Berkshire Conference 3: Feminist Connections

One of the reasons I wanted to go to the Berkshire Conference on women’s history was to hear about women’s history outside the Middle Ages and some of the sessions included very interesting periods and combinations of cultures. My Friday at the Berks started with one of these, panel 35 on “Spousal Homicide and Adultery in Comparative Perspective”, which included papers spanning almost two millennia of European history. We started off with Mary Deminion and a paper entitled “Guilty and Infamous: Public Adultery Trials and the Roman Woman”. While women weren’t legally banned from the Roman courts, it was socially transgressive for them to appear personally in cases, rather than have male advocates. This was mainly an issue of “modesty”: Roman trials were public, in the sense of being tried in the forum and as being in some ways a public spectacle, although a respectable in which high-status men could participate.

Augustus made adultery a criminal offence in 18 BC, although double standards meant the offence reflected only the marital status of women: a married man sleeping with an unmarried woman was not committing adultery. Previously adultery had been a matter for the paterfamilias of the woman concerned. Now, notorious cases became a public matter, such as the exile by Augustus of his daughter Julia, allegedly guilty of adultery with many men. Mary argued that Julia may have been paying the price for her popularity; her conditions of exile were improved after she received public support. Similarly, when Nero accused his wife Octavia of adultery, there were violent public protests, since Octavia was seen as innocent.

Finally, Mary discussed the case of Lepida from 20 AD, who was subject to fraudulent claims by Tiberius and her ex-husband Publius Quirinius. Tacitus reports how Lepida appealed to the crowds at the games, “invoking her ancestors” and accompanied by other ladies of rank. Although she was still convicted, Lepida showed a possible way for women to use the public sphere for their own benefit, publicising the injustice done to a respectable woman.

We then moved on to Sara McDougall on “Adulterous Murderesses and Royal Pardon in Late-Medieval France”. Sara was looking at killing’s one spouse, especially wives who conspired with their lovers to kill their husbands. As she pointed out, such viricide was very rare: only about 1% of all murders were of spouses and more than 80% of conjugal crimes were committed by husbands against their wives.

Sara referred to work by Guy Geltner about women’s marginality in criminal statistics. There are various possibilities: that women are more law-abiding or better at concealment of crimes, that they had fewer motives to commit crimes or fewer opportunities to do so, but also that detection and prosecution may have been skewed by a belief that women were intrinsically weak and irresponsible and thus should be treated less harshly than male offenders.

Nevertheless, it’s been presumed that some crimes by women, such as the murder of her husband, which could be seen as a form of treason, were punished particularly severely with no mitigation. In fact, however, Sara didn’t find such clear-cut double standards. More men were punished for adultery than women. Nor could husbands necessarily kill adulterous wives with immunity: such an act required careful justification. Husbands who committed such a crime might be pardoned, but some were executed.

Sara had also found 30 cases where wives and their lovers were charged with murder of the woman’s husband. She finds no clear patterns there: although the wife and lover were usually tried together, lovers were more likely to be executed. Some women were pardoned or given life imprisonment. Premeditated murder was treated more harshly and wealth and power helped defendants, but sometimes even they were condemned. Sara concluded that both men and women could sometimes get away with adultery and murder: there was a mix of harsh punishments, but also sometimes surprising acts of clemency.

We then moved on to seventeenth-century Geneva and Sarah Beam on “Killing for Adultery: Sexuality, Medicine and Gender in Early Modern Geneva”. This was the depressing case of Nicolard Bouffe (?), the last woman executed for adultery in early modern Geneva (in 1645). She was accused of adultery with multiple men both before her husband’s death and after, and also of having syphilis. Because there were no eye-witnesses, she was tortured in order to make her confess, since only such a confession would allow her to be executed.

Sara placed Nicolard’s case at the intersection of two different trends. From the 1550s, there was enthusiasm for prosecuting adultery in Geneva. The prosecutions themselves were relatively blind to status and gender, but women were more likely to be executed. From the 1590s, however, there was more leniency, with (temporary) banishment the more usual punishment.

