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Attitudes towards women in the Tudor period

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If you ever take yourself on a tour of the dungeons below Norwich Castle Museum you will be introduced to any number of instruments of torture from long ago. But the ones that really capture the public imagination are the ducking stool and scold’s bridle, said to have been used in sixteenth- and seventeenth-century England to punish scolding women.

You’ll be told how a woman who nagged her husband was either ducked in the river or placed in the bridle with a spiked plate forced into her mouth so that she could not speak, but it’s simply not true. Duckings were reserved mainly for women exhibiting extreme forms of anti-social behaviour and the scold’s bridle was restricted to the most northern parts of England, where again it was used in cases relating to physical abuse or religious non-conformism rather than simple disputes between women and their husbands. In truth many of the bridles on show in museums are Victorian reproductions, which says more about nineteenth-century attitudes to women than it ever did about the Tudors.

The notion that women were regularly silenced is a myth and yet it’s an idea that persists – that Tudor society was oppressive and patriarchal, where women were expected to know their place and to keep to hearth and home. The reality, however, was very different and the relationship between men and women some 400 years ago is far more complex than scold’s bridles and ducking stools would have you believe.

The problem is that exhibitions like the one at Norwich Castle deal in generalities, focusing on the idealised history of long ago. It’s a view of history based on research taken from statutes, Acts of State and religious sermons, where women were portrayed as second-class citizens and subject to the rule of father, husband or master. The problem is these official sources were written by men for men, and women’s voices are hidden from us. But that’s not to say that we cannot find evidence of a female voice in historical records. My own work on the secular and religious courts of Tudor times has yielded many. Women like Ann Coppings, who sung a slanderous rhyme about Ralph Scurle at a Norwich bowling alley. Also the wife of Peter Watts who, when a member of the Norwich watch, Antony Dey, was sent to serve a warrant on her son, ‘did lay hold of the said Antony and take the bond from his neck, bidding him a turd in thy teeth’. Here then are women who slandered men, happily speaking their minds, while acting as a moral compass for their communities as well as protecting and maintaining their own households.

There is then plenty of evidence out there, but much of it is hidden from all but the most dogged of historians. Or is it? While most of us do not have access to ancient court records, we can easily find out about ideas and attitudes towards Tudor women from popular literature of the time. These were the stories shared in the alehouse and tavern yard as well as by the hearth at home, and later printed in chapbooks and jest books, the cheap print growing in popularity from the early 1500s onwards.

One such story is ‘The Mute Wife’, where a man does a deal with the Devil in order to win a voice for his mute wife, but the domineering voice she gains is not all that he hoped for. This is a story that, at the very least, was a source of much laughter – created by the fact that in reality women long ago did not know their place!

There is also the tale of ‘The Goodwife of Orleans’ about a young woman who, because her old husband was unable to satisfy her, sought the comfort of a younger man. Her husband knowing of her infidelity tried to expose his wife, but was instead tricked by her and mocked for his failings. This story corresponds with many a Tudor medical treatise that acknowledged the importance of female sexual pleasure as part of a happy and productive marriage.

And finally there is the story of ‘The Partridges and the Priest’ where a farmer’s wife is able to get the better of both her mean-spirited husband and a sexually rapacious parish priest. As with Ann Coppings and her slanderous rhyme noted above, she acted as a moral compass for her community, whilst demonstrating that she had greater reason and self-control than any man. A version of this story found its way into the early nineteenth-century folk and fairy tale collections of the Brothers Grimm, for these stories didn’t stay put in the sixteenth century. They have been told and retold throughout the centuries as part of the continuing back and forth between the sexes, with each generation putting their own spin on the troubles betwixt man and woman, husband and wife.

I still recount them regularly as part of my work as a teller of tales, speaking at museums, heritage sites, festivals, fairs and even schools all over the United Kingdom. The debate about the role of women is still relevant today and as a storyteller I am well placed to see how even children relate to the debate as it is portrayed in stories. For even though some of the tales do not show women in a good light, so too men are, more often than not, mocked for their oppressive ways. And so to one and all I say read a few Tudor tales and merry jests, and you will see something of the reality of life long ago: of the ideas, beliefs, dreams and aspirations of early modern women and not just those of the men who governed them.

By Dave Tonge

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