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Género e Violência na Península Ibérica (Época Moderna)

Female foul language and foul female agents in pre-modern Portugal

O problema das “mulheres bravas” em Portugal na época moderna
« Mégères » et « femmes querelleuses » dans le Portugal de l’époque moderne
Darlene Abreu-Ferreira
p. 9-32


Neste artigo procura-se compreender melhor o fenómeno da violência verbal e física praticada por mulheres, em Portugal, entre o fim do século XIV e o século XVIII. As fontes municipais de algumas regiões revelam que as autoridades locais eram regularmente confrontadas com problemas causados pelas mulheres “bravas” ou desordeiras, matéria que estava também contemplada na legislação do reino (Ordenações). Em ambos os níveis de governo, o problema da fúria verbal era sempre apresentado como tipicamente feminino. O tema foi igualmente abordado por alguns escritores coevos, homens e das elites, que propuseram as suas soluções misóginas para o suposto problema. O estudo termina com a análise de uma decisão régia solicitada pelo Senado da Câmara de Lisboa, na segunda metade do século XVIII, visando a abolição do denominado Juízo das Bravas.

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Notas do autor

Founding for this study was provided by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada (SSHRC). I am indebted to the chief archivist at the Arquivo Distrital de Évora, Isabel Cid, for bringing to my attention the municipal council record of 1392 that deals with bravas, and to Fernanda Olival, of the Universidade de Évora, for assisting me with some of its transcription. This article is dedicated to the memory of the late Prof. David Higgs of the University of Toronto, a master at scolding in jest.

Texto integral

  • 1 Some works written by Portuguese women from the pre-modern period have survived, but for the most (...)

1Some women in pre-modern Portugal were accused of verbal misconduct, or scolding, and we know this because some men wrote about it, and enacted laws to control it. Men of law and men of letters alike were perturbed by women’s loquaciousness, and took measures to curb the problem. Ideally, it would help to find evidence from the target group, but thus far the only words found about women’s foul words were penned by men. Portugal did not, as far as we know, produce the likes of Laura Cereta, the Italian Renaissance writer who noticed that women were exhorted to be silent as a means to ensure women’s submission to men, and who observed that her female contemporaries – women of great learning – lived “in the shimmering light of silence” (Cereta 1997, 71, 78). It could be argued that the absence of Portuguese women’s voices in this debate is proof that the laws on scolding were effective in silencing women.1 Another possibility is that the problem of female scolds was exaggerated by a few men who had their own axe to grind. Be that as it may, enough ink was expended on the issue in pre-modern Portugal that those texts authored by men merit examination centuries later. Such an exercise helps to situate the place of Portuguese women in the on-going scholarly discussion about scolds in pre-modern Europe, and allows for a regional comparison of attitudes toward those accused of scolding.

  • 2 For analyses of these marriage manuals, see Almeida (1988) and Fernandes (1989, 1995).

2For reasons that are not entirely clear, Portuguese male writers of the seventeenth century were especially intent on admonishing women’s speech. Whereas Doctor João de Barros attacked misogyny in his marriage manual writen in 1540 (Barros 1874), later generations of writers used the same format to attack women. For instance, in his text of 1630, Diogo de Paiva de Andrada highlighted that women’s moderation was particularly wanting in the use of their tongues, for which reason he devoted an entire chapter on the benefits of women’s silence (Andrada 1944, 165-80). Women’s lack of control also propelled D. Agustín Manuel y Vasconcelos (1639, 259) to advocate the enclosure of women in convents while their husbands were away, while Francisco Manuel de Mello told his (male) readers that they would be in great peril if they married women superior to themselves (Mello 1923, 48).2

3Portuguese historians have suggested that such conservative attitudes toward women may have stemmed from a perceived crisis in the social order that had been shaken by the Protestant movements in northern Europe, the Inquisition in the Iberian Peninsula, and Spain’s annexation of Portugal (1580-1640). Indeed, some male writers of the seventeenth century felt nostalgic for the good old days, prior to the Spanish Habsburg rule, when Portugal was ruled by real Portuguese men, and women knew their place (Veloso 1986, 254). But the problem with nostalgia is that it is often based on a warped sense of the past, for archival sources show that women’s tongues were a perceived threat to the social fibre in Portugal long before Spain’s Philip II took over the Portuguese crown. While the impact of the above-mentioned prescriptive texts is difficult to gauge, other documentation points to concerns among authorities regarding ill-tempered women.

4The purpose of the present study is to evaluate the evidence for that perceived threat in relation to ideas of the female scold in pre-modern Portugal. Through an examination of municipal records and royal decrees, this study explores the inherent contradictions of the ideologies that lay behind the legislation against the scold, and what those contradictions tell us about the social position of women in pre-modern Portugal. The discussion begins with a look at a municipal source from the late fourteenth century in which authorities in Évora revealed their anxieties over the quarrelsome woman, an example that is explained within the context of subsequent royal ordinances and literary texts that dealt with the scold. This analysis is followed by a look at the secondary literature on scolds for comparative purposes, and concludes with an examination of the elimination of the office that dealt with scolds in eighteenth-century Lisbon. Finally, the conclusion sums-up and discusses the results of this research in a European comparative perspective.

1. Female foul language

5Sometime in 1392 the municipal council in Évora dealt with what council members believed to be a pressing problem in their city – the female scold:

  • 3 Arquivo Distrital de Évora (hereafter ADE), nr. 66, Regimento da Cidade de Évora, Livro Pequeno d (...)

One of the greatest reasons for which men of the region are defamed, and from which develop many brawls and great scandals in this manner, is [due to] the women who are rude and howl [braadam] and insult one another thus in public, with shrieks and gestures and taunts that they know how to do and say, [therefore] given the great riots and lies that result and happen, [the council] ordains and orders that from this day forward whichever woman who, in the market or on the street, through another [woman] or in person, offends with words or with grimaces, or with shrieks or taunts or argues [braadar] with another woman or man, [she] being the perpetrator, [she] shall pay for the first time... 50 reaes, and for the second [she] shall be imprisoned and remain in jail for three days [and] pay... 100 reaes, and for the third time [she] shall be restrained and humiliated publicly with the bridle in the mouth, [and banished] outside the city and its environs until the King’s mercy.3

  • 4 For similar linguistic turns in the Spanish literature, see Vasvári (2002, 28).

