The Slander Trials of Jane James: A New Model of Female Agency in Seventeenth-Century Massachusetts

T.K. Holliday

Abstract


Historians have debated the usefulness of investigating slander, given its status as an anomalous form of speech. From a scholarly perspective, slanderous speech is often considered atypical, unusual, and thus uninformative. However, slander was a routine occurrence in Puritan New England, and the “anomalous language” of slander trials in seventeenth-century Massachusetts provides a unique glimpse into the daily workings of Puritan life. This research focuses on slander trials involving Jane James (c. 1600-1669), investigating the language of her trials as well as the details of her life and the lives of her opponents. By attempting to reconstruct centuries-old interpersonal conflicts, this research will reveal a single iteration of the (re)figuring of gender roles in Puritan New England. Puritan gender roles were certainly rigid in theory, and often in fact. However, as the case of Jane James illustrates, slanderous speech and slander trials simultaneously reinforce and occasionally challenge the prevailing Puritan gender ideology, presenting a new model of female agency in Puritan New England.

Slander trials in seventeenth-century Massachusetts are best understood as interpersonal dramas laden with concerns about body, property, and power. Such issues were almost always highly gendered; slanderers generally reserved epithets alleging fiscal irresponsibility for male victims, while women were often accused of sexual immoderacy. Nevertheless, lurking behind the slander of women was the specter of witchcraft. Slander trials concerning witchcraft constitute a reversal of the stereotypical form of witchcraft allegations. In casting the woman as a plaintiff, rather than as a victim, such slander trials allow for a revised understanding of the power dynamics of Puritan gender roles and gender ideology.

Methodologically speaking, the study of Puritan slander trials is best approached interdisciplinarily. An application of feminist post-structural discourse analysis, in conjunction with social historical methodology, will help piece together a thorough understanding of the life of Jane James and what her life reveals about Puritan conceptions of womanhood and its relation to body, property, and power. Furthermore, a feminist linguistic analysis of slanderous speech reveals otherwise hidden layers of gendered meaning within defamatory language. For instance, to understand the implications of Jane James’s anomalous legal status as a widow during the last of her trials requires both a deep understanding of the social category of widowhood in Puritan New England, as well as the performative discourses available to Puritan widows. In essence, the slander trials of Jane James allow for a revised understanding of female agency in Puritan New England, one in which the alleged witch achieves a position of legitimate legal power.


Keywords


Slander; Puritans; Witchcraft

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