The Warning Against Idle Gossip
A Medieval Morality
‘Tutivillus, the devil of hell,
He writeth har names, sothe to tell,
Ad missam garulantes.
Better wer be at home for ay
Than her to serve the Devil to pay,
Sic vana famulantes.
Thes women that sitteth the church about,
Thay beth all of the Develis rowte,
Divina impedientes…’ ¹
Tutivillus (or Titivillus), a minor devil, is regularly found in later Medieval literature.² It is his specific job to collect together the syllables ‘dropped’ by inattentive people during Masses and other services in church. No doubt the women (they are all women, I fear) shown in these paintings, preoccupied as they are with secular talk or distracted by secular matters generally, kept Titivillus busy. The point, of course, as this 15th century poem makes clear, is that there will be the Devil to pay at the day of Doom when the gossip’s soul is weighed in the balance against such accumulated minor sins and found wanting.
Small subsidiary devils sometimes appear in Idle Gossip paintings; in the example at Seething one of them is almost certainly Tutivillus. But all the paintings featured and forthcoming here have (sometimes very faintly) a principal devil, quite possibly Satan himself, shown as the main agent of the gossiping and the presumed character assassination it involved.
In small communities, this kind of anti-social behaviour might obviously have very serious consequences indeed, especially where it involved the spreading of calumnies about one’s neighbours. Elizabeth Abney and her husband were put in the pillory and banished from York in August, 1536 after being convicted of setting up ‘slanderous bills’ against their fellow-citizens. Elizabeth was said to be unparalleled for ‘evyll wylle and malyce’.³
¹ From a 15th century Anonymous poem in the Bodleian Library, MSt Douce 104 (21678), f.112b. Quoted here from RT Davies, Medieval English Lyrics, p.198, Poem 103, Faber, 1966
²He also appears in the 15th century play Mankind, written in the dialect of the East Midlands common to many of the areas where Idle Gossip paintings are found. In Mankind his task is the rather more subtle one of bringing humanity in general to perdition by means of lies and false rumour.
³York Civic Records, ed. Angelo Raine, Vol.IV, pp.9-12, Yorkshire Archaeological Society, 1945.