History Matters 1: Patriarchy and intentionality

I’ve just started reading Judith Bennett’s History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), which people interested in women’s/gender history are being encouraged to blog about in March. We’re being encouraged to post our own reflections on 30th March, but I think I may do some additional posts. It’s been a while since I read Bennett, and though I don’t agree with all her arguments, I found myself thinking again just how damn good she is as a historian and writer. One of the things she was arguing for is the need to historicise patriarchy and I have started thinking again how some of my research can be articulated in those terms. My difficulty is how I can best talk about the Carolingian patriarchal system without getting into problematic ideas about intentionality.

One of Bennett’s central ideas is the existence of the ‘patriarchal equilibrium’: that women’s circumstances might change, but their basic subordination to men didn’t. How far you might take her argument for continuity versus change (whether you really can meaningfully compare women’s wages in 1300 and 2000, for example) is something I might discuss in another post, but I’m concerned here with her more plausible version: that the degree of patriarchy may not change much in a few hundred years. How do we best explain that as historians?

As Bennett comments (p 58):

Patriarchy has often been understood in simplistic terms. My students sometimes talk about “The Patriarchy,” which always evokes for me a committee of white-haired men, nastily scheming to keep women in their place.

Bennett’s alternative to this cabal, when exploring the position of brewsters in England in 1300-1700 is to focus on structures (p 77):

at every turn, brewsters found themselves unable to respond as effectively as men to new opportunities…these factors grew from fundamental institutions of English life at the time, patriarchal institutions that were nevertheless much more than mechanisms for the subordination of women. I use “patriarchal institutions” advisedly, defining institutions as “any organized element of a society” and applying “patriarchal” to any such elements that reinforced male power, in part.

Bennett adds (p 178):

In the case of brewsters, I found that almost all patriarchal institutions served other purposes that were not patriarchal in intention or effect, but one of their effects was to assist in the maintenance of a patriarchal equilibrium.

But does talking about institutions just end up with a number of committees of white-haired men, one committee per institution? After all, ‘laws that limited the contractual powers and economic autonomy of women’ and ‘representations of brewsters in poems, plays and other media’ don’t just write themselves. Is there an alternative to either seeing patriarchal effects as a mere unfortunate side-effect of other policies (which raises the question of why the effects always ‘happen’ to impact more adversely on women then men) or going back to the conspiracy theory of the eternal oppression of women by men?

This is a particular issue for me, since in my research I’m faced with one obvious big patriarchal institution: the Carolingian church. (There are a lot of arguments among medievalists about whether you can talk about the ‘Church’ as a whole, but as an institution it clearly exists and one of its roles was to reinforce male power). This has meant that feminist analyses of the religious history of the period often end up back with The Patriarchy as committee. (I’m quoting from Suzanne Fonay Wemple, ‘Women in Frankish Society: Marriage and the Cloister, 500-900’ here, because it’s to hand and her attitude is particularly clear, but similar arguments are still common in medieval feminist scholarship):

Wemple p 141:

Although the [Merovingian] Frankish bishops were effective in excluding women from clerical offices and in barring them from participation in pastoral functions…they did not altogether succeed in discouraging women from claiming active roles in the life of the church.

Wemple p 173:

Even though the Carolingian bishops had managed to eliminate female leadership roles in the church, restricting women to the domestic and private spheres and subjecting them to male authority, they could not prevent women from making their presence felt as contemplatives.

Wemple also shows how the same practice can be interpreted by historians either positively or negatively in terms of patriarchy:

Wemple p 145:

The efforts of the Carolingians to keep women religious locked in convents and clerks segregated from the company of women.

Wemple p 147:

In the seventh century, when the ascetic spirit prevailed, women fared better. Instead of propagating misogynistic sentiments in order to strengthen episcopal domination and to enhance the authority of the male hierarchy, the monastic reformers recognised the spiritual equality of women. Both male and female leaders of monasticism sought to segregate the sexes to improve the circumstances for prayer and contemplation.

