Seminar CXII: ladies love generalisations based on gender

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.

Sketch diagram of the development of gender studies

Sketch diagram of the development of gender studies, by Jonathan Jarrett (you know, me), very possibly without adequate information or thought (full-size version linked through)

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.

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27 responses to “Seminar CXII: ladies love generalisations based on gender

  1. Jonathan: thoughtful post, great diagram, but the title “ladies love generalisations based on gender” is a bit misleading, although I see it is part of a series of posts with that title.

  2. That chart might make it possible for young students (ie all of them) to come to grips with those developments.

  3. I also wrote blogged quite a bit about History Matters as my own contribution to the round table. This is probably the most relevant post looking at the question of feminist history and the mainstream academy. To summarise: I think there are quite important distinctions between the experiences and writing styles of US as opposed to UK/European historians on women and gender. There is always a trade-off between politicised history and widespread acceptance, but as I think both Judith Bennett and Guy Halsall in their very different ways have shown, you can get your work taken seriously even by those who don’t share your political views if you do very careful historical scholarship with a solid evidence base.

    • Indeed, your post is linked from Judith Bennett’s own that I linked to. As to the conclusion, well, that would be the hope for us all I suppose, and certainly I use work by people whose personal views I want nothing of, because it has that quality. I forget where it was, something in CHE or a similar organ, that compared various fields of research against each other for their concepts of quality and concluded that the humanities primarily grade work on its caution, because the more cautious it is the more likely it is to be trust-worthy enough to use without rechecking all the research…

    • Briefly, I second magistra on the differences in what might loosely be called the national schools of history in their approach to gender and gendered history writing. In my estimation, if there is a distinct Australian school, it tends to be closer to the American than the UK model, but does sit somewhere between.
      In terms of caution vs. other criteria for valuing work, it’s an interesting point, Jon. I wonder if this too varies, perhaps with ‘national school’ as above, and perhaps – in fact, no doubt – also with discipline. My sense is that in history as a whole and in a ‘British school’ in particular, caution – being attention to evidence and care in interpreting it – is likely to be valued more highly than theoretical boldness, which tends to be linked to political bravery; whereas perhaps in literary studies the reverse is true? Not that either discipline necessarily devalues one or the other criterion, but that the balance of evaluation is weighted differently…

      • I wish I could remember where that comparative article was. I’m pretty sure I found it through a blog, and suspect that it must have been one of the US English lit. ones in the blogroll, but I can’t turn it up because all the search terms I can think of are too vague and common. Very frustrating, sorry.

        • A note to observe that I finally found the article I mention here, at the Chronicle of Higher Education and now sadly behind their paywall, but the crucial bits as it seemed to me quoted in this earlier post of mine.

          • The crucial bit in the article you cite there seems not to be a difference between humanities and other subjects but between history and English literature, and I wonder if the difference is about the nature of the evidence? In English literature scholars are for the most part arguing about the same pieces of evidence: most texts are readily available to all participants in the debate. A lot of historical arguments, in contrast, are made on the basis of “my particular archive/source”, which other historians cannot quickly and easily check. It’s easier for a mistake (or a flat-out lie) to go unnoticed when it’s a text lurking in a medieval manuscript (or even in a sixteenth-century printed book) rather than in the repeatedly edited works of Chaucer or Beowulf. Scientists expect to have to redo experiments to check the reliability of others’ work; scholars of literature can do so fairly easily. Because of the quantity of evidence, historians have to rely on the word of other scholars more than many other disciplines, and I think it’s possible that that makes them more appreciative of craftsmanship and reliability.

            It’d be interesting to compare closely related historical fields where the evidence is more widely shared or less, to see if my hyothesis holds up. For example, are Anglo-Saxonists more polemical and less concerned with craftsmanship than Anglo-Normanists, who have more evidence (and more unpusblished evidence) to deal with?

            • The point is a reasonable one (and I think I’ve read you on this subject before?) but the last question is very tricky because the sample is so small. I can think of numerous polemical Anglo-Saxonists and Anglo-Normannists but all but a very small number are dead. At the moment we might be down to one each in the UK and I can’t think of any abroad. We must obviously vastly enlarge history in order to verify this experimentally!

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  6. I’m not sure I have my head round the idea that scholars who know each other’s data intimately are /less/ likely to be appreciative of craftsmanship and reliability, unless it’s partly to do with economies of scale. There’s good and bad scholarship everywhere I suspect: but it may not be uniformly distributed. It may be that it’s sometimes easier — in some respects — to get ahead — for a little while — in subjects where there’s less burden in accessing one’s own data and all the relevant scholarship. But I expect the general quality of scholarship in different areas is very closely associated with how easy it is to get a job in each field: which may not always relate to the quantity of data. So, say that the earliest text in the canon of Vernacular Literature was the artful Formasticon of Bortrudinus of Crock, and that every humanities faculty in the Vernacular-speaking world wanted an ‘expert’. Even though there’s no evidence that Bortrudinus ever had a significant medieval audience (and the only manuscript was dropped in a vat of tomato soup during a late night crayon session at the reformation Archbishop Blinco’s place), he would be read disproportionately frequently (most often in translation) and there would be a far higher rate of bad scholarship out there. But wouldn’t the really gifted scholars still have exceptionally high expectations concerning the craftsmanship and reliability of any young Turk wanting to stick their head above the parapet and say something interesting and new about The Bard of Crock? Wouldn’t one have to work correspondingly hard to show that one’s approach to the data was useful to anyone else in even the most marginal way? The problem would be, of course, that in a large field there might be little agreement as to the characteristics of good scholarship.

