Gossip and resistance among the medieval peasantry

Gossip and resistance among the medieval peasantry

Chris Wickham

I aim in this article to offer a defence of the study of gossip in medieval (and not only medieval) history. It is therefore, perhaps, appropriate to begin with a story, which I will use as a point of reference for some of the themes I want to discuss. It takes shape from a court case from twelfth-century Tuscany: that is to say, from the testimonies of seventeen witnesses recorded in or around 1138 in a dispute between a peasant cultivator called Compagno and the very rich and powerful monastery of Passignano, situated in the Chianti hills about forty kilometres south of Florence, over the ownership of a piece of land at Mucciana on the river Pesa, where Passignano had just built a mill. To be precise, we have two stories, one for each side; and we do not have the final arbitration, so we cannot be sure even what the arbiter thought was true. But the two stories are interesting in their own right, as images of plausible and thus possible truths.(1)

The witnesses were all local; all or most were themselves peasants; they split roughly evenly between the two sides. Compagno’s opponents thought the issue was simple: he had never owned or publicly claimed the land until the monastery of Passignano began to build its mill. They said that Compagno’s great-grandfather Rodolfino had three daughters, only one of whom received land at her marriage; the others (including Compagno’s grandmother) only got movables. The descendants of the first daughter sold this land and after two similar transactions Passignano had got hold of it. They also said that Compagno, although never openly contesting the land by the river, had in fact claimed another piece of land, by implication from the same inheritance, from the then owner, Arlotto (the man who had alienated it all to Passignano in fact); he had done so by the simple expedient of turning up and ploughing it, sowing millet there. Someone told Arlotto about it, and he appeared on the land to ask Compagno what he was up to; on hearing Compagno claim the land, Arlotto `forbade him, threatening him, and began to run to get arms’. Compagno made himself scarce and did not return.

Compagno had another version. His branch of the family, egged on by his grandmother, had always claimed the land and had never conceded. His direct actions as a sower, he said, had been numerous. I think he saw all the lands of his greatgrandfather as one, so it did not matter which he claimed; but they did, he said, include the land on the river Pesa, which he sowed in the sight of Passignano’s own dependants, who did not protest, only leaving it because of a local war in 1135. He also cut and sold wood on another tract of land without anyone protesting; and he cultivated on a third, probably the one his opponents said he claimed, `as if it was his land’, for two years. Compagno was arguing, in other words, that his rights to work the land had not been challenged by others, although he stopped short of saying that the land was generally accepted as his. He was establishing a right to claim the land, against the argument that his branch of the family had never contested it (in Italy, as in much of medieval Europe, uncontested possession of land for thirty years was itself proof of right); and he was aiming at the position of being the prima facie possessor, thus throwing the burden of proof on to the other side.

Medieval court cases, like modern ones, generally used written proofs, if there were any relevant ones, and local knowledge if–as evidently in this case — there were not. In Italy, as elsewhere, local knowledge was sharply distinguished between per visum, direct witnessing, per auditum, merely hearing about it from someone, and publica lama, what everybody knew, common knowledge. Direct witnessing was the only fully legally acceptable knowledge, but publica lama ran a close second; it was what everybody knew, so it was socially accepted as reliable. Even direct witnessing relied, for its context, on common knowledge concerning what the events were all about. One of Compagno’s enemies said it was `public fame’ that Compagno’s branch of the family had never held the land; this, to them, gave meaning to several eye-witness accounts of Arlotto threatening Compagno and Compagno running off, including one from Arlotto himself.(2) Compagno’s supporting witnesses, unfortunately, tended to restrict themselves to statements that Compagno himself had made to them about one or other of the fields he was claiming being his, or at most that they had, at his invitation, watched him plough them, possibly when no one else was around. This was pretty weak back-up. Although we do not know the decision in this case, we need not doubt that Compagno lost: in particular, the fact that the document survives in the archive of the monastery of Passignano suggests that it won.


Publica fama, common knowledge, is of course constituted by talking about the issue: in other words, by gossip. One might simply here counterpose gossip and resistance; the gossip was that Compagno had never held the land, whereas Compagno was resisting, resisting both the beliefs of his richer kin and neighbours and the rights of a huge monastic landowner at their back. But what was Compagno actually doing? He was, by going onto three pieces of land and cultivating them directly, making a public statement: that he could cultivate them in front of witnesses, both friendly and hostile, without opposition. He wanted his resistance to be talked about. He wanted to create his own publica lama, meaning in this case groups of people in Mucciana prepared to gossip in public about him, saying, for example, `well, Passignano’s dependants didn’t object to him sowing the land; that must tell something about his claim’. His enemies responded by saying that if he sowed, he sowed secretly — i.e., without witnesses, which did not count — it was a sort of theft; and, of course, by saying that Arlotto did throw Compagno off his land, indeed, with the threat of violence. They were, that is to say, denying both that his acts were always public and that when public they were unopposed. All of these public acts, which sometimes have an almost ritualized formality, had as their basic aim the influencing of the gossip network to side with one or the other party, or at least to split it into two. Resistance, to be successful, even in court, needed gossip to legitimate it: agreed truth was constructed through gossip. It is worth remembering that communities do not always agree; gossip can be argued over, and changed. And in Tuscany in the twelfth century gossip was very respectful of public, direct, action.

Peasants do not speak in many medieval texts. Even in this one, they do not do so directly; the arbiter (a professional judge and notary from Florence) asked them questions, and wrote the answers down, Latinizing them from the peasant Italian as he did so. The usual caveats about the silences of the illiterate apply — as also those about the narrative strategies of the witnesses themselves. But witness depositions are as close as we can in practice get to peasants speaking; and in Italy these start unusually early. Compagno’s case is a good example, but it is not unique, even for the twelfth century. It is, however, also important that when, in other societies of medieval Europe, we can get somewhere towards hearing peasants speak, we find them adopting similar strategies. They talk about each other and they try to affect what other people say about them. Let us look at two more examples from different societies; we can then move on to some initial generalizations.

