This is longer than I meant resumption of blogging to take, though posts have been being written behind the scenes, but in any case, as a blogological colleague has but lately observed, when you fall off a horse it is commonly recommended to get back on. And when the post you have been tinkering with most immediately is a difficult one to write right, and may well cause unwanted offence or feature catastrophic gender-fail, obviously that’s just more reason to remount, right? Oh well, here we go. I owe Professor Miri Rubin of Queen Mary a favour or two for offering me the teaching slot I had there a few years ago, and for helping out with some of that teaching, and when you’ve seen someone give a scratch lecture on Pope Innocent III to a group she’s never met before, while you stand on a chair in front of her desperately trying to keep going a failing data projector that forces her to do much of the lecture without her slides displaying when planned, and she still rocks it, then you acquire a respect for them that’s entirely apart from their work. I have somewhat reluctantly gathered that Professor Rubin’s work has a mixed following, including among this blog’s readership, and I don’t actually know it that well, but I know that she’s interesting to listen to, and so when she came to present at the Europe in the Later Middle Ages Seminar in Oxford on 17th January 2012, I made sure I was there.
What she gave us was something like a state of the question paper garnished with a mise-au-jour, and its title, “Gender: a useful concept for medievalists”, was of course a knowing reference to an article by Joan Scott from the 1980s.1 Of course work on gender is older than that, but it began enveloped in work on women, work that was more or less politically driven, and strands of it have periodically returned there, while others have broken off to join larger politically-driven subfields. The overall trend that Professor Rubin sketched out, with detailed bibliography in support, was for the subfield of women’s studies, and then gender studies, to have made their way upwards into the light of more general recognition and be diffused by acceptance, more or less grudging, and incorporation into everybody’s mental toolkit. If I can use myself as an example, I am not a historian of gender. But, I was taught by and have been encouraged by people who have published such work, and I happen to have some extremely informative sources that were written for, and in some cases on by, nuns. The nunnery that generated these documents, Sant Joan de Ripoll of course, was shut down in 1017 by a papal Bull that had been obtained because a good chunk of the Catalan ecclesiastical establishment went to Rome and told Pope Benedict VIII that the nuns were “parricides” and “whores of Venus” (meretrices Veneri), and then pensioned most of the nuns off and used the remainder of the lands to endow a new and ephemeral bishopric for the then-top count’s son. You can’t really ignore how that episode is loaded with and operates using gender politics, or at least, I can’t, now, having come up through the fields I’ve come up through, and that’s more or less what I mean; mostly, people are aware that this stuff is worth considering. What this might then mean, of course, is that like any subfield, gender is forever in danger of losing its distinctiveness as an interest and field of enquiry, so that periodically it goes through a ruction and a new flower blooms from the stem that recovers some of that speciality. I’ve struggled somewhat with describing this and in the end I decided it would be simplest just to try and chart it.
And from that you’ll see where I worry about ending up, in much the same boat as Guy Halsall floated about interdisciplinarity at Leeds in 2009, to wit, that beyond a certain point of despecialisation, basically every way of looking at the past becomes cultural history. I mean, this is in some ways the mirror of the old Raymond Chandler argument that genre fiction that’s good enough transcends genre and just becomes literature.2 But when a field has a political agenda, such generalisation threatens to rob it of the power to change things. Now this was not what Professor Rubin was arguing: she was more of the view that gender has gone mainstream and thus won the battle for recognition that the work in the 1960s started. “Gender has rewritten what it is to be human in the Middle Ages,” she said, by opening up questions about agency, social rules and programming, inner worlds and feelings that were opened up initially as a way to study women and recover their experience but have turned out to have application to the whole human experience, as indeed one might have hoped given that all persons involved were and are human.
So I pondered this for a while while writing it up, and began to worry that I was treading water in which I’m not qualified to swim. (It wouldn’t be the first time, after all, and I would welcome perspectives and corrections this time too.) But, I’ve consulted one of my female gender scholars of resort and they said, “Have you read Judith Bennett? Judith Bennett covers this.” And a few years ago, largely because of the really interesting round-table that was mounted at Blogenspiel and The Adventures of Notorious, Ph.D., among other places, on Judith Bennett’s book, History Matters, but also because the author of Blogenspiel was standing at my elbow telling me how much I needed to read it, I did actually buy History Matters and to my shame I had not yet read it. So on receiving this instruction I went and got the book off the shelf, burrowed into the first couple of chapters and topped that off with the conclusion. It’s nicely easy reading, in fact, and it does indeed cover the question of what happens if you let gender history get `mainstreamed’.3 (I will read the rest at some point, honest.) But it fits much more closely to my misgivings than to Professor Rubin’s optimism: Bennett argues that gender history has achieved what general recognition it has largely by detaching itself from feminism and depoliticising itself, that it has had to draw its own teeth to be allowed into the public sphere. And she argues that the field needs to recover its sense of its own history, and of the long-term history of women’s second place in society, and remember what the issues are that it has the power to address. In other words, Judith Bennett sees women’s and gender history as being under threat from a patriarchally-structured normalisation; Miri Rubin, if I was following her correctly, sees it as having got within the normal structures and altered them in a lasting way. For Bennett, the field is in danger; for Professor Rubin, it’s never been better. Is this just a glass-half-full/glass-half-empty matter of perspective? Can both be right? I don’t know, but while I want Professor Rubin to be right my natural paranoia and cynicism mean that I struggle to accept it. Did I just read The Second Sex at too formative a stage? What do you think?
1. Joan W. Scott, “Gender: a useful category of historical analysis” in American Historical Review Vol. 91 (Chicago 1986), pp. 1053-1075.
2. I remembered that this point is made in R. Chandler, “The Simple Art of Murder” in The Atlantic Monthly Vol. 174 no. 6 (December 1944), pp. 53-59, repr. as “The Simple Art of Murder: an essay” in idem, The Simple Art of Murder (Chicago 1950), and I suppose it is, but I seem to have adopted a formulation of it I came up with in a review I wrote as an undergraduate and not one that Chandler actually used. Chandler’s essay, however, is very much worth the read, which is more than mine likely was. It’s where the phrase “Down these mean streets a man must walk…” comes from for a start. It’s not so hot on the gender issues, of course…
3. Judith Bennett, History Matters: patriarchy and the challenge of feminism (Philadelphia 2006), esp. pp. 6-29.