I’m still looking for a way to talk about church developments in this period that doesn’t either ignore the patriarchal aspects or foreground them into Eternally Oppressive Bishops. The most promising ideas I’ve had so far (discussed in an earlier post about misogyny) are the concepts of instrumental misogyny, (where accusations about women are used strategically in competitions between men) and institutional sexism (how patriarchal assumptions get ‘built into’ organisations and a corporate culture develops). But maybe Bennett has some more ideas in the parts of the book I haven’t yet read.

[PS: I’ve now edited the post’s title to reflect the fact that this will be one of a series discussing Bennett’s book]

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15 thoughts on “History Matters 1: Patriarchy and intentionality

  1. A couple of things I can suggest, although I’m not sure how useful they’ll be …

    *Looking at the actions of individual bishops and maybe even how they function when they are in contact with female patrons

    *Looking at whether kinship plays a role

    *Redefining patriarchy and/or leadership roles — e.g., one of the things Goldberg talks about in his sometimes problematic book is the way Louis the German installed his daughters as abbesses in strategically located monasteries. While I’m not sure I buy the premise that this was all part of his grand strategy to wrest control of the empire from his brothers, I’m not sure that it’s a bad idea to look at noble and royal abbesses like Gisela and see how their actions match up to Wemple’s assertions.

    Oh — don’t know if you’ve seen it, but Susan Wood’s _Proprietary Church_ is now in paperback. After I paid serious money for a hard copy, natch (although at least I only paid half-price)

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  2. Re: Wood, this is the point at which I go a-ha-ha and plot a Leeds purchase. By the way, ADM, I now have the discount card I didn’t have last year, so could get a paperbac copy of Matthew’s State and Society for you for, er, £28.00 and pass it to you at Leeds if you would like, but you may be able to do better.

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  3. I’m not sure what’s wrong with the ‘committees of white-haired men’ explanation. It strikes me as fairly obvious that medieval men generally did hold women in contempt, and quite consciously (if not, strictly speaking, ‘intentionally’) so. Of course there were no committees set up with the intention of oppressing women, but committees set up for other reasons were perfectly capable of multi-tasking, so to speak.

    Mind you, I’ve had the opposite problem to Bennett’s with my students: I have to make a point of emphasising just how normal misogyny was. They’re a generation where the female students are reluctant to call themselves feminists because their default assumption is that they’re equal and ‘feminism’ must therefore mean they hate men.

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    • There are several problems with the white-haired committee approach. One is that it gets some historians tied up in knots explaining how some change doesn’t ‘really’ benefit women. For example, roughly speaking, Merovingian kings were polygamous, while Carolingian rulers, as a result of the influence of the church, were serial monogamists. Suzanne Wemple therefore has to make the daft claim that polygamy was better for royal women than monogamy, because otherwise she’d have to admit that this time the patriarchal cabal actually did something that benefitted women. Secondly, the male conspiracy approach frankly seems to me to overestimate the importance of women to elite male thought. The Gregorian Reformation wasn’t mainly about priests’ wives as a female threat to church leaders’ privileges, it was about using women as a way for clerics to get an advantage over married laymen (which is what I mean by instrumental misogyny). I incline more to seeing medieval elite men as largely equal-opportunity oppressors: they tend to oppress/exploit anyone less powerful than themselves, and the fact that it’s women, rather than men, children or animals, is pretty much irrelevant to them. They’d probably have exploited small furry creatures from Alpha Centauri if there’d been some around.

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  4. The concept of ‘instrumental misogyny’ is very useful, I think, as it considers the relationships between and amongst men and women in more complex and contingent ways. As you rightly point out, the Gregorian Reformation wasn’t just (or perhaps even primarily) about oppressing women, but about privileging an emerging elite class of professional men (celibate clerics) at the expense of both women and other men – so we need to look closely at social and class relationships as well as gender here. I also find Jo Ann McNamara’s idea of the ‘Herrenfrage’ interesting with regards to the implications of the Gregorian Reform for both masculine and feminine gender identities.