6The above municipal ordinance contained the subheading Das Bravas, which could be loosely translated as “Regarding the Scolds” or “Quarrelsome Women”, and from the title to the end of the short passage it is clear that the concern was women who were prone to bradar, a term to which the text referred on two occasions. The verb bradar means to cry out, yell, howl, shout, bawl, scream, or roar, depending on the context, and in this case the context was that of the scolding or ill-tempered women, invariably called bravas or brabas. Men were recognized as victims of, and even possible accomplices in, the public and scandalous quarrelling match, but most verbs and nouns referring to the wrongdoing and the wrongdoer were written in the female form. Women scolded, men were scolded at; in this case, there was no doubt of women’s agency. The word brava (f.) or bravo (m.) can also mean wild, savage, ferocious, furious, impetuous, or tempestuous, but the terms have gendered meanings with negative connotations toward the female; a brava woman is generally considered fierce and fiery, whereas a bravo could be a man who is praiseworthy for his military courage (Novo 1992, 188).4

7As is often the case with a piece of legislation from the pre-modern period, the one from Évora leaves the reader wondering about the factors that led to its creation, and to its applicability. What were the motivations for that particular municipal decision at the end of the fourteenth century? Was that the first time Évora authorities faced a problem with the brava, or had prior restrictions proven ineffective? The absence of comprehensive documentation from municipal councils in the Middle Ages prevents us from inquiring deeper into these questions, but some evidence has survived from other Portuguese regions to suggest that Évora was not unique in its concerns with ill-tempered women. For instance, records from municipal councils in Porto and Loulé in the fifteenth century show some references to fines that applied to bravas, but there, too, lies the difficulty in determining the implementation of those rules (Gonçalves 1987, 47-8). Back in Évora, though, the collection of those fines became an issue, albeit several decades following the above-noted ordinance of 1392.

8From 26 February to 1 April 1465, city officials in Évora were embroiled in a dispute with Fernão de Melo, the local Alcaide-Mor (military governor). Melo had launched a complaint against the city council, claiming that he had jurisdiction over the royal tithes on judicial sentences, such as those on bravas, but that a city official refused to hand over those revenues. For its part, the city replied that as far as city authorities were aware, at no time had the rendeiros d’El Rey (king’s tax collectors) collected tithes on sentences rendered against the bravas. For this reason, the municipality ruled against the Alcaide-Mor, and the arguments used in that decision say something about the cultural understanding of the scold in the fifteenth century:

  • 5 ADE, Livro 67, Câmara Municipal, Sentença contra Fernão de Melo, f.130v-131v (26 February 1465), tr (...)

Never at any time had there been taxes on the coimas de bravas [fines on quarrelsome women] nor on any other council revenues because those were such small fines... And that if ever there had been such taxes they were collected furtively and by mistake or imposed on such people who could not speak up, as many other and worse things are done... And from this day forward there shall be no royal tithes on sentences against bravas nor on any other revenues of the council, for no such thing ever existed in this city unless by error or malice, as stated. And the money that the royal tax collector has collected from such royal tithes on bravas or other [council] revenues are to be returned to those from whom it was taken erroneously, and as it should not have happened.5

9From that jurisdictional dispute we learn that there were fines imposed on quarrelsome women, and seemingly not on quarrelsome men. Indeed, those fines were labelled coimas de bravas not de bravos, the masculine equivalent. In a gendered language that presumed the male form as normative, any exception to the rule is noteworthy. Bravos may have been subjected to the same penalties as bravas, but the way the bylaw was formulated indicates that, according to male lawmakers, scolding was associated mainly with women.

  • 6 Ordenações Afonsinas (1446), Livro 1, Título 62, nr. 13; Ordenações Manuelinas (1521), Livro 1, T (...)
  • 7 Instituto de Arquivos Nacionais/Torre to Tombo (hereafter IAN/TT), Livro 33, Chancelaria de D. Af (...)

10Apparently Melo did not appeal that decision, but according to the national ordinances of the fifteenth, sixteenth, and seventeenth centuries, the Alcaide-Mor of each judicial district was entitled to the fines imposed on those he had apprehended, or a portion thereof, including fines on mulheres que são useiras de bradar – women renowned for being argumentative. In fact, by the sixteenth century, the Alcaide-Mor received 108 reaes per conviction of a brava.6 The royal ordinances did not refer to the collection of royal taxes on the fines imposed on bravas, but Melo showed up in another document in which he had his privileges confirmed.7 Thus, the decision rendered by the city of Évora raises the question of whether or not the fines on bravas were subject to royal taxation, not of the existence of the fines themselves, which was undisputed.

11As noted earlier, the municipal law enacted in Évora in the late fourteenth century to regulate the female scold did not provide any historical context for the perceived problem with the scold, except to indicate that the problem was persistent and led to notorious disputes and troubles. While the course through which that local legislation was initiated and maintained cannot be determined, enough evidence survives to show that punishments of scolds did not end with the Middle Ages. On the contrary, what the royal ordinances clearly show is that, in the minds of lawmakers, the scold was enough of a problem to necessitate legal intervention at the highest level, and to set up a system through which the crown – or its representatives – could profit from prosecuting argumentative women.

  • 8 See note 6. Records from municipal council meetings in Porto reveal that for centuries local auth (...)

12Back in 1465, Évora’s municipal authorities claimed that the revenue collected from fines imposed on bravas was too small to be taxed, yet that revenue must have been substantial enough for Melo to have initiated a formal claim for a portion of that tax revenue. Ultimately, though, the dispute between Melo and Évora’s city council is only important to the present discussion in as much as the dispute points to the existence of those fines, and what those fines tell us about attitudes toward women in late medieval Portugal – or at least some women. Whether at the local or national level, the legislation on the brava was as much about gender ideologies as class tensions. While authorities targeted female scolds, the underlying assumption of the legislated code of behaviour was that the female scold was a prototype found among plebeian women, especially those who worked on the streets, hawking their wares, or at the public markets where arguments ensued between the market vendors who vied for space and customers.8 Some of those women were a disruptive force, or perceived to be the source of enough disruption that legal measures were deemed necessary to curb the problem.

