I have been following the US election more closely than normal this year (mainly because one of my favorite blogs is Obsidian Wings), but in the past few days Ive been particularly fascinated by the Sarah Palin story and the developing revelations around her. I even went so far as to read up on some of the (now disproved) rumours about her family life. Why did I break my normal dislike of gossip? There were lots of people (including many feminists) saying that other peoples private lives (and particularly other womens private lives) were none of our business, but I still did it.
But the thing is…my own professional business at the moment is translating Hincmars text on a royal divorce, and all the lurid allegations that contains about Queen Theutbergas sexual life. So the question arises: am I, as a historian, really any less of a muckraker than Andrew Sullivan? Or, conversely, do historians interest in private lives provide any suggestions as to why such modern day speculation might be justified?
I would say that the common arguments again modern-day gossip/prurience are generally sound. Indulging in this can encourage an unhealthy feeling of moral superiority/pride (I am better than those people) and such gossip is often full of double standards, particularly sexist double standards. It is often distressing to people to have their private lives discussed by others, and may worsen the family problems they are having. The consumption of gossip in the media encourages ever more intrusive reporting of those in the public eye and their families. My individual reading and commenting on rumours about Sarah Palins case, does not, I hope, add much to the strain on her family, but it does probably have some small detrimental effect, in a way that my investigation of Theutberga does not.
But its harder to argue that my own interest in Theutbergas private life is in principle, completely different from an interest in Sarah Palin. If (by some fluke of time-travel) there were medical records or photographs available for me to explore whether Theutberga was really sterile or had had an abortion, as her opponents alleged, I would be looking at them, just as historians have tried to establish whether it was Crohns disease that afflicted King Alfred. And historians are interested in sexual scandals: does anyone think that scholars of the Tudor period study the relationship of Henry VIII and Anne Boleyn purely as an insight into the development of the English Reformation? The only historian who thinks that Eleanor of Aquitaines official duties are more interesting than her private life is Jane Martindale. I am interested in Carolingian views on kingship and the relations between state and church, but if that was all I was interested in, I could study the case of Ebbo of Rheims just as easily as Theutbergas.
Hincmar, in his introduction to De Divortio, explains why the case was so important to everybody (and it was allegedly being talked about throughout all three kingdoms, even in the womens weaving sheds, suggesting that the appetite for gossip is a historical constant). Hincmar comments:
For, although this is a matter of a king and queen, namely man and wife…the case of all is generally affected, since marriage is called by the holy apostle a great sacrament in Christ and the Church, in which the salvation of all is believed to consist.
For him, the case mattered not only because it was about the rulers of the country, but also because it was about one of the universal basics of society, marriage. The parallels are interesting. In terms of power, Sarah Palin is a legitimate figure for a wide range of people to be interested in (more so than a sports star or a pop singer). Potentially, she could become the President of the United States and her decisions would then affect me and millions of non-Americans round the world. Similarly, questions about how people live their marital and family life and how they deal with problems within them (such as a baby with disabilities or an accidental pregnancy) have a universal interest. Most of us could imagine being in such a situation and wondering what decisions we would make.
Modern liberals, however, have increasingly argued that there should be a separation of personal (particularly sexual) and political morality. Politicians with lurid private lives (from Lloyd George and Winston Churchill to JFK and Bill Clinton) have nevertheless been excellent political leaders: poor personal judgement does not preclude good judgement in the national interest. This is in many ways a persuasive argument: attempts to force politicians out of office for sexual scandals often rely on deeply implausible arguments about misuse of public power. I personally dont think that having an affair revealed, for example, should normally bar a politician (male or female) from running for political office or mean they should resign if in office. They should be judged instead on their political record.
Yet there is something oddly akin to medieval queenship in the Vice-Presidential role at the best of times. The Vice President is chosen personally by the President, not elected. He or she officially has a largely ceremonial role, with their practical power depending greatly on their personal relationship with the President and the characters of both. He or she cannot implement their own policies directly (unless this power is delegated to them), but can only lobby the President privately to encourage him or her to implement them. His or her only real power comes after the end of the Presidents reign or if the President is incapacitated.
Normally these parallels are hidden by the fact that the Vice President is an experienced politician himself/herself. John McCains choice of Sarah Palin, however, exposes these issues. Sarah Palin has not been chosen for her political achievements or even her political potential (i.e. that she has exceptional political skills which she has not yet had time to develop). She has been chosen for her political image. Would she have been chosen if she had not been female AND good-looking AND had a large family AND been a keen hunter AND come from an iconic state? Almost certainly not. In that sense, whether her image corresponds to reality is relevant: whether all her children are her own is arguably no more off limits than whether she (hypothetically) had faked a picture of herself killing a moose. If you implicitly argue that your personal story is the key political statement about you, then you cant object if those interested in politics then start to examine your life.
But the medieval queenship analogy also shows the other reason why Sarah Palins personal life is politically relevant. Bad behaviour by the queen wasnt condemned by medieval moralists solely because it imperiled the succession, though that was important (which is why adultery by the queen was a common allegation). It was also significant because it showed the poor judgement of the king himself. Why had he chosen a woman whose character was not good or who encouraged him to wrong doing? Some commentators have picked up this about the VP pick as well: what does it say about John McCain that he chose someone rashly, apparently swayed by superficial appearances rather than true worth?
The separation of public and private morality is not a new idea (as is sometimes alleged); it is implicitly present already in some ninth century sources discussing Carolingian counts. But in some cases, even today, as this case shows, the dividing lines may be hard to draw. I think that makes discussions of Sarah Palins personal life, if not quite as respectable as examining Theutberga, at least more legitimate than most other contemporary gossip.