Gossip, Rumor, and Gender in the Eighteenth Century

Both in the eighteenth century and today, the secret nature of the Hellfire Club — more appropriately, The Monks of Medmenham Abbey — led to an abundance of gossip and rumor.  Below, is a snippet from my book, The Society of Dilettanti, that discusses the methodologies and methodological problems that scholars face when studying gossip and rumor.

Anthropologists have long concerned themselves with the social and cultural implications of gossip and rumor.  As such, their studies provide historians with a set of tools to talk about these forms of linguistic exchange.  First, there is a difference between gossip – “informal, private communication between an individual and a small, selected audience concerning the conduct of absent persons or events”[1] – and rumor – “unsubstantiated information, true or untrue, that passes by word of mouth, often in wider networks than gossip.”[2]  Secondly, anthropologists have shown that gossip and rumor can function in multiple ways. In the 1960s, Max Gluckman argued that gossip functions to solidify a group’s unity while distinguishing it from other groups.[3]  Gossip can monitor group boundaries while reinforcing social norms.[4]  This point of view seems to be supported by the research of E.P. Thompson and other historians.[5]  Conversely, Robert Paine has suggested that, while gossip can reinforce group identity, it functions in a much more individualistic manner.[6]  In his view, gossip is selfish: “It is the individual and not the community that gossips.  What he gossips about are his own and others’ aspirations and only indirectly the values of the community.”[7]  Many anthropologists have turned away from such functionalist approaches to gossip and rumor.[8]  Following Goffman, they have emphasized that gossip is a social drama, arguing that it is one of the many everyday activities performed by individuals within a community.[9]  In this sense, gossip has a formulaic narrative, with its own culturally determined rules – a linguistic mode and social practice that skirts the boundaries of the public/private divide and the distinction between polite and impolite speech. Patricia Meyer Spacks has thought-provokingly and eloquently examined this ambiguity in her analysis of gossip in eighteenth-century literary productions.[10]

Early modern historians have done an excellent job in fleshing out the history of gendered language in early modern England.  Specifically, scholars such as Laura Gowing, Steve Hindle, and Bernard Capp have shown how women used gossip and rumor to assert their authority and interests in early modern England.[11]  Using sources ranging from prescriptive literature to court documents, these historians have demonstrated that gossip was a form of linguistic exchange that allowed women to elide patriarchal structures.  While early modern gossip and rumor relied upon familial relations, neighborhood networks, and communal association, these practices could give women, both individually and collectively, a powerful voice within the familial sphere as well as the local community.  Because of this, recent scholarship has concentrated on patterns of female gossip – largely ignoring the nature and extent of male gossip.  This emphasis, however, overlooks a powerful force in early modern England, for men also participated in networks of gossip and rumor which they used to work out the boundaries of masculinity.  In fact, understanding how men participated in these practices allows the historian to understand a key element of early modern gender relations and ideologies.[12]

The functions, forms, and practices of gossip and rumor were cut across by the shifting boundaries of eighteenth-century gender and class expectations.  To understand this, it is necessary to briefly summarize the theoretical and methodological foundations of my argument.  With the functionalists, I recognize that gossip and rumor can, and often do, function to preserve social structures – although not necessarily rigid ones.  In fact, gossip and rumor, as modes of communication, thrive in the tensions over social status and gender ideals, providing participants with a discursive space to tactically struggle for meaning. Rather than simply preserving normative social standards as earlier anthropologies of gossip and rumor have suggested, the rituals of gossip and rumor allow actors to both construct and to play-act the existence of widely accepted social norms and values, even if they do not exist concretely in daily life.  Thus, gossip and rumor preserve the illusion of common social values even as they examine practices that seem to undercut these norms.  For instance, as demonstrated by Anthony Fletcher and Mark Breitenberg, early modern Englishmen prescribed masculine practices as they became increasingly concerned with the ambiguities of these performances – what Breitenberg termed “anxious masculinity,” an inescapable product of patriarchal societies.[13]