One society where gossip could really bite was medieval Iceland. Iceland was so poor that nearly everyone was a peasant, in the sense that they participated in direct cultivation or (above all) stock-raising. Icelandic narrative sources are extremely numerous, dating especially from the thirteenth century; they are not all strictly `factual’ accounts, but they were certainly in general regarded as naturalistic — that is to say, once again, plausible accounts of social action.(3) They are full of public, talked-about, acts. These narratives, or sagas, focus on feuding and other forms of dispute; an Icelandic peasant’s final success in a feud depended largely on the opinion his (or, more rarely, her) kin, neighbours and patrons had of the case, and of his general good standing as an honourable and successful person. Sagas thus contain, as a perpetual (if laconic) Greek chorus, other people’s views of public acts: `Mordr earned nothing but ignominy from this’; `Gunnarr won great credit from the outcome of this case’. Obviously, people reacted according to their own perceptions of the overall rights and wrongs of a dispute, but the specific behaviour of participants at each stage in the dispute was being watched too, and could affect how the dispute was talked about. A couple of examples here may help. Hrutr Herjolfsson, a prosperous and well-thought-of farmer with a fame as a fighter, had a spell put on him that made him impotent with his wife, Unnr, who divorced him. Unnr’s father, Moror, correctly sued Hrutr in court for the return of the dowry. Hrutr challenged him to a duel, and the elderly Mordr backed down, thus gaining himself the public ignominy cited above. But Hrutr risked humiliation in the eyes of public opinion too, on two counts: impotence, for one; but also for only winning by challenging an elderly and respected man, which in one sense risked being seen as unfair. Straight after the case, Hrutr found two children in a house where he was staying already playing at being Hrutr and Mordr: the one saying, `I’ll be Mordr and divorce you from your wife on the grounds that you couldn’t have intercourse with her’; and the other, `I’ll be Hrutr and invalidate your dowry claim if you don’t dare to fight me’. Hrutr’s brother got angry and hit them; but Hrutr reacted differently: he gave one of the boys a gold ring. This re-established his status as a `noble-minded’ man among the talkers: `Hrutr was highly praised for this’.(4)

Hrutr here had the subtlety to ward off disapproval by a generous gesture, and he had no trouble about his reputation again. More common, however, was the danger of inadequate toughness undermining reputation. Snorri godi was one of the two leading men of the Thorsnes area of western Iceland. He invited a large number of people to an autumn feast, and `people grew very cheerful and began comparing the farmers in the district, arguing about which of them was the best man or the greatest leader, and, as so often happens when people’s abilities are being compared, there was plenty to disagree about’. But some of them, notably a man called Thorleifr Kimbi, even said that Arnkell, Snorri’s chief rival, was the greatest of all. That was too much for Snorri, who had little alternative but to call Arnkell out, and indeed found a way to kill him before the year was out without stirring up a feud; only Thorleifr Kimbi, whom Snorri made sure was there, got punished for it. This combination of toughness and skill re-established Snorri’s public standing in the eyes — and mouths — of other Icelanders; it will also have encouraged his guests to keep quieter in the future.(5)

In both of these narratives we can see in operation again the dialectic between public acts and the meaning conferred on them by gossip. This can indeed be emblematically, and endlessly, illustrated from Icelandic sources. But we do not find much resistance there — some, but not much. This is simply because, in a relatively egalitarian society by medieval standards, it was hard to focus on what or whom to resist. My final example here, the village of Montaillou in the French Pyrenees in 1322-4, made almost too famous by Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie in his book of 1975, brings out the resistance aspect more clearly and shows how more people could resist than just a single cultivator, such as Compagno. Montaillou is known about because a high percentage of its inhabitants were Cathar heretics, who were persecuted by the Inquisition, and also, in particular, because they were interrogated by an unusually systematic inquisitor, who wanted to know about everything the Montalionais did, whether in the fields of economics, sex or hygiene, as a cross-check and backup to his main interest, their religious beliefs. The villagers obliged; they poured out everything they knew about their neighbours. They had little choice, of course, and it has been pointed out by Le Roy Ladurie’s critics that they did not necessarily tell the truth: they told what they thought the Inquisition needed to hear. But again, the stories they told were, even if not always strictly accurate, plausible as a construction of the world.(6) It does not matter to us whether X really had an adulterous affair with Y, thus persuading her into heresy; it does matter to us that belonging or not to Catharism was associated tightly with webs of sexual contact, family, friendship and patronage. The peasants told of a divided village, with religious and factional identities mapped on to each other; they also told of a village whose principal external oppressor was not the aristocracy, which was weak in the area, but the church and its tithe collectors. Small wonder that Montaillou was easily encouraged towards heresy by its village notables, including the local priest himself, whose brother was capable of redistributing church tithes to the local Cathars.(7) But the move towards Catharism was in each case structured m and thanks to the Inquisition, documented m by talking: beside the fire in each house, while picking lice off each other, as heretical views spread from family group to family group, linked by marriage, neighbourhood, work; always talked from place to place. This resistance to the world of outside powers was never complete; there were always Catholics in the village and, eventually, they brought the Cathars down. One could say, however, that if the success of the Cathars had to do with a community of village resistance, their eventual failure had to do with internal resistance to the Cathar village elite which was expressed in terms of Catholicism. When the priest and his family overreached themselves, the talking moved against them and an internal breach opened which allowed the Inquisition to move in. The talking which the inquisitors extracted and recorded for us allows an extraordinarily rich view of a medieval village society and its social attitudes, which can be compared to the analyses of any anthropologist. Le Roy Ladurie’s book has no competitors for anywhere in medieval Europe, despite twenty years of trying by medievalists. Montaillou’s talking — its gossip — did that.


