Thursday, 26 November 2015

Gossip and the Fabrication of Reputation

'Thou art a whore and an arrant whore'

Gossip, whispers, muttering, celebrity tittle matter what the century, the 'la la la I daren't tell but I will' remains the bedrock of human communications. There is necessarily a feminist angle to all this mainly because women seem to bear the brunt of the gossip, as well as being seen as the clucking, busybody types pouring over the latest antics of the rich and famous. Academics can argue the toss over gender politics and the meaning behind historic relevance of women's conversations, but there was something deeply troubling about the reported slander from the 1600s which we heard recited in this lecture. Women can be truly hurtful and vicious.
Social media has allowed a glimpse into an accelerated microcosm, where the usual laws of time and space don't seem to apply. Snarky Twitter spats between high profile female politicians, competitive Facebook bitchiness and blocking seem to now supplement real life muttered door step exchanges and curtain twitching. And when it breaks out into noisy name calling and hair pulling, then friendships, cliques and communities can be really put to the test.

'You old bawd!'
This is why I was fascinated by the excellent lecture/performance 'Gossip & the fabrication of reputation' which took place in the magnificent surroundings of the King's College London chapel in their main building on the Strand. The subtitle of 'gossip, song, and street slander in the pre-modern period' promised a level of animation and sound effects that you might not normally get in a normal lecture (no PowerPoint here). We were not to be disappointed. The collaboration between the history, language, drama and music departments produced a really clever and insightful look into the world of the troubadour, private soirees and publicly recorded slanders immortalised by our legal system.

I don't think there is a period of history where reputation wasn't all. But in a pre-print era when news and information was limited in reach, your reputation lay in the mouths of others. Troubadours were hugely popular and would not only bring entertainment to your village or town, but they would also bring the latest news and gossip from the courts around the known world. And they would sing songs which contain scurrilous lyrics, possibly supported by music which was used for ecclesiastical rites or, at least, melodies which were well known.

'Though varlet!'
This immediately brought to mind the ecstatic verse in the Carmina Burana; 'Were all the world mine from the sea to the Rhine, I would starve myself of it so that the queen of England might lie in my arms'. A number of scandalous lyrics mentioned during this evening concerned the antics of Eleanor of Aquitaine in Antioch and news from this distant region travelled relatively fast. For instance it is suggested that Marcabru had Eleanor's conduct in mind in his 'Cortesamen vuoill comenar'. There is a lot going on in his song lyrics, and put side by side with Jaufre Rudel's 'Quan lo rius de la fontana', it has been suggested that Marcabru is mimicking and mocking Rudel's love poetry.
It was stated that in the books recording the lyrics of the songs mentioned above, these satirical worldly pieces sat side by side with the courtly songs about hopeless and distant love, and courtly commonplaces. But it was the later more musically sophisticated songs that really seemed to strike that odd balance which gossip seems to require; it has to be clever, ambiguous, and ultimately inclusive. If you are not in on the joke, then the joke is on you.   

The incredibly sophisticated anonymous motet, which was performed beautifully by members of the KCL music department was described as a sonic Trojan horse. Although on first listening 'La pire roe du char' (13th century) is verbal confusion, a stand off where no one knows what is going on. Each voice presents a different viewpoint, all happening simultaneously. From the courtly and moral, to the middle voices undermining all of the courtesy and longing. The most interesting part is the female voice - she voices her discontent about her erstwhile lover's performance. Music becomes a safe passage for the voice of reality. To return to an example of modern cacophony, essentially this clever gossipy confusion with the multitude of voices, feels just like Twitter!

The two later confections, Pierre Certon's 'La la la I daren't tell but I will' (c.1552) and Pierre Passereau's 'Il est bel et bon' (c.1534). 'I daren't tell' suggests a feigned reluctance to the sharing of luscious gossip, there is an intimacy and complicity between the relator of the story and the listener. It is a straightforward tale of an unfaithful wife and her cuckold husband with the voice of the gossip throughout. The second one is more a narrative, where the good wives are taking it easy and chatting amongst themselves. This gives a distancing effect to the listener and we are not implicated in gossip, merely eavesdropping.

'She is a base queen!'

These, it was suggested were written for a courtly audience of elite males, where they would also take part in the performance - a very private affair. There is quite a crude, cruel aspect to this, knowing that the gossip of the lower class was entertainment to the elite men. However, although the content and female chatter is of 'low register', the music and effect is sophisticated. Sexual politics also emerges if the clucking of the chickens is related to the king's mistress. Petite coquette little female cocks... Whilst women of the court were challenging hierarchy, the mocking music of the men turned them into chickens.

Finally, as I suggested at the beginning the slander stories of Tudor and Stuart London were particularly harsh amongst the city's ladies. Insubstantial talk was recorded by clerks of the court when claims for slander were brought. In a world where your word and reputation was all - the basis of marriage business - you were judged by what was said about you. The words of people were remembered and clearly women were as supportive as ever when it came to naming and shaming. And when the gossip turned nasty, slandering rich was a risky business.

'Thou art a filthy ridden bitch!'

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