Paying attention to the words the past uses to describe itself sometimes gives unexpected results. I started this project thinking I would write a book about gossip in Renaissance France: after reading my corpus – actually, after even a cursory glance at sixteenth-century essays on talk – a different term emerged. It was ‘babble’. What we might call gossip was still there, in the texts – called caquet [cackle], or sometimes médisance [slander] – but what seemed to be of greater concern was this other species of talk, babil [babble]. And this made me think about what that might mean for the preoccupations of those sixteenth-century writers who thought it worthwhile to write an essay on the tongue and its dangers. Babble is a kind of unconsidered, almost automatic talk, a compulsion to speak about anything that strips the babbler of the qualities of reason and reflection that are the ideal characteristics of human speech. Babble is demeaning and also somehow dehumanising. It allows the subjectivity of the babbler to be submerged in the flood of words. This sounds like a concern that is rooted in the individual and their own personal identity, but it is an ethical one, too. In the Renaissance, a babbler is a betrayer: of himself and his own secrets, but more dangerously of others. Babble was a political vice. It was the worst thing a courtier could be accused of.
After thinking about Renaissance babble for a while, I was delighted to come across it in Ford Madox Ford’s wonderful books about Katherine Howard and Henry VIII, The Fifth Queen (1906-1908; Penguin, 1999). Magister Nicholas Udal, Lady Mary’s teacher, is ‘a notorious babbler’ who tells ‘many lies’ (p. 80); and Cicely Elliott asks Katherine to look for her husband: ‘in the Lady Mary’s room you will find my old knight babbling with the maidens’ (pp. 117-18). What is remarkable here – and in Renaissance treatises on the subject – is that men are particularly condemned for babbling. This was partly because men’s babble could do more harm since it was more consequential, as an early seventeenth-century pamphlet argued, in a rather double-edged defence of women. But in Ford’s vision of the Tudor court, it is women who guard their tongues and their secrets, and men who let their words blab.
And then I also remembered that my little sister, when she was 5 or 6, had made up a song that (if I were superstitious) I could take as some kind of omen (if omens deigned to pronounce on the subject of academic books): ‘Babble. When you’ve got nothing to say, Just babble.’