Gossip has a bad press. There is a strong tendency, with a long history, to say that people should not gossip, and that the act of gossiping is idle and trivial. This is arguably the major reason why the sociology of gossip is extremely ill-developed. One would have expected it to develop with the flowering of socio-linguistics, oral history and cultural studies in the last two decades. But there has not been much since a rather inconclusive anthropological debate in the 1960s, and even in that debate the best contribution was actually the first, a lovely and classic article by Max Gluckman in Current Anthropology in 1963. There are a few interesting recent books, but one of the best, by Patricia Meyer Spacks, is focused on literature, not practice. There is almost no ethnography that focuses on gossiping (although most anthropologists use it, more or less innocently, according to taste); there are almost no transcripts; there are almost no cultural or historical analyses of actual gossiping sequences or practices, even in the present day. (A new, systematic, analysis of such sequences is spoilt by its amazing assumption that gossip is always regarded as `morally contaminated’.) One reason for this is could well be that the two disciplines which would be, on the face of it, the most capable of generating an adequate gossip theory, oral history and cultural studies, have suffered so much from having the stigma of being about `mere’ gossip thrown at them that they have for the most part worked fairly hard to avoid overt links with studying gossip at all. But, as a result, gossiping as a cultural practice has a strange status: an unstudied, marginalized, and devalued Other, but one that we actually all (or nearly all) engage in. People at best spend time defining gossip, imprisoning it in boxes (one influential anthropologist, F. G. Bailey, divided it into five: scandal, chat, rumour, gossip and criticism), rather than analysing its most interesting feature, its transactional nature: i.e., the way that it establishes and structures relationships between people, which is essentially what makes us all actually do it.(8)

Since we cannot do without definitions, here is mine: gossip is, simply, talking about other people behind their backs. It can also be characterized a little further through statements about what it is not: it is not necessarily malicious (though, of course, it often can be); it is not gendered (the oldest trick is to say that women gossip, whereas men talk about work or sport, or whatever — a classic piece of social construction — though it does seem to be true that women and men often gossip according to different narrative strategies);(9) it is not necessarily idle or arbitrary (much gossip is self-interested or manipulative, or else essential information exchange);(10) it is not necessarily about secret behaviour (unpicking someone’s role in a public meeting is gossip; and Compagno, when he wanted to establish his rights in the world of `public fame’ in the Chianti in the twelfth century, had to take care, precisely, to do it in public); and, finally, it is certainly not necessarily untrue — indeed, gossip is at its most effective when it is exact, and, even when it is not, it is true to the attitudes of a given social group, that is to say it is meaningful to them.

And this is the point: the feature that makes, or could make, gossip interesting to historians (rather than to ordinary humans) is the way that it defines group identity. Groups construct themselves by talking. Some of this talking is about shared memories, what I have elsewhere called social memory: the socially relevant past, which legitimates or gives meaning to the present for the group which commemorates it.(11) Some of it is gossip: indeed, in this respect, the group is actually constituted by who has the right to gossip about outsiders — or even absent insiders. The group’s moral values are constantly reinforced, indeed policed, by gossip, for gossip stories almost always have a moral edge to them — it is this which makes them interesting, indeed fun. But this means that if you want to know about the boundaries of the everyday morality of, the sense of belonging to, a social group, then listening to how it gossips, if it will let you, is one crucial mechanism, maybe even the best one. In Margaret Mead’s possibly imaginary Samoa, where teenagers routinely paired off and made love under the palm trees, gossip about premarital sex would presumably have been a great deal less charged than in 1950s Ireland. As Sally Merry observes, gossip focuses on and thus makes explicit the structural inconsistencies and areas of greatest tension and competition of any given social group.(12) What people gossip about, what stories they tell, will also tell you how their group socially constructs the world outside as meaningful,(13) and about how it understands the processes of practical behaviour, `habitus’, as Pierre Bourdieu calls them,(14) which structure the way everyone deals strategically with that world. Gossip indeed focuses on these strategies: `don’t you know why she really did that? it was because …’; or, `he ought to have known that so-and-so would react that way’. Gossip can even operate as a learning strategy: one learns how far one can go in bending the rules in practice, before negative comment cuts in.

It is possible to go further than this, as is arguably necessary in order to underpin my hostility, already outlined, to definitions of gossip that are too tight. The ways in which people talk run into each other, inextricably. Family gossip about the misdeeds of great-uncle Jack, and family social memory about the misdeeds of great-uncle Jack in North Africa in 1942, are not that far apart. One step further back, French Protestant peasants in the Cevennes of southern France, who have maintained to the present day an astoundingly dense collective commemoration of their ancestors’ Camisard uprising against Louis XIV in 1702-4, will, while talking about the Camisards, slip without a break to their own memories of being in the French Resistance in 1942-4, which was seen by them then, and is still seen now, as a modern re-enactment of the Camisard movement.(15) What links all these is the construction of a community of talkers, be it a peasant village, or a family, or a drinking group, or an office — or a class, or a nation — who accept, or are supposed to accept, a set of shared values and images that locate them in the world of the past and present, and teach them how to deal in, and with, that world. Look for that talking and you will find those values and images.

There is no space here to do much of the unpicking of discourses necessary to establish this last point as it affects the medieval peasantry. Let us look, however, at one further brief example, a court case over a secret marriage, held in Florence in 1455, and recently studied by Gene Brucker.(16) The marriage was between townspeople: the richer husband, Giovanni, was denying he had ever married his artisan-class wife, Lusanna. Lusanna produced, among others, witnesses from the countryside, from Rignano sull’Arno, where they had spent August the previous year. These peasants from Rignano stated that they had seen the couple pick salad together, eat together `as if they were husband and wife’, go to a birth feast together and go on a local pilgrimage together, with the wife wearing clothing appropriate to a married woman. The peasants were watching for (and talking about) signs, clues, that Giovanni, who was a local landowner and therefore interesting to them, was actually married; these were the signs, they were important and probative ones — they mattered, and could still be remembered a year later. The couple, of course, knew the signs too and were operating inside the same field of meaning (in a sense, if Giovanni was already planning to deny the marriage, then picking salad with Lusanna in the view of others was a form of lying). The parallels with Compagno’s more mundane — and more desperate — public acts should be clear. So are parallels with our own experiences of life, I should expect.