  • 9 The ordinances did not elaborate on the meaning of mulheres useiras de bradar, but an editorial n (...)
  • 10 The widows would have to lead “honest” lives, and the exemptions did not apply to anyone guilty o (...)
  • 11 This theme was addressed in a number of studies published in Toscano (2004).
  • 12 For a discussion of these themes, see Silva (1995, 75, 167-71, 201).

13The Évora legislation quoted above demarcated the bravas as lowbred women who worked and argued in public places, as opposed to elite women whose economic activities, and quarrels, would ideally take place under more restraint, in more private and honourable spaces. The royal ordinances, for their part, did not need to identify the brava, for the classification was well understood.9 Besides, the crown mandated that (male) members of the privileged classes who broke the law were not subjected to public humiliations, such as whippings and being paraded through town, and the law stipulated that those exemptions applied to the wives and widows of elite men.10 Undoubtedly the exemptions meant that no municipal official would dare to charge an elite woman with fractious behaviour, and force her to wear a bridle on the head, but some elite men regretted those social conventions which hindered a gentleman from dealing with an unruly lady.11 This theme resurfaces in several works of the Portuguese Renaissance playwright Gil Vicente (c.1465-c.1537), in which he depicted the cultural ideals of the young maiden whose virtues included moderation of speech, versus the disgruntled and disobedient wife, refilona e má língua (recalcitrant and an evil tongue), becoming insufferable and brava.12

  • 13 Biblioteca Pública e Arquivo Regional de Ponta Delgada (hereafter BPARPD), NOT. 601, Fundo Judici (...)

14What was a man to do? The seventeenth-century writer Francisco Manuel de Mello, mentioned earlier, pointed out that those women who were of a tough nature, those commonly known as bravas, were those for whom there was less of a cure. Begrudgingly, Mello conceded that (domestic) violence had no place among the elite, for which reason he lamented that among the advantages that the plebeian man had over the knight was that the former could discipline his wife whenever she deserved it (Mello 1923, 53-4). Legally, a man was allowed to “discipline” his wife, but socially there were some limits put in place, even among the lower echelons. Margarida Luís, for instance, told a judge that as she walked down the street in Ponta Delgada (Azores), she heard Jerónimo Jorge, in a fit of rage (apaixonado), beating up his wife (unidentified in the record). Margarida entered the house to try to help the victim, but in the process Jerónimo attacked Margarida and left her with a bloody, bruised, and swollen face. Jerónimo was accused of assaulting Margarida, and although we do not know the fate of his wife, Margarida’s intervention shows that neighbours did not necessarily condone a husband’s abuse of his wife.13

  • 14 Ordenações Filipinas, Livro 5, Título 36. For comparative purposes, a law in sixteenth-century Lo (...)

15In fact, the legislation that allowed husbands to discipline their wives made no distinction between social ranks,14 and this may explain why violence toward women was advocated by Diogo de Paiva de Andrada, also mentioned earlier, who provided several examples of praiseworthy women, laudable for speaking little, or remaining silent altogether. Following those notable cases, Andrada countered with other illustrations of women who showed no discretion with their tongues, and one particular story illustrated what he deemed to be a reasonable remedy.

16Andrada’s exemplary tale featured a husband who was so exasperated by his wife’s screams, quarrels, and sharp replies, that the distressed husband sought advice from another man, a captain known for his severity and cruelty, the author pointed out. After listening to the plaintive husband, the captain promised that he had an easy solution, and assured the troubled husband that the wife would never give him any trouble. With that mission in mind, the captain entered the supplicant’s home and sought out the offensive wife, who was found at that very moment engaged in her habitual desatinos (wrongheadedness). Soon thereafter, the visitor returned to the husband and reported that the wife was properly chastised and calm. Encouraged by those words, the husband sought out his wife with whom he wished to make peace, and he found her hanging from one of the beams in the house. At this point in the narrative the author interjected, and hinted that he was slightly disapproving of the outcome in the story, but only slightly:

A barbarous and cruel act, as if [committed] by a man without law nor Christianity, as was he [the captain] in this case, renowned and loathed in those stories; but it appears that divine justice permitted that, as an example for other [women], that this one [woman] pay, with an undeserving death, for the crime of an intemperate tongue. (Andrada 1944, 177-8).

17Thus, only an uncivilized man, ignorant of law or religion, could have committed such a violent act against an errant wife, but at some level, Andrada understood the extent to which a husband could be pushed to such extreme measures. While the author did not condone the deed outright, he did not condemn it entirely. Moreover, the ugly deed was rendered more palatable because it was performed by someone else. As a member of the elite, the disgruntled husband could not stoop to behave savagely, but he could look the other way while a man of lower status intervened and committed the gruesome act on his behalf, all of which was unpleasant, perhaps, but ultimately worthy of divine sanction. Significantly, this was a story narrated in a manual that proposed to teach husbands and wives how to obtain marital harmony.

  • 15 For a discussion of the link between taming and educating as a humanist ideal, see Downs-Gamble ( (...)

18To avoid women becoming troublesome, husbands were advised to rein in their wives at the outset of their nuptials, before it was too late. In his moral tract, for instance, Francisco Manuel de Mello provided an example of a husband who complained to his Prince about the wife’s misbehaviour, to which complaint the Prince asked the husband how long the wife had been in his (the husband’s) power, and the husband responded that they had been married for twelve years. The prince’s answer was unequivocal: “Then you are the one who should be punished, for having trained her so poorly” (Mello 1923, 48).15 The necessity to tame the shrew was a popular theme in European folklore that can be traced back to at least the Middle Ages, and invariably the tales glorified male violence as a form of entertainment, particularly in relation to a husband teaching a lesson to an uppity wife or an interfering mother-in-law. In her examination of Spanish texts from the fourteenth century, Louise Vasvári highlighted the ways in which stories promoted the need for newlywed husbands to terrorize their wives into submission as a means to maintain the proper social order (Vasvári 2002, 29). Indeed, the untamed woman was perceived to be not only a disruptive force in a household, but she also posed a danger to society at large (Barnes-Karol 2002, 239).

