Old Wives' Tales, George Peele, and Narrative Abjection

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  • 1 Southern Illinois University maryelamb@aol.com
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Included in a work revealingly titled Terrors of the Night, Nashe’s reminiscence from childhood reveals the extent to which he had become a full communicant in the superstitious mysteries shared by the old women of his childhood. As Adam Fox has noted for this and other passages, ‘At the juvenile level… the repertoire of unlearned village women coincided for a brief but significant period with that of the educated male elite’. As Nashe’s evocative title suggests, however, these repertoires did more than coincide. The ‘witchcrafts’ that Nashe valued enough as a boy to learn by rote not only lost their usefulness: they became objects of contempt. The more common use of the phrase ‘old wives’ tales’ to refer to the lore of unlearned women conveys a similar sense of stigma. In this essay, I discuss various texts, finally focussing on Peele’s Old Wives Tale, to explore the implications of this shared repertoire within the wider context of a culture whose antagonism to illiterate old women participated in ideologies deeply formative to early moderns and their literatures.

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