As a typically banal and even pleasurable everyday social practice, the acts of gossip and rumor create a safe discursive space to work out social anxieties – that is, assuming the symbolism of these communicative rituals are not misinterpreted by the participants. However, since gossip, and especially rumor, depend on a delicate balance between privacy and sociability, actor and audience, knowledge and assumption, form and ambiguity, breakdowns can occur during moments of liminal tension, leading to potentially violent confrontations.[14]  These moments of semiotic disjuncture can become instances of significant social or political importance, such as the scandals described by Anna Clark.[15]

Early modern gossip and rumor present numerous methodological problems.  Gossip and rumor are, by their nature, ephemeral, and, as such, they are two of the most difficult practices to measure and describe.  These modes of communication are often private and personal, relying on assumptions, expectations, and unrecorded calculations.  Unlike the ethnographer, the historian lacks direct access to the speech acts associated with gossip and rumor and must rely on the textual and visual record.  Nevertheless, one must not assume that the presence of the observer necessarily entails a more direct access and understanding, a fact corroborated by numerous works on ethnographic subjectivity and reflexive anthropology.[16]  There are a multiplicity of non-oral texts that reveal gossip and rumor.  Bernard Capp, for example, has shown the potential for court documents to reveal the context of early modern gossip.  In some instances, historians can discover overt gossip and rumor in letters, as I do in my discussion of the Calves-Head Club.  However, descendants have a tendency to destroy the most salacious textual remains, as was the case with John Wilkes’s daughter Polly, who burned the most valuable archive about the events, gossip, and rumor about “St. Francis’s monks” and the events of 1763.[17]  Alternatively, important evidence for gossip and rumor can be found in eighteenth-century print culture. Symbols, allusions, and tropes were part of a complex discursive world in which author, printer, and reader collaboratively created meaning, and the assumptions made by authors and printers in the eighteenth century often point to the “common knowledge” of a document’s readership. [18]  As demonstrated in the work of Hannah Barker and Bob Harris, despite the bribing/patronage of editors and authors by politicians, the print world of mid century London catered to a market of savvy consumers who wielded influence over the content of print productions.[19]  Thus, historians can read the world of print for popular knowledge – left overtly in “gossip columns” or subvertly through innuendo, assumptions, or symbols – for the world of print was an important territory for the fashioning, reproduction, and transformation of gossip and rumor.

[1] Sally Engle Merry. “Rethinking Gossip and Scandal,” in Toward a General Theory of Social Control, vol. 1, ed. Donald Black (Orlando, 1984), p. 275.

[2] Pamela J. Stewart and Andrew Strathern, Witchcraft, Sorcery, Rumors, and Gossip (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 2004), pp. 38-9.

[3] Max Gluckman, “Psychological, Sociological and Anthropological Explanations of Witchcraft and Gossip: A Clarification,” Man 3, no. 1 (1968): 20-34.

[4] In so doing, gossip and rumor can also serve as a means of resistance to imposed political, social, and cultural structures.  See, for example, Ranajit Guha, Elementary Aspects of Peasant Insurgency in Colonial India (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1983); Rudrangshu Mukherjee, “‘Satan Let loose upon Earth’: The Kanpur Massacres in India in the Revolt of 1857,” Past and Present, no. 128 (1990): 92-116; Patricia A. Turner, “Ambivalent Patrons: The Role of Rumor and Contemporary Legends in African-American Consumer Decisions,” Journal of American Folklore 105 (1992): 424-41.

[5] Gossip, as well as rumor, seems to have played an important role in the formation of class consciousness as well as the maintenance of the “moral economy” in the eighteenth century.  See E.P. Thompson, The Making of the English Working Class (New York: Vintage, 1966) and “The Moral Economy of the Crowd in the Eighteenth Century,” in Customs in Common (London: Merlin, 1993), 185-258.  The work of other eighteenth-century scholars suggests similar implications.  See such varied examples as Cindy McCreery, “Keeping up with the Bon Ton: The Tête-à-Tête Series in the Town and Country Magazine,” in Gender in Eighteenth-Century England, pp. 207-29; Edith B. Gelles, “Gossip: An Eighteenth-Century Case,” Journal of Social History 22, no. 4 (1989): 667-84; Robert Darnton. The Literary Underground of the Old Regime (Cambridge, MA: Harvard university Press, 1982); George Rudé, Paris and London in the Eighteenth Century (New York: Viking, 1971).