Four further points, before we return to medieval peasant resistance. The first is that the group of talkers is not always, or easily, going to let you in. Gossip defines social groups; by definition, it excludes non-members. I may gain a reputation as a sensitive and caring person by gossiping about friends to other, mutual, friends; if I carry the same information to acquaintances or strangers, I will only gain a reputation as a megaphone, a bad gossip, or, as we say using ordinary, negative, language, a `real’ gossip. Anthropologists have difficulty in villages when they begin, as people tell them untruths — authentic untruths, no doubt, to be unpicked for social content in themselves, but untruths none the less. There is an anthropological account of Sardinia by Maria Pitzalis Acciaro, in which she describes asking villagers from Mamoiada in the remote central mountains of the island about the local feud, or disamistade, which had killed thirty people in the 1970s. They denied it point blank. What feud? The men were killed for chance reasons, or by outsiders trying, of course unsuccessfully, to stir up trouble in the village. Pitzalis Acciaro realized that they were operating inside a very internally fenced-off model of gossip: accurate gossip with outsiders was not only, for example, seen as acting as a stool-pigeon to the police, but it was also actually categorized mentally as lying.(17) (I was myself so fascinated by this that I went to the same villages myself once and talked to people I met, asking stupid questions, and they told me such barefaced lies that I could do the same sort of analyses too, even if not about anything as clearcut as feud.) What this Sardinian example, among many others, shows is that there is an internal transcript of dialogue for every group, and an external one. Like gift-exchange, to which it is very similar, talking is different with insiders and outsiders. We belong to many, many, overlapping groups, and our gossip practices are different in each. Maybe there were fewer in 1970s Mamoiada, or Montaillou 650 years earlier, but there were still several.

James Scott has written a recent book about `hidden transcripts’, where he puts this point very sharply with respect to resistance: the powerless never tell you what they think; they never consent to exploitation, but they never normally admit it; their transcript only comes out at extreme moments of violence, which is perceived, often wrongly, as disorder by dominators, because the latter had no warning of it and cannot give it a mental frame.(18) Scott maybe goes too far here; there are dominated or exploited groups who do collude in their own domination and simply try to manipulate it, as for example with the clienteles of local political bosses throughout southern Europe and Latin America today. But he is right about one thing. The more you, as a dominator, are dealing with a group that is mentally resisting, the less likely they are to tell you what they are talking about inside the group until it is too late. You may work it out by signs — slow work, odd errors in calculations, sugar in your petrol, implausibly low harvest figures, or a curious incapacity to modularize a syllabus — but the gossip transcript you will not easily get. This is a problem, including, but not only for, historians.

A second point is about gender. I have stated flatly that the fact of gossiping is not gendered; however, there is no doubt that the imagery of gossip is a gendered one. Feminist commentators on the gossip process themselves often assume it; indeed, some simply turn the moralizing image on its head, celebrating rather than condemning female solidarity and subversion.(19) This to me as a male does not ring true; whatever men’s (well-documented) incapacity to analyse or judge themselves, their ability and willingness to judge others seems unimpaired. In some contexts, the gendering goes the other way: the public talking that constituted publica lama in medieval Italian courts was, for example, almost always the work of men. Witnessing in documents of the type this article began with is not only generally the work of males, but also barely discusses any actions except those of males — women’s actions get written out of the public memory of such societies.(20) This is probably because we are here dealing with structures of legitimation: men talking create publica fama; women talking (at the well, maybe, or at the communal washing basins) `merely’ create a delegitimized gossip. The latter seems, and often is, more subversive, simply because it is the work of the dominated (as with James Scott’s formulations just cited). Max Gluckman stated that `the more exclusive the group, the greater will be the amount of gossip in it’.(21) Gluckman was perhaps gossip’s greatest theorist, but this sentence betrays some innocence about the gossip of the excluded, whose values are of course themselves mostly closed off to elite outsiders. All-female groups of talkers are in general not only, traditionally, among the most excluded, but also among the most informally constituted of such groups. This informality (plus the perhaps justified male fear that their subject-matter involves a large element of mockery of men) provides further excuse for the delegitimization of `gossiping women’. We have to recognize this near-universal pattern without being taken in by it ourselves.

A third point is different in type. The above discussion has been mostly about oral societies, in the classic sense of societies without significant access to writing. Since the 1960s there has, of course, been a good deal of debate by people like Walter Ong or Jack Goody, about the sharp difference between oral societies and literate, text-based ones. They often imply that patterns of social organization, and even the social construction of the world, are entirely different between the two.(22) So, the oral world of the medieval peasantry is out there, to be studied; it has no direct immediacy for us. This I believe to be utterly false. Take my next example, the University of Birmingham Faculty of Arts Staff coffee lounge. (Don’t you know about this? Well, let me tell you about it.) This room is the focus for the public activity of some 250 people. Every event in the public life of half the Faculty is chewed over in it: the newest rumours about administrative reorganization or the politically inept behaviour of the Professor of Chinese in the last faculty meeting. Indeed, faculty meetings, at least tense ones, are constantly replayed, analysed for signs of their hidden content. This is, of course, not in itself surprising; but there is something else worth stressing. You can hear an account of a faculty meeting: exactly how a Dean got his or her way, or failed to do so; who made the good points, who did not. But go and look at the written version, the minutes, and you will find nothing of this: the tensions are ironed out; all there is are decisions. Try and construct the history of the University of Birmingham from official minutes: you will find institutional history, and close to nothing else. Course structures; student numbers.(23) Even the rules of the university fit into this pattern. Of course, these rules are written, but almost no one actually reads them, or, in many cases, has even seen them. In theory, they circumscribe people’s lives, but not in practice: even university leaders mostly have not read them. Indeed, the latter often make up their powers as they go along, and people go along with that — even when they do not, they do not know where to look to find out what the rules `really’ are. Most people go by habitus, by a set of regular improvisations of practice; and habitus is oral, and often very implicit too — in other words, obscure to outsiders and barely capable of being described.

