The medieval “burgher construction” of women

Shennan Hutton, Women and Economic Activities in Late Medieval Ghent (Palgrave, 2011) (https://link.springer.com/book/10.1057/9780230118706) gives a tightly-focused and persuasive argument that fourteenth-century Ghent had a distinctive idea of women’s economic roles. She calls it the “burgher construction” and lays out its key characteristics (p. 4):

1) Property was equally divisible between sons and daughters, apart from land held in fief

2) Most marital property was held in community, but wives held some land as personal property

3) The surviving spouse inherited half of the communal property

4) Family kinship networks mattered on both sides of the family

5) Married women had the right to be involved in the management of their personal property and did not need a husband/guardian to act for them

She also points out that records of women’s legal acts often do not mention their marital status (unmarried/married/widowed), suggesting it was not legally important.

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What can we say about late antique women?

I recently attended the International Medieval Congress in Leeds for the first time since 2019 (IMC 2020 and 2021 were online-only because of Covid). However, because this is now a hybrid in-person/online event, most of the sessions are recorded and available to watch later. Thanks to this combination of live attendance and the wonders of catch-up, I have now seen all seven sessions on “Women and Gender in the Post-Roman Kingdoms/Post-Roman Successor States”, which Eric Fournier and Maijastina Kahlos organized (and somehow managed to sneak past the IMC’s normal rules on the maximum number of sessions on one topic).

Gold solidus of Empress Pulcheria (Image from CNG Coins)

The sessions and the papers presented were as follows (from the full programme):

617a Grace, Free Will, and ‘Unavoidable’ Sex: Women in Service in the Early Medieval West – Lisa Bailey

617-b Gendered Disasters in the Post-Roman West – Kristina Sessa

617-c Representing Gender-Based Violence in Late Antiquity and Beyond – Victoria Leonard

717-a Rendering Visible the Invisible: Servants and Slave-Girls in Jerome’s Letters – Jessica van t’Westeinde

717-b Holy Land as Refuge: Push Factors as Motivators for Late Roman Elite Female Pilgrims – Marlena Whiting

717-c Roles of Imperial Women: Pulcheria and the Bigger Picture – Belinda Washington

817-a Women According to the Lombard Laws – Laury Sarti

817-b The Significance of Women and Children in Jordanes’ Getica – Brian Swain

1006-a   No Country for Old Women?: Women and Religious Dissidence in the Post-Roman World – Maijastina Kahlos

1006-b  Hidden Heroines: The Appropriation of Women’s Voices in Late Antique Latin Literature – Hope Williard

1106-a   Women at the Boundaries of the Church in Late Antique Burgundy: Sex, Incest, and Gendered Absence – Becca Grose

1106-b Women in the Lex Burgundionum – Audrey Becker

1106-c Captive Queens and Rebellious Nuns: A Reexamination of the ‘Scandal’ in Poitiers – Rachel Singer

1206- a The Abbess and the Inscription: A Material Perspective on Women’s Monasticism in Visigothic Spain – Grace Stafford

1206-b  Formative Spaces: Making Female Ascetics in Early Medieval Iberia – Jamie Wood,

1206-c Narratives of Female Martyrdom in Visigothic Spain – Maria Mar Marcos Sanchez

1306-a   Constructing Gender and Social Identity in the Poetry of Vandal-Era Carthage – Mark Lewis Tizzoni

1306-b Women and Gender in Vandal Africa – Eric Fournier

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Modern patriarchy: all the way down?

I’ve recently finished reading Nina Power, What Do Men Want? Masculinity and Its Discontents (Allan Lane, 2022), which is a fairly bad attempt to argue that some aspects of masculinity are positive and should be maintained in the modern world. It unfortunate that it’s not a well-argued book, because I’m sympathetic to the view that some men do get a very raw deal in twenty-first-century capitalist society.

However, Power’s book made me think of another question connected to the wider background of my patriarchy project. Some of the patriarchal structures I discuss in a historical context still exist in today’s world. I talked a few months ago about how patriarchal advantages probably didn’t apply to men of some subordinate religions or races in the premodern world. Now I want to consider whether male advantage still holds for all social classes within the modern UK.

Homeless man by a wall (by Garry Knight)
https://www.flickr.com/photos/garryknight/12459375745

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Deadly egalitarians and grateful children

This post is inspired by several recent things I’ve been reading as background for the patriarchy project. The first is Christopher Boehm, Moral origins: the evolution of virtue, altruism, and shame (Basic Books, 2012) and his intriguing hypothesis about the development of egalitarianism and moral thought more generally in prehistoric forager societies. Boehm was an American anthropologist (he died in 2021) who triangulated between the behaviour of great apes and modern forager bands to argue that egalitarianism (in the sense of the equality of all hunters in a group) was a development made by early humans, replacing the dominance of bands by alpha males characteristic of great apes. This change was initially made by coalitions of subordinate males who could resist, and in some cases even kill, any would-be alpha male who tried to bully them.

Skhul V skull of anatomically modern human from around 90,000 years ago.
Photo by Wapaponda
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The last non-graduate PM?

The last British Prime Minister who didn’t have a degree was John Major (1990-1997). What I’m wondering at the moment is whether he’s going to be the last ever non-graduate Prime Minister of the UK (or any successor states). Is it still feasible for someone without a degree-level education to reach that position?