2. Scolding in the European context

19Elsewhere in Europe, the phenomenon of the female scold has been examined more extensively by scholars who work on women in early modern England. Indeed, the most renowned of pre-modern European scolds or shrews is Katherine of William Shakespeare’s The Taming of the Shrew, with Geoffrey Chaucer’s The Wife of Bath running a close second. Through literary works and didactic texts, early modern English women were warned of the perils of asserting themselves, of using “words like daggers” (Stavreva 2015), as exemplified in a cautionary tale written in fifteenth-century London, in which a mother advised her daughter not to be a shrew toward her future husband, but rather to appease him, for “a fair word and a meek word softens anger” (Murray 2001, 457). Thus, a young woman was to control her anger otherwise she risked being labelled a shrew or scold, while her demureness lessened her husband’s anger, an anger that in the masculine form did not threaten to turn him into a shrew or scold. As Kristine Steenbergh has pointed out, anger was gendered female in some dramatic works of the early modern period, and viewed as a source of social unrest or upheaval. Such a concept was potentially based on the Latin word for fury, furia, which was gendered female, and the Furies themselves, the classical goddesses of vengeance (Steenbergh 2012, 123). Moreover, the Oxford English Dictionary tells us that one of the meanings for fury is “an angry and malignant woman” (New 1993, 1046).

20Although generally men were not associated with scolding, that assertion has been the subject of some debate in the English literature. On the one hand, Martin Ingram determined that in England a scold was “a turbulent, chiding, brawling person,” a person of either sex, though from the late Middle Ages onward the term came to be applied primarily to women (Ingram 1994, 51). On the other hand, Karen Jones found that men, too, could be punished for scolding (Jones 2006, 104-7), findings that have been corroborated by other English scholars (Walker 2003, 100-11; McIntosh 1998, 61). Other studies contended that preoccupations with the female scold increased in England from the sixteenth to the seventeenth centuries (Underdown 1985), while Raymond Gillespie found that, in fact, the “common scold” was not all that common (Gillespie 1991, 43-4).

  • 16 For a look at some museum collections of scold’s bridles, see the web-sites for the Museum of Wit (...)

21The evidence from English sources is open to interpretation, and often leads to seemingly contradictory conclusions, but there is general agreement among historians that female arguments were associated with scolding and with sexual impropriety, whereas male arguments had no such connotations (Gowing 1998, 118). This conflation of the scold and the prostitute was examined by Lynda Boose who found ample evidence that “the talkative woman [was] frequently imagined as synonymous with the sexually available woman”, and that the scold’s bridle was used far more extensively than court records indicate given the number of those instruments of torture that have survived (Boose 1991, 196-209). Indeed, if more is known about the punishments meted out to the female scold in pre-modern England it is due, at least in part, to the availability of sources in that region, including the material culture that was recovered and copiously illustrated by antiquarians in the nineteenth century.16

22This is not to say that the English had a unique propensity for taming unruly women, for as Boose rightly demonstrated, in The Taming of the Shrew, the ritual through which Petruchio appears to have achieved Kate’s utter submission to his will did not exist in a vacuum. In her final scene, a much demure Kate prostrated and admonished all women to obey and comply with patriarchal rule, “And place your hands below your husband’s foot,” a powerful symbolic act performed by the bride that Boose found in wedding rituals in England, Scotland, France, and Russia (Boose 1991, 180-3). The bride’s prostration at the groom’s feet was linked to the endowment of land that the groom promised to the bride, and this might explain why such a ritual was not found for pre-modern Portugal, where partible inheritance was the rule (if not the practice). The gap between women’s legal rights and women’s social status could be significant, however, and although Portuguese brides were not required to prostrate before their grooms, wives were expected to obey their husbands, in particular, and male authority in general. The priest Alexandre de Gusmão, for instance, included several female characters in the religious allegory he produced in 1685, one of which was called Obedience (Gusmão 1685).

23Portuguese historians, too, have produced a number of studies that deal with verbal injuries in pre-modern Portugal, but by in large, the focus of those studies has been on instances of insults and dishonourable words, found in secular documents, or cases of profanity, blasphemy, and heretical declarations, or proposições, registered in church records – not on scolding per se. Overall, the evidence in Portugal shows that men outnumbered women in those cases. For example, a study of the Lisbon Inquisition between 1681 and 1700 found that of the 25 cases related to unorthodox declarations, 23 were launched against men (Olival 1989, 673), and similar trends have been found elsewhere in Portugal. An inquiry into the Inquisition in Coimbra, 1541-1700, uncovered 198 men and 61 women accused of irreverent statements, while 167 men and 33 women were similarly accused by the Inquisition in Évora during the same period (Braga 2015a, 141). Likewise, of the 29 cases found in the Pombal region and environs in the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, only 7 dealt with women (Oliveira 2016, 116).

24Elsewhere in Iberia, the findings are parallel to those recorded in Portugal. For instance, an examination of women and the episcopal court in seventeenth-century Salamanca found that women made up a small minority of the 674 cases heard, 644 of which dealt with men, 20 with women, and 10 with women and men together (Heras Santos 2015, 88). Nor did that study note any particular reference to women’s locaciousness, whereas Ricardo Pessa de Oliveira’s investigation of the visitations in Pombal in the Coimbra diocese found that reports of women’s má-língua, or evil tongue, accounted for 7.3% of the 370 cases heard against women. Significantly, though, the majority of the accusations in Pombal against women, 85.4% of the total, dealt with sexual morality, especially concubinage (Oliveira 2015, 66-7). Thus, unlike the findings in English sources, it appears that in pre-modern Portugal women’s scolding was not necessarily linked to sexual impropriety.

  • 17 For a discussion of the “sins of speech” as articulated by the clergy in the Middle Ages, see Mac (...)