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  5. “There are several problems with the white-haired committee approach. One is that it gets some historians tied up in knots explaining how some change doesn’t ‘really’ benefit women. … Secondly, the male conspiracy approach frankly seems to me to overestimate the importance of women to elite male thought.”

    Well, I asked about committee*s*, plural, for a reason. ‘Ubiquitous’ isn’t the same as ‘monolithic’. It’s perfectly possible to view medieval men as intentionally misogynist without assuming that they were all misogynist in the same way or that misogyny was their number 1 priority which should be maintained irrespective of any other interests. Any hegemony has cracks and internal tensions which lead to less than total effectiveness and eventually change.

    “I incline more to seeing medieval elite men as largely equal-opportunity oppressors”

    That’s far too homogenising and implies that there weren’t degrees of oppression. Even within a patriarchy, certain women would be treated better than others and have more autonomy than others. It also risks treating sex-based oppression as qualitatively the same as other kinds. I’d wager it was far, far more important to a medieval man that his wife or daughter didn’t wander off than his dog.

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  6. EvieNZ

    To be honest, I’m not at all convinced by McNamara’s arguments. I think her evidence for a crisis in lay masculinity is weak. And her suggestion that clerical celibacy in the twelfth century created a new problem about clerics’ masculinity is simply ridiculous. (I’ve got a paper forthcoming in Kirsten Fenton and Cordelia Beattie (eds.), Intersections of Gender, Religion and Ethnicity in the Middle Ages (Boydell & Brewer) which looks at Carolingian clerical masculinity, for example).

    There are also three specific issues about the treatment of religious women which McNamara raises and in which she sees patriarchial attempts at repression: the denigration of clerics’ wives, the exclusion of women from the universities and the repression of syneisactism. To her, these are primarily male conspiracies to prevent women’s advance.

    I would see the treatment of clerics’ wives as a classic example of instrumental misogyny, in a battle that is primarily between clerics and the secular nobility over how they divide control over peasants and land. Clerics had to give up (legitimate) families in order to be allowed temporary control of church resources, rather than their monopolization by a clerical caste. (I’ve been heavily influenced by R. I. Moore on this).

    I think there’s a lot of similarity in the development of the university. The idea that schoolmen feared intellectual competition from women seems to me to be a back projection from the twentieth century university. The most plausible reason for the restriction to me is that a new class of professional administrators had to be without families or the nobility wouldn’t allow them to gain significant places in government (there was a lot of hostility to them as it was). And if the students had to be (theoretically) celibate, you couldn’t admit women to universities or you’d cause scandal. (Institutional sexism meant that no-one suggested the alternative of separate colleges for women, as they did in the nineteenth century.)

    The hostility to syneisactism seems to me to be a more complex example of different forms of misogyny combining. Partly I think it came from a deep-seated pessimism about male sexual restraint, which almost inevitably get psychologically tangled up with misogyny (it’s women’s fault that men can’t control themselves around women). It was also partly instrumental misogyny. Robert of Arbrissel, for example, was making a sharp critique of the corruption of the established church: how better to weaken his position than by suggesting he was a sexual sinner?

    What I’m not convinced about is that women living a syneisactic life were a threat to male authority in the church, as McNamara suggests. To McNamara, if religious women were more chaste than religious men, then male clerical authority (based on celibacy) was dangerously threatened. I think this ignores the major component of male clerical (and monastic) authority: the ability to say mass and to teach. What the comparative donations to male and female religious suggest is that men consistently won out materially in the Middle Ages, even in eras which particularly honoured female sanctity (such as the Merovingian period). And the willingness of influential clerics to become public supporters of particularly saintly women (from Radegund to Catherine of Sienna and beyond) also suggests that female holiness wasn’t seen as a threat by less holy males, as long as they could find a way to get the benefit of the charisma.