[6] Robert P. B. Paine, “What is Gossip About? An Alternative Hypothesis,” Man 2, no. 2 (1967): 278-85.

[7] Paine, “What is Gossip About?,” pp. 280-1.

[8] See, for example, the early critique of both Gluckman and Paine in Peter J. Wilson, “Filcher of Good Names: An Enquiry into Anthropology and Gossip,” Man 9, no. 1 (1974): 93-102.

[9] Roger D. Abrahams, “A Performance-centered Approach to Gossip,” Man 5, no. 2 (1970): 290-301; Jörg R. Bergmann, Discreet Indiscretions: The Social Organization of Gossip, trans. John Bednarz, Jr. (New York, 1993); Wolf Bleek, “Witchcraft, Gossip, and Death: A Social Drama,” Man 11, no. 4 (1976): 526-41; Erving Goffman, The Presentation of Self in Everyday Life (Garden City, NY, 1959).

[10] Patricia Ann Meyer Spacks, Gossip (New York, 1985).

[11] Laura Gowing, Domestic Dangers: Women, Words, and Sex in Early Modern London (Oxford, 1996); Steve Hindle, “The Shaming of Margaret Knowsley: Gossip, Gender and the Experience of Authority in Early Modern England,” Continuity and Change 9, no. 3 (1994): 391-419; Bernard Capp, When Gossips Meet: Women, Family, and Neighborhood in Early Modern England (Oxford, 2003).

[12] For the significance of masculinity to the field of gender studies, see John Tosh, “What Should Historians Do with Masculinity?: Reflections on Nineteenth-Century Britain,” History Workshop Journal 38, no. 1 (1994): 179-202.  Important studies of masculinity in the early modern period include Michèle Cohen, Fashioning Masculinity: National Identity and Language in the Eighteenth Century (London, 1996); Carter, Men and the Emergence of Polite Society; Tim Hitchcock and Michèle Cohen, eds., English Masculinities, 1600-1600 (London, 1999); Anthony Fletcher, Gender, Sex, and Subordination in England 1500-1800  (New Haven, 1995); Elizabeth A. Foyster, Manhood in Early Modern England: Honour, Sex and Marriage (London, 1999), Randolph Trumbach, Sex and the Gender Revolution, vol. 1 (Chicago, 1998).

[13] Mark Breitenberg, Anxious Masculinity in Early Modern England (Cambridge, 1996); Fletcher, Gender, Sex, and Subordination.

[14] Victor Turner, The Ritual Process: Structure and Anti-Structure (New York, 1969).

[15] These moments are what Clifford Geertz has described as incongruities “between the cultural framework of meaning and the patterning of social interaction.”  See Geertz, “Ritual and Social Change: A Javanese Example,” in The Interpretation of Cultures (New York, 1973), pp. 142-69, 169.

[16] For examples, see James Clifford, The Predicament of Culture: Twentieth-Century Ethnography, Literature, and Art (Cambridge, 1988); Clifford and George E. Marcus, eds., Writing Culture: The Poetics and Politics of Ethnography (Berkeley, 1986); Marcus and Michael J. Fischer, Anthropology as Cultural Critique: An Experimental Moment in the Human Sciences, 2nd ed. (Chicago, 1999).

[17] John Almon, The Correspondence of the Late John Wilkes, vol. 1 (London, 1805), p. vii.

[18] See, for example, John Brewer, “The Number 45: A Wilkite Political Symbol,” in England’s Rise to Greatness, 1660-1763, ed. Stephen B. Baxter (Berkeley, 1983), pp. 349-80.

[19] Hannah Barker, Newspapers, Politics and English Society (London, 2000) and Bob Harris, A Patriot Press: National Politics and the London Press in the 1740s (Oxford, 1993).  Cf. Jeremy Black, The English Press in the Eighteenth Century (Philadelphia, 1987).


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