25Although the term má-língua found in Inquisition records was often connected to questions of religious heterodoxy, church officials revealed their gender biases by applying the term almost exclusively to women, and in the ways the church disciplined recalcitrant women. For instance, in her examination of the Inquisition visitation to Madeira in the late sixteenth century, Fernanda Olival noted two examples of women whose misconduct was perceived as scold-like behaviour when they were found guilty of using foul words against the church. Both women were thrown in jail and had their sentences announced in church.17 Furthermore, one of the women, Catarina Luís, was restrained with rope and with a mordaça (muzzle) in her mouth, as a symbol of the crime that she had committed (Olival 1993, 500-1).

26The crime that Catarina committed was connected to the perceived notion of women’s uncontrollable tongues, for which reason she was publicly humiliated and tortured with a scold’s bridle. The incidents of persecutions of scolds are sporadic, but Portuguese church records point to a preoccupation with quarrelsome women and not quarrelsome men, a preoccupation that can be traced well into the eighteenth century. For example, the church inquest held during the visitation of 1717 in Macedo de Cavaleiros, in northeastern Portugal, admonished the widow Joana Fernandes for being a scold or shrew. The record depicted her as a very angry and immodest woman (muito brava e descomposta), and similar language was used at the end of the eighteenth century when another woman was labelled brava and descomposta de lingoa. In the latter case the record specified that it was the woman’s un-tempered tongue that was deemed problematic: “She is a woman who is ferocious and with a disorderly tongue who insults all honest women, and from her mouth there is no good woman” (Afonso 1985, 353). Such examples suggest that the sparse evidence of persecutions of scolds in pre-modern Portugal may be due more to the fragmentary nature of the available sources rather than a lack of interest by officials – secular and ecclesiastical – to prosecute.

  • 18 BPARPD, Livro de Autos de Querelas, f.71v-2v, f.80v-2, f.124v-5v, f.133-5, f.143-v, f.154-6v, f.1 (...)

27As was the case with ecclesiastical records, secular sources also hint at incidents of verbal injuries, but those hints point more to inflammatory insults and slander, the type of insults that necessitated the intervention of judicial authorities at the highest level. A few royal pardons, for instance, dealt with complaints of “coarse and malicious words” or “injurious words”, but, once again, the majority of such cases dealt with men publicly insulting other men (Braga 2004, 498-9). Other types of sources, however, show that women, too, were involved in verbal confrontations. In accusations launched by victims of physical injuries in Ponta Delgada in the seventeenth century, several plaintiffs reported that they had been subjected to words that were injurious, dishonourable, vulgar, offensive, disrespectful, insulting, immodest, and unkind, though the obscenities were not identified in the records.18

28Most recorded cases that dealt with verbal injuries pertained to slander rather than scolding, but the distinction between the two was not always self-evident. A study of victims’ pardons granted in Porto in the second half of the eighteenth century shows that, while verbal injuries accounted for only 1% of the total pardons, women outnumbered men in those cases. Significantly, the author concluded that women were more readily accused of having a língua mais solta, or a looser tongue (Ribeiro 2012, 216). Such an assertion begs the question of the pervasiveness of negative attitudes toward women in pre-modern Portugal, attitudes that too quickly labelled women who were outspoken or aggressive as bravas. None of the Portuguese studies noted above paid any particular attention to the scold because that had not been the intent of those investigations. Yet, the sources of those inquiries reveal compelling evidence about perceptions and persecutions of scold-like behaviour that resonates with the situation in England.

  • 19 A big merci to Anne Bergeron whose assistance with the French terminology was much appreciated.

29As we have seen, the phenomenon of the scold has been documented more extensively for a number of regions in the United Kingdom, and the evidence shows that the association between scolding and women in pre-modern England was of long-standing (Butler 2006, 348-9). If the female scold was targeted in ideology and legal discourse in pre-modern England, why not in Portugal and elsewhere in Western Europe? If the cultural phenomenon of the scold was absent or perceived differently in other cultural contexts, the reasons for those differences are well worth exploring, for there is no shortage of allusions to the stereotypical shrew in pre-modern Europe, accusations that often had serious repurcussions in witch trials, for instance (Kallestrup 2015). In fact, even Huguette Roy’s conversation with the ghost of her deceased aunt, recorded in Dole, France in 1628, reminds us of her aunt’s notarious reputation: “Those who knew you and saw you more familiarly say that you had a ferocious way of speaking, abrupt and unassured, when you let yourself be controleld by your natural inclination” (Edwards 2008, 90). Incidently, the words for scold in French are mégère, grondeuse, femme criarde, querelleuse, ronchonneuse, and bougonne,19 and in Italian they are bispètica, brontolóna, megèra, pettégola – all in the female form (Dictionnaire 1960, 570; Grandi 2004, 992). Men, too, were prone to argue or use foul language, but, as we will see next, in the patriarchal mind-set of the pre-modern period, men’s arguments were generally not debased to the level of the common scold.

30Portuguese men could also face censorship for being troublesome, but the way that trouble was depicted betrayed a gender bias on the part of the authorities. Two examples will suffice to illustrate this point. On 10 June 1402, the municipal council in Porto met to deliberate about Pedro Alvarez, a troublemaker in their midst. The council sought permission from the crown to banish Pedro from the city limits, and in their petition, Porto officials claimed that Pedro “created many quarrels between the residents of the said city,” and that if Pedro was allowed to remain in Porto, “it would be a disservice and ruin to the city” (Ferreira 1980, 91-3).

  • 20 BPARPD, Livro de Autos de Querelas, f.133-4v (9 July 1644).

31What is most telling about the documented narrative against Pedro Alvarez is that nowhere do we find a reference to scolding. Pedro evidently caused much havoc through his tongue, yet officials never used the term bradar to explain his misbehaviour, nor ever labelled him a bravo. Likewise, when Miguel Alves Quaresma launched a complaint against Francisco Bestão in Ponta Delgada, Miguel outlined how Francisco had verbally attacked him with dishonourable and offensive words, and noted that Francisco was notorious for “arguing with the nightguards who did the rounds of the city.” Despite his reputation, however, Francisco was not accused of being an ill-tempered, unruly, quarrelsome, scolding man, even after swearing at Miguel and calling him a cuckolded buck-goat.20

32The examples of Pedro and Francisco show that both men were renowned for causing trouble and fomenting arguments, but the record keepers could not label them as argumentative. To scold was to cause a raucous, a public disturbance, an action that clearly men could and did commit, yet the scattered references to the scold found in Portuguese sources indicate that authorities targeted women as the culprit. Time after time the brava was depicted as a cantankerous woman bulldozing her way through the lowest level of public space, a source of discord on a persistent basis. In fact, the term “female scold” may be redundant when applied to pre-modern Portugal. This was true in late fourteenth-century Évora, and in mid eighteenth-century Lisbon, where an official discussion of the brava took quite an unexpected turn.

