Admittedly, discussions on medieval thought do not often start with genetics, nor such opportunistic use of alliteration. I am not the first literary historian to apply the concept of the meme to English analysis. A meme, which is analogous to a gene, is a unit of information which is a ‘unit of culture’ – an idea, belief or behavioural pattern – that is ‘hosted’ in individuals and reproduced in new hosts over time. Evolutionary biologist Richard Dawkins coined the term in the 1970s, positing that ideas and concepts are active cultural agents, and in this way influence social and cultural practice.
Just in time for International Women’s Day on March 8, the women of the Cambridge debating team faced misogynistic attacks at the Glasgow University Union (GUU) Debating Competition. Without wishing to create a false linear narrative, I believe that looking to history can help facilitate thinking and broaden our intellectual contexts when considering patterns of thought and behaviour today.
The association of femininity with disruptive and disorderly speech found new life in the late Middle Ages; the aphorism ‘wymmen arn, are many wordys’ has been around since at least the 15th century and in post-Reformation England it was common parlance: ‘where be women, are many wordys’. The issue of problematic language was made especially exigent due to the primarily oral culture of medieval England. Literacy was reserved for men and women of status and the clergy. As such, for the wider population there was a dependence on orality that heightened the problem of the relationship between morality and speech; how language might be used subversively, and ultimately challenge authority.
The association between women’s speech and chaos became embedded in culture through theological commentary on the First Mother, or in some texts, our Grandmother. One 15th century preacher wrote:
“Eve, our oldest mother in paradise, held long talks with the adder, and told him what God had said to her and to her husband about eating the apple; and by her talking, the fiend understood her feebleness and her unstableness.” [emphasis mine]
Issues of the spiritual and physical were particularly tied up with speech and the mouth. In the Middle Ages and into the Renaissance links between the mouth and female genitalia further entrenched common associations between women’s speech and their dishonour. As Marie-Christine Pouchelle writes, these are ‘bodily orifices generally considered equivalent’. A woman speaking ‘too much’ could draw her chastity into question. In this way, there was a belief that words were actual deeds with real consequences [think philosopher of language J. L. Austin’s How To Do Things With Words, (1955)]. The definition of ‘virginity’ often included chastity in speech, with some arguments suggesting that abstaining from intercourse was not sufficient to be considered a ‘true’ virgin.
Thinking about recent local events, it is disturbing in the extreme that women have been called ‘whore’ and ‘slut’ by their male Union members when attempting to speak in debating contests. Here in the 21st century the association between a woman’s open mouth and her ‘open’ sexuality are again, however subconsciously or otherwise, being disseminated. We are reminded of Eve revealing her ‘unstableness’ through speech when one debater was told that women’s voices sound ‘hysterical’. These are men who would have found a far more sympathetic audience for their particular ideas five or six hundred years ago.
In Renaissance England, the proliferation of preacher’s manuals, sermons, tracts and pamphlets instructing correct vocal behaviour are often addressed directly to women, or have special sections devoted to women’s speech. Pamphlets, such as The Anatomy of a Woman’s Tongue (1638), and theological works like William Perkins’ The Government of the Tongue (1593), were particularly popular. Silence, the closed orifice, is most often encouraged as the best ‘ornament’ of a woman.
Recently scholars have argued that the rise of such conduct books can be seen as an anxious response to ongoing shifts in social codes. These manuals may be considered a discourse designed to boost patriarchy when it was believed to be ‘under some degree of threat’. Indeed, on a more individual scale, we may reasonably suppose that some form of threat was posed by the intelligent and world-class women speakers of the Cambridge debating team.
The history of attempts to control women’s speech and the connection of women with ‘sins of the tongue’ (with gossip, hysterical speech, the ‘nagging’ scold, and so on) are part of a history of power. Attempts to control women speaking today have a distinctly pre-modern flavour. In this particular issue, as I believe in many others, the Middle Ages offer a mirror to modern society that it has not yet dared hold up to itself. The meme is a useful way to image broadly inherited concepts. These ideas, these memes, may have changed their shape over hundreds of years, but the central negative and prejudiced associations here between women and speaking remain sadly extant.
*Kathryn (Kate) Crowcroft  is twice Gates Scholar. Her PhD focusses on medical and theological ideas about the mouth from medieval into early modern culture.