Silence and the Human Animal

By Dr. Miranda Garno Nesler

In 2008, I wrote a post titled “Silence and the Scold’s Bridle.”  As a graduate student in the throes of dissertating, I had become enthralled by both the ideological and material methods through which early modern culture sought to silence women—and from this interest emerged both my dissertation, and my current book manuscript on women’s disruptive use of silence in drama. 

But it’s no longer 2008.  And in addition to finalizing Disruptive Compliance: Silent Women in Stuart Drama, I’ve also begun realizing that new projects are possible and will likely tackle similar questions from different angles.  Returning to these images in 2012, I’m struck that implements such as the scold’s bridle not only seek violently to silence women—an attempt which highlights their dangerous expressive power—but that these tools also attempt to dehumanize women.  Such dehumanization not only emerges out of the bodily control that bridles offered to oppressive husbands and fathers, who guided women’s movements with the use of the bit.  It also results from the sheer act of silencing itself.  As Erica Fudge has pointed out in her recent work, the early modern legal system struggled to define humanness as either based in an individual’s physical appearance or in his ability to produce rational discourse.  Given that Galenic theory and the single-sex model positioned women’s bodies as imperfect and incomplete—their penises tucked inside a result of improperly cool consummation—the former definition barred women’s fully human status.  Yet cases of male birth defects or congenital hypertrichosis problematized physical judgments of humanness and promoted discourse as the measure.  Herein lay the problem: unless you silenced women and prevented them from practicing discourse, they too could gain legal human status that would overturn laws of coverture and male-primogeniture.  Materials like the scold’s bridle, then, treated women’s bodies like animal bodies and created a circular justification.  For, regardless of whether the women had the capacity for rational discourse, their inability to recognizably “produce” it in speech foreclosed recognition of them as humans.  And a man’s ability to prevent such production proved his mastery.  Or did it?  After all, if a woman was in any form a beast, and a man in any way sexually engaged her, then he committed bestiality.  His morality and his heirs’ humanity were at risk.


This blog has and will continue to explore issues like this one, raising questions about how early modern culture defined animals and humans, how it valued speech and language, and what logical tangles emerged.  Even more than that, it also pushes readers and encourages contributors to contemplate the persistence of these logical infelicities, these slippery vocabularies, in the periods following the “Renaissance”—even in our own time.

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Dr. Miranda Garno Nesler is an assistant professor of English at Ball State University and is the editor and founder of “Performing Humanity in the Renaissance.”  

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Images:  (1) Ralph Gardiner, England’s Grievance Discovered. London, 1655. (Bodleian Library); (2) W.R. Chambers, “Scold’s Bridle or Brank.” The Book of Days. London, 1870.

Erica Fudge, Perceiving Animals: Humans and Beasts in Early Modern Culture.  Champaign: University of Illinois Press, 2002.
Thomas Lacqueur, Making Sex: Body and Gender from the Greeks to Freud. Cambridge: Harvard University Press, 1992.
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About MGN

Miranda Garno Nesler is a specialist in early material culture, gender, textuality, and animal studies. View all posts by MGN

One response to “Silence and the Human Animal

  • Brodie Waddell

    Another instance of this notion of ‘bridling’ the speech of ‘inferiors’ would be the often repeated notion of a ‘good servant’ being ‘muzzelled’. Servants were meant to listen, not speak. (That said, I don’t think this metaphor was actually physically enacted, unlike the scold’s bridle)

    There is a powerful visual representation of it in a 1682 print: ‘This Age’s Rarity: or, the emblem of a good servant explain’d’. There’s an image of it, and a discussion of the precursors at
    http://www.bpi1700.org.uk/research/printOfTheMonth/march2007.html

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