The Glasgow Review Issue 1

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Impudent Women: Carnival and gender in early modern culture

Kate Chedgzoy

Literary and historical sources from the early modern period show that the figure of the impudent woman embodied a number of important meanings in the context of the carnivalesque practices which played a substantial role in the culture of the time. This article explores some of the meanings of carnival, and examines its implications for the representation and social agency of the unruly or impudent woman. I begin by putting the conceptual category of carnival into a reciprocal relation with historical and textual evidence. Mikhail Bakhtin, the most influential twentieth century theorist of the carnivalesque, derived the notion from his analyses of early modern culture, and it's clear that many people in that society did have a vocabulary and a set of conceptual categories for talking about phenomena which both we and they would associate with the carnivalesque. What is less clear is precisely how the twentieth century and early modern versions of carnival overlap with or differ from each other. One way we can begin to clarify the historical meanings of carnival is by trying to elucidate how women experienced and interpreted it. Much work on the subject has failed to consider that notions such as the grotesque body and the celebration of violent revelry might have different meanings for women and men. When the representation of femininity as subversive provided a key trope for imaging social disorder, what is at stake for women who are themselves represented as disorderly, or who wish to challenge or subvert the arrangements of their society?

Since the English translation of Bakhtin's massively influential book Rabelais and his World in 1968, something of a mini-industry in `theorising the carnivalesque' has explored diverse applications of the concept.[1] Following Bakhtin, accounts of the carnivalesque have focussed on two issues: first, the grotesque body, which prioritises the transgression of bodily barriers, and emphasises the physical, material aspects of existence; and second, carnival as festive occasion - a time out of life when the normal rules are suspended, and for a brief and clearly defined period, anything goes; when, as Bakhtin puts it, `life is subject only to its own laws, that is, the laws of its own freedom' (p. 7). The essential principle of carnival is embedded in the grotesque body, which is typified by events and activities - eating, defecation, birth, death, sex - in which the boundaries between bodies, and between bodies and the world, are obscured, eroded and displaced. Bakhtin stresses the collective nature of the grotesque body; it is

the collective ancestral body of all the people ... something universal ... representing all the people ... The material bodily principle is contained not in the biological individual, not in the bourgeois ego, but in the people (p. 19).

This universalizing, generalizing impulse in the representation of the grotesque body needs to be countered by questioning to what extent gender and sexuality are inscribed on it. Bakhtin almost always speaks in very general terms of the body, regardless of factors like race and gender which contribute to differentiated constructions of bodiliness. And yet his descriptions of the grotesque body are replete with characteristics which have traditionally been coded as feminine, whereas the classical body to which it is opposed has certain conventionally masculine qualities. One of Bakhtin's most vivid images of the grotesque body is his description of the Kerch terracotta figurines representing senile, pregnant hags:

This is typical and very strongly expressed grotesque. It is ambivalent. It is pregnant death, a death that gives birth. There is nothing completed, nothing calm and stable in the bodies of these old hags. They combine senile, decaying and deformed flesh with the flesh of new life, conceived but as yet unformed (p.26).

In another passage, woman is described, in a classically misogynistic gesture, as being `essentially related' to the `material bodily lower stratum', which is a crucial aspect of the principle of carnival:

she is the incarnation of this stratum that degrades and regenerates simultaneously. She is ambivalent. She debases, brings down to earth, lends a bodily substance to things and destroys; but first of all, she is the principle that gives birth. She is the womb (p. 240).