3. Foul female agents

  • 21 The word juízo comes from the Latin judicium, and has multiple meanings, including trial, judgeme (...)

33During its consultations of 6 February 1765, Lisbon’s municipal coun­cil agreed to revise and abolish certain laws the council found outdated, and the council members decided that the Juízo das Bravas – that is, the municipal office for sentencing the scolds – was odious and unnecessary.21 The councillors justified their decision to revoke this legal practice with a surprisingly enlightened sense of magnanimity toward those who were subjected to such condemnations:

The abolishment of which needs no other foundation than that the office holder is a woman who is not a legitimate person to officiate in judicial cases, in which she does not have nor should have the right of intervention. All of her actions are done with impropriety and with rancour toward the wretched [women] who sell and do the washing, who, for being persons from whom the public reaps some benefit, are meritorious of Your Majesty’s regal compassion, so that you [may] exempt them from this constant scourge. (Oliveira 1911, XVII, 19-20).

34The council needed to petition and seek permission from the crown for this decision because, as we have seen, at least some of the revenues collected from convictions inflicted on the “poor women” belonged to the crown. In place of that old and odious system that targeted the brava, the city proposed that henceforth any infractions of that nature be dealt within the regular judicial system, from which convictions the crown would continue to receive its due. Three days later, the town scribe noted on the margin of the above text that the crown had responded favourably to the municipal council’s proposal.

35In his annotations to the above deliberations, the archivist and historian Eduardo Freire the Oliveira explained that the Juízo das Bravas was the office through which information was gathered, and judgements were rendered for verbal injuries or quarrels against the women who sold at public squares, did the washing in the city reservoirs, or were engaged in other similar occupations.He further stipulated that the severity of the penalties depended on the circumstances and extent of the harm committed. Nevertheless, Oliveira found that in the distant past, for certain cases of recidivism, women renowned for being argumentative were placed in the pillory with an iron bridle in the mouth. He noted as well that the revenue from those fines used to belong to the office of the chief alcayde or governor of Lisbon, but later was transferred to the crown, and the public auction for the office of collecting those fines was awarded to a woman, for which reason she was called the rendeira das bravas – the collector of the fines imposed (by the collector herself) on female scolds. He further predicted that the institution of the Juízo das Bravas originated from the mid fifteenth century.

36It is possible that Oliveira underestimated the genesis of the Juízo das Bravas in Lisbon for, as we have seen, municipal council records from Évora refer to a similar institution already in place in the late fourteenth century. It is highly unlikely that Lisbon’s municipal councillors of the same period – the governing body of a major port city – would have overlooked the perceived problems with the scold, and the revenues that those problems generated. Nevertheless, regardless of the starting point for those bylaws, the evidence from Évora and from Lisbon indicates that it was the female scold who was targeted, until municipal officials found it convenient to plea for those poor, wretched women. In Évora, when the debate was over the sharing of possible tax revenues from fines imposed on bravas, the town officials claimed the high moral ground and decried such a practice, for if ever such taxes had been collected – they argued in 1465 – it had been done surreptitiously, and inflicted on the most vulnerable members of the community, those who could least defend themselves. Three centuries later, authorities in Lisbon likewise felt compelled to sympathize with the unfortunate women who provided essential services to the city’s residents, but who were tormented by the unscrupulous rendeira das bravas.

37Whatever the reasons that compelled Lisbon’s officials to eradicate the Juízo das Bravas, it is doubtful that the sufferings of the quarrelsome woman were a top priority for the municipal council. At stake was an attempt to overhaul the ancient system of inflicting and collecting fines, and to replace it with a more centralized bureaucracy which was in line with the vast reforms envisioned by the Marquis de Pombal, Chief Minister of King José (r.1750-1777). As we have seen, the petition to the crown outlined how, with the abolition of the Juízo das Bravas, all infractions with bravas would be handled by the regular judiciary. Thus, Lisbon’s municipal council did not contend that bravas ceased to pose a problem, but rather that henceforth the individual confronted with the ill-tempered woman at the market place, public fountain, or wherever else, had to initiate a complaint with the local judge, as opposed to having a city-appointed officer (or someone who had bought the lease of that office) to deal with those complaints, and collect the fines for each conviction. In the process, Lisbon’s municipal officials revealed their sexist ideologies for they were especially perturbed by the fact that, historically, that office had been awarded to a woman, an individual who according to male authorities had no judicial authority to deal with judicial matters. Curiously, it had taken Lisbon officials centuries to make that observation.

38Nevertheless, the crown agreed with the arguments from Lisbon’s municipal council, and in its assessment, dated 12 February 1765, the crown reiterated the reasoning put forth by the city, and further accentuated the depth of the problem that needed to be rectified.

[Given] the many grievances that experience has shown that follow from the revenue and office called das Brabas, and how incompatible it is with the present state of the city of Lisbon to maintain such an odious office, through which one woman prosecutes, each day, many and often [with] repeated vexations against people who are so poor and deserving of pity and support, as are the saleswomen and washerwomen who occupy themselves with these miserable services for the benefit of the public, it is just that we extinguish, as if it had never existed, not only the revenue that up to now was collected for my royal treasury, from the penalties imposed in the said office, but also the same private office through which the said penalties were imposed. (Oliveira 1911, XVII, 23-4).

