Premodern patriarchy: intersections with class, race and religion

Right from the start of the Patriarchy Project, I knew that I would have to consider the impact of the intersection of class with sex/gender in the premodern world and my initial definition of “patriarchy” included this aspect:

Patriarchy is a system of social practices and institutions which gives men more power and opportunities for power than women of the same social class

I included this reference to class because it seemed obvious to me that you could schematically represent part of the hierarchy of power and status within medieval social groups in the following way:



Male peasants

Female peasants

This is a vast simplification, of course, of the many complex layers of medieval society and misses some particular situations of vulnerability even for high-status women, but it does give some sense of the type of hierarchy, with class normally trumping gender. In contrast, here’s the classic suffragette poster:  What a Woman may be, and yet not have the Vote, in which morally superior and in some cases more qualified and middle-class women are denied the vote that poor and disreputable men have.

© Victoria and Albert Museum, London.

I’m still, however, trying to work out how to include issues of race and religion within my analysis of patriarchy and, indeed, to what extent I can. My current feeling is that I can’t, in this book, write about the patriarchal systems in which Western European Jewish or Muslim women were placed, because I don’t understand the overall systems well enough. I don’t have a good feel for how these religious cultures affected social structures and practices within specific communities, whereas I do have more of that feel for ancient and medieval Christianity (and to a lesser extent for Roman religious culture).

In other words, it’s not that these other religiously-influenced patriarchal systems aren’t important, it’s that I can’t do them scholarly justice. I do hope that the framework I use for looking at structures might be something that other researchers could adapt to explore Jewish or Muslim patriarchy in particular times/regions. But I need in the book at least to point out that gender doesn’t necessarily trump religion for non-Christian people within Christian societies. For example, I think that this is a possible schematization of the hierarchy in English medieval law:

(Christian) Englishman

(Christian) Englishwoman

Jewish man         Jewish woman

That is, although there’s a clear legal hierarchy between men and women for Christians, all Jews are subordinate and there isn’t an obvious hierarchy in English law between them.

In terms of culture, there are Medieval European stereotypes about Muslim women being “masculine” and Muslim men being “effeminate” (which contrast with modern Western stereotypes about Muslim women as particularly downtrodden and subordinate). So a possible schematization of European medieval thought about gender hierarchies in this case would be:

Christian man

Christian woman

Muslim woman

Muslim man

To repeat an obvious point: this is a vast simplification and different sources and individuals may have different mental and practical hierarchies. Indeed, the sources we have don’t always make such hierarchies clear. But modelling hierarchies in this way does at least give us some ideal types to start playing with.

Such ideal types are particularly useful when thinking about race in the first to fifteenth century CE. (After discussions with a friend, it probably makes sense to concentrate on this period for my project, rather than to add in too much early modern material). It’s tricky discussing race in the period because some of the distinctions of “race” that medieval cultures made wouldn’t necessarily be recognised everywhere today. For example, German treatment of Slavs (up until the twentieth century) was often based on them being an inferior “race”, whereas in the modern West, both groups would be seen as white. Similarly, racial prejudice against the Irish was a commonplace of English thought from medieval times onwards (and is still sometimes visible in the UK) but isn’t now a significant aspect of racism in the USA.

But I think relatively recent history provides three “ideal types” of racial/gender hierarchies that can be usefully applied to racialised minorities in the premodern period. (“Ideal type”, of course, doesn’t mean that any of these hierarchies were positive). The first is what you might call the “tolerated male foreigner”:

Race 1 man

Race 2 man

Race 1 woman

Race 2 woman

In this model, some men of the “inferior” race (often of relatively high status) are allowed male privileges from which all women are excluded. One example, would be Cambridge University in the nineteenth century, where some black male students (such as Alexander Crummell) were able to take degrees, but women weren’t. Similarly, there were male British Asian MPs before there were any female MPs. Such men still suffered racist treatment and weren’t considered the equals of white men but for some purposes had advantages that white women didn’t have.

The second and third alternative ideal type are the “colour bar/racial exclusion” models which look roughly like this:

Race 1 man

Race 1 woman

Race 2 people

This is the model of racialised slavery, where race trumps male privilege. Some systems (as the model above shows), don’t allow men of the “inferior” race authority/domination over women of their own race. An example would be US slavery, where black male slaves lost all rights and authority. You get a similar effect where slaves are largely kept in single-sex situations (such as the late medieval Mediterranean, with black/North African male slaves doing agricultural work, separate from female domestic slaves).

More common, I suspect, is a model in which below the “colour bar”, men of the “inferior” race are allowed some kind of authority/domination over women of their own race:

Race 1 man

Race 1 woman

Race 2 man

Race 2 woman

This kind of hierarchy would apply to a society like the Indian Raj, where the exclusion of Indian men from white society did not, on the whole, remove their privileges over their wives and other Indian women.

Which of these types of racial hierarchy existed in particular premodern situations is going to vary, but I think you can argue for all these three models existing to some extent. When I was first trying to work out how to include race and religion in my work on patriarchy, I updated my definition to this:

Patriarchy is a system of social practices and institutions which gives men more power and more opportunities for power than women of the same race and social class

But having thought more about the possible racial hierarchies, I now want to tweak it slightly:

Patriarchy is a system of social practices and institutions which gives men of the dominant race more power and more opportunities for power than women of the same race and social class.

I’m still not sure that’s my final definition, but I think it’s a useful rule of thumb that acknowledges some of the specific issues around the intersection of patriarchy and race.

2 thoughts on “Premodern patriarchy: intersections with class, race and religion

  1. I really like your approaches to thinking about premodern patriarchy, and I’m excited for when the book comes out. I think a good metaphor for it all (to shamelessly borrow one which Susan Reynolds used for thinking about medieval society generally) is to think of premodern patriarchy, when viewed intersectionally, as being a trifle not a cake – where one layer ends and another begins is much more blurred and all layers are shot through with the same values and ideologies.


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