Pauline Fest 1: is gender a useful tool?

I am just back from a two day symposium to celebrate the work of Pauline Stafford (on the theme of ‘Power, family and legitimation in Europe, 10th to 12th century’, although a few papers stretched the time limits) and am mentally trying to digest the sixteen papers I have heard. I’ll be doing several posts on some of the over-arching themes: if any of my readers want more details on specific papers (or disagree with my recollections of them), feel free to comment.

I take the subtitle for this post from a comment by Lois Huneycutt during her paper on ‘Inventing queenship: twenty-five years of scholarship (1983-2008)’. If you wanted a demonstration of why gender is a useful tool for historians, several of the papers provided ample evidence that considering it gives a whole new angle on topics. For example, in what I felt (and others agreed) was the stand-out paper from the first day, John Gillingham discussed ‘Women and the profits of war in medieval Europe’. John provided some scattered, but cumulatively significant evidence that it was standard practice in much of earlier medieval warfare to capture women and children as slaves; indeed, that was arguably one of the main reasons for warfare, with the killing of these women’s menfolk as secondary. (He had particularly detailed evidence from Henry of Liviona’s Chronicle from the thirteenth century, but also some from twelfth century Scotland, fifth century Ireland and hints from eighth century Francia).

John pointed out the tendency to neglect this evidence by both historians of slavery and military historians. Studies of slavery have tended to be gender-blind until recently, with a few exceptions, while military historians focus on strategy and other military matters and don’t like looking at the bloody social realities of war. He then used the idea that there was a change in attitudes (in which enslaving women was no longer acceptable, at least outside the Mediterranean) as an extra part of a previous argument of his about how ‘chivalry’ came into existence in the Middle Ages (in the sense of better treatment of certain social groups in conflicts). This was all accompanied by John’s usual tough-mindedness about just how nasty the Middle Ages could be: he said in the question session that he had considered calling the paper: ‘From enslavement to rape: progress’.

John’s paper showed us how much we can miss if we don’t consider gender: so why was Lois being cautious about its use? Her comment came when she was talking about Bede’s Historia ecclesiastica gentis Anglorum and queens’ roles in conversion in Anglo-Saxon England. Her concern was that several recent studies of the topic which adopted a gendered approach were arguing that Bede downplayed the role of queens in conversion, in favour of bishops. Lois argued that Bede actually thought of conversion as an ongoing process and saw the roles of both queens and bishops as important, just as St Paul had talked about him planting the seed and Apollinarius watering it. If you looked at the audience for the Historia and Bede’s intentions (to show good and bad models of behaviour), then it would make no sense for him to denigrate queens’ roles.

Lois’s concern wasn’t about using gender as a tool, so much as not using it carefully enough. The problem is that it’s all too easy to start importing our contemporary ideas of gendered relations and imposing them onto the past. For example, Kim LoPrete, in a high speed paper on ‘The domain of lordly women in France c 1050-1250’ was arguing that scholars persistently see women’s lordship as different from male lordship, even when there is no actual evidence to support this. The claim that female lordship was ‘private’ in a way that male lordship wasn’t, doesn’t hold up, for example. (I am still trying to digest her ideas of what ‘public’ actually means, which will probably have to wait till I’ve read some Habermas).

Julie Mumby had a very satisfying paper (‘Temporary property rights in Anglo-Saxon bequests: a synoptic view’), that similarly challenged our ideas about gender. She has been working on the transmission of estates in Anglo-Saxon wills; in her paper she showed some bequests by men as well as women that look like they are constrained by the decisions of earlier generations (such as grants of usufruct), even when these aren’t explicitly stated. While women’s property ownership has often been seen as consisting of them being little more than ‘conduits’ of property to others, the same may also be true of men’s land ownership in some cases. Even if they claim complete testamentary freedom in wills, that is not necessarily to be taken as accurate.

But perhaps the final word for this post ought to be left to Pauline Stafford, who responded to one session with a comment that deserves to become classic: ‘Good gender history looks for similarity as well as difference.’ It’s neglect of that basic truth that all too often weakens gender history.


2 thoughts on “Pauline Fest 1: is gender a useful tool?

  1. Thanks for this overview – it sounds like it was an excellent conference. Gender analysis (for want of a better term) plays a big part in my own research on the later Middle Ages, and I think you’re right about some of the potential pitfalls if it isn’t carefully applied. There is a risk of focusing too sharply on gender at the cost of other categories of analysis, and thus failing to discern some of those similarities that Pauline Stafford refers to.

    The other difficulty, I think, is teasing out and fully understanding the differences between gendered ideology as it was expressed formally in political philosophy or religious doctrine (for example) and the more complex and nuanced ways in which gender shaped people’s ‘real world’ experiences. Working with medieval sources, I find the latter is much more slippery and evasive to pin down than the former. And it’s when you try to fill in those inevitable gaps that you can run into the problem of inadvertently imposing contemporary ideas of gender onto the past.


  2. Pauline Stafford adds to the many reasons to praise her with that summation, I agree. As for the lordship of women, as I think you and I have discussed, after 1050 is a much easier time to look for it than before, but before I am always happy to remind people of Countess Ermessenda of Barcelona, Girona and Osona (1018-57), who eventually had to be chased out of her counties by the rightful heir in a long-running civil war. I’m pretty sure, given how she argued in law-cases and about waste land, that she thought of her lordship as public; she may even have thought that her upstart grandson didn’t realise what that meant properly. She deserves more work.


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