In early modern Europe the notion that women were an innately disruptive, carnivalesque force in society was grounded in a similar perception of the female body as inherently grotesque. And as in Bakhtin, this perception was related to the female reproductive capacity. The assumption that women were the disorderly sex stemmed from the belief that their possession of wombs made them more prone than men to suffer from hysteria. The womb was imaged almost as a creature with an independent existence; if it became dissatisfied with its normal location (because of insufficiently frequent sexual intercourse, or retention of menstrual fluids), it would wander its owner's body in search of satisfaction, overpowering her speech, senses and mental faculties. The woman's physiology therefore predisposed her to unruly and unpredictable behaviour. The con-nections which the early modern period could make between women's maternal role, social disorder and the grotesque body are illustrated by a popular broadsheet of 1566, The True Description of a Child with Ruffes, which admonishes its audience,

And ye O England whose womankinde
In ruffes do walke so oft
Parsuade them still to bere in minde,
This childe with ruffes so soft.[2]

This monstrous baby - which according to the ballad was exhibited at fairs and carnivals - constitutes a dire warning to women whose dress is inappropriate either to their gender or to their position in the socio-economic hierarchy. It was widely believed that while the child was in the womb, its features were shaped by the mother's imagination and experiences, though deformity in the infant could also be a pun-ishment for parental sin. Diane Purkiss has recently suggested that the pun on the word conception which links the mother's imagination and the child's appearance to explain monstrous births is particularly anxiety-producing because it reveals the extent to which the female reproductive capacity is ultimately outside male control: `in these cases what is absent is the mark of paternity; the child fails to replicate the father, as patrilinearity demands, and becomes a mirror not even of the mother, but of the mother's imagination.'[3] The child with ruffs incarnates in its grotesque body both a symbol of its mother's disorderly behaviour in wearing the excessive and inappropriate fashion of the ruff, and also her punishment for implied social and sexual transgression. This notion is reinflected, in perhaps a more satirical way, in The Winter's Tale, where Autolycus attempts to sell a broadside ballad about a usurer's wife who gave birth to twenty money bags.

Tales of monstrous births had an extraordinarily large circulation in early modern England, and were undoubtedly a way of expressing anxieties about reproduction in a culture where it was both crucially important and extremely perilous. This is congruent with the key role such tales seem to play in relation to the regulation of female sexuality. Monstrous births, represented in popular communal forms such as the ballad, frequently encode the punishment of female insubordination or unruliness, as one popular story which circulated in a variety of forms throughout the seventeenth century illustrates.[4] It tells of a rich Countess, who rudely refused to help a beggar woman and her twin babies, and was punished by being cursed with giving birth to 365 babies - one for every day of the year - all in one go. Not surprisingly, the Countess and all the babies die; a punishment which seems somewhat in excess of the crime. The Countess's offence against the carnival spirit is twofold: in refusing to help the beggar she denies the ties of reciprocal obligation which bound early modern society together, and rejects the carnivalesque virtues of generosity and plentitude; secondly, in that her meanness derives directly from spite against the beggar's conspicuous fertility, she transgresses the carnival principles of growth, regeneration, and new life. A carnival-esque retribution is exacted, in that, in an inversion of her crime, excessive fertility becomes her punishment. In the most fully developed versions, the Countess, bitter because she's childless while the beggar woman has twins, justifies her meanness with accusations of sexual transgression:

Thou art some Strumpet sure I know,
And spend'st thy dayes in shame,
And stained sure thy marriage bed
With spots of black defame (p. 127).

The beggar asserts that the success of her curse will prove her innocence: and this is indeed what happens. According to a prose version by Edward Grymeston, published in 1608, the Countess `was delivered of three hundred sixtie and five children, halfe sonnes and halfe daughters, the odde one being found a Hermaphrodite, all complete and well fashioned with their little members' (p. 122). The hermaphrodite itself represents a unique version of the grotesque body: an impossible, liminal bodily state in which the normal forms of identity are provisionally suspended. Hermaphroditism was further associated with the carnivalesque via the phenomenon of cross-dressing, which seems to have caused considerable anxiety during the late sixteenth and early seventeenth century, both because it appears to pose a direct threat to the normal gender hierarchy of society, and because by making visible the usually invisible assumption that the division of society into two genders, masculine and feminine, is natural and inevitable, it leaves this assumption open to question. Writing in 1583, the Puritan Philip Stubbes betrays this anxiety:

Our Apparell was given us as a signe distinctive to discern betwixt sex and sex, and therefore one to weare the Apparel of another sex, is to participate with the same, and to adulterate the veritie of his own kinde.[5]