39The crown agreed with Lisbon on this and other petitions, for the eradication of the juízo das bravas was not the only item on the reform agenda. For comparison purposes, it is worth highlighting Lisbon’s reforms of another office, the juízo da almotaçaria, the office that regulated weights, measures, and retail prices of victuals. That office was typically awarded to a male bidder, and while the administration and jurisdiction of the office was modified, the victuals officer continued to operate. Authorities conceded that he profitted at the expense of the “poor and unfortunate” vendors, but the office holder himself was not deemed the source of contention (Oliveira 1911, XVII, 21-2, 25). The juízo das bravas, for its part, was abolished altogether, not because bravas reportedly ceased to wreak havoc at the marketplace, but because the office holder herself was the reason for much disapprobation. In argumentation remarkable for its incongruous reasoning, Lisbon’s municipal council portrayed the rendeira das bravas as one nasty woman who preyed on many poor and defenceless women – the very women who historically were the focus of much derision.

40It is worth reiterating that at no level of government – local or national – did anyone protest against the practice of charging women for being bravas. The change implemented in Lisbon, and supported by the crown, was on how those women were charged, who could charge them, and who could gain from those charges. As of 1765, anyone in the capital city who fell victim to the insults and injuries of a female scold had to initiate a complaint with the local judge, as opposed to having recourse to a city-appointed and sanctioned office, contracted out to a private citizen who offered the highest bid to operate that office. In pre-modern Portugal, many judicial and administrative offices were farmed out to the highest bidder. The rendeira das bravas, for instance, paid a set price to the municipal council, and then aimed to make a profit through the number of bravas she sentenced and fined.

41Was the lease of the rendeira das bravas traditionally given to a female bidder because women were perceived to have the necessary skills to deal with other women, or because the revenue accrued from that line of work was considered too modest for men, or both? Regardless, the fact remains that one of the few public offices available to women in pre-modern Lisbon was eradicated in the second half of the eighteenth century. The municipal council stressed that the woman entrusted with dealing with the bravas inflicted undue hardships on the would-be bravas, but we have no way of knowing the veracity of those statements, whether the argument was based on problems with the woman who held that office at the time, or if the difficulties with the overzealous rendeira das bravas were of longstanding. In all probability, at issue for Lisbon’s municipal officials was not the abuse of power by the rendeira das bravas but that a woman should have had so much power in the first place.

  • 22 A study of women and public offices in early modern Portugal is currently underway.
  • 23 A study of early modern Portuguese women’s rights of legal intervention is also currently underwa (...)

42That authorities held the rendeira das bravas in contempt was one thing; that authorities dismissed women’s ability to hold a public office with judicial responsibilities was another thing altogether. As noted earlier, Lisbon’s municipal council argued that a woman “is not a legitimate person to officiate in judicial cases, in which she does not have nor should have the right of intervention”, a falsehood to which crown officials – perhaps better trained in law and better acquainted with the royal ordinances – chose to ignore. Public offices were generally the domain of men, but women could and did inherit public offices which they commonly rented out, or used as dowries, with the positions often filled by their future husbands or sons.22 Given that the agent entrusted with investigating complaints about ill-tempered women, determining who was guilty of those complaints, sentencing the guilty parties, and collecting the fines from the accused – that such a person was called a rendeira (female), not a rendeiro (male), defies the logic put forth by Lisbon’s officials about women’s inability to officiate in judicial matters, and women’s lack of rights of intervention.23 In their attempts to streamline the old system of governance at the market place, Lisbon’s municipal councillors deemed it necessary to eliminate and denigrate one of the few positions open to women in that governance.

4. Conclusion

43Because pre-modern Portuguese tracts were largely written by men, we have to rely on their accounts for a representation of a certain perceived reality. Since a number of those writers felt it necessary to stress the need for women’s silence, and to steer elite women away from unruly behaviour, we are led to believe that – according to those writers – there was some call for concern, if not alarm. Likewise, a few legal, church, and administrative records show that women were sometimes engaged in what was termed scolding or “women’s arguments”, though the same sources do not depict men engaged in “men’s arguments”. Calling disputes between women “women’s arguments” was a way to diminish or remove the dignity of the protagonist.

44The reason that prohibitions against scolding did not apply to men is obvious: men did not scold, men discussed. Men occasionally disagreed, but disagreements between men did not turn into a shrill, cacophonous, and inherently disruptive force, at least not as far as male observers were concerned. Moreover, men who misbehaved were judged individually; they were not representative of “the trouble with men”. By contrast, the female scold was symbolic of womankind run amok, and the need to rein her in. Women’s complaints and outbursts were shrill and cacophonous because women were speaking out of turn, showing irreverence for ideologies that a few dedicated men had painstakingly formulated over the centuries. As Merry Wiesner-Hanks noted about early modern misogynist writing, “the arguments that it made were not new, but they never seemed to become old” (Wiesner-Hanks 2009, 179).

45Certainly there were regional and cultural differences in the ways in which misogyny manifested across Europe, but in the case of the female scold, the Portuguese evidence is in many ways analogous with what has been found for pre-modern England, with one noteworthy exception. To date, none of the examples found in the Portuguese archives links the scold with prostitution or other deviant sexual behaviour. In pre-modern Portugal there appears to have been a clear distinction between mouthy women and sexually loose women, though this may be due to the scarcity of examples from Portugal of actual cases of women being punished as bravas.

  • 24 Indeed, there is some evidence that labouring women were aware that they were targeted by officia (...)

46While a few elite men in seventeenth-century Portugal bemoaned the uppity elite woman, the national legislation on the brava targeted women from below, and municipal councils likewise complained that they were plagued with foul-mouthed women on the streets and public markets. To these men of government, women’s unruliness was connected to women’s economic independence, as illustrated most strikingly with the removal of the office of the rendeira das bravas in Lisbon, a post traditionally held by a woman who, when it was politically expedient, was touted as a bravíssima extraordinaire. The common scold in pre-modern Portugal, therefore, was a woman of common origins who, while plying her trade, had to be outspoken, vigorous, forceful, assertive, decisive, unyielding, unwavering, and rude and ruthless, if necessary – not traits associated with the ideal woman.24 This stereotype was perpetuated and ridiculed in popular culture, such as in a satirical brochure from the eighteenth century that highlighted the market woman’s lingoa solta (loose tongue). The same brochure informed the readers that in fights that broke out between market women, the women used their tongues as swords (Anonymous 17??, 2-4). Furthermore, it was argued, such women opposed and oppressed the hapless henpecked husband, as seen in another eighteenth-century pamphlet. In a list of satirical reflections, the author maintained that one of the things that sent men out of their homes was the ralhos da mulher – scolding from their wives (Costa 1760, 6).

