Friday, 23 March 2012

sins of the [16th century] tongue: research in progress

Branks, or Scold's Bridle.  St Andrews
Currently immersed in: fornication, drunkenness, and deviant speech.
Not my own, however, but my beloved 16th century Scots....
The deviant speech, or sins of the tongue, section has been fun but teasing it out into a coherent piece of writing is proving somewhat tricky, as I try to make the transition from pre to post Reformation.  Continuity helps here, however, both in attitude to, and disciplining of, mis-speaking.

The 'powers that be' in both church and society on either side of 1560 - the date of the Scottish Reformation - were deeply afraid of 'wild' speech.  The tongue was something which needed to be controlled; it was a dangerous instrument, to be feared and to be tamed.  As per James 3: 5-8, the tongue was a fire that could wreak havoc; words could maim and mutilate.  Jean de Marconville, writing c.1592, warned that the power of the tongue was such that it could overturn strongly defended cities, defame worthy persons, that it had:
‘taken asunder a number of princely Palaces, and hath incensed to ciuill sedition many goodly countries. Whosoeuer lends a listening eare to these double tongues, or rather to these two edged swordes, shall neuer rest in quietnes, shall neuer be at peace with any of his friends. The lash of the whip woundeth the flesh, but the stroke of the tongue breaketh the bone: the whip only perscuteth our carrion corpses, but the glike of a pernicious tongue doth eclipse our bright renowne, and leaues a spot of blacke defame tou our posteritie, which is more dangerous then any hurt we can receiue in our body.’ [A Treatise of the Good and Evell Tounge]

For Marconville, as for others, the tongue needed to be controlled because, if left unchecked, it had the potential to undermine the very fabric of godly civilisation.  Uncontrolled speech threatened the established order, both in the heavenly and earthly realms.  Blasphemy was very literally a verbal injury to God - a defamation of God's reputation and honour.  [The word blaspheme originated from a combination of two Greek words βλάπτω, meaning 'I hurt' or ' I injure', and φήμη, meaning 'fame' or 'report'.]  Likewise, murmuring was the sly whisper of unrest, the quietly destructive insinuation of complaint that gnawed at the soul and created suspicion and dissatisfaction - of God, of government, of domestic arrangements.  Beyond these vertical, or hierarchical relationships, deviant speech also undermined relationships of a more horizontal nature: lies, name-calling, gossip - all had the potential to sow the seeds of discord amongst neighbours.  Words wounded, and so they needed to be contained and controlled for the sake of harmonious relationships at every level.  Having a particularly providential view of God, such words could also invoke God's wrath; here the deviant speech of an offender placed the community in jeopardy, risking signs of God's displeasure such as plague, pestilence, fire and flood.  However, once words had been spoken, could they be unspoken?

In a ritual quite unique to Scotland, those involved in overseeing the processes of reconciliation created a formula which attempted to unsay that which had been said.  The one who had offended and been found guilty of mis-speaking would be required to use a particular speech formula, saying 'tongue, you lied', and thereafter would repeat what he or she had said.  Often, in cases that involved defamation, this speech would be followed by the giving back of the offended person's character, using the words 'I know nothing but gud and honeste of them'.  Ritual gestures specific to crimes of the tongue could include the offender pointing to the offending implement, their tongue, or actually holding it while repeating the 'tongue you lied' formula.  An entry in the Records of Inverness from 3 April 1560 describes the repentance ritual of one Ewan Tailor who had rather unwisely used 'injurious words' to several of the town's officials.  In this particular instance, wounding words were accompanied by physical assault, and Tailor was required to do a very public penance.  On the Palm Sunday, he was to be pilloried, after which he was to be brought to the tollbooth stair, sit on his knees and say 'false tong, yow led', having taken his tongue in his hand.  Thereafter he was to ask forgiveness of the offended parties and was threatened with banishment if he ever repeated his offence.  The record reads as follows:
Ewyn Talyeour is desernit be decret of curt for dispresing of Mathow Paterson, balye, and of George Simonson and Thom Robertson, officaris, for injurius vordis gyfin to the balye and dingyn of the officaris, is jugit in admerciament and ordanit be the prowest and balyes that he salbe pot in the gewis [pillory] on Palme Sunday, and thairefter brocht to the tolbuyth stare and sit on his kneys, and say False tong, yow led, taken it in his hand, and askan forgywenes at the balye, and gyf he beys fundyn with sic ane falt agane he salbe banist of this towne for ewyr. [Records of Inverness, vol. 1:43]

In another case of defamation, found in the Stirling Presbytery Records of October 1590, a weaver named William Morris had publicly boasted that he had committed 'hurdome' with a married woman called Helen Menteith. Her reputation at stake, and also in danger of being accused of the capital crime of adultery, Menteith and her father complained to Stirling Presbytery. Morris, having been found guilty, was required to do make his repentance by appearing one Sunday in the parish kirk of Dollar. Speaking back his slanderous words, and thus restoring Menteith's reputation, Morris was to ‘confes publictlie in p[rese]ns of ye haill congregatione yat he hes innocentlie sclandirit ye said hellein and yat ye words he spak of hir war fals, and [there]for to crave god, ye said hellein and ye kirk forgevenes. And to declair he knawis na thing to hir bot honestie.’ 

Given the usual difficulties concerning pre-Reformation material, it is hard to pin-point exactly when this ritual came into being, however, the earliest recording of it being employed comes from the Aberdeen Council Registers of 1509.   This ritual of repentance, echoing the offence committed by the medium of speech, while used prior to the Protestant reformation in Scotland, was used sparingly.  Post-reformation, however, these rituals of unsaying became a standard fixture in the disciplinary medicine cabinet of Kirk Sessions.  On occasion, offenders were given specific locations where they were required to enact the ritual such as in the place where the offence had occurred, or at the market cross, as well as within the course of public worship.  Most cases, however, were resolved within the more intimate surrounds of the Kirk Session.  As was the case with all rituals of repentance and reconciliation gestures and words, were important.  While gestures 'expressed the movement of the soul (in this case genuine contrition) through the use of the body' [Elizabeth Ewan "Tongue you Lied", 119] words expressed by the tongue, through contrition and confession, called back that which had been mis-spoken.  Such rituals, utilised for sins of the tongue, brought both restitution of the offender's soul as well as the offended party's reputation, and reconciliation with God, kirk and community.  Further, they aimed to restore order from disorder; the godly community, after all, being an ordered community.

1 comment:

spotthegerbil said...

I am really looking forward to reading the finished article.