Our Grand-Opening Post: Medieval Scolding and Bethenny Frankel

Our Grand-Opening Post: Medieval Scolding and Bethenny Frankel

There are many positives that come with life in the modern age: penicillin, air conditioning, and the ability to call someone a whore without facing legal prosecution. People who lived in the late medieval and early modern eras were not so lucky. Starting in the mid‐fourteenth century, courts liberally prosecuted smack talk under the charge of “scolding”. Like many legal charges at the time, scolding was vaguely defined and so could be widely applied. For the most part, it was a charge levied against people who said something that created a ruckus. Even though this applied to a lot of things, convicted scolds generally followed a tacit script, calling men “thieves” or women “whores”. This was a way to hit people where it hurt ‐ men and women were nothing if they were not honest in business and in bed, respectively.

Scolding was easier to prosecute when it was heard by a lot of people. Convictions increased in the spring and summer, when people were outside taking walks, picking wildflowers, picnicking, and bitching about each other. If we had this charge today, we might see an uptick in the fall and winter months when the Good Lord graces us with new seasons of reality TV shows. Mutatis mutandis, during one 60‐second clip of the Real Housewives of New York, Bethenny Frankel incurred, by my calculations, 13 counts of scolding.* Keep in mind, this 60 seconds includes heads up interviews with other people and so I think we should all take a quick minute to recognize Frankel for the champ she is. She’s like Joey Chestnut, but instead of hotdogs going in, it’s slander coming out.

And like Chestnut, Frankel has been able to monetize her oral triumphs to a magnitude that is as impressive as it is baffling. But she’s not as badass as she thinks. Back in the day, courts aggressively went after women (way more than men) for scolding. Once charged with the crime, women could be fined; tied to a chair and repeatedly dunked in water; or bound, capped with an incredibly painful helmet‐like device called a scold’s bridle, and paraded around town to be mocked and abused by the public. If you were a lady who wanted to call another lady a whore, you really had to want it. So while RHONY co‐star Dorinda Medley says that Frankel is “truly like a sniper” when it comes to shit talk, Frankel looks like a kitten next to her foul‐mouthed foremothers.

For more information, see Sandy Bardsley, Venomous Tongues: Speech and Gender in Late Medieval England (Pennsylvania: University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006) and Lynda E. Boose, “Scolding Brides and Bridling Scolds: Taming the Woman's Unruly Member,” Shakespeare Quarterly 42:2 (Summer, 1991): 179‐213.

* “Berkshires county,” Season 8, Episode 9, aired June 6, 2016, 3:15‐4:15.

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