That I think Major may be the last isn’t just because of the professionalisation of the political class or its increasingly middle-class nature, but also because of the extension of higher education. The only two leaders of the opposition in the last forty years who haven’t been graduates have been Iain Duncan Smith and Jeremy Corbyn, both from middle class background, but without much academic aptitude. The same is true of another recently successful politicians without a degree, Nigel Farage.

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Premodern patriarchy: intersections with class, race and religion

Right from the start of the Patriarchy Project, I knew that I would have to consider the impact of the intersection of class with sex/gender in the premodern world and my initial definition of “patriarchy” included this aspect:

Patriarchy is a system of social practices and institutions which gives men more power and opportunities for power than women of the same social class

I included this reference to class because it seemed obvious to me that you could schematically represent part of the hierarchy of power and status within medieval social groups in the following way:

Noblemen

Noblewomen

Male peasants

Female peasants

This is a vast simplification, of course, of the many complex layers of medieval society and misses some particular situations of vulnerability even for high-status women, but it does give some sense of the type of hierarchy, with class normally trumping gender. In contrast, here’s the classic suffragette poster:  What a Woman may be, and yet not have the Vote, in which morally superior and in some cases more qualified and middle-class women are denied the vote that poor and disreputable men have.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

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Evolutionary approaches and history

I’ve been reading some interesting work on what evolutionary approaches can bring to the study of gender in human society, including Bobbi Low, Why Sex Matters: A Darwinian Look a Human Behavior (revised ed, 2015) and Richard G Bribiescas, Evolutionary and life history insights into masculinity and warfare. Current Anthropology 62 (2021), DOI: 10.1086/711688. These works are a lot more nuanced than some of the evolutionary psychology I’ve read in the past, accepting the interaction of social/cultural and ecological components with biology, rather than assuming an unchanging male psyche. I’ve heard historians call evolutionary psychology the enemy of history and especially feminist history, but this research doesn’t give that impression. But precisely because it’s careful and interesting work, it confirms my views in the limitations of the field’s use for historians.

This is made explicit at points, as when Bribiescas says (p. 2): “Because of the necessity of a deep time perspective and changes in populations, evolutionary and life history theories often lack the precision to predict specific events or individual behavior.” It’s precisely at that relatively small-scale level that much historical study takes place. Alan MacFarlane may want to look at the ten-thousand year old roots of the Industrial Revolution, but most historians studying the Industrial Revolution would look at a handful of countries over at most five hundred years, which in global and chronological terms is a tiny part of humanity.

Similarly, many of Low’s arguments rely on the “phenotypic gambit” assumption: that enough time has passed for the interaction of genes and behaviours to come into equilibrium, so that the most common behaviour is the (locally) optimal strategy for inclusive fitness. However, it’s a lot easier to assume that for mice (with generations of a few months) or even cats (with generations of 2 years), than humans (with generations of 20-25 years). Ten generations of humans (200-250 years) in most historical societies would see a lot of changes to the social and physical environment. With the possible exception of small-scale societies isolated from others, it’s unlikely that you’re going to reach that equilibrium position. Certainly, for Western Europe in the first fifteen centuries of the common era (the boundaries for my patriarchy project), it’s hard to think of societies that were that unaffected by outside factors for that long. And Low also comments (p. 164): “We cannot assume, for humans today, that any particular behavior is, or is not, adaptive.”

But I also want to talk in this post about a number of other reasons why evolutionary approaches are not very helpful for one of the main concerns of historians: theorizing people’s motivations in a particular historical society.

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Downward social mobility

A while ago, Stephen Bush in the New Statesman wrote about an aspect of social mobility that isn’t often discussed: the need for downward social mobility:

Part of the reason why a kid in a seat the Conservatives first won in 2019 is not getting a job as a barrister is because a barrister in a seat the Conservatives have held since 1906 is giving unfair opportunity to their idiot nephew, or to a friend’s child.

That’s the sharp end of the social mobility debate that politicians have generally been reluctant to touch. As Vince Cable, a rare exception to that rule, once observed, the son of an investment banker who ends up working as a cloakroom assistant is also an example of social mobility: indeed, for the most part, it is a necessary precondition of social mobility.

His suggestion was that there ought to be “hard discussions about unfair and opaque hiring practices that entrench rather than spread privileges”.

Jonn Elledge similarly complained about how:

Britain’s more privileged classes are very good at ensuring that those thicker, more useless offspring don’t tumble down the class ladder… but instead still go to university, before joining one of the white-collar professions that act as havens for thick and useless people.

Elledge gets nearer to the details of the process, but I think both miss some important points. And I want to approach them via an example of downward social and professional mobility: that of my paternal (adoptive) family.

My paternal grandfather’s house as it looks in 2021
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The invention of the housewife

All I am is just a housewife

Nothing special, nothing great

What I do is kinda boring

If you’d rather, it can wait

All I am is someone’s mother

All I am is someone’s wife

All of which seems unimportant

All it is is just my life

Do the laundry, wash the dishes

Take the dog out, clean the house

Shop for groceries, look for specials

God it sounds so, Mickey Mouse

Drop the kids off, pick the shirts up

Try to lose weight, try again

Keep the troops fed, pick their things up

Lose your patience, count to ten

Lyrics from “Just a housewife”, from the musical “Working” (1977)
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