History Matters 3: Periodizations for women’s history

Along with the question about continuity or change in women’s history raised by Judith Bennett in History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006), there’s the associated problem of periodization for women’s history. Bennett is unhappy with periodizing women’s history by the conventional periods, which are organised around male historical experience. She’s particularly unhappy with Joan Kelly’s idea (p 66) of an ‘inverted synchronization between women’s history and traditional history’, as in Kelly’s classic article ‘Did women have a Renaissance?’ (I think Bennett is right: I am increasingly inclined to the view that Kelly’s article was one of those significant points where the new question asked is very important, but the answer has taken people up the wrong track. It’s been productive for women’s historians to ask ‘Did women have a Transformation of the Roman World?’ etc, but it’s been counterproductive to try and squash the evidence into a paradigm of decline, as has happened frequently).

I’m quite happy to accept different periodizations for women’s history than other history (and indeed multiple ones for different classes of women or different aspects). However, Lisa Bitel’s argument (discussed briefly by Bennett p 134 and in more detail in “Period Trouble: The Impossibility of Teaching Medieval Feminist History” in Celia Chazelle and Felice Lifshitz, eds., Paradigms and Methods in Early Medieval Studies (Palgrave, 2007)) for the ‘wholesale rejection’ of ‘the master narrative of medieval history’ strike me as an unrealistic cop-out (and Bennett in her more pragmatic teacher mode of Chapter 7 accepts the need to work with such a master narrative). If we are trying to construct a periodization of women’s history, what might it look like? As Alexandra Shepard and Garthine Walker pointed out in their introduction to a special issue of Gender and History on periodization (p 454) ‘While familiar periodising categories have been declared inappropriate for the history of women, they have not usually been replaced by alternative schemas.’

At first glance, it’s difficult to see how we might get a periodization of women’s history that Bennett would like. One of her repeated arguments is that changes in women’s experiences don’t equate to changes in women’s status (see e.g. pp. 62, 74). The problem is, if you need changes in women’s status for periodization, you’re stuck with 3000 BC – 2000 AD as one period, which is not a whole heap of use.

However, there is an alternative, which Bennett refers to, but doesn’t really develop. This is her idea (p 59) of distinguishing ‘various sorts of historical patriarchy, particularly as they have interacted with various socioeconomic systems’. If you try starting a periodization of women’s history from the idea of historically changing patriarchies, then you can accommodate both the historical change we see and some of the continuity in women’s status.

How might such a very broad periodization look? Bennett wants to stress socioeconomic systems, which seems sensible, but I don’t think on their own they’re enough. I would want to add religious change, because I think religion has provided much of the ideological framework for patriarchy, at least in the West, as well as (more rarely) providing the ideological framework for attacking it. I’d also include as another variable the nature of the male elite. I think it does make a difference whether the men at the top of society are there on the supposed basis of their birth or their wealth or their intellectual superiority or their fighting ability.

Based on this, this is my initial attempt at a very broad typology of Western patriarchies. (I’m starting with the late antique period, because I’m not sure enough of some of the classical socioeconomic background):

1) Christianised patriarchy (from maybe 300-500 AD). Economically based on the ‘feudal mode of production’, ideologically on a Romanized Christianity and a civilian aristocracy.

2) Warrior patriarchy (500-1000/1100). Economically based on a ‘peasant mode of production’, ideologically on a warrior aristocracy and micro-Christianities.

3) Signeurial patriarchy (1000/1100 – 1350). Economically based on the feudal mode of production, ideologically on an officially defined Catholic Christianity and an institutionalised split between a warrior and a clerical elite.

The distinction between 2 and 3 and the date for them is tricky. Ideologically, the Gregorian Reforms seem key, but Chris Wickham (who developed the idea of the peasant mode of production) sees the feudal mode of production (I think) kicking in again earlier, about 800. (I’ve drawn a lot on Chris’s ideas on socio-economic periodization, but I admit I haven’t read all of Framing the Middle Ages yet, so if you want to argue the socio-economic bits in particular, please feel free to).

4) Commercial patriarchy (1350-1800). Economically based on early forms of capitalism, ideologically influenced by Protestantism, elite split between militarised aristocracy and the bourgeoisie.

It’s obviously slightly misleading to stress Protestant ideology when half the West wasn’t Protestant even in 1800, but I think the impact of Protestantism did mean a clarification and hardening of the official Catholic church’s position on women. A bigger problem is whether this period is too long: I’ve been influenced by Judith Bennett’s argument on the continuity of women’s work (and Martha Howells has a similar take on the gendered aspects of the commercial revolution, but Merry Wiesner-Hanks in the same issue argues against late medieval/early modern continuity (coming from a religious history perspective). I’d be particularly interested to hear more informed takes from people who work on these centuries

5) Industrial patriarchy (1800-late twentieth century) Economically based on industrial capitalization, ideologically on Protestantism, bourgeois elite.

