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The Fascinating History of the Mysterious Peeping Tom

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Ravi loves writing within the cusp of relationships, history, and the bizarre, where boundaries are blurred and possibilities are immense.

The Fascinating History of the Mysterious Peeping Tom

The Fascinating History of the Mysterious Peeping Tom

Who Was ‘Tom’ in the Phrase "Peeping Tom"?

We all know who a "Peeping Tom" is. The expression is usually to describe a voyeuristic (and a disgusting) person who enjoys secretly watching naked people.

The phrase first appeared in the historical archival of the English city of Coventry in 1773. The archives mention that the city had recently purchased a wig and paint for an oak effigy of ‘Peeping Tom’, using money from the town’s coffers. So, who was this effigy of? Why did the people take all the trouble to create one?

To understand this, we need to go back to the 11th century to understand the story of a real person called Lady Godiva. Lady Godiva comes across as a humble, generous, and beautiful noblewoman who was loved by the populace.

And as the story goes, Lady Godiva once rode through the city’s streets on horseback, totally naked, in protest of her husband’s unfair taxation of the people.

Here was where our Peeping Tom came in. The people out of respect for her averted their gaze as she did the deed but a tailor called Thomas couldn’t resist catching a glimpse of the lady in the buff and so drilled a hole in his shutters to watch her ride by.

We don’t know what exactly happened to Tom after the voyeuristic act. Some say he was blinded by Lady Godiva’s beauty. While some say he was put to death and some also say that an infuriated mob stoned him to death for insulting their savior.

Whatever be the reason, the infamous expression stuck on and became a common moniker for describing a person who derives enjoyment – usually sexual – from secretly watching people during their most intimate moments.

Lady Godiva is a legitimate historical figure, born in 990 A.D.

Lady Godiva is a legitimate historical figure, born in 990 A.D.

The Story of the Peeping Tom

Lady Godiva is a legitimate historical figure, born in 990 A.D.

She was the wife of Earl Leofric and mother of Ælfgar, Earl of East Anglia. Her granddaughter was Aldgyth, of Edith, wife of King Harold. Godiva was a wealthy landowner in her own right, with vast estates.

She was a patron of several religious houses, including the Benedictine abbey of St Mary in Coventry. She was a deeply spiritual woman, as evidenced by her lavish gifts to monasteries.

The story of her nude ride first appeared 100 years after her death from the writings of the monk, Roger of Wendover, who recorded it in his memoirs.

As the story goes, in the year 1057, Earl Leofric imposed punishing taxes on his subjects, including the citizens of Coventry. Lady Godiva, being a pious woman who was deeply concerned about the welfare of her citizens appealed to the Earl to have pity and abolish the taxes. The Earl did not relent and after a lot of argument, he finally agreed to an impossible condition.

“Mount your horse naked and ride through the marketplace of the town, from one side right to the other, while the people are congregated, and when you return you shall claim what you desire.”

Lady Godiva fulfilled the condition. She freed her long flowing hair and accompanied by two-foot soldiers, she mounted her horse and rode through the marketplace with only her hair covering her private parts. Earl Leofric was true to his word and freed the town of Coventry from its heavy burden of taxes, confirming the deed with an official charter.

Note that Roger of Wendover's version does not mention "Peeping Tom" at all.

The first reference to the Peeping Tom character comes in R Grafton's chronicles. Grafton says that before Godiva executed her plan, she called the city officials to instruct the populace not to "see" her as she rides naked through the city.

The officials ordered all citizens to stay indoors, shut their windows, and avert their eyes. All obeyed except one citizen who gawked at her lustily as she rode past him. He was Thomas the tailor also called "Tom".

Still later, it was claimed that the man who peeped at Godiva was put to death for his temerity, and another version claimed that his eyes were put out by the outraged citizenry. In another part of the legend, He was struck blind by divine intervention for disobeying and forever after was known as "Peeping Tom".

Lady Godiva fulfilled the condition. She freed her long flowing hair and accompanied by two-foot soldiers, she mounted her horse and rode through the marketplace with only her hair covering her private parts

Lady Godiva fulfilled the condition. She freed her long flowing hair and accompanied by two-foot soldiers, she mounted her horse and rode through the marketplace with only her hair covering her private parts

Did It Really Happen?

There are several gaps in the story.

To begin with, Lady Godiva was one of the few women in the country who was herself a landowner, controlling several large estates around Coventry and the surrounding area. This makes it highly unlikely for her to "plead" to her husband to abolish the taxes when she had the power to do so herself.

Secondly, Coventry itself would have been a small settlement at that time with a population of fewer than 500 people and was not more than a village. So, considering the status and power associated with Lady Godiva, it is highly unlikely that she needs to ride on the buff for the rights of a small "village". She could have done it by a mere twirl of her finger.

So, did Roger of Wendover get it wrong? Most probably yes.

Lady Godiva's "nakedness" might be to do more with her ‘dressing down’ rather than going naked to support the peasantry. Dressing 'below her station' (without jewelry, finery, or furs) would be seen as a significant protest against her husband in support of the people. So, a ‘naked’ Lady Godiva might have been in reality a ‘simply dressed ‘lady without the royal airs.

Another interpretation can be part of the pagan tradition that existed in Britain and Scandinavia centuries ago. According to the tradition, a naked woman riding a horse through a town or village is considered a symbol of the fertility goddess blessing the place. The tradition also mentions a "Peeping Tom" who was sacrificed to the goddess to ensure the continued fertility of the community's crops and animals.

So here is the thing; the Peeping Tom wasn’t a real person, but a twisted story concocted around a real-life noblewoman. And the very fact that the story persists till now is because a famous woman (read celebrity in today’s world) chooses to go nude (due to whatever reasons).

I guess the human obsession with exhibitionism (read flashing to surprise or shock the observers) has not changed over the years!!!!

Sources

This content reflects the personal opinions of the author. It is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and should not be substituted for impartial fact or advice in legal, political, or personal matters.

Comments

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on May 13, 2021:

Thanks Tobe

Peace Tobe Dike from Delta State, Nigeria. on May 13, 2021:

Informative...thank you for sharing.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on May 13, 2021:

Thanks Lorna for the comments

Lorna Lamon on May 13, 2021:

I have often wondered where the phrase 'Peeping Tom' came from and had no idea that it was linked to 'Lady Godiva'. Thank you for sharing this enlightening article.

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on May 13, 2021:

Thanks Peggy for the comments

Peggy Woods from Houston, Texas on May 13, 2021:

Your account is an interesting twist on an old tale about Lady Godiva. I would never have associated the term "Peeping Tom" with Lady Godiva. As tales go, these are pretty good ones. As to her being a real historical figure, I learned something new today. Thanks!

Ravi Rajan (author) from Mumbai on May 13, 2021:

Thanks Misbah for your comments

Misbah Sheikh from The World of Poets on May 13, 2021:

I have never heard of Lady Godiva before. Thanks for sharing

Blessings and Peace

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