    —–

    Theo

    Perhaps it’s stretching the committee metaphor to breaking point, but your view seems to be that when the Committee for Carolingian Reform (or whatever institution) meets and decides to do X, those present mentally consider ‘How does this action affect women?’ and if doing X also represses women, give it an extra mental tick. My view is that in many cases, if you asked those men ‘How does this action affect women?’ they would give you a blank stare or ask ‘who the hell cares about women?’ In other words, for a large number of purposes women just did not matter enough to be worth repressing. (It was only in 1832, for example, after 500 years of parliamentary elections in Britain, that it was officially decreed that women couldn’t vote).

    That’s what I was trying to get at in my comment on ‘equal opportunity oppressors’, which I’ll admit is an oversimplification. But I think that by and large, groups of elite medieval men were generally more concerned to repress other groups of men than women, simply because women had been pretty effectively repressed already. The Carolingians put cross clauses in capitularies about women who interfered in male business, while crushing revolts by the lower orders. No female religious order ever got treated as brutally as the Templars. (At the lower end of society, in contrast, it may have been more important for village committees to repress women, so that peasant men had someone to feel superior to).

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    • What the comparative donations to male and female religious suggest is that men consistently won out materially in the Middle Ages, even in eras which particularly honoured female sanctity (such as the Merovingian period).

      Are you paraphrasing McNamara, there, or is that an assumption? It could be challenged: I saw a paper at the Haskins Society Conference that studied Cistercian houses in Northern France and reckoned donations were about equal to men’s and women’s…

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  7. “your view seems to be that when the Committee for Carolingian Reform (or whatever institution) meets and decides to do X, those present mentally consider ‘How does this action affect women?’ and if doing X also represses women, give it an extra mental tick.”

    Then I haven’t explained myself very well, because this isn’t my view. 😉

    “My view is that in many cases, if you asked those men ‘How does this action affect women?’ they would give you a blank stare or ask ‘who the hell cares about women?’ In other words, for a large number of purposes women just did not matter enough to be worth repressing. … groups of elite medieval men were generally more concerned to repress other groups of men than women, simply because women had been pretty effectively repressed already.”

    I don’t think we’re that far apart. There does seem to be a tension between your statements that women were already effectively repressed and that they didn’t matter enough to repress. I would say that the sort of active repression the Templars faced was never necessary for women precisely because women were so important that their repression was structurally built-in and only needed passive maintenance.

    In fact, I can’t think of a single oppressed group that mattered more to the oppressors than women did to men. (Arguably male children, if children can be considered to be oppressed.) In other words, I would emphasise the qualitatively different nature of patriarchy – your posts seem to be turning it into just another form of oppression and I don’t think it is.

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    • Of course children are oppressed – it’s just that we parents have been very successful in arguing that it’s for their own good and so is acceptable. (On a slightly more serious note – it’s now more legally and socially acceptable to hit your child than your spouse).

      The problem with saying that patriarchy is qualitiatively different, is qualitatively different to what? What we really need is some kind of typology of oppression, but I’m not sure I’m up to working out a full version of that. The nearest I can get to it at the moment is the concept of intimate oppression.

      I think we now tend to conceptualise oppression/exploitation as done to a different, separate group: from a different race, religion and/or class: the mill-owner and the labourer, the colonist and the ‘natives’, the Christian and the Jew. I think historically there has also been a lot of oppression within the household or in small-scale ‘paternalistic’ employment. This would obviously include the oppression of women and children, but also a whole range of other groups: house slaves, domestic servants, apprentices, poor relations, employees who work alongside you etc. These are people you control/exploit, but who you must also live with and work with, and I think that creates a particular dynamic to the oppression, in which care and brutality get mixed in very peculiar ways. Ideally what the oppressor wants is a situation where he/she (women also do it to slaves and servants, and there’s still something of the dynamic with middle-class women and their cleaners) does not have to be brutal because the inferior loves or respects them enough to do what they want without even thinking of rebelling.

      To a modern view, which sees love and friendship as possible only among equals, this all seems horribly creepy (and it often is). Whether that means it’s worse to be a house-slave than a plantation slave, or a wife than a peasant is a far trickier question, and one that may not really be answerable.

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