A little earlier, in 1575, one Dorothy Clayton, spinster, had been arrested in London on the grounds that:

contrary to all honesty and womanhood [she] commonly goes about the City appareled in man's attire. She has abused her body with sundry persons and lived an incontinent life. On Friday she is to stand on the pillory for two hours in men's apparell and then to be sent to Bridewell until further order.[6]

Cross-dressing here is a token both of gender confusion and sexually unruly behaviour. Again, Clayton's crime is incorporated into a punishment which itself has a carnivalesque aspect. Retribution enacted upon women who violated the sexual and social norms of the community by resisting their subordination often took the form of carnivalesque punishments which included the cucking-stool, skim-mington rides, charivari or rough music, or being whipped through town wearing a scold's bridle, as a ballad, dating from about 1615, called `The Cucking of a Scold', illustrates:

Then was the Scold herself,
In a wheelbarrow brought,
Stripped naked to the smock,
As in that case she ought:
Neats tongues about her neck
Were hung in open show;
And thus unto the cucking stool
This famous scold did go.[7]

As with the pillorying of Dorothy Clayton, the sexualised display of the female body is a key part of carnivalesque punishment. Altogether there are eighteen stanzas of this cheerfully vindictive stuff; and it's worth noting that the modern editor of this ballad is clearly on the side of the mob, since he finds the whole scenario `amusing and highly interesting'. Less amusing is Dorothy Waugh's first person account of being bridled like a scold after speaking `against all deceit and ungodly practices' in the market-place at Carlisle:

They tare my Clothes to put on their bridle as they called it, which was a stone weight of Iron ... and three barrs of Iron to come over my face, and a peece of it was put in my mouth, which was so unreasonable big a thing for that place as cannot well be related ... and so I stood their time with my hands bound behind me with the stone weight of Iron upon my head and the bitt in my mouth to keep me from speaking; And the Mayor said he would make me an example ... [8]

This spectacularly cruel punishment is clearly meant to have a deterrent effect; by making an example of Dorothy Waugh, the Mayor enacts a warning to other potentially impudent women. Some historians have recently suggested that these punishments may have been most enthusiastically inflicted by men whose own masculinity and patriarchal power were insecure, and therefore, far from demonst-rating the complete subordination of women in early modern society, they actually reveal intense anxieties about female independence. David Underdown, for example, argues that the use of carnivalesque punishments of unruly women increased dramatically between about 1560 and 1640, which he characterises as a period of intense anxiety about social disorder in general, and a time of particular concern about the maintenance of patriarchal power relations.[9]

Such regulatory rites were often associated with carnival under its aspect of liminal social space, the time out of life, often connected with religious or agrarian festivals, which in Bakhtin's words `celebrates temporary liberation from the prevailing truth and from the established order [and which] marks the suspension of all hierarchical rank, privileges, norms and prohibitions' (p. 10). Key phenomena are the inversion of hierarchy, `the world turned upside down'; the temporary and playful rejection of the normal order of things; and the various manifestations of the festive spirit - drinking, gluttony, playing tricks, all the kinds of activities associated with popular feasts. Much of the work done on this aspect of carnival has been by scholars with a broadly radical or oppositional critical stance, and has circled round the desire - sanctioned by the idealistic and populist mood of Bakhtin's work - to locate early modern festive practices as a site of popular resistance to an oppressive, hierarchical social order. This is a problematic strategy, however, as it is clear that carnival actually served a wide range of political purposes, oppositional and reactionary, progressive and conservative. For example, in the polemical biography written just after the Restoration in order to justify her fervently anti-Royalist husband, Lucy Hutchinson proposed a conspiracy theory account of the Jacobean Court's backing of popular carnivalesque pastimes. The result of this policy, she says, was to lull the populace into a state of complacent passivity, so that instead of using carnival occasions as pretexts for rebellion, they sank at these times into a debauchery which, imitating the behaviour prevalent at court, thereby guaranteed their continued submission to it:

To keepe the people in their deplorable security till vengeance overtooke them, they were entertain'd with masks, stage playes, and sorts of ruder sports. Then began Murther, incest, Adultery, drunkenness, swearing, fornication and all sort of ribaldry to be no conceal'd but countenanced vices, favour'd wherever they were privately practis'd because they held such conformity with the Court example, ... [The Papists] made Protestants not only the sport of the pulpit, which was become but a more solemne stage, but every stage and every table and every puppett-play belcht forth prophane scoffes upon them; all the drunkards made them their songs, all fidlers and mimicks learnt to abuse them, as finding it the most gainefull way of fooling.[10]

Hutchinson indicates that far from constituting a free-spirited rebellion by the marginalised against the centres of power, carnivalesque practices were actively managed by a monstrous conspiracy of the court and the Catholic Church as a way of maintaining their domination. The politically problematic nature of carnival is analysed by Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, who argue that `the celebratory terms of Bakhtin's formulation are unable to resolve the key dilemmas' of carnival:

its nostalgia; its uncritical populism (carnival often violently abuses and demonizes weaker, not stronger, social groups - women, ethnic and religious minorities, those who `don't belong' - in a process of displaced abjection); its failure to do away with the official dominant culture, its licensed complicity.[11]

Evidence from seventeenth century court records supports this contention in the realm of sexual politics, in that it indicates an increase in sexual assaults on women during some of the main festive periods, such as Mad day and Midsummer. In London, violent assaults on brothels, usually led by gangs of apprentices, were a standard feature of Shrovetide `revelry'.[12] So not only did carvivalesque occasions attack one of the weaker social groups - women - instead of the dominant power, they were complicit with this power in deploying sexual violence to perpetuate the subjugation of women.

Given this rather gloomy evidence, to what extent is the notion of carnival as potentially capable of enabling social protest by oppressed groups of particular relevance to women? In `Women on Top', the 1975 essay which initiated much of the discussion around this theme, Natalie Zemon Davis records the involvement of women in popular festivities and rebellions which had carnivalesque qualities, and argues that women have a special symbolic relationship to carnival:

the image of the disorderly woman ... was a multivalent image that could operate, first, to widen behavioural options for women within and even outside marriage, and, second, to sanction riot and political disobedience for both men and women in a society that allowed the lower orders few formal means of protest. Play with the unruly woman is partly a chance for temporary release from the traditional and stable hierarchy; but it is also part of the conflict over efforts to change the basic distribution of power within society.[13]

There are many recorded instances of disorderly women in the early modern period taking riotous or carnivalesque action on their own behalf. In some areas of Europe, in May or at Shrovetide, women were allowed to take revenge on violent husbands by ducking them or making them ride an ass. At carnival time in Nuremberg, a woman who was burdened with `a wretched dissolute husband' was granted the right, by a temporary female ruler, to `beat him until his asshole was roaring'. More seriously, historical evidence suggests that, in this country at least, Davis is right in suggesting that women were able to draw on the carnivalesque notion of the unruly woman to legitimate their own participation in political protest. Women were active in riots against enclosures, one of the key socio-economic issues of the time (the Star Chamber complaining in 1605 that they were `hiding behind their sex'), and in numerous public demonstrations during the Civil War period. In 1637 `rascally serving women' led riots in Edinburgh against the Book of Common Prayer,making so much noise in church that they drowned out the service, throwing stools at the Bishop of Edinburgh, and, when they were evicted from the church, stoning the windows. A royalist newspaper complained of the `impudency' of the 1643 women's peace petition in daring to demand a political voice, and described the thousands of women who marched on the House of Commons as a carnivalesque mob, representing both the lower bodily stratum and the most marginalised groups of seventeenth-century society:

these women were for the most part, Whores, Bawds, Oyster-women, Kitchenstuffe women, Beggar women and the very scum of the Suburbs, besides abundance of Irish women.[14]