    • Very roughly speaking, there’s a trade-off between cautious/reliable scholarship and novelty. The point about reliable scholarship is that it doesn’t need to be redone frequently: once someone’s done a good edition of Chaucer, or established the chronology of the Mercian dynasty, or written a thorough examination of what the New Testament says about women, no other scholar has to do more than quote that for the next fifty years (or even longer) or tinker about at the edges.

      Research is cumulative, to some extent at least, so the next generation of scholars either have to find a new topic to look at with the traditional sound methods or come up with an exciting new theory about old sources. If every sensible suggestion about Bortrudinus has already been made back in 1894 or 1954, but you are still expected to research on him, you have to come up with a wacky idea, and never mind if it doesn’t hold up entirely. You will still get an appreciative hearing from people who are bored to the back teeth of thirty years of meticulous articles on whether or not it could have been tomato soup (depending on the exact date on which the tomato came to Europe).

      I’d say history tilts more towards the camp of having new things to examine and so finds shiny new theory is less important, and (non-contemporary) literature to the “God, what we can say about Beowulf this time” problem. (Though admittedly that doesn’t explain archaeology, which is always getting new data and yet also loves shiny new theories).

      • I pretty much agree with you: but at the same time I am one who thinks that because of the strange division of labour between traditional literary and historical camps, surprisingly many nicely edited medieval texts have not so much been read as mined, and remain insufficiently examined. It always amazes and saddens me just how myopic and unresponsive to one another different intellectual camps can be at times: ‘literary’ scholarship has engaged with barely a fraction of the texts through which editors and historians have cut swathes over the last century and a half, which leaves me wondering to what extent we have really understood some of those texts that still get written about constantly. On the other hand many historians still pursue the prospector tendency of textual data-mining and seem not to have thought hard about the sources that pad their footnotes — often taking for granted beautifully crafted but now wholly unreliable statements made by C19th editors where the relevant secondary scholarship happens to be in a minority language. This is seen most clearly (and for such obvious reasons that it’s silly of me to bring it up) in the continuing slew of major draught-excluding publications by big-name early medievalists that range far beyond their areas of expertise, into venues where they wind up rehashing obsolete ideas that should really have died a death long ago, but giving them a new undeserved stamp of authority.

        I’m not inclined to be wowed by shiny new theories unless they help us see something that makes a difference: but sometimes I think the shiny new theory for too many historians might simply be ‘read the text’. Reliability is obviously the sine qua non of effective scholarship: but if one’s notion of reliability and craftsmanship inhibits one from saying anything about a text, leaving it perfectly edited but excluded from the purview of a serious scholarly attention thereafter (which may be the fate of most medieval texts that have been ‘done’), one needs to rethink one’s approach, because one is simply not engaging with the evidence that has been left to us. (My alma mater (University of Toronto) has made quite a habit of publishing fabulous editions of medieval texts that nobody ever reads.) Personally I think that good historians and good literary scholars still have a great deal to learn from each other. There’s still a great deal to say about some of the sacred cows of medieval literary studies that were done long ago, but there are plenty more cows in the sea. As Nelson would have put it, ‘engage the cows more closely’.

        • As Nelson would have put it, ‘engage the cows more closely’

          JPG, this blog’s comments would be far far poorer without you, I do thank you. I also have some sympathy with you on the score of scholarly editions. On the one hand it is marvellous to have these things available in some form that is more immediately, and more widely, accessible than the manuscripts and with their contradictions and differences set out and (hopefully) reconciled. On the other, there is still a disincentive to use these editions as the core of anything one wishes to propound, for two reasons I think: firstly that it is seen as more exciting to work with unpublished material, if you can find some (and to be honest, it is more exciting, but not being one of the golden children who time everything right, I couldn’t have done a Ph. D. that way!) and secondly that if you haven’t done that, reviewers tend to slap you down. I got more than one referee’s report on early articles that contained something snippy about it not being clear that I had seen the original documents, at which rate, who dares use a scholarly edition anyway?* I also think that close reading is perhaps the most important skill we have, that it’s not widely enough deployed either by us or in society at large, and that I was reading something only the other day that I now can’t recall in which a venerable French scholar was being celebrated whose principal motto was, “lire la texte”. So you may be the carrier of that torch, in some kind of generational cycle, but at least you are not alone.

          The point about the doorstop books may also be fair, but from my point of view, working on an area that can be rather more insular than the place where the capital I would be needed, there is also a good case that those books can do good by bringing theories from elsewhere into demolitive contact with treasured national shibboleths that should equally have died decades ago. Sometimes the outsider sees more of the field! (Though you will rapidly see that I have to say that or else relinquish any expertise on Catalonia…)

          * Though, since it was that way round and not “clear that he has not seen”, one might snippily ask if my finally getting to Vic, looking at the papal bulls in their glass boxes and going “Mm-hmm, yup” was really ever going to make that much difference…

      • Research is cumulative, to some extent at least, so the next generation of scholars either have to find a new topic to look at with the traditional sound methods or come up with an exciting new theory about old sources.

