Presentation and performance of gender and sexuality in early English defamation litigation
Dahlstrom, Chelsea Kay
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Early English Consistory court records contain hundreds of defamation cases in which one party is suing another party for slander or verbal violence. Slander cases varied greatly, but most often held sexual, economic, or criminal implications, thus resulting in the tarnishing of the victim's honor or reputation. Recent scholars have generally agreed that gender is central in studies of honor, reputation, and defamation, but have tended to accept and perpetuate the conventional gender binary as a means to analyze male and female involvement in slander litigation. This perspective has resulted in conclusions about the general continuity of female oppression within English society. In this study, I adopt a different understanding of gender by applying Judith Butler's theory of gender performativity to these legal disputes. Defamers frequently attacked others for acting outside of culturally promoted gender constructions, resulting in a multiplicity of gender identities that expand far beyond the restricted labels of "woman" and "man." My work suggests that when slanderers used terms like "whore", "strumpet", "scold", "gossip", "cuckold", and "bastard", it was part of a larger discourse of determining the social bounds of acceptable gender in early English culture. Furthermore, I demonstrate that these constructions of gender developed through an ongoing synthesis of religious influences, literary culture, and even one's neighborhood residence. In this dynamic, slander and its subsequent litigation offered a public arena in which agents theatrically challenged, negotiated, and reinterpreted popular perception of self and identity.
Table of Contents
Introduction -- Profiles of slander litigation -- Neighborhood, prostitution, and sexual slander -- Literature and the performance of gender -- Conclusion