The point here should be clear. We as academics are the most text-based culture there has ever been, and arguably the most literate. But we live inside an entirely oral working world. Our sense of what the rules of the university are is, except in extreme moments, totally oral. And our memory of the university and its history is, without any significant exception, oral. Gossip about who said what at faculty meetings, and how well, may vary, according to whom you are speaking and, of course, with time: its truth is often a truth of meaningfulness, not of 100 per cent re-creation. But it is a lot truer than faculty minutes, at least to the version of the past that really matters to people. There is, in this respect, no significant difference between the Faculty of Arts in the University of Birmingham and the peasants of Montaillou. (Note by the way that the Faculty of Arts gossips about sex as well, but not in the coffee lounge — different groups, different venues.) Oral culture has always dominated all societies; written transcripts are a surface ripple. Another problem for historians.

Gossip thus constitutes, constructs, the values and common knowledge of all the groups we belong to. The fourth point, then, is how does gossip link into resistance? Because there are many different ways of gossiping. Gossip is a direct guide to the lines of power, in Michel Foucault’s sense: the hugely complex network of relationships which construct our social world, hierarchically and hegemonically, and which we cannot fully escape, even by resisting.(24) Now, even Foucault did not think that resistance is impossible; only that it is normally too diffuse to have any impact on his extremely wide definition of power relations. We can follow that diffusion of resistance, only too easily. Much gossip, even when malign about the powerful, is complicit in their power (I am now talking about ordinary-language power again, not Foucauldian power). People moan; they do not act. They content themselves with undermining reputation, not dominance. Even sugar in the petrol tank and other small-scale resistances of the weak (as described, for example, in another influential book by James Scott, Weapons of the Weak, about Malaysia)(25) are in a certain sense acts of complicity: they are violences, usually secret, against a bad landlord or employer, not against landlords as a class, which in actuality they are legitimizing in an ideal way, just by singling out the bad ones. These acts thus to an extent respect the hegemony of local dominators, in the very moment of resistance.(26)

But gossip can crystallize resistance too, as long as it is not dissipated. Indeed, successful resistance is always spoken before it is enacted. The `common sense’ changes. In any society where power is not simply established by patrols of armed men, that power’s successful reproduction depends on at least a minimum of consent. Even though people tend to gossip against reputation, not dominance, in the end one will affect the other: people whose reputations have really gone will find it hard to dominate. In my Icelandic examples, Hrutr and Snorri dominated not only because they had reputations for being both ruthless and successful, but also because they had reputations for fair dealing inside limits. Had they not had the latter, then the gossip network would have built up against them, and flicked over, and, in the end, someone would have called them out, and got away with it, with wide support: there are many narratives about just such events. University leaders know — or should know — this too; if they do not know it, or forget it, they will start losing and — admittedly rarely — can even be brought down. People can construct alternative transcripts of power by talking about them. Gossip ceases to be complicit, and becomes subversive. As it does so, it becomes tighter and more opaque to outsiders, and all the more dangerous for that. Consent falls away. To make the point, let us return to my main medieval example, the Florentine countryside around 1200.

Passignano, the Chianti monastery we saw apparently winning with little difficulty against Compagno in 1138 with the help of his own kinsmen, fell out with a number of its immediate aristocratic neighbours in the 1190s, and also stretched its resources considerably in a long dispute over ecclesiastical rights with a church on the Arno, twenty kilometres to its east. That is to say, it lost money fast, and also its backing from the local aristocracy. It is interesting, then, that it is precisely in these years that the monastery also had trouble with one of its most local dependants, a small-scale rural moneylender called Borgnolino. We have an arbitration between the two from around 1195, in which it is striking how many things Borgnolino did to the monastery and its land and men: he cut down trees, stole oxen, occupied monastic land (claiming that it was for unpaid loans), burnt down houses, and more. Now, actually, the monastery did much of this back to Borgnolino too, but this is not really surprising, for it was a large medieval landowner with armed men. Borgnolino, however, was not particularly important at all — he was not even a knight. The most significant thing, though, is that the local men who helped arbitrate, who included the monastery’s most reliable local managers, recognized Borgnolino’s rights as often as they supported Passignano’s. Passignano was not, any more — at least briefly — sufficiently hegemonic, even in its own village, to be able to ride over the claims of a small neighbour. Consent had fallen away: such claims therefore had to be taken seriously.(27) Things could go further, too. The bishop of Florence, in the same decades, was trying to consolidate his local judicial and tenurial rights over his own villages, in order to survive and prosper in a more commercial world by demanding produce that he could sell in the city. But this was precisely a period when the city of Florence was putting its own hand on judicial rights in the countryside, and the bishop was no longer fully recognized by his dependants as a lord. Resistance grew, first individually, and then, by the 1220s, collectively: whole villages were refusing judicial taxes, the recognition of episcopal local officials and oaths of loyalty. Faced with new demands, and in a less domineering political climate, consent to the bishop’s power suddenly slipped, and he was faced with near-open revolt in all his major rural centres at once.(28) How the talking went which underpinned this slippage of consent, among the dependants either of Passignano or of the bishop of Florence, we have no way of knowing. But in each case a major local lord suddenly found that his control of his peasants, which had unwillingly or willingly been accepted for centuries, was no longer as obvious as it had been before. The context was indeed a common medieval one, a moment of external difficulty which weakened lordly hegemony, brought to crisis by a piece of local domineering: this domineering suddenly did not work any more. The gossip had evidently flicked over from (complicit) complaint to (subversive) action, and trouble ensued, which was hard to contain. And this in an environment where there actually were armed men holding up traditional power. Consent mattered there, too.

Peasants did not and do not, of course, resist all the time. They would, indeed, have been hard to police if they did: even the most violent lord would find the subjugation of all his peasants at once a difficult task. More than the cliche of armed dominance implies, lords sought to establish complicity, at least in the parts of southern Europe I know best, with the build-up of clienteles of loyalty and reward stretching far down into the ranks of cultivators, which can be documented, one way or another, from the ninth to the thirteenth centuries, and beyond. What peasants actually thought about this is hard to say in all periods. Pierre Toubert, in his classic, 1,500-page book on the economy and society of Lazio, the lands around Rome, from 900 to 1200, has one sentence on peasant attitudes, commenting on the single document, out of tens of thousands, in which his peasants said anything about lordship. What they said was seniores tollunt omnia, `lords take everything’.(29) He is tempted to minimize it, in fact. I would not; I would say that the hidden transcript here speaks. But it is at least true that Toubert’s peasants did not try to do anything about it. Somehow, they were, despite themselves, caught in the complicity.

