Pauline Fest 3: Constraints, violence and gender

One of the stereotypes of gender history that the Pauline Stafford symposium in May knocked fairly firmly on the head was a supposed contrast between male freedom and female lack of freedom. This view of men as essentially free seems to be based on some assumed continuity between Roman republican ideas of the true vir, mastered only by himself, and the ideas of the rights of man (but not woman) developed from the eighteenth century onwards. This conveniently ignores over 1700 years when elite men took it for granted that they were constrained by a variety of social pressures. Even rulers themselves rarely had free rein: they had to respond both to the demands of God and those of their secular elite or risk falling from power. The constraints on male behaviour were not as stringent as on female, but to pretend they didn’t exist is misleading.

This theme of male constraint and restraint kept on recurring as an undertone in papers at the symposium. I’ve already mentioned Julie Mumby’s paper on transmission of property in Anglo-Saxon wills. David Bates in his paper on ‘Norms, rules and a biography of William the Conqueror’ addressed the theme more directly. He argued for William as a man who pushed the boundaries of acceptable royal behaviour to the limit, for example by his use of intimidatory violence, but who could be brought back ‘into line’, for example by Lanfranc. It’s also important that we need to think more carefully about where the boundaries were at that period. David argued that anger was part of what kings did, and that William of Poitiers always implies in his vocabulary that William’s anger was rational. On the other hand, when you get stories like William pinning a knife between the fingers of the abbot of La Trinité Rouen when the latter asked how firmly the charter he’d just been given would stick, you realise just how much norms of acceptable behaviour can change.

It’s when we get to violence, however, that the question of a possible contrast between male and female constraints becomes most acute. The question isn’t just whether medieval women were substantially more vulnerable to violence than men. It’s also whether women were significantly less able than men to inflict violence.

A number of papers at the symposium indirectly addressed these two questions. I’ve already mentioned John Gillingham’s paper, which certainly implied women’s vulnerability to violence (although someone queried afterwards whether it was really worse in such situations being a woman and enslaved than being a man and slaughtered outright). And we also got a reminder of male vulnerability to violence in Simon Keynes’ paper on ‘The cult of Edward the Martyr during the reign of Aethelred the Unready’. (This was similar to his paper at the IHR, which Jon Jarrett has already blogged on).

As an example of greater female vulnerability to violence, however, Régine Le Jan’s paper on ‘Gender and mediation in 11th century Lombardy’ was revealing. It discussed how Countess of Liutgard of Valenciennes acted as a mediatrix (female mediator) between Bishop Baldric II of Liège and Count Lambert of Louvain. At one level this was showing the important political role for women in the period (there are other examples of such female mediation outside the family). But there is a twist: Liutgard acted as a mediator because Lambert had first ambushed and captured her. Women might act as peace-weavers, but that didn’t mean they necessarily enjoyed peace themselves. Since this paper came just before Anneke Mulder-Bakker’s one on Gertrude of Ortenberg, I was left wondering whether all Anneke’s metaphors of warp and weft of the social fabric only work till some men decide to rip the whole thing up with a sword.

As for the extent to which women can inflict violence, this is a question which I’ve debated on this blog before and there’s no simple answer. Some women quite clearly did act as lords and control military forces (as was pointed out, Liutgard probably had an entourage to protect her, even if they failed in this case). Was it harder for them to do so than men? It’s very difficult to be certain on that, because some women clearly did manage it successfully. But one pointer is the emphasis in so many sources and over many centuries of the personal prowess of lords and rulers: their strength, skill in battle, courage etc was both announced and demonstrated in hazardous ways (tournaments, hunting etc). All this implies that such an image did matter to their troops, whether or not the ruler always personally led them on campaign. Even powerful women could not project this warrior image and rarely tried to.

And this gets us back finally to another of the messages from the symposium on gender similarities and differences. You can often see powerful medieval men and women behaving in quite similar ways. However, even if their practice could be similar, the medieval image is normally of difference between men and women (unless men succumb to effeminate long hair), and this concept of difference itself affected expectations and hence behaviour. The medieval reality of women could not easily dislodge the medieval ideology of women, and nor can it easily dislodge our own ideologies of medieval women.