6) Post-industrial patriarchy (late twentieth century to present). Economically based on globalised financial capitalism, secular ideology, very narrow bourgeois elite.

(Not all of the West has secularized, of course, but even in the US, since the 1960s there has been a challenge to Christian ideology and morality that is much more substantial than previously).

This is my provisional idea of broad periodization, and I’m aware that it ends up near traditional ones. But there was an Industrial Revolution for women: economic changes do have impacts on social structures, including patriarchal ones. What I have omitted is periodizations based on intellectual movements. This isn’t because women didn’t have a Renaissance, a Carolingian Renaissance, an Enlightenment etc, but they were relatively marginal to all these movements. I also haven’t said anything about the development of the state, which is an important part of conventional periodization, because right from the start, the state has been involved in women’s lives. There are extensive laws on women’s behaviour from Mesopotamian times, and one of the key justifications from early medieval times (if not further back) of the state’s attempts to control/monopolise violence has been the protection of ‘widows and orphans’. I’m not convinced that the development of administrative kingship or the modern state or absolutism was that significant for women’s experiences. But if you think there’s some other important factor I’ve missed, or you want to suggest a better periodization, feel free to weigh in.


6 thoughts on “History Matters 3: Periodizations for women’s history

  1. Does Chris really argue for feudal mode in the late Empire too? I thought he was happy with tributary mode for that period. I think the rôle of the state needs some kind of differentiation between the two. I will get round to reading Framing…, I will, but there’s stuff getting in the way.

    Rest of the venture really interesting but there will be others who can comment with more than my minimal knowledge, I’m sure.


  2. So who has actually read all of FMA? (Maybe sometime we need a series of blog posts to discuss it one chapter at a time?) From the index, FMA doesn’t refer to ‘tributary mode’ at all, and I’m not actually sure what socio-economic situation that refers to. (John Haldon’s The State and the Tributary Mode of Production uses it as a synonym of the ‘feudal mode’).

    As for the late empire, Chris in FMA (p 260-261) claims there are three ways of practising settled agriculture: slave plantations, peasant farming and wage labour, which he associates with the slave mode, the feudal mode and the capital mode of production. He then adds a fourth mode (p 261) the peasant mode, when no-one’s systematically expropriating the peasants’ surplus. On p 262 he comments:

    plantations had never been frequent outside central Italy, Sicily and parts of Greece and even there the basic economic shift from the slave to the feudal mode had already taken place well before 400, in particular in the second and third centuries.

    To bring this back to patriarchies, I think you can see how these three modes of production have different effects specifically for women. At least in the west, the contrast between the slave mode and the feudal mode is the nuclear family and household based economy. Unlike plantation slaves, who can’t marry, the peasant family in the west relies on a male/female economic partnership of unequals, which is best stabilised via marriage. Wage labour, in contrast, weakens the grip of the household: it’s possible to pay someone to do particular domestic/agricultural tasks and women can earn money outside the household (even if less than a man would make) and thus have more economic independence. Whether Chris’ ‘peasant mode’ made any difference to female experience is less clear. And is it just me, or does Chris’ idea of a golden age for peasants in the very early Middle Ages sound suspiciously like all those early golden ages for women in 1970s feminist history (and may prove to be just as illusory?)


  3. Chris’s golden age for peasants is an inheritance from his appropriation of the Feudal Transformation (sorry) and retooling it as the Other Transition. Bonnassie and Duby both reckoned there was a patch `autour de l’an Mil’ where slavery had effectively collapsed but serfdom was still only brewing, and during which most peasants are reasonably free. So Chris brings the transformation back to the eighth century, the fifth century, whenever, and the slavery collapse has to be redated too. The two stand or fall together, really. And as with anything to do with that transformation there are regions (Northern France, Low Countries, England) where it doesn’t really work but things still changed somehow. Then you get Gaspar Feliu saying that even in golden-age free peasant paradise Catalonia actually it pretty much sucked to be a peasant and it’s just that oppressive lordship has a different shape that doesn’t record as well. I think there’s a halfway between Gaspar and Bonnassie/Chris where the peasants probably did, in some areas, get it easier for a century or two, and as Chris says, probably therefore ate more and worked less.

    I think (though I would have to get chapter and verse to refute you) that you may not have Haldon quite right there. I thought his argument was that really, Marx’s feudal mode doesn’t fit early medieval Europe and we’d do better to call that version of it something else, which is where the tributary mode comes in. Chris uses this a lot, and if you want it worked out, which it sounds as if he doesn’t do in FMA and fair enough, the place to go would be Chris’s “Marx, Sherlock Holmes, and Late Roman Commerce” in Journal of Roman Studies Vol. 78 (London 1988), pp. 182-193, revised in his Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400-1200 (London 1994), pp. 77-98. In fact if you haven’t read Land and Power I really would recommend it.


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