Patricia Higgins suggests that women of the London mobs were conventionally described by opponents as fishwives, oyster-women, Billingsgate women, and so on, and that the use of these terms symbolised the women's lowly and marginal social status, but did not necessarily denote their actual class position.[15]The image of these humble women invading the political sanctum of Westminster is a powerful one, collapsing together the two extremes of English social stratification. Similarly, the figure of the unruly woman was so potent a symbol of and incitement to social disorder precisely because it was an inversion of the way things normally were and ought to be. The power of the figure of the disorderly woman inheres in its reversal of the familiar, accepted social order. Its potency was enhanced by the fact that the absolute subordination of wife to husband, endorsed by Church and state, could stand as an image of all forms of social subordination. This is not to say that all married women were utterly and unrelievedly oppressed. Rather, the institution of marriage was ideologically significant in that it represented ideals of order and authority which were crucial to the way the seventeenth century made sense of itself to itself, and to the ways in which men and women made sense of the competing meanings of the patriarchal family and the unruly woman inthe material context of their lives. To quote Phyllis Mack, `if it made sense to describe the state as a family and the king as a father or patriarch, it also made sense to express the challenge to authority in feminine terms.'[16]

One such challenge to authority is expressed in the writings of those impudent women who opposed carnival practices as part of their commitment to political and religious radicalism during the Civil War period. Perceived as impudent by their contemporaries because of their explicit opposition to the social and religious status quo, they refused to be inscribed within the conventional discourse of female unruliness and contested the usefulness of carnival as an oppositional practice. Some of the links which Lucy Hutchinson made between religion, oppressive state power, and carnival, are taken up by several radical Protestant women writers of the period just before and after the Restoration of the monarchy. In 1660, the Quaker Esther Biddle issued A warning from the Lord God of Life and Power, unto thee o City of London, charging that

thy heart hath been filled with lust, pride, and vanity, thy tongue exercised with cursing, swearing and lying, cheating and cozening ... O! what rioting, swearing, cursing and drunkenness, murder, whoredome, and theft, is found in thee ... decieving souls for dishonest gain, buying and selling the Words of God on the Market day, and in the Idols Temple, all this is found in thee (p. 3).

In another text, written from Newgate prison in 1662, Biddle makes her own voice coterminous with the voice of divine wrath in order to make explicit and condemn the links between carnivalesque activities and the violent oppression of her co-religionists:

Oh! the blood of the innocent is found in thee, which cryeth aloud for Vengeance unto my Throne, Drunkenness, Whoredom, and Gluttony, and all manner of Ungodliness, Tyranny and Oppression is found in thee; Thy Priests Preach for hire, and thy People love to have it so; Rioting and ungodly meetings, Stage-Playes, Ballad Singing, Cards and Dice and all manner of Folly ... wicked works and actions are not punished by thee ... Taverns and Alehouses are frequented day and night ...[17]

In Biddle's text, the passage `thy priest ... all manner of folly' is stressed by being italicised, emphasising the connection being made between specifically religious corruption, and those forms of de-bauchery and ungodliness which were particularly associated with carnival. Biddle goes on to suggest that, far from inverting the unjust social hierarchy, the unabashed pursuit of the pleasures of the flesh which typifies carnival, only serves to reinforce it:

Oh you high and lofty ones! who spendeth God's Creation upon your lusts, and doth not feed the hungry, nor cloath the naked, but they are ready to perish in the streets ... did not the Lord make all men and women upon the earth of one mould, why then should there be so much honour and respect unto some men and women, and not unto others? (p.12)

Instead of the challenge to the social order being purely temporary and carnivalesque - playful, contingent, possible only in the deregulated but therefore relatively ineffectual time out of life of carnival - Biddle demands a permanent end to unjust hierarchy on the grounds of divine justice and human equality. A similar connection between the riotous celebration of festive occasions, and economic injustice, is made in a 1655 text jointly written by Margaret Killin and Barbara Patison, in which they issue A Warning from the Lord to the Teachers and people of Plymouth:

and the songs of your temple shall be turned into howling, your feasting into fasting, your myrth into sadness, for your Sabbaths and appointed seasons are a burden to me, I am weary with them, saith the Lord, and my soul shall be avenged on such a generation as this is, for the Poor is oppressed by the Rich (p.1).