One further point: it is interesting that, although the main enemies and exploiters of peasants in all periods were landlords, when we hear peasants speak, they almost always speak about the state, or its then equivalents. We can trace a steady worsening of the strategic relationship between peasants and lords, and a steady intensification of exploitation, across the whole period 700-1300, in nearly the whole of Europe. These centuries are not actually a good time for anyone to speak, at least to us, for documents are too few, but full-scale or even small-scale revolts are extremely rare — their aficionados, which certainly include me, have to go looking for them quite carefully to find them at all. The great revolts begin in the fourteenth century and are directed, not — or not only — against landlords, but also against public power in general. The Peasants’ Revolt in eastern England in 1381 was, genuinely, quite as much against the poll tax as against individual landlords and, even in the latter context, it seems to have been directed against landlordship, rather than the particular landlords of particular tenants. There were small-scale attacks on individual landlords, but the big movement was against the political system around the king. This is a standard feature of late medieval and modern peasants’ revolts; indeed, one could say that the absence of such revolts earlier has a lot to do with the weakness and lack of intrusion of medieval states before 1300.(30) But it is also the case that uprisings, whatever their real objects, were generally commemorated by subsequent peasantries as being against the state. Talking about uprisings, for the peasant groups that did so, was most meaningful when it was presumed that the uprising was against bad government (the king’s wicked advisors), especially taxation and army service. Wicked lords were more likely to be forgotten. I would guess that this has something to do with the dialectic between complicity and resistance. Local lords, however oppressive, were at least local: it was usually recognized, so to speak, that all the land around did belong to the marquis of Carabas — not always, but usually — until full-scale land reform came in as an ideal with the socialist movements of the twentieth century. It was easier for talking to be complicit with landlords. The state, however, was far off, and only impinged as an external, intermittent, coercive force, taking things from peasants uncontrollably — hence, for instance, the importance of trust imagery in the few apparently peasant texts for the 1381 revolt.(31) Peasant identification with the state tended to be with the person of the idealized trustworthy ruler, often figures of the past like Richard I of England or Louis IX of France or Sebastian of Portugal, little else. Talking, here, could move towards resistance much faster; the hegemony of the state was never complete in the countryside. Even real resistance against a bad lord could thus be remembered by later generations as resistance against the state. We could say that peasants knew that it was more meaningful to talk about resisting tax collectors and army recruiters than to talk about resisting local lords. We could then repeat, if we wanted, that this was still an error: peasants’ real enemies were their lords, whether good or bad. But we would have to recognize that this is not what they saw, or what they talked about. Talking, gossip, led them to resist a different target, and leads us to find out which.


Historians (and other social theorists) have, as argued above, often been excessively uneasy about anything that can be categorized as gossip. The recently increased interest in how narrative strategies work in the telling of stories of all kinds at least give us some of the tools necessary to unpick gossip and assess its role in the depiction of a wide array of realities. The differing subject-matter of the gossiping of different social groups, the different ways the stories are told, the different moral spin attached in different groups to stories of the same type, are direct sources for, possibly indeed the best guides to, how each social group works. The analysis of gossip as a social practice and as a set of narrative strategies allows us in particular to operate in the world of microhistory with rather greater confidence than we might otherwise have managed: it contributes to what Clifford Geertz calls the `thick description’ of social practices, which is what, among other things, constitutes for many people (including myself) Montaillou’s greatest strength.(32) Even through the distorting medium of the interrogation of medieval witnesses, we can get somewhere towards this, and there is still plenty of scope for it.

The underlying principle behind such procedures needs always to be the recognition that gossip is about groups. People rarely talk to the wall; they talk to other people, and what they say depends on who those other people are: which group they belong to. Gossip articulates and bounds identity, group memory and legitimate group social practice (Bourdieu’s habitus again). It represents the re-creation of the structures of that group, and of society in general, at the level of consciousness. This must mean, indeed, that it represents the construction of social structures themselves, for, unless people are aware of social structures, in however mediated a way, they do not happen.(33) One could easily map the different sorts of lies Sardinians told me pretty closely onto different village social structures, mountain and pastoral versus plains and agricultural, lots of landowners versus few, and so on; the lies, and the hidden transcripts they are guides to, are ways into how these structures are seen, and therefore how they work. Analysing gossip is harder in the Middle Ages, where Montaillou’s are few, but it is none the less worth looking for: particularly in court records, but also, of course, in the case of more elite social groups, in narratives of contemporary events as well.

A final point: it is certainly not strictly necessary to defend `History’ as a form of knowledge in an essay of this type; but it is worth commenting on the issue, for the analysis of narratives, discourses, is also regarded now by many people as something that forces us to recognize that we cannot get past texts, words, to the `real’ thing that they signify;(34) and this would be above all true in the past, which is only formed by texts and their material and visual equivalents, such as hand-axes and icons. I am not going to try to defend history from this recognition; I have tried to get around Jacques Derrida myself, and I do not think that I can. But I also do not think the issue is crucial, for one practical reason, which is the way gossip itself works.

We all construct every corner of each of our own personal social worlds through texts: books, newspapers, television programmes, but above all, the oral narratives that constitute gossip. Gossip stories are, as texts, no more permeable than any piece of writing. Yet we all deal with them, as guides to social reality and its meaning. We learn to deal with them, from childhood, the learning itself being part of our social practice: how to believe, disbelieve, test, second-guess (`how does he know?’, `why is she telling me this?’). We cannot cope with society at all without this practical knowledge, whether we actually think we are gossiping or not. We can criticize gossip, and we can certainly disdain it, but, if we do not deal in it at all, we cannot deal with other people. So, in practice, none of us can do other than try, effortfully, to go beyond texts and use them as clues to how to negotiate the perplexities of the social world.(35) The analysis of gossip and the practice of the historian at this point fuse into one, with the defence of history simply becoming, `this is something we all do, all the time, provisionally’. All human relationships are, in fact, mediated by spoken or written or material representations, whether our own or those of Compagno in the twelfth-century Chianti and his rich opponents, and we all know it without feeling much existential doubt. The historical project itself, as we analyse Compagno, is one of these relationships.

