In my last two posts, Ive been starting trying to do what Judith Bennett calls for in History Matters: Patriarchy and the Challenge of Feminism (University of Pennsylvania Press, 2006): historicising patriarchy (in the sense of a system of social structures and practices in which men dominate, oppress and exploit women). This is my provisional attempt to take the analysis a little further and look in a little more detail at how Carolingian patriarchy worked and how patriarchies might change (without necessarily affecting the patriarchal equilibrium).
One of the problems in doing this kind of analysis is thinking about how the components of the system break down. In my earlier attempt at periodisation, Id mentioned religious ideology, socio-economic forms and the status of the male elite. Bennett quotes (p 58) Sylvia Walbys theories of modern England (from 20 years ago) talking of six patriarchal structures: mode of production, paid work, the state, male violence, sexuality, culture. Paid work isnt relevant for the early Middle Ages and Id add in the church as an organisation. With that, how does Carolingian patriarchy fit together?
1) Theres a feudal mode of production. The basic unit of production is the conjugal peasant household, with mens work and womens work. This gives peasant women an important economic role within the household, but ties them into marriage and domesticity: they cant easily manage economically on their own. Theres also a coercive extraction of surplus by the nobility in most cases, which means that if necessary the lord must be able to act as a warrior (or at least control a band of warriors).
As a mode of production, feudalism is normally seen as dominant from late antiquity to the Industrial Revolution. The importance of physical coercion to this gradually goes down, as a justice system increases which can do the physical coercion for the landlord, but its still predominant until at least the early modern period.
2) The state consists of the combination of an attenuated sub-Roman state, with hierarchical offices and a rudimentary legal system, and a barbarian warrior aristocracy. From the Roman side comes the ideological presumption that office holding, legislation and the administration of justice are male preserves. From the warrior aristocracy comes the practical reality that women (and boys) are not suitable for carrying out public roles, because of the violence required, (as represented in the need for the count to keep a gallows).
The idea of public office as male-only is extremely long-lived, stretching from the classical period through to the twentieth century. The predominantly warrior nature of the aristocracy reappears (after a break) in the sub-Roman period and continues on until the early modern period (the ideology may continue even longer).
3) The institutional church has a male-only priesthood and hierarchy, but a few offices for women religious, which are kept subordinate to male offices. There is an increasing co-operation of the church and the state/ruling class in the Carolingian period. The church gets protection from this and also donations both of material and personnel (since it is not entirely self-reproducing). In return, the ruling class get ideological and administrative support (and also additional military support from monastic militias).
The institutional form of the Catholic church developed in the fourth century and hasnt changed substantially since, although in Protestant areas of Europe there were no official positions for women between the sixteenth and the late twentieth century. The particular configuration of the relationship between the church and the ruling seems to me to be confined to the seventh to eleventh century (say Gregory I to Gregory VII), with the key factors of family monasteries with monastic oblation (which tied nobles and monasteries together) and threats from pagans (which meant churches needed the protection of rulers more than they feared them).
4) The early Middle Ages was a violent time, and male violence was a key part of the Carolingian patriarchy. Firstly, male violence was used by the ruling classes to reinforce their rule. Secondly, women who were not under the protection of a powerful man were vulnerable to violence from other men (one of the typical images of the helpless is widows and orphans). Thirdly, a level of domestic violence was condoned (although Carolingian reformers did try to prevent uxoricide).
Although violence against women hasnt disappeared in the modern world (and there are arguments about the extent to which domestic violence is still sanctioned), violence against women outside the home has generally declined over the centuries, with the increase of the rule of law. (Where youd put any historical break is less clear).
5) In terms of sexuality, the Carolingian world had socially imposed universal monogamy (SIUM) for the laity and (theoretical) celibacy for religious men and women. In theory the church tried to impose a single (female) standard of sexuality on both sexes. In practice, a lot of double standards continued, (although its not clear how easily Carolingian women were ruined).
On the issue of change and continuity on this one, it depends a lot on what scale you look. In one respect you can see Christian marriage as a continuity for almost 2000 years (until secularism in the 1960s and even in the US, ideas of marriage have changed substantially, with much easier divorce). On another, there is a big change when marriage is no longer predominantly an alliance between two families via the exchange of women (a pattern which shows continuities between prehistoric times and the nineteenth century for the upper classes). On another level, you could see the big break as at the Reformation, when celibacy became a marginal option.
Id argue in this case, however, for a shorter periodization, covering around 450-900, as an era which both extended monogamous marriage and valorised it. Kate Cooper has shown how in the late antique world, after the fourth century ructions over priestly celibacy, other texts tried to recreate an ideal of the good Christian marriage. The Merovingian period again exalted virginity, but it also began to extend marriage to slaves relationships. In the Carolingian period there is further protection for slave marriage and a general valorisation of monogamous marriage (as discussed by Pierre Toubert and Katrien Heenes The Legacy of Paradise: Marriage, Motherhood and Woman in Carolingian Edifying Literature, which is unfortunately very hard to get hold of). After 900, the Cluniacs and others again start denigrating marriage and exalting the superiority of celibacy as writers like Jerome had done. I would therefore see the late antique/Carolingian period as one of several ideological periods of marriage, which while it has parallels to other periods, is distinctive.
6) Any discussion of culture can always get bogged down in this baggy monster, but I want to stress two particular bits of ideology that I havent mentioned before, which are visible in the Carolingian period, but also in many other eras. One is the ideology that women at all social level should perform one particular kind of womens work varying forms of cloth production/needlework, whether its Roman women winding wool, Charlemagnes daughters spinning and weaving or Victorian ladies embroidering. Such activities may be largely nominal, but they do symbolically stress the domestic role of all women. Secondly, there is the Christian ideology of womanhood. This is a varied mix, which can be used to stress either the equal humanity or the inferiority of women, but it always entails the subordination of wives to husbands.
Overall, Id see the Carolingian period as the developed form of an early medieval type patriarchy. Although there are many long-term continuities, Id see significant discontinuities with the end of the Roman world and after the Gregorian Reformation. In contrast to these periods, Id see the early medieval patriarchy as marked by relatively low ideology/misogyny. Instead, male violence played the crucial role government required violence to suppress violence and those unable to wield violence were vulnerable. Ideology was only needed to justify power-holding when holding power didnt mean wielding a sword. (This meant that women who were able to wield violence could hold power).
The prime motor for these changing forms of patriarchy, meanwhile, doesnt seem to be women. Its hard to see how the social, economic and legal position of women changes substantially between the fall of the Roman empire and the late medieval development of womens independent economic activity which Bennett talks about. The patriarchal equilibrium seems to be as much about ensuring that changes in male activity (and in particular the changing relationships between elite male groups) doesnt allow any new opportunities for women to rise, rather than responding to a rise that women have already made. A model of patriarchies that seems them as purely reactive (which the metaphor of patriarchal equilibrium may encourage) may give us a misleading view of how they have historically operated.