A brief history of Anglo-American virtue politics

Why hypocrisy matters

A while ago I read an interesting article in the New Statesman by the novelist Jonathan Coe entitled The Brexit referendum tells the story of the radicalisation of Middle England. This argues for the importance of two incidents during Gordon Brown’s premiership on undermining voters’ trust in Parliament and MPs generally. One was the Parliamentary expenses scandal in 2009, the other was Gordon Brown’s reference in the General Election campaign of 2010 to a Labour voter called Gillian Duffy as a “bigot” after her making comments about immigration.

In both cases, Coe argues, the key reason these events resonated beyond their actual significance was because of the hypocrisy involved: of a “political class professing virtue in public while privately milking the system for all it was worth” and of Gordon Brown saying one thing to the woman’s face and another behind her back (his gaffe was caught by a live microphone he’s forgotten about). These became part of a narrative for “Middle England” about rottenness at the heart of England.

It’s tempting at this point just to see this as part of a wider attempt by powerful right-wing media interests to discredit the Labour Party or liberalism more generally (including more centrist Tories). But I don’t think it’s just because of that that Gordon Brown was more vulnerable to a gaffe than Boris Johnson is. I think it’s also the difference between a political party led by the virtuous and a political party for the virtuous and the contrasting dangers of hypocrisy for such parties.

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Understanding economic research 1: Braunstein, “Patriarchy versus Islam” (2014)

One of the new skills I’m going to need for my Patriarchy Project is understanding and critiquing research in economic history and economics, which often uses a very different methodology, far more quantitative and model-based than I’m used to. I want to do some blogging to see what I can get out of such papers at my current state of knowledge. I also want to see what I still need to work on understanding, because some critique is only possible once I understand the models and their limitations better. This post is therefore mainly for clarifying my own thoughts, though I’d welcome anybody pointing out any egregious misunderstandings on my part.

I’m going to start with an economics paper that looks very relevant to the project: Elissa Braunstein, “Patriarchy versus Islam: gender and religion in economic growth“, Feminist Economics 20 (2014):58-86. DOI: 10.1080/13545701.2014.934265.

Abstract: This contribution evaluates whether affiliation with Islam is a theoretically and statistically robust proxy for patriarchal preferences when studying the relationship between gender inequality and economic growth. A cross-country endogenous growth analysis shows that direct measures of patriarchal institutions dominate a variety of religious affiliation variables and model specifications in explaining country growth rates, and that using religious affiliation, particularly Islam, as a control for culture produces misleading conclusions. This result is robust to the inclusion of measures of gender inequality in education and income, indicating that establishing and maintaining patriarchal institutions (a process this study calls “patriarchal rent-seeking”) exact economic growth costs over and above those measured by standard gender inequality variables. One of the key contributions of this study is to draw on unique institutional data from the Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development’s Gender, Institutions and Development (GID) database to better understand the gendered dynamics of growth.

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The Carolingian preudomme?

I haven’t yet had a chance to read David Crouch’s new book  The Chivalric Turn: Conduct and Hegemony in Europe before 1300, but his The Birth of Nobility: Constructing Aristocracy in England and France: 900-1300 (2005) contains a long discussion of the preudomme, a figure whom Crouch believes exemplified noble male conduct before chivalry. Crouch argues that this model is already visible in texts such as the Chanson de Roland from  c.1100, and that some eleventh century texts, such as the lives of the knights turned saints Herluin of Bec, Count Bouchard I of Vendôme and Simon de Crépy show similar behaviour.

Crouch states (Birth of Nobility, pp. 40-41):

That is perhaps as far as we can go in antedating his [the preudomme‘s] appearance as an ideal social type in French lay culture, although historians of Carolingian culture might have an opinion on this.

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Scholarship in Dark Times

When I’d just started getting interested in early medieval history several decades ago, I bought a second-hand book I’d stumbled across:  J.H. Clapham and Eileen Power (eds), The Cambridge Economic History of Europe From the Decline of the Roman Empire. Volume 1, The Agrarian Life of the Middle Ages (Cambridge University Press, 1941).

Sir John Henry Clapham by Lafayette
NPG x41520, © National Portrait Gallery, London

I never got that far reading the volume (and there’s a later edition anyway). But I continue to keep and treasure the book for the preface by John Clapham alone, dated Christmas 1940. Here are some extracts:

There should have been two sets of initials at the end of this Preface, but the more important set is not there. My colleague and very dear friend Eileen Power had just finished some editorial work on the last chapter and the bibliographies when she was struck down in an instant of time, not by that which may strike anyone to-day but by utterly unexpected disease [She died of heart failure, aged 51]. With her this work loses the editor upon whom, as a medievalist, the main responsibility for the first three volumes rested.

Clapham goes on:

This volume has been assembled with difficulty. Work of this kind can be done only on an international basis and, for the time being, that basis has failed us.  When the volume and its two immediate successors were planned, in 1934, international co-operation was still possible. But it became harder each year. The author of Chapter 1 [Richard Koebner] when he accepted our offer was a Professor in Breslau. Transference to Jerusalem, with the accompanying need to master the art of lecturing in Hebrew, interfered with the completion of what seems to us a great piece of work. An Italian scholar accepted our offer to write the Italian section of Chapter VII but was unable to deliver the MS. He was replaced by a Danish student of Italian agrarian conditions; the Dane unexpectedly died. His successor is a Finn [Gunnar Mickwith] who, with great determination, finished the section before he had occasion to write from ‘somewhere in Finland’ in November 1939 that he hoped to get back to economic history but that ‘it was a small thing compared with the independence of his country’. We have not heard from him since [A review of the book from 1942 describes him as ‘slain in battle’].  Our Spanish contributor sadly threw up his task because he was a refugee in Santander and his notes were in Seville. There has been no later news of him either. We were fortunate in finding an American scholar [Robert S. Smith] who was willing at short notice to take his place. Of Professor [Jan] Rutkowski all that we know with certainty is that he cannot be at his University of Poznán; we believe that Professor [François-Louis] Ganshof, an officer of the reserve, is alive in Belgium; and that Professor Marc Bloch, after serving with the armies, is safe in America. [Rutkowski and Ganshof survived the war, Bloch was shot by the Gestapo].

