Crossing boundaries: women’s gossip, insults and violence in sixteenth-century France
By Suzannah Lipscomb
French History, Vol.25:4 (2011)
Abstract: Using evidence from cases recorded in the registers of the consistories of southern France, the author investigates the way in which Languedocian women policed each other’s behaviour, enforcing a collective morality through gossip, sexual insult and physical confrontation.
In contrast to case studies by other historians, it is argued here that gossip does appear to have been a peculiarly female activity, but far more than simply being an outlet for malice or prurience, it gave women a distinctive social role in the town. No less evident is the involvement of women in physical violence both against each other and against men, violence which, though less extreme than its male counterpart, nonetheless occupies a significant role in the proceedings of the consistories.
Introduction: Robin Briggs’ writings on women, families and communities in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Catholic France contain some of the most significant and pioneering insights into the lives of ordinary people in recent early modern scholarship. This article, which focuses on three examples of sociability among ordinary urban women in the south of France in the late sixteenth century, attempts to use approaches pioneered by Briggs to further our understanding of women’s interactions and behaviour.
Perhaps surprisingly, a close look at the literature reveals that, apart from the work of scholars such as Natalie Zemon Davis, James Farr, Susan Broomhall, Jacques Solé and Briggs himself, there is still relatively little archival research on poor to middling French women from around 1540 to 1660, especially research that draws on the realities and narratives of women’s lives.
The historiography of early modern French women has, for the most part, focused on elite women, the structures that shaped women’s legal and economic position, demographic trends and evidence from the eighteenth century. This is because for late sixteenth- and early seventeenth-century France evidence of ordinary women’s narratives about their experience is limited, and so prescriptive, literary and legal sources have filled the gap.
See also Suzannah Lipscomb’s website