The second move was towards the use of medical evidence rather than oral testimony – there was a move away from torture towards circumstantial evidence. This was combined with a belief that syphilis was spread by women. Whether the shift away from torture benefited women is not clear: medical examinations after rape often took place well after the crime and implicitly exonerated men. The conviction rate for rape was less with medical evidence than with torture.

Nicolard was unusual in having to suffer multiple torture sessions: torture normally stopped after three sessions, and a woman who could maintain her innocence through these could have her sentence reduced even if she was convicted. Nicolard, however, despite attempting at first to claim her innocence and then to mitigate her crimes eventually confessed to multiple adultery and was regarded as a syphilitic prostitute. She was hanged in order to “purify” the neighbourhood.

Finally came Lauren Kaminsky, with the title: “‘What’s Love Got to Do with It?’ Spousal Abuse, Adultery, and Collective Responsibility in the Soviet Union”. Lauren was looking at several cases between 1920s and the 1950s of wives committing suicide because of their husband’s bad behaviour towards them. Suicide was not a crime under Soviet law, but assisting or compelling suicide was. These cases were not, however, dealt with legally, but by the Party Control Commission, an internal disciplinary organisation of the Communist Party. They were keen to ensure “proper behaviour in private life” and saw a duty for the collective to intervene when abuses were occcuring. Since the party was seen as one big family, there was a preference for it, rather than courts, to handle such failures of marital harmony. Wives could appeal to the patriarchal authority of the party, as dependents of it, and the party would then punish offenders as means of their redemption.

What made this session so interesting were repeated parallels and connections between the papers and with sexual encounters from other periods. Defining and proving adultery could be a difficult process: someone mentioned Bill Clinton on the topic. The issue of responsibility for dealing with adultery was another interesting intersection: whether it was a “public”, “private” or “communal” matter. There were odd resonances between anonymous denunciations in Geneva and the Soviet Union and the same puritanical determination to have men as well as women be disciplined. Someone pointed out that adultery being regarded as a “public” crime might possibly benefit adulterous women, if it limited private vengeance. Another theme that came out was how women might try and use their own “inferiority” to their advantage in courts: positioning themselves as innocent victims in need of protection or led astray by others. All this suggests that similar underlying patriarchal structures and assumptions might encourage similar behaviour by women even in widely varied societies.

The next session was the one I was speaking in: Session 46, “On the Edge of the Law: Medieval Men Judging Women”. I gave a paper on the ninth-century rebel nun, Duda, whom I’ve talked about before. Rachel Furst then talked on “Limited Liability: Women in the Jewish Courts of Medieval Germany”. She was looking at the legal theories of rabbis on whether married Jewish women could take oaths in court. In medieval Jewish law, there was no equivalent of coverture, in which a married couple formed a single legal unit. Rabbi Eliezer, for example, argued that if a man was trying to recover a pledge from a married woman, which she couldn’t return and her husband couldn’t come to court for her, she should be allowed to take an oath to clear herself. In his view, women couldn’t be involved in commerce if they weren’t allowed to take oaths in order for people to trade with them. Some later rabbis disagreed, implicitly questioning the legal personhood of women. Unfortunately, Rachel didn’t have any court records that would allow her to see the practical effect of these statements, but it again highlighted how many different cultures have had problems with women’s legal status.

I had one case to discuss and Rachel had none. Janelle Werner, our third speaker, whose title was “‘And of His Own Will, He Promised to Turn Her From Their Home’: Lay
and Clerical Concubines in Late Medieval England” had nearly 600 cases to play with, and thus could include actual statistics. Janelle was looking at church court records from the fifteenth-century diocese of Hereford, which straddled the English-Welsh border. In particular, she was interested in issues of status and ethnicity. Janelle argued that it was possible to get ideas concerning social status from the amount of name information given for someone: almost all men were fully named (both names recorded), while for 45% of the women only one name, or none was given (they were just described as “a certain woman”). Judging status by these naming patterns, three-quarters of fornication cases involved men and women of equal status, while nearly 60% of concubinage charges involved a higher-status man and a lower-status woman.

Janelle had also looked at the ethnicity of the names, with almost 40% of cases involving “mixed” relationships (mostly Welsh men with English women). Women tended to be punished more harshly than in English-only relationships (though overall they were less harshly punished than men). But it was also possible that some of these mixed relationships were in fact Welsh marriages, rather than concubinage: Welsh law regarded marriage as a contract, not a sacrament. Medieval concubinage always confounded the normal categories of single/married/widowed, but it sounded from Janelle’s paper as if there were even more complicated factors once you got into the borderlands.