The rhetoric of this passage carries out a series of neat reversals of the carnivalesque process which, at least in theory, turns fast into feast, and sadness into mirth, in order to demonstrate that that is not what is happening in practice, and to warn that sinful and oppressive behaviour will be appropriately punished. Curiously enough, the sins against which Patison and Killin are inveighing are both punished and symbolised by a distinctly carnivalesque gesture, which gives a new perspective on the association of impudent women with the lower bodily stratum: `because you have departed out of my counsel I will spread dung on your faces, yea I have cast dung on your faces alreadie.' After giving, at some length, their warning that a fate worse than death awaits all `Lawyers, Drunkards, Swearers, Whoremongers, and Adulterers' who fail to repent their wicked ways, Killin and Patison go on to put a set of `Queries to the Parish-teachers of the Nation', asking them to explain and justify the social and moral meanings of carnival practices:

4. What is the ground, and cause, and reason, why people disguise themselves, and play at Gold-games, as they call them, and have Wassel Cups, as they call them, in the time called Christmas, and so much great doings at houses, called Gentlemens houses, at that time; so we desire you which calls your selves Ministers and Orthodox men, to give the ground out of the Scripture, for the things that your people practise . . . and whether this be a good example, to eat and drink and rise to play? and whether it be not forbidden in the Scripture, yea or no? Cor. 10.17 (p.5).

This is very effective rhetorically: the scornful repetitions of `as they call them'; the tactic of putting these rather sarcastic questions and pre-emptively clinching the answer with a Scripture reference; it would be a brave minister or orthodox man who disagreed with them at this point. And again, the reference to `Gentlemens houses' illustrates the perception that carnival is a class issue, dependent for its meaning on the continued existence of the hierarchies it purports to subvert.

I think that we can see here the beginnings of a conscious and critical use of the discourse of carnival by women. Instead of being merely placed as its objects - as they are in, say, the ballads I discussed earlier - they are beginning to use it for their own purposes. Diane Purkiss locates the prophets' voices at the centre of carnivalesque self-display: `Women prophets' entry into the public sphere was direct and unmediated. Their writings were circulated, but they also "made spectacles of themselves" by appearing and speaking.' (`Producing the Voice', p.140). Recent attempts to evaluate the phenomenon of female prophecy in early modern England have made extensive use of a particular version of the carnivalesque, deriving indirectly from Bakhtin but primarily influenced by Julia Kristeva's concept of the semiotic.[18] In their 1981 essay on the subject, which draws heavily on Kristeva's theorisation of the semiotic as a potentially revolutionary modality which has a special connection with femininity, Christine Berg and Philippa Berry prefigure Purkiss's insight that the female prophet's voice and body transgress the boundaries of the private/feminine and public/masculine spheres, although they give a somewhat more apocalyptic cast to this transgression, describing it as `the irruption of female speech into the once tabooed domain of public activity'.[19] Gary Waller extends the Kristevan analysis to argue for women's prophecy as a precursor of that avant-garde writing which `resists or undermines closure and seems to combine or confuse traditional forms',[20] suggesting that the very marginality and putative irrationality of prophets like Anna Trapnell enabled them to give voice to the repressed and silenced feminine in ways which were inaccessible to writers who were more tightly bound to the central meaning-producing structures of their society. This reformulates the seventeenth century belief that women were chosen as prophets because their very lowliness and insignificance made the working of God's grace through them all the more telling. The female prophet was a living illustration of the Biblical dictum that the last shall be first and the first last in God's kingdom.[21] Quaker Margaret Fell, who despite her advocacy of women's right to speak on religious matters was no prophet herself, and was much more conservative than most of the women I discuss here, advances this argument:

And such hath the Lord chosen, even the weak things of the world, to confound the things which are mighty; and things which are despised, hath God chosen to bring to nought things that are, I Cor. 1. And God hath put no such difference between the Male and Female as men would make.[22]