        I appreciate this position, really, but it seens to me that generational/groupal/social cultural biases breaks this dichotomy. So, it’s not just that the once ‘exciting new theories’ will turn ‘old and traditionally sound’ fifty years latter (in a best case scenario), there’s also a need to emphasize a conscient and continuous effort to detect and overcome previously unnoticed systemic historiographic biases. That’s something I feel dayly dealing with early medieval topics.
        In other words, It seems to me that there’s pelnty of room for innovation even in ‘old’ topics, we know so little…!

        • I could not agree more! And I also agree with JJ about the light getting better when people come crashing in from next door. Sometimes I think that the efforts of medievalists to make sense of the materials they’re concerned with are really very little better than those of the recently celebrated Cecilia Gimenez. We have to remain restless and uncomfortable, and we have to be prepared to look at all the sources from as many directions as possible — while staying humble, and listening out for the moments when those with different areas of expertise blundering about in the same territory catch a glimpse of something we can’t make out. What other choice do we have when we can see so little?

  7. That’s one of the things that keeps me amazed everyday! The sources, the raw material historians work upon are not even standarized!
    I am just an amateur, so my experience does not qualify in any way for intra-academic disquisitions, but sometimes it seems to me that historians work as chemists had to work before the Periodic Table was stablished.
    A public and standarized corpus of classical/ancient texts with external references to editions, versions, comments, articles, etc,etc.etc should not be SO difficult to build, and imo it would greatly simplify source’s access.

    • That does rather presuppose that there’s such a thing as a definitive text of any of our sources. Even when we have an autograph manuscript, that’s not always enough. Do we count the author’s revisions in or are his original thoughts more valuable as sources… ?

      • No,no, I am just thinking about a normalization/notation layer, for example: suppouse I want cite a given letter of Joan VIII, it would be great if I could use an unique ID (something like ‘TID00233432′), so that anyone could go to the, let’s say.. SomeInternationalAncientTextCorpusOrganization.org website to fetch a description of the item, with possibly a version of the text, lists of know editions, etc, etc, etc. If I want to refer to an specific edited version I still can, so it’s just a notation issue from the pow of the historian.
        The system needs to be internationally accepted to be of value, and that’s probably the most difficult aspect, but computers make it now possible.

        • One of the issues is scale. There are just over 100 elements. There are about 5500 different species of mammal. Classical texts are relatively well-covered in a standardised form: the Bibliotheca Teubnaria Latina wil give you a database of editions of almost all classical literature, but that’s only about 800 texts or so.

          In contrast, the first volume alone of Jaffe’s Regesta of papal letters up to 1138 has over 8000 entries. I’d say you’re probably talking 10,000 or more charters from anywhere in Europe pre-900 (admittedly, a lot in later copies). What we have at the moment is a lot of localised identification systems, e.g. Sawyer numbers for Anglo-Saxon charters, standard abbreviations for volumes in the MGH etc, that work reasonably well for their specific domains. It would require a lot of work to combine these into a greater mega-classification, and it’s not clear that there is a vast demand for that.

        • I have to admit that I’m struggling to see the point of this. A unique ID would help sort out sources that get confused but there really aren’t very many of those, I can’t think of any. It is certainly true that we have a lot of ways of referring to some sources (papal bulls, as Magistra says (Jaffé? or by edition?), anything in Catalunya Carolíngia II, the Epitaphium Arsenii and every single volume of the Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo just to pick a few that bug me) and there there might be some application, but it still wouldn’t add much that following up the original reference wouldn’t also provide. There’s also the issue of texts that are derivatives of other texts. The awful tangle of the manuscripts of the Anglo-Saxon Chronicle is one such; or, the Prophetic Chronicle that usually travels as part of the Chronicle of Albelda but is also in one manuscript of the Chronicle of Alfonso III (which is of course known in three versions…) But at the moment, despite those complications, you who are reading still know which texts I mean if you’ve ever met them. Are their names not unique enough?

          • Well, in my imagination, an unique ID means a central repository of IDs, so an internet based centralized repository of ancient texts (the IDs giving organization). No more need to search for some ancient physical edition just to take a first look at a text that is thousand years old, just a computer based access.

            To me, it would be just a logical step in the direction of supplementing the current book based paradigm notation system, with a computer based one. And the gains/sinergies of having an open and public unified electronic corpus are not minor too imo.

            But you and magistra are right, it’s a big project (a wild estimation gives me a number between 10^5-10^7) and probably with an small short term return (as you says: we already do without it)… so it’s probably my computer oriented bias that’s speaking here.

            • Your first paragraph there makes me wonder if we’re not just looking at reinventing DOI here, but with a bit more metadata. That might not be a bad thing: it’s reasonably often I want to know what something on the end of a DOI actually is, but don’t necessarily want to read it then and there…

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