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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From five miles to couch: morbid thoughts

Cambridge University Library

On the last day before I personally entered lockdown, Friday 13th March 2020, my Fitbit tells me I walked 12,410 steps, which is probably more like six miles than five. It’s more than I used to walk on an average day, but not unusual. I’d gone to Cambridge to return some books to the University Library and borrow some more; I have similar trips where I do a lot of walking round a city several times most months. When I got home on Friday it was to find my husband sick with suspected Covid-19; by Monday I had symptoms of whatever illness he had myself.Read More »

 Patriarchy project 1b: Household as economic unit

The household economy has been and continues to be a fundamental component of patriarchal structures in most historical and contemporary societies, but it’s quite hard to pin it down in terms of significance and historiography. As a phenomenon, it sits somewhat uneasily in the overlap of economic history, family history and social history. It’s also particularly difficult to discuss in general terms, because households and household economies differed so much between classes/social status groups. The domestic economy of a medieval noble household or an urban patrician family was strikingly different from that of a peasant household in terms of scale and organisation. And yet there’s enough commonality that I think we can find some parallels for analysis.

Viking loom weights: image by Nick Thompson (https://www.flickr.com/photos/pelegrino/27326687088/)

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Patriarchy project 1a: job segregation and lower pay

Women reaping (image from C13 Germany)

I wanted to start the patriarchy project by looking at economic aspects and work, because that affected women at most social levels and even if they were lifelong single. In addition, because so much of premodern education involved being trained in skills for the employment (paid or unpaid) that you were later expected to have, relatively small children were already learning gendered job roles. I suspect that in all premodern periods young girls (6 or 7 maybe) were already starting to learn to spin, sew, cook and look after younger children and babies, whereas their brothers weren’t. (I need to read more about what skills young boys learned that girls didn’t, especially boys from the middle and lower classes). Some of these early-learned skills would later become sources of income. Job segregation (unequal distribution of women and men across different jobs) thus had roots early in one’s life and this in turn affected pay.

So here are some initial thoughts on this component of patriarchy.Read More »

Patriarchy Project 0: what am I trying to do?

I’m still going to have my work as a librarian to do in the next few months, so I’m not going to have a lot of extra corona virus lockdown time to do any research. But I thought that I should at least blog in a bit more detail about the new project I’m trying to start.

What I’m hoping to do is look at the long-term development of patriarchy in Western Europe. By long-term, I’d ideally looking to cover from the Roman period until about 1700 CE, so going a long way out of my comfort zone, which means I’ll be relying largely on secondary literature.

I gave a preliminary paper about this project at the University of Bedfordshire last year: the PowerPoint and script are on my Academia.edu webpage. That paper included (and provided an explanation for) my provisional definition of “patriarchy”:

A system of social practices and institutions which give men more power and opportunities for power than women of the same social class

To change the terminology a little (I’m still trying to work out the best terms to use), I’m regarding patriarchy as an institution in Avner Greif’s sense, “An institution is a system of rules, beliefs, norms, and organizations that together generate a regularity of (social) behavior.” (Institutions and the Path to the Modern Economy: Lessons from Medieval Trade, p. 30)

In order to get a better sense of change over time (or lack of it), I want to look at different individual components within the system of patriarchy. What I’m planning to do in this series of blogposts is therefore go further than my preliminary paper, putting down some initial thoughts about the different components of patriarchy I’ll be studying. For each component, I want to sketch the following aspects:

Effects: how does a particular component disadvantage women, relative to men of the same social class?

Change over time: my preliminary thoughts on this (which will probably get modified greatly by actually doing more reading).

Causes: I want to go beyond simple ideas of “male oppression” to explain the development and persistence of patriarchy. What specific groups of men in a society benefit from particular components and how? Are there men with contrary interests in that society and how are they acting?

Women’s agency: do we see individual women or groups of them working around/within this patriarchal component? How are some women able to get through the net and manage to do what they want to do?

Here’s my current list of components, though this may get changed as I investigate further:

1) Economic

a) Job segregation and lower pay

b) Household as economic unit (additional domestic work, lack of independence)

c) Limitations on owning or administering own property/wealth

d) Limited inheritance rights for widows/daughters

e) Inequality in divorce settlements

f) Differential patterns of unfreedom/slavery

2) Education and training

a) Exclusion/limitation of school-age education

b) Exclusion/limitation from training/apprenticeships

c) Exclusion from higher education

3) Sex and marriage

a) Disdain of female bodies (menstruation/childbirth as uncleanliness, blame for sterility)

b) Restrictions on contraception and abortion

c) Lack of support/care in pregnancy, childbirth and breastfeeding

d) Double standards on sexual behaviour (virginity, premarital sex, extramarital sex, women’s sexual activity as male property)

e) Prostitution (effect on prostitutes and non-prostitutes)

f) Restrictions on choice of marriage partner

g) Divorce (differential grounds, custody rules)

h) Compulsory heterosexuality

4) Violence

a) Exclusion from rewards of violence (wealth/social status/political status)

b) Treatment in war

c) Rape and sexual violence

d) Domestic violence

5) Politics and government

a) Exclusion from most religious offices

b) Exclusion from most secular offices

c) Exclusion from assemblies

d) Restrictions on ability to act in law courts

6) Ideology and culture

a) Religious ideology of female inferiority

b) Scientific ideology of female inferiority

c) Expectations of appropriate gender performance (body/costume/behaviour/activities)

d) Spatial restrictions on women/greater male homosociality opportunities

Consent and divorce in the medieval world

One of the key claims made by Elisabeth van Houts, Married Life in the Middle Ages (OUP, 2019) is that the twelfth-century move to making marriages depend on the couple’s consent alone, rather than that of their families was driven by young women, rather than the church. Her evidence is a series of women (and to a lesser extent men), both in narrative texts and medieval fiction, who resisted their parents’ demands about whom they should marry, or who eloped with their spouse of choice. Van Houts argues that the church eventually realised that marriages were more likely to be successful if the couple were compatible and moved towards a consensual theory of marriage.

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Does studying history increase social mobility?

The question in my title is inspired by a recent article by Kenan Malik that discusses the decision by Sunderland University to stop offering courses in modern foreign languages, politics and history. Its decision to close its modern languages department isn’t unusual: many universities have been doing so since the late 1990s, long before high student fees were a key issue (see a summary from 2013 by the Guardian).

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Sunderland University (image from Paulhaustead)
But Sunderland’s closure of the history and politics department has aroused more concern, with many historians condemning it as philistine, reflecting a purely market-orientated philosophy increasingly common in academia. Kenan Malik, however, goes further by linking this move to a report on declining social mobility within the UK and on the growing divide between London and other regions and between cities and towns. He states:

All this explains why Sunderland University’s decision is so depressing. It’s a university that, like many in the north-east, caters to students from the local area. Its repurposing seems to suggest that the study of the humanities should be reserved for the children of the rich, who can afford to move, while local working-class students should be confined to “vocational” subjects. Existing divisions will only deepen.

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