(*) This article is a revised version of my 1994 inaugural lecture at the University of Birmingham, published in pamphlet form by the University under the same title in 1995. To create an article from a lecture I have smoothed out the signs of orality a little, and sharply cut back on more strictly local allusions, as well as introducing some new material. I am very grateful to Leslie Brubaker for her critique of the text, to her and to James Fentress for some of its underlying ideas, to Peter Burke for his invitation to try out part of it in Cambridge, to my departmental colleagues past and present, and to all the good gossipers I have known for their intellectual stimulus.

(1) The text is in the Archivio di Stato di Firenze, rondo diplomatico, Passignano, sec. XII, no. 6 [n.d.]; R. Davidsohn, Storia di Firenze, 8 vols. (Florence, 1956), i, 616-17, dates it to 1138, though Compagno’s evidence might, if read strictly, put it to 1137. The arbiter, Inghilberto, was still active in the 1170s: Archivio di Stato di Firenze, Cestello, 30 dic. 1172.

(2) For local knowledge, see, for example, Clifford Geertz, Local Knowledge (New York, 1983), 167-234; for knowledge as a context for understanding events, see Paul Strohm, Hochon’s Arrow: The Social Imagination of Fourteenth-Century Texts (Princeton, 1992), 14, 51-6, for fourteenth-century examples.

(3) For methodological guides, see J. C. Byock, `Saga Form, Oral Prehistory and the Icelandic Social Context’, New Literary Hist., xvi (1984-5); W. I. Miller, Bloodtaking and Peacemaking (Chicago, 1990), 43-51.

(4) Brennu-Njals Saga, ed. E. (5. Sveinsson (islenzk fornrit, xii, Reykjavik, 1954), cc. 6-8; my translations are from Njal’s Saga, ed. M. Magnusson and H. Palsson (London, 1960), 55, 130.

(5) Eyrbyggja Saga, ed. E. (5. Sveinsson and M. Thordarson (Islenzk fornrit, iv, Reykjavik, 1935), cc. 37-8; translation from Eyrbyggja Saga, ed. H. Palsson and P. Edwards (London, 1989), 98.

(6) Emmanuel Le Roy Ladurie, Montaillou: village occitan de 1294 d 1324 (Paris, 1975). Two good critiques are L. E. Boyle, `Montaillou Revisited’, in J. A. Raftis (ed.), Pathways to Medieval Peasants (Toronto, 1981); Natalie Zemon Davis, `Les Conteurs de Montaillou’, Annales ESC, xxxiv (1979).

(7) Le Roy Ladurie, Montaillou, 93.

(8) Max Gluckman, `Gossip and Scandal’, Current Anthropology, iv (1963); R. Paine, `What Is Gossip About? An Alternative Hypothesis’, Man, new ser., ii (1967), and several subsequent articles in Man constitute the original anthropological debate; the anthropological literature is ably summed up in Sally E. Merry, ‘Rethinking Gossip and Scandal’, in D. Black (ed.), Toward a General Theory of Social Control, 2 vols. (New York, 1984), i. Of subsequent work, I would single out, as texts I personally have found particularly useful, Patricia Meyer Spacks, Gossip (New York, 1985); Jurg R. Bergmann, Discreet Indiscretions: The Social Organization of Gossip (New York, 1993), the moralistic analysis I mention in the text; Melanie Tebbutt, Women’s Talk? A Social History of `Gossip’ in Working-Class Neighbourhoods, 1880-1960 (Aldershot, 1995), an excellent analysis of how gossip constructed a working-class social world in the last century or so, based largely on oral history; and the thought-provoking (although, once again, overly moralistic) commentary in John Sabini and Maury Silver, Moralities of Everyday Life (Oxford, 1982), 89-106. Most recently, Robert Lewis kindly recommended to me Samuel C. Heilman, Synagogue Life (Chicago, 1973), whose excellent chapter on gossip (151-92) parallels many of the points I make in my text. I gained much, too, from J. Shapiro, `The Role of Gossip in Everyday Life’, an unpublished 1994 senior seminar paper for Wheaton College, Mass., which the author generously let me cite. F. G. Bailey’s categories are in F. G. Bailey (ed.), Gifts and Poison: The Politics of Reputation (Oxford, 1971), 284-90. Apart from Tebbutt, one of the few historians’ analyses of gossip is Steve Hindle, `The Shaming of Margaret Knowsley’, Continuity and Change, ix (1994); see now also Phillip R. Schofield, `Peasants and the Manor Court: Gossip and Litigation in a Suffolk Village at the Close of the Thirteenth Century’, Past and Present, no. 159 (May 1998). It should be noted that not only Heilman but also Paine and Bergmann (esp. 149-53) recognize the transactional nature of gossip.

(9) Deborah Tannen, You Just Don’t Understand: Women and Men in Conversation (New York, 1990); see further Jennifer Coates, `Gossip Revisited: Language in All Female Groups’, in Jennifer Coates and Deborah Cameron (eds.), Women in their Speech Communities: New Perspectives on Language and Sex (London, 1988), building on the tentative comments in D. Jones, `Gossip: Notes on Women’s Oral Culture’, Women’s Studies Internat. Quart., iii (1980). The last two references I owe to Sue Blackwell. See further below, 15-16.

(10) Paine, `What Is Gossip About?’

(11) James Fentress and Chris Wickham, Social Memory (Oxford, 1992); see further Elizabeth Tonkin, Narrating our Pasts: The Social Construction of Oral History (Cambridge, 1991). This essentially functionalist point was made explicit for gossip by Gluckman, `Gossip and Scandal’.

