Old-wives tales

As my LibraryThing-widget gives away, I am reading Micheal McKeon’s The Secret History of Domesticity. I’m currently enjoying a chapter on the relations between print culture, the private and the public, which contains an intriguing passage by the biographer and antiquary John Aubrey (1626-1697), quoted here as a belated contribution to Women’s History Month.

At the close of the seventeenth century, John Aubrey nostalgically remembered his childhood, when his nurse and the maids told stories by the fireside. Looking back, he describes these tales of female sociability as “Romantique stories,” “old-wives tales” and stories of Robin Goodfellow and fairies. Critics have analyzed such nostalgic descriptions of childhood in the context of humanist education, which disapproved of these romantic, effeminate tales. Mary Ellen Lamb writes:

Nostalgia for this childhood period of effeminacy and its pleasures, including its narrative pleasures, could not be easily reconciled with a self built upon the rejection of the feminine and the corporeal [in humanist education]. Humanist sentiment suggests that the highly intellectual form of masculinity achieved through the translation of classical texts within this literate culture did not easily accomodate the oral tradition of tales circulated among women at a winter’s fire. [1]

What struck me about the quotation from Aubrey in The Secret History of Domesticity is that the passage does not explicitly contrast an effeminate childhood with a masculine life of education, or vernacular oral culture with latinized literacy. It looks back at a time “before woomen were Readers,” thus contrasting the more widespread female literacy of the late seventeenth century with the period before the Civil Wars. And although it does rehearse the associations of fairy tales and gossip, the passage also describes women’s oral traditions in a different light, highlighting women’s roles in the young boy’s education in history — stories of English history from 1066 to Charles the First were handed down from mother to daughter:

The fashion when I was a boy (before the Civil warres) for the maydes to sitt-up late by the fire [to] tell old Romantique stories of the old time, handed downe to them with a great deal of alteration. [My nurse, Kath. Bushell of Ford, was excellent at these old stories.] … In the old ignorant times, before woomen were Readers, the history was handed downe from Mother to daughter, &c. … So my Nurse had the History from the Conquest down to Carl. I. in Ballad. … Before Printing, Old-wives Tales were ingeniose: and since Printing came into fashion, till a little before the Civil-warres, the ordinary sort of People were not taught to reade: now-a-dayes Bookes are common, and most of the poor people understand letters: and the many good Bookes, and variety of Turnes and Affaires, have put all the old Fables out of dores: and the divine art of Printing and Gunpowder have frighted away the Robin-good-fellow and the Fayries.

[1]Mary Ellen Lamb, Engendering the Narrative Act: Old Wives’ Tales in The Winter’s Tale, Macbeth, and The Tempest, in Criticism (1998).


2 thoughts on “Old-wives tales

  1. I like John Aubrey a lot, for preserving these things – do you know that passage where he gets very indignant about even grown-up children having to stand bare-headed before their parents? The present passage reminds me of Thomas Nashe straying into autobiography in ‘The Terrors of the Night’ –
    “I have heard aged mumping beldams as they sat warming their knees over a coal scratch over the argument very curiously, and they would bid young folks beware on what day they pared their nails, tell what luck everyone should have by the day of the week he was born on; show how many years a man should like by the numbers of wrinkles on his forehead … When I was a little child, I was a great auditor of their, and had all their witchcrafts at my fingers’ ends, as perfect as good-morrow and good-even”. I bet Shakespeare was educated in ‘lore’ in just the same way.

  2. Now I’m curious — what would be the best day best to pare one’s nails, I wonder?

    Thanks for that spooky quotation! Nashe’s passage does indeed resemble the image of women’s stories told on long winter nights in Shakespeare’s The Winter’s Tale. I was surprised to find that Aubrey also remembered women as the keepers of history, which Jean Howard and Phyllis Rackin in their Engendering A Nation signal as a male activity associated with a heroic masculine past – not in the least in Nashe’s own view of 1 Henry VI, if I remember correctly.

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