47But while the stereotype of a common scold was linked with the female commoner, women of the elite were also expected to be demure and deferential. This was seen in the writings of some elite men of the seventeenth century, and can be traced in other reports, some of which were penned by foreigners. For instance, while describing the intrigues at the Portuguese court in 1684, a French observer commented that the young Infanta princess had quite a beautiful mouth, especially when she chose to close it (Serrão 1960, 87). What was it about the Infanta’s speech that led to his discomfort? Was the Princess critical of men, in general, or of the French visitor, in particular? Given the male preoccupation with women’s garrulousness, there must have been some women speaking up, voicing their opinions that were deemed contrary to the male prerogative. Unfortunately, the low literacy rate among pre-modern Portuguese women means that those critiques were lost to us. What have survived are a few men’s laments about what they perceived to be a persistent problem: women’s foul language and women’s potential to run afoul. The Portuguese sources show that from at least the late fourteenth century, male authorities claimed that they were plagued with the cantankerous woman, a plague that endured for several centuries. Despite their efforts, officials were confronted with a certain class of women who could not or would not be as docile as gender ideologies prescribed.

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1 Some works written by Portuguese women from the pre-modern period have survived, but for the most part those writings concentrated on religious themes, especially works penned by nuns, or on nationalist themes that focused on celebrating the liberation of Iberia from the Moors. See, for example, Pimentel (1639) and Lacerda (1618).

2 For analyses of these marriage manuals, see Almeida (1988) and Fernandes (1989, 1995).

3 Arquivo Distrital de Évora (hereafter ADE), nr. 66, Regimento da Cidade de Évora, Livro Pequeno de Pergaminhos, f. 34v (c.1392). Some punctuation was added for clarity. All translations are mine.

4 For similar linguistic turns in the Spanish literature, see Vasvári (2002, 28).

5 ADE, Livro 67, Câmara Municipal, Sentença contra Fernão de Melo, f.130v-131v (26 February 1465), transcribed in Duarte (1999, 589-90). Some punctuation was added for clarity.

6 Ordenações Afonsinas (1446), Livro 1, Título 62, nr. 13; Ordenações Manuelinas (1521), Livro 1, Título 55, nr. 14; Ordenações Filipinas (1603), Livro 1, Título 74, nr. 20.

7 Instituto de Arquivos Nacionais/Torre to Tombo (hereafter IAN/TT), Livro 33, Chancelaria de D. Afonso V, f.31v (28 January 1473), transcribed in Duarte (1999, 613).

8 See note 6. Records from municipal council meetings in Porto reveal that for centuries local authorities complained of recalcitrant market women. See Basto (1972, 20, 363) and Melo (2003, passim).

9 The ordinances did not elaborate on the meaning of mulheres useiras de bradar, but an editorial note from the nineteenth century, in the Ordenações Filipinas (noted above), explains that the law applied to women who were rixosas e vociferadoras (quarrelsome and clamorous), and that the Juízo das Bravas dealt with arguments among market women.

10 The widows would have to lead “honest” lives, and the exemptions did not apply to anyone guilty of the most serious crimes, such as treason, treachery, fraud, counterfeit, false testimony, witchcraft, sodomy, pandering, and theft. Ordenações Filipinas, Livro 5, Títulos 102, 133, 137, for example.

11 This theme was addressed in a number of studies published in Toscano (2004).

12 For a discussion of these themes, see Silva (1995, 75, 167-71, 201).

13 Biblioteca Pública e Arquivo Regional de Ponta Delgada (hereafter BPARPD), NOT. 601, Fundo Judicial, Livro de Autos de Querelas (1606-1654), f.147v-8 (11 August 1646).

14 Ordenações Filipinas, Livro 5, Título 36. For comparative purposes, a law in sixteenth-century London, England, prohibited the beating of a wife after 9 p.m. because the noise would disturb the neighbours. See Mendelson (2003, 128).

15 For a discussion of the link between taming and educating as a humanist ideal, see Downs-Gamble (1993). For an example of a woman who in 1590 divorced her husband who had attempted to “tame” her, see Hubbard (2015).

16 For a look at some museum collections of scold’s bridles, see the web-sites for the Museum of Witchcraft (Boscastle, Cornwall, UK), the British Museum (London, UK), the Walsall Museum (Walsall, UK), the Museum of the Macabre (New York, USA), Wellcome Collection (London, UK), and the Science Museum (London, UK).

17 For a discussion of the “sins of speech” as articulated by the clergy in the Middle Ages, see Macedo (2003).

18 BPARPD, Livro de Autos de Querelas, f.71v-2v, f.80v-2, f.124v-5v, f.133-5, f.143-v, f.154-6v, f.165-v, for instance.

19 A big merci to Anne Bergeron whose assistance with the French terminology was much appreciated.

20 BPARPD, Livro de Autos de Querelas, f.133-4v (9 July 1644).

21 The word juízo comes from the Latin judicium, and has multiple meanings, including trial, judgement, court, jurisdiction, sentence, and opinion. In the context of the sources examined for this study, the Juízo das Bravas was the municipal office under which ill-tempered women were accused and sentenced for their misbehaviour. The very term encapsulated a cultural and judicial concept of the legal and administrative process through which pre-modern Portuguese society dealt with the female scold.

22 A study of women and public offices in early modern Portugal is currently underway.

23 A study of early modern Portuguese women’s rights of legal intervention is also currently underway.

24 Indeed, there is some evidence that labouring women were aware that they were targeted by officialdom. See Braga (2015b).

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Darlene Abreu-Ferreira, « Female foul language and foul female agents in pre-modern Portugal »Ler História, 71 | 2017, 9-32.

Referência eletrónica

Darlene Abreu-Ferreira, « Female foul language and foul female agents in pre-modern Portugal »Ler História [Online], 71 | 2017, posto online no dia 06 janeiro 2018, consultado no dia 06 dezembro 2020. URL:; DOI:

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Darlene Abreu-Ferreira

University of Winnipeg, Canada

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