(12) Merry, `Rethinking Gossip and Scandal’, 278-9. For Samoa, Margaret Mead, Coming of Age in Samoa (London, 1928); but see Derek Freeman, Margaret Mead and Samoa (London, 1983), 226-53, 281-93. Opinion is still divided on how authentic Mead’s version was. I am grateful to Donna Kerner for her help on this issue.

(13) The classic here is Peter L. Berger and Thomas Luckmann, The Social Construction of Reality: A Treatise in the Sociology of Knowledge (London, 1967).

(14) Pierre Bourdieu, The Logic of Practice, trans. Richard Nice (Cambridge, 1990), 52-65, for one of the most recent of his formulations of the concept.

(15) Philippe Joutard, La Legende des Camisards: une sensibilite au passe (Paris, 1977), 279-356.

(16) Gene Brucker, Giovanni and Lusanna: Love and Marriage in Renaissance Florence (Berkeley, 1986), 22, for the Rignano episode; cf. Thomas Kuehn, `Reading Microhistory’, Jl Mod. Hist., lxi (1989), for an interesting critique.

(17) M. Pitzalis Acciaro, In nome della madre (Milan, 1978), esp. 86-100; there are some parallels to this in J. Favret-Saada, Deadly Words (Cambridge, 1980), 39-64.

(18) James C. Scott, Domination and the Arts of Resistance: Hidden Transcripts (New Haven, 1990); on the image of disorder in the context of the Peasants’ Revolt in England in 1381, see Steven Justice, Writing and Rebellion: England in 1381 (London, 1994), 3-6, 59, 180-8.

(19) For example, in Marina Warner, From the Beast to the Blonde (London, 1994), 29-43; Spacks, Gossip, makes some similar points. Tebbutt, Women’s Talk?, is the best guide to the social environment of female gossip known to me; she fends off too gendered a reading of the gossip process, while insisting on gendered social contexts for gossip, at 10-16, 30 ff., 49, 176-82.

(20) A good example is P. Guidi and O. Parenti, Regesto del Capitolo di Lucca, 3 vols. (Rome, 1912), ii, n. 1384, a set of testimonies about a private church near Lucca dating from 1177-8, in which most of the witnesses seem systematically to have forgotten the major part played in church politics by the present patron’s mother a couple of decades earlier — only her son recalls it in court. I will discuss the case in more detail elsewhere.

(21) Gluckman, `Gossip and Scandal’, 309.

(22) Walter Ong, Orality and Literacy (London, 1982); Jack Goody, The Interface between the Written and the Oral (Cambridge, 1987), are perhaps, respectively, the classic and the most subtle account; David R. Olson, The World on Paper: Two Conceptual and Cognitive Implications of Reading and Writing (Cambridge, 1994), a reference I owe to Michael Clanchy, sums up more recent work. A neat critique is Mayke de Jong, `Geletterd en ongeletterd’, in R. E. V. Stuip and C. Vellekoop, Oraliteit en schriftcultuur (Hilversum, 1993).

(23) I feel I should stress that this is a point about the genre of faculty minutes, not in any sense a criticism of any minute-taker. Actually, as this text was in proof, the Faculty of Arts was reorganized away as a level in the institutional hierarchy at Birmingham. One could propose that the institutional level on which coffee-lounge gossip focuses in the future will be that where real local power relations take place, regardless of the university’s constitutional theory.

(24) As set out for instance in Michel Foucault, History of Sexuality, trans. Robert Hurley, 3 vols. (London, 1979), i, 92-7.

(25) James C. Scott, Weapons of the Weak (New Haven, 1985).

(26) Ibid., 241-350; the classic discussion of hegemony is in Antonio Gramsci, Quaderni del carcere, ed. V. Gerratana (Turin, 1975), virtually passim, but Scott develops the theory considerably, including when he seeks to undermine it. His work, here and in Domination and the Arts of Resistance, is relevant for the next several pages.

(27) Archivo di Stato di Firenze, Passignano, 1193 (three texts); 12. n. 31. For some background, see J. Plesner, L’emigrazione dalla campagna alia citta libera di Firenze nel XHI secolo (Florence, 1979), 98-9, 135-6; for the ecclesiastical dispute, see Chris Wickham, `Ecclesiastical Conflict and Lay Community: Figline Valdarno in the Twelfth Century’, Melanges de l’Ecole francaise de Rome: Moyen Age, cviii (1996).

(28) G. W. Dameron, Episcopal Power and Florentine Society, 1000-1320 (Cambridge, Mass., 1991), 93-140.

(29) Pierre Toubert, Les Structures du Latium medieval (Rome, 1973), 549.

(30) See, in general, R. H. Hilton, Bond Men Made Free (London, 1975); R. H. Hilton and T. H. Aston (eds.), The English Rising of 1381 (Cambridge, 1984); on earlier revolts, which were certainly against lords when they occurred, see R. Jacob, `Le Meurtre du seigneur dans la societe feodale’, Annales ESC, xlv (1990), a reference I owe to Paul Freedman.

(31) Justice, Writing and Rebellion, 180-8.

(32) Clifford Geertz, The Interpretation of Cultures (New York, 1973), 3-30, 412-53. Classic microhistories are an Italian speciality: Giovanni Levi, L’eredita immateriale (Turin, 1985); Osualdo Raggio, Faide e parentele (Turin, 1990); Angelo Torre, Il consumo di devozioni (Venice, 1995), are three important — and related — examples.

(33) Cf. E. P. Thompson, `The Peculiarities of the English’, in his The Poverty of Theory: and Other Essays (London, 1978), 85.

(34) Classically, Jacuqes Derrida, Of Grammatology, trans. Gayatri Chakravorty Spivak (Baltimore, 1976), 158-64; before him, Roland Barthes, `The Discourse of History’ (1967), now in E. S. Shaffer (ed.), Comparative Criticism: A Year Book, iii (1981), on historical writing itself as a rhetorical system.

(35) For clues, see Carlo Ginzburg, Miti emblemi spie (Turin, 1986), 158-209. There are instructive analogies to the position argued here in J. H. Hexter, The History Primer (New York, 1971), 122-5, always a stimulating book, although Hexter’s ultimate purposes are somewhat different from mine.

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