7 thoughts on “Pauline Fest 3: Constraints, violence and gender

  1. It is interesting to explore how the relationships of gender, power and violence played out amongst non-elite vs. elite women. There is some tantalising evidence that non-elite women (at least in my period, which is towards the later Middle Ages) were able to utilise (consciously or not) the representations of women as inherently disordered/less reasonable than men to commit violent acts and be considered less liable than a man would be for the same act. I’ve also found a few cases in the records of the Peasants’ Revolt, for example, of non-elite women as active participants and even instigators of violence against officials/lords (so in that situation at least, ‘class’ seems to be broadly over-riding gender).

    I read an article 2 or 3 years ago (I think it was either by Pauline Stafford or in a book edited by her) in which the author was careful to delineate between ‘power’ and ‘authority’ in her discussion of female lordship. From memory, the article discussed the concept of ‘power’ being more directly linked to masculine violence (war, tournament etc. – which is also the way I think we tend to conceive ‘power’ in our society), while ‘authority’ was more about controlling and exploiting webs of relationships.


    • I’m coming up against this distinction between power and authority in my current reading (where it is attributed to Weber) and I don’t know how helpful it is. One could express the same dichotomy with the terms `coercion’ and `respect’, but I think they are both forms of power in as much as I see power as the ability to get others to do what you want. I think the variation is in how much attention the powerful person has to pay to the wishes of the person bade to achieve this, and I’m not sure this breaks down into a simple classification of force vs. right. There are lots more strategies of power than those two, although both express one quite neatly; for example enlisting spiritual sanctions is kind of both. As so often I find it hard to apply Weber to the medieval state (either sense) as I perceive it in the sources. It may be easier to use words other than his.


  2. Bavardess,

    You might be interested in a strange Lombard law from 734 (discussed by Ross Balzaretti in ‘ “These are things that men do, not women”, the social regulation of female violence in Langobard Italy’, his paper in Guy Halsall (ed), Violence and society in the early medieval west (Boydell, 1998). This discusses cases in which men are using gangs of women to attack other men to avoid themselves becoming liable for compensation for the injuries done. So I think there is evidence elsewhere of the manipulation of gendered expectations about violence. As for instigating violence, I think there is a fairly common figure in sagas of the woman inciting her menfolk to revenge.

    On the authority versus power, I normally take it to be the difference between the practical ability to do something and the right/social legitimacy to do something (power as de facto, authority as de jure). So a bandit can have power without authority, and, as Carolingian bishops are always moaning, they have authority over sinners, but not necessarily the ability to make them do what they want.

    I put right and social legitimacy as alternatives here, because a purely legal concept of authority isn’s always very useful for the early Middle Ages. But I think there is always a clear conceptual difference between (positively): ‘you can make me do this’ and ‘it’s OK for you to tell me to do this’, and (negatively): ‘I’m not going to do that’ and ‘you have no right to try and make me do that’. (I’m sorry, this starts sounding like six-year olds talking, but one of the main aims of parenting is to convert power into legitimate authority before your children get big enough to be uncoerceable).


  3. Thanks for that reference, Magistra, it looks really interesting.
    On authority vs power, there’s another level of meaning there as well, which is getting people to do what you want but having them convinced/believing it is their own idea – not coercion and not necessarily respect either, but using people’s self-interest to achieve your own ends.


    • You are of course right about the difference between power and authority as you phrase it, Magistra; I haven’t been getting enough sleep for theorising lately, apparently. Bavardess, I see what you’re saying but persuasion doesn’t have to imply deception, surely; sometimes an arrangement can be reached which is genuinely mutually beneficial (this, after all, being the axiom of trade).


  4. Jonathan – I wasn’t necessarily thinking it must involve deception (though it could). I was thinking more along the lines of someone having the political/diplomatic skills (in the widest sense of those words) to identify or possibly even create common interests amongst disparate groups that work to their own advantage. As you say, this does often involve mutually-beneficial outcomes, even though the purposes of the different people/groups involved may differ. In the context of medieval lordship, I think this could be a form of authority more frequently exercised by women because they have fewer opportunities to simply coerce people (either as individuals or in groups) with the threat of physical violence.


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