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When widows in the diocese of Chester participated in gossip or found their reputations damaged through defamation, they acted in very similar ways to their married counterparts. They used language as a tool of social influence, either to persuade others of the veracity of their own opinions about other members of the community or to defend themselves against verbal assaults on their own good names. This article explores the ways in which widows participated in gossip and cases of defamation between 1560 and 1650 in Cheshire and Lancashire and the impact that such participation could have on their lives. It also examines widows' use of language in generating fear in the context of witchcraft beliefs. It addresses the stereotype of the aged witch and why it developed. The ways in which widows used language shed light on the larger question of how women of any marital status influenced the opinions of their friends and neighbors. This is an important topic because it emphasizes the social agency of widows within their communities, whereas, traditionally, widows have been studied in terms of economic and familial roles.
Much of the scholarship on widows has focused on their legal status or patterns of remarriage.(1) According to common law in early modern England, widows had more rights over their own property than did wives, whose husbands owned their movable goods and controlled their property.(2) Widows who owned substantial property and wealth had a great deal of freedom in choosing whether, and whom, to marry again.(3) But for women who had little or no property, widowhood did not provide much freedom. Rather, it often heralded a time of greater poverty and, in some cases, greater suspicion of witchcraft. Previous studies have shown how, for women, widowhood differed from married life in legal and economic terms. Some explore the variety of reasons that widows had for remarrying or remaining unmarried. This scholarship necessarily focuses on the changes that occurred when a woman's husband died. I would like to examine instead two areas, reputation and gossip, in which women's experience did not dramatically alter with the change in marital status from wife to widow.
Several historians have addressed questions relating to oral culture and reputation, though there has been little study of women's participation in the formation of reputation.(4) Previous studies of oral culture have focused on women's roles within the home and the fact that England was in transition from a predominately oral culture to a more literate one in the early modern period.(5) Likewise, much work has been done on reputation, determining that it was of central importance to people in early modern England.(6) The mechanism for the construction of reputation lay in the network of knowledge within the community about any particular individual. Knowledge was shared and shaped through gossip, which Steve Hindle has noted "was overwhelmingly regarded by contemporaries as a female activity."(7) The loss of a good reputation could ruin a person's opportunities in a variety of ways.(8) Susan Amussen argues:
Deliberate gossip with the intent of damaging someone's reputation, could be an effective informal method of control: it indicated communal disapproval, and shamed its subject. If the subject of gossip did not stop the behaviour, at least everyone else knew what to think about it.(9)
Malicious gossip, designed to ruin a person's reputation, could therefore result in a defamation suit brought by the victim.(10)
To study the question of how women used language within their communities, this article examines widows within the diocese of Chester and their roles both as speakers and subjects of gossip. I argue that language was a powerful tool in the culture of early modern England, providing one of the few avenues of social influence available to women who were relegated to the margins of society by their age, economic status, contentious personalities, or other socially unacceptable behaviors.(11) Widows participated in gossip about their neighbors, appearing both as defendants and plaintiffs in cases of sexual defamation that were tried in the ecclesiastical courts. The reputations of widows were just as vulnerable as those of their married counterparts. In another type of language use, women could instill fear in their neighbors through cursing, invoking the wrath of God, and otherwise wishing ill luck on those with whom they came in contact. According to Keith Thomas, cursing was assumed to be efficacious if the curser's anger was justified and was most powerful when employed by the poor and injured.(12) If sickness or death followed a woman's curse, she might be suspected of witchcraft.(13) The stereotype of the witch as a poor, widowed crone reveals cultural anxieties about economically dependent widows. On rare occasions, widows apparently fostered reputations as witches. The case of the Lancashire witches of 1612 will serve as an example.
The consistory court of the diocese of Chester, which included the counties of Cheshire and Lancashire, heard many cases of sexual defamation between the years 1560 and 1650. My sample includes cases from the 1560s and the first four years of each of the following decades: the 1590s, 1610s, and 1640s. This yielded 164 cases of sexual defamation involving female plaintiffs. Widows were plaintiffs in 13 cases, wives in 106, never-married women in 15, and women whose marital status could not be determined in 30. Widows appeared as defendants in 10 of the cases.
The high preponderance of wives over widows as plaintiffs probably merely reflects the larger overall population of …