Speaking to Reveal: The Body and Acts of 'Exposure' in Early Modern Popular Discourse
Speaking to reveal, using words to expose what was previously hidden, bringing to light what had been secluded were central preoccupations in the popular discourse of early modern England. For complex reasons of a social, political and religious nature, women and men in the later sixteenth century were increasingly compelled to use the spoken word in social commentaries which would disclose to wider communities the intimacies of the body, dimensions of sexuality and ultimately the inner qualities of morality and spirituality. This chapter explores the significance of the spoken word in relation to the body and its visual appearance within patterns of social interaction and discursive practice. It attends to the social and cultural ramifications of speeches, as perceived in a society where the work of the tongue could serve the purposes of both God and the Devil; where word of mouth could operate as a marker of social inclusion or radical exclusion; where speech could work magic, inflict physical damage, or help in healing. Here the focus is on popular conceptions of the spoken word as expressed by middling and lower social groups, not as an exclusively auditory medium, but rather as a form which was seen to possess visual and perhaps material dimensions. The embodied act of speaking and the perceived effect of words often operated to re-shape social and physical appearances in the eyes of particular communities. Verbal dynamics were important in the production of early modern visual and material cultures, including those associated with the body and its social manifestations. The spoken word could be seen to situate, define and expose the body as a site at which social status and morality, together with a wide range of social and spiritual transgressions, were displayed. Early modern popular perceptions and uses of the spoken word could render this form both visually operative and materially significant. Thus, when analysing material cultures of clothing and, more broadly, the social and cultural appearance of the body, we need to address the varied relationships
visual images and material objects were interrelated in social practice and this verbal/visual nexus crucially affected the apprehension of bodily surface, shape and form.1 This chapter proceeds by examining aspects of embodied speaking, the effects of words in rendering the body visible and the dynamics of speech and visual image in bodily exposure, transformation and regulation. The gendered dimensions of these processes were complex in that perceptions of the bodies of both women and men were implicated in popular discursive action, but it was the female body that was to be most visibly aligned with grotesque physicality.