In her ground-breaking essay `Women as Prophets during the English Civil War', Phyllis Mack eschews the modern theoretical discourse of carnival, but does put in to play congruent seventeenth century terms to account for the phenomenon. She notes that in the early modern period, women were thought to be given to prophecy because they were irrational, emotional, and easily influenced. Their supposed tendency to hysteria thus provides a connection between the discourses of carnival and prophecy. Mack suggests that carnivalesque inversion was the key to the significance of the prophetess's figure and utterances:

The combination of her despised status and her ecstatic, yet authoritative, behaviour made the female prophet a perfect symbol of a world turned upside down. . . . She represents a spiritual and political authority which was inappropriate, even monstrous, by conventional standards, but conforming to a more profound and more radical vision of human equality, on earth and in heaven (p. 219).

These recent critical accounts are persuasive in the congruence they seem to demonstrate between modern and seventeenth century categories for making sense of ecstatic prophecy. Concepts such as hysterial and the semiotic can help to account for the over-determined emotional resonances of the women prophets' voices. Their limit-ation is that they locate prophecy as a spontaneous, uncontrollable outpouring in which the female prophet is no more than the medium through which the Word of God is transmitted; like the hysteric she says more than she knows. This apparent erasure of the woman as subject of her own speech may well be what helped to make female prophecy more or less acceptable in the seventeenth century; but the confident use of the conventions of prophetic, carnivalesque discourse by women like Patison and Killin seem to suggest that this is not the whole story. Prophecy in the early modern period was not exclusively dependent on the kind of hysterical trance-like states displayed by women like Anna Trapnell and Sarah Wight[23], though these would often be invoked to testify to its authenticity; rather, it referred to any utterance which was divinely inspired. The carnivalesque role of the prophetess enabled women to turn their customary, pejorative association with weakness, hysteria, irrationality and susceptibility to possession by external agents to advantage in order to legitimise their public speech. Prophecy may, therefore, have provided women with a space - albeit severely circumscribed - where they could exercise a measure of social and religious agency, and in doing so, move towards the construction of a language in which women can resist their hystericisation and objectification by the discourse of carnival. When Hester Biddle's voice merges with God's, for instance, is her identity as a woman obliterated by the prophetic moment, or is she consciously deploying the conventions of prophetic discourse to legitimise her message?[24] While I would like to be able to argue the latter, in historical terms this question is, it seems to me, strictly undecidable; but it is of crucial importance in that it bodies forth what is at stake for women in the discourse of carnival, which allows women access to the public sphere only at the cost of inscribing their words and actions as symptoms of unruliness and hysteria.