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“Morality and Masculinity in the Carolingian Empire” in global perspective

One of the many exciting and challenging ideas from Eduardo Manzano Moreno’s recent talk “Is it possible to write a Global History of the Middle Ages?” (now available online on the IHR’s YouTube channel) was his suggestion that even the most locally focused medieval history project could be connected into global history (or at least hemispherical history, because there’s a connectedness between African, Asian and European histories in the Middle Ages, that there isn’t with Oceania or the Americas). So in that spirit I want to talk about some ways in which the monograph of my PhD, Morality and Masculinity in the Carolingian Empire (MMCE) might connect to wider issues.

At first glance, MMCE isn’t a particularly “local” study, in that it ranges across the whole of the Carolingian Empire, one of the biggest polities in medieval Europe. But even that empire was small compared to many contemporaneous Middle Eastern and Asian empires and it was also a lot less economically advanced, so it’s still a relatively localised view. How does my study of an aspect of that corner of the hemisphere connect into the bigger picture of the Global Middle Ages?

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Patriarchy project 1c: Limitations on owning or administering own property/wealth

Note: This is another preliminary analysis of an aspect of my patriarchy project.


Legal and social restrictions on owning possessions and on being able to manage them were one of the most significant patriarchal structures for women from the property-owning classes. (Obviously, they had much less significance for poor women). At the most basic level, if you don’t have any money or any control of your own money, you are totally reliant on whatever man owns or controls your wealth, even for basics such as food and shelter. You also lose much access to legal protection to change this situation (since effective access to law courts normally costs money).

Theophanu charter

(Part of marriage charter of Otto II and Theophanu, 972)

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Elitism and the First Millennium

Before and after Muhammad
Cover of “Before and After Muhammad”

Garth Fowden’s Before and After Muhammad: The First Millennium Refocused (2014) is a slightly awkward hybrid of a history of the First Millennium CE as well as an argument for a new type of history of the period. (He is currently writing a book called Exiting Antiquity: Afro-Eurasian perspectives on the First Millennium which will be purely a history: he describes Before and After Muhammad as an “interpretative essay” and a “prelude” to this second work, which has not yet appeared). I’ve recently read several other books which look across most or the whole of the first millennium (Peter Frankopan’s The Silk Roads, Chris Wickham’s The Inheritance of Rome). I found Fowden’s book less successful and prone to one of the biggest dangers of world history: an alienating elitist approach.

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The company of strangers then and now

Company of strangers

Paul Seabright’s The Company of Strangers: A Natural History of Economic Life, is an interesting, though slightly strange book. I’ve just finished the revised edition (2010) of a book first published in 2004. It was therefore first published before the financial crisis, rewritten after that and I’m now reading it in the midst of the coronavirus pandemic. Inevitably, that gives new emphases to some aspects and makes some of Seabright’s judgements questionable.

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Would Oxbridge lotteries make admissions fairer?

Roulette wheel

An article by Sonia Sodha in the Guardian last year suggested that places at Oxbridge might be allocated by ballot, for all those who pass a certain threshold. She sees this as a way of removing bias introduced by interviewing. We know that state school applicants have a lower probability of success than independent school applicants overall at both Oxford (see Annual Admissions Statistical report May 2019, https://www.ox.ac.uk/sites/files/oxford/Admissions%20Report%202019.pdf Table 4.1 at p. 16) and Cambridge (see Undergraduate Admissions Statistics 2018 cycle, https://www.undergraduate.study.cam.ac.uk/sites/www.undergraduate.study.cam.ac.uk/files/publications/ug_admissions_statistics_2018_cycle.pdf (Table 1.1 at p. 4).

Would a lottery therefore improve the chances of state school students? I want to argue that this would not necessarily happen, and I want to look in detail at one subject (mathematics) to argue this.

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Is there room for medieval history in general narratives?


Musk deer

I’ve been thinking recently about whether medieval history should still be taught in general history courses, both in British schools and also in university traditions (such as the US one) which make some history courses compulsory for all students. My initial thoughts were prompted by calls by the Black Lives Matter movement for UK schools to teach more about the British Empire. Given how overloaded the secondary school history curriculum already is, that means having to sacrifice some other topics. Should it be medieval history?

The reason I continued thinking about this topic was a semi-serious post I read (since deleted, so I won’t link to it or reveal its author) suggesting that the Middle Ages (i.e. medieval western Europe) was just too white to make it an acceptable teaching topic anymore and that attempts to include non-white people within it came across as embarrassing tokenism. The post was written in a US context, but I got the same sensation when I saw a Guardian wallchart on black history which includes St Augustine. (He’s in the printed version, but not the online version). Augustine certainly counts as an African and was probably part-Berber in genetic terms, although not cultural (he could only speak Latin, not the local language). But it’s hard to see him as black in any sense that we’d understand the word today.

But as I thought about this more, some of the other things I was reading, as well as papers I was listening to at the Virtual International Medieval Congress I’ve recently attended, persuaded me that there is a place for medieval western Europe in general history that doesn’t have to rely on the old narratives of Western Civilization.

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