, for example his section on insults and arguments draws upon Laura Gowing’s research of defamation cases (Domestic Dangers: Women, Words and Sex in Early Modern London, 1996). Capp has moved a little away from the focus on popular literature seen in some of his previous works, but still includes a substantial discussion of a range of pamphlets and ballads. The range of source material used proves successful, not only in demonstrating arguments about the varying themes, but also in allowing consideration of women from all levels of society.
By focusing on groups of women, the dynamics of their relationships, and their efforts to deal with the men and society around them, Bernard Capp has added an important new dimension to writings on early modern English gender history. When Gossips Meet is conveniently set out for the student of these issues due to its accurate, limiting subheadings which allow finite sections to be easily reconsulted. But what is most successful about Capp’s latest work is the stories retold in it. Tales taken from popular literature, diaries, court records and other sources are included in a way that keeps the reader interested and happy to read the book in full. What is also refreshingly honest is the occasional subtle opinion about the events of the past, for example, the description of a preacher – who, at a wedding, advised bachelors not to marry ‘untamed heifers’ – as ‘ungracious’ (p. 72). The amusing, shocking and interesting stories about the people of early modern England make When Gossips Meet a fascinating read for people with any interest in the day-to-day lives of people of the past.