[1] Mikhail Bakhtin, Rabelais and His World, tr. Hélène Iswolsky (Bloomington: Indiana University Press, 1984. First published M I T Press, 1968). Further references incorporated into the text. Ken Hirschkop's bibliographical essay on Bakhtin studies to 1988 is an invaluable resource, though many more works on carnival have been published in the last four years. See Ken Hirschkop and David Shepherd, eds., Bakhtin and cultural theory (Manchester: Manchester University Press, 1989).
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[2] Patricia Crawford, `The construction and experience of maternity in seventeenth century England', in Valerie Fildes, ed. Women as Mothers in Pre-industrial England (London: Routledge, 1990), p. 7.
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[3] Diane Purkiss, `Producing the voice, consuming the body: Women prophets of the seventeenth century', in Isobel Grundy and Susan Wiseman, eds., Women, Writing, History (London: Batsford, 1992), p. 154.
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[4] See the ballad `The Lamenting Lady', reprinted with analogues and sources in Hyder E. Rollins, A Pepysian Garland (Cambridge, Mass.: Harvard University Press, 1971), pp. 121-131. Further references in the text.
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[5] Philip Stubbes, The Anatomie of Abuses (New York: Garland Reprints, 1973), not paginated.
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[6] Court record cited by Jean Howard, `Cross-dressing, the Theatre, and Gender Struggle in Early Modern England', Shakespeare Quarterly 39, 4, 1988, p.420.
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[7] Reprinted in Rollins, A Pepysian Garland, pp. 72-77.
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[8] Dorothy Waugh, `A Relation', in The Lambs Defence against Lyes (London, 1656), cited by Lynda E. Boose, 'Scolding Brides and Bridling Scolds: Taming the Woman's Unruly Member', Shakespeare Quarterly 41, 4, 1991, p. 206.
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[9] D E Underdown, `The Taming of the Scold: the Enforcement of Patriarchal Authority in Early Modern England', in Anthony Fletcher and John Stevenson, eds., Order and Disorder in Early Modern England (Cambridge: Cambridge University Press, 1985), p. 119.
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[10] Lucy Hutchinson, Memoirs of the Life of Colonel Hutchinson, ed. James Sutherland (London: Oxford University Press, 1973), pp. 42, 44.
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[11] Peter Stallybrass and Allon White, The Politics and Poetics of Transgression (London: Methuen, 1986), p. 19.
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[12] There are many references to this dubious tradition, for example in Sir Thomas Overbury, `A Maquerela, in plaine English a Bawde' in The Miscellaneous Works of Sir Thomas Overbury, ed E. F. Rimbault (London, 1890), and Sir John Chamberlain, Letters, ed. Elizabeth McClure Thomson (London, 1939), II, pp. 139-44.
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[13] Natalie Zemon Davis, Society and Culture in Early Modern France (London: Duckworth, 1975), p. 131.
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[14] Patricia Higgins, `The Reactions of Women, with special reference to women petitioners', in Brian Manning, ed., Politics, Religion, and the English Civil War (London: Edward Arnold, 1973), p. 192.
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[15] The first OED references to `Billingsgate', in the sense of verbal abuse, and 'fishwife' are dated 1672 and 1662 respectively, and associate the terms with obstreperous, scolding women.
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[16] Phyllis Mack, 'Women as Prophets during the English Civil War', in Margaret C Jacob and James Jacob, eds., The Origins of Anglo-American Radicalism (London: Allen and Unwin, 1984), p. 216.
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[17] The trumpet of the Lord sounded forth (London, 1662), pp. 5-6.
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[18] Kristeva introduces the notion of the semiotic in La révolution du langage poétique (Paris: Seuil, 1974). In an earlier essay, `Word, Dialogue, and Novel', written in 1966, Kristeva had been one of the first to introduce Bakhtin's work to Western readers. See Toril Moi, ed., The Kristeva Reader (Oxford: Blackwell, 1986), pp. 35-61.
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[19] Christine Berg and Philippa Berry, `"Spiritual Whoredom": An essay on female prophets in the seventeenth century', in Francis Barker et al, eds., 1642: Literature and Power in the Seventeenth Century (Colchester: University of Essex, 1981), p. 38.
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[20] Gary Waller, `Struggling into Discourse: The Emergence of Renaissance Women's Writing', in Margaret Patterson Hannay, ed., Silent But for the Word: Tudor Women as Patrons, Translators and Writers of Religious Works (Kent: Kent State University Press, 1985), p. 253.
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[21] Compare contemporary American Catholic writer Flannery O'Connor's story `Revelation', where this insight is forced on the arrogant and sanctimonious Mrs Turpin by outcast, repulsive members of her community. In The Complete Stories (New York: Farrar, Straus and Giroux, 1972).
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[22] Margaret Fell, Womens Speaking Justified, 2nd ed., (London, 1667), p. 3.
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[23] See Barbara Ritter Dailey, `The visitation of Sarah Wight: holy carnival and the revolution of the saints in civil war London', Church and Literature in English Radical Religion, 1640-60 (Oxford: Clarendon Press, 1989), especially pp. 45-53.
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[24] The first view is advanced by Diane Purkiss in `Producing the voice', p. 142, the latter by Elaine Hobby in Virtue of Necessity: English Women's Writing 1649-88 (London: Virago, 1988), p. 41.
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