After this legal-heavy morning, I went off some art history after lunch, to session 92: Things on the Edge: Materiality and Early Modern Trade Routes. Chi-Ming Yang, in a paper entitled “Ornamental Bodies: Chinoiserie Across Four Continents” was tying together how in 1600-1800 the technologies of Asian ornament were affecting European science and also attitudes towards black people in the Americas. In particular, she argued that the technological marvels of porcelain and lacquer encouraged an emphasis on the surfaces of bodies. While eighteenth-century English ladies used toxic white lead to bleach their skin and achieve a “porcelain” complexion, the black glossiness of lacquer was paralleled by a fetishization of black skin in paintings such as Dirk Valkenburg’s Slave Play from 1706-08. Technologies for surfaces helped develop visual vocabularies of racial diversity that could be transferred across media.

The second paper was by Martha Chaiklin on “Indigenizing the Foreign: How Imports Changed the Material Landscape of Early Modern Japan”. Martha started by pointing out that the supposedly closed-off nature of early modern Japanese society and its economy was a myth. Continual economic growth led to a demand for luxuries and for new and different things in particular. As examples, she discussed tortoiseshell, in demand for women’s hair ornaments. Because women could only legally possess personal property, there was a desire for expensive personal ornaments. The use of such ornaments by the rich in turn had a trickle-down effect on poorer people, with fakes made from quail egg. Similarly, ivory was imported for a range of uses, such as hair ornaments, netsuke, the lids of tea holders and personal seals.

Martha ended by pointing out how in the late nineteenth century, the Japanese government encouraged the exporting of “traditional Japanese handicrafts”, including items in ivory. But we should treat such claims of “tradition” with care and be aware of how imported materials could be “turned Japanese”.

Finally, Dawn Odell talked about food in Dutch colonial Indonesia. She started with a Meissen plate from 1772-1774 owned by Stadtholder William V of Orange, one of a series which used drawings by Johannes Rach, including images from Indonesia. Another Chinese plate was decorated with the Crucifixion and Dawn was interested in what it meant to eat from a plate with such an image or with an image of a house from Batavia (now Jakarta) and whether the meaning was different, depending on whether you were in Batavia or in the Netherlands.

She also talked about social structures in Batavia, where most of the European men co-habited with Asian women, because of a lack of European women. Pictures of Batavia tend not to show domestic life, which would need to include such “dingy beauties”; this contrasted with seventeen-century Dutch genre paintings which show a “penetrable” private life. The heat of Indonesia was seen as both a physical and a moral threat and dining, in particular, was marked by an extreme formality and hierarchy, unlike that in Holland. Women were excluded from conversation or even the tables at which the men sat.

Dawn then explored whether the plates she studied had a physical presence which insisted on particular practices. In particular, she was contrasting plates with armorial displays, as essentially 2D images that resist the object’s real-life third dimension, with other pictures on china that invited one to “enter” a space and with objects (such as a large punchbowl) that have a real physical presence and force a particular material experience onto their viewer.

While I enjoyed the session overall, it had less to say specifically about gender, but that may reflect both its focus on material objects and on colonialism. There were ideas of women as consumers (and as commodities), but a lot of consumption isn’t strongly gendered: men and women acquire similar luxuries. And in modern colonial encounters, male/female distinctions always come after racial ones: the hierarchy is white man, white woman, non-white man, non-white woman. The colonial experience is different for men and women, but I think in most cases it’s a second-order difference.

I had intended to go to another session after this one, but the session I was planning to go to was once again so packed that I couldn’t get into the room. As I was fairly tired, I opted out of trying to find an alternative session that wasn’t full, had a rest and then went to the Friday evening entertainments. This included some excellent food and a workshop on medieval chant (which was a little too challenging for me in my weary state). In terms of the creative arts, this was the widest-ranging conference I went to this summer: it’s just a shame that the attention paid to getting an interesting programme wasn’t matched by the efficiency of organising the sessions on those themes.


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