One of the most striking features of the ‘Foot Voyage’ is the narrator’s consistent use of the phrase ‘my gossip’ to refer to Jonson. This phrase, in fact, occurs 92 times in total – making ‘gossip’ one of the most commonly occurring words in the account. Yet the sense in which it’s used here is unfamiliar to modern readers, so it merits a degree of explanation.
What, or rather who, is a gossip? To us, of course, it means idle talk, tittle tattle, usually concerning other people’s – often supposedly private, at least personal – affairs. Hence, too, it’s a noun for those who engage in such chatter. And it’s not all that respectable: say the phrase ‘gossip columnist’ and the concomitant mental image isn’t usually anything like Woodward and Bernstein.
Now, this meaning was certainly current in the early seventeenth century – and it usually carried, as it still does now, a distinctly gendered (not to say misogynistic) charge. Gossips were female, and they chattered away incontinently and inconsequentially. They could be played on stage for laughs, as Jonson himself knew: in his play The Staple of News he included a parodic chorus consisting of ‘Gossip Mirth’, ‘Gossip Expectation’, ‘Gossip Censure’ and, unsurprisingly, ‘Gossip Tattle’, ‘
gentlewomen lady-like attired‘. Given that this was written for an all-male stage, the resulting impersonations can be seen as the perhaps not too remote ancestors of characters like Monty Python’s head-scarved or pinny-wrapped women, or TV’s very own Cissie and Ada. Of course, we’re past all that now, aren’t we?
Yet just as current was a meaning now entirely lost to us. In The Staple, the gossips take up seats at the edge of the stage, to which they are entitled – they say – as ‘
persons of quality‘. (This was one of those strange customs of the early modern indoor stages: some of the most sought after seats in the house were stools on the margins of the playing area. Let’s bring it back at the Sam Wanamaker playhouse.) Yet when the Prologue asks them ‘
what will the Noblemen think, or the grave Wits here, to see you seated on the bench thus?‘ Gossip Mirth replies ‘
Why, what should they think? But that they had Mothers, as we had, and those Mothers had Gossips (if their children were christened) as we are, and such as had a longing to see Plays, and sit upon them, as we do, and arraign both them, and their Poets.‘ The obvious comedy here is no doubt to be drawn from the gossips’ presumption of both social and critical standing; but what gives it something of an edge is their grounding of their own claims to status in genuinely weighty social roles: motherhood, of course, but also other kinds of kinship, created not by blood but by baptism.
A gossip, etymologically (but also, for Jonson’s era, currently), was a god-sib, a sibling made such by standing as godparent to one’s child. So your gossips would be your children’s godparents, or the parents of those children for whom you were godparent, or those who were godparents to the same child as you – and they could, of course, be both male and female. So while a gaggle of gossips might bring to mind the kind of domestic or familial intimacy that the early modern world usually saw as feminine, gossips could still, in an uncomplicated way, be men.
Complication, though, arises from the fact that the term could be used to mean other kinds of intimacy. Still in relation to spiritual kinship, your gossip could be your own godparent – bringing in a cross-generational aspect that would seem to sit badly with the word’s roots in ‘sib’ or sibling. And it could also be used imprecisely, or figuratively, to mean – as the OED fetchingly puts it – ‘
a familiar acquaintance, friend, chum‘. It could be used for erotic, or at least eroticised, bonds: in their correspondence, both King James and his favourite, George Villiers, Duke of Buckingham, addressed each other as ‘gossip’.
So when our narrator calls Ben Jonson his gossip, what does he mean? The short, perhaps disappointing answer is that we can’t tell for sure. What we can say is that he’s laying claim to intimacy: ‘my gossip’, as he says on each of those 92 occasions. Jonson may be the big man (in several senses), the celebrity, the famous and feted author, but to me he’s family. He may be heavy, but he’s also (something like) my brother.