Seminar CLXVII: what about the women of post-Roman Britain?

Still running just about fourteen months behind, I find myself looking at some notes on when Professor Robin Fleming of Boston College came to Oxford on 4th March 2013 to give a lecture entitled, “Women, Material Culture and the History of Post-Roman Britain”. This was a combination meeting of the Medieval Archaeology, Medieval History and Late Antique and Byzantine Seminars and it was quite a busy occasion. I’m in marking jail right now so I shouldn’t be writing about it, probably, but the thing is that though the point was powerful it was also quite simple, so I’ll have a try at that thing I never manage, brevity.

The treasure from the female burial at Street House Farm, Cleveland, found 2011

The treasure from the female burial at Street House Farm, Cleveland, found 2011

Professor Fleming’s basic position was that although as is more than well-known our texts serve us poorly for the history and experience of women in early medieval Britain, and indeed the lack of attention to women in the texts could be taken to suggest that they were basically excluded from all importance, as recent DNA work has also tended to argue, the archæology gives a different impression: women were buried with much more wealth than men usually were while furnished burial continued, to the extent that women’s possessions now underpin our basic archæological chronology.1 Isotope analysis is also now showing up the extent to which women moved, meaning that we can no longer sustain an image of migration into England as a male-only operation. Of course, with greater knowledge come greater complications: not all the women moving are from where we’d expect them to be (and I’m sure the same could be said of the men, while I have heard some disparaging comments about the interpretations of the isotopic analyses from West Heslerton which formed Professor Fleming’s main example here, but I expect the point could be made in other places too).2 The other thing she was stressing to good effect was the great variation in rite, goods, origins and circumstances that the burial evidence shows us when it’s analysed for its lack of patterns rather than only the evidence that can be used to show correlations: this is a bigger point that we could almost always use considering.3

The Byzantine-style hanging bowl from the Sutton Hoo treasure

The Byzantine-style hanging bowl from the Sutton Hoo treasure, that is, an Eastern Roman object probably acquired from Western Britain to contain the remains of a person or an animal associated with the ruler of an Anglo-Saxon kingdom whose mourners seem to have wanted to stress his Scandinavian origins. Ethnic me that…

The other shibboleth that came in for a pasting here was that old target, ethnicity. As Professor Fleming has emphasised, the fifth and sixth centuries were a period principally of change in Britain: probably nobody knew who they were in the kind of national or population terms we use, perceived little enough kinship with their neighbours and would have defined and understood themselves in individualised ways that we just can’t reconstruct, though we can note the outward signs of some of those differences. The fact that there might be a way that people around here (or people from back home) did things that their neighbours or descendants imitated doesn’t mean that those people thought that by doing those things they demonstrated the same identity: a complex of symptoms of what we read as ethnicity was probably actually slightly different from person to person. In the terms of Bourdieu, every old habitus was now unsustainable and new ideas of who did what how were open for formation. And, as Professor Fleming concluded, “The work of building the new world was in the household”, where women took as large if not a large part than the men with whom they lived. In questions, this even reached the next world, because of course where was a burial organised? So all in all Professor Fleming delivered a powerful call for the appreciation of women’s agency in this formative period.

Opening page of a <i>c. </i>800 manuscript of Bede's Ecclesiastical History

Opening page of a c. 800 manuscript of Bede’s Ecclesiastical History, the work of a man who would not have agreed with this post

I want a great deal of this to be right, which needs admitting, and I am pretty much prepared to follow her down the road as far as the idea that everyone was probably doing things differently and that ethnicity was not a real thing, but we have here this perpetual old problem that whenever we have them—which is admittedly not really for this period—our texts use such terms to try to understand these confused events. Ideas of genealogy and descent bringing significance in terms of what one could claim are self-evidently attempts to grab status thereby, then as now, but they do seem to be ideas that people had. If they were revived out of a period where people did not have them, that was a pretty speedy resurrection of the apparatus of oppression. I should make it clear that one thing that, as far as my notes and memory can guide me, Professor Fleming was not saying was that women were treated or thought of any better in this period than before or after, although the investment in their burial (at least, the burial of some of them) does have that kind of implication even if it could equally be about who their male kindred had been. All the same, this statement of a case feels now as if it should be vulnerable to the idea of the patriarchal equilibrium. Did women actually have more agency in this time of change than usual, or just more than we have supposed? Were these processes of building culture in the household not also going on at most other times, albeit possibly with more top-down direction? As I think about this now, it seems to me that there’s an important difference between agency and opportunity involved here, considering the which might get us a bit closer to the earlier gloomier view than I would wish, did I not gloomily suspect it’s probably accurate.


1. This was, I take it, a reference to the new typological chronology then very lately published in John Hines, Alex Bayliss, Karen Høilund Nielsen, Gerry McCormac & Christopher Scull, Anglo-Saxon Graves and Grave Goods of the 6th and 7th Centuries AD: a chronological framework (York 2013).

2. Here I guess that the work referred to was J. Montgomery, J. Evans, D. Powlesland & C. A. Roberts, ‘Continuity or colonization in Anglo-Saxon England? Isotope evidence for mobility, subsistence practice, and status at West Heslerton’ in American Journal of Physical Anthropology Vol. 126 (Hoboken 2005), pp. 123-138. Other sites invoked in making this point included Vera I. Evison, An Anglo-Saxon Cemetery at Great Chesterford, Essex, Council of British Archaeology Research Report 91 (York 1994) and Martin O. H. Carver, Catherine Hills & Jonathan Scheschkewitz, Wasperton: a Roman, British and Anglo-Saxon community in central England (Woodbridge 2009).

3. There are lots of good thinking tools for this kind of consideration in Howard Williams, Death and Memory in Early Medieval Britain (Cambridge 2006). Somewhere in these notes it also seems necessary to mention R. Fleming, Britain After Rome: the fall and rise 400 to 1070 (London 2010), of which pp. 30-88 cover the period with these issues in it and do not by any means miss out the women.

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10 responses to “Seminar CLXVII: what about the women of post-Roman Britain?

  1. Allan McKinley

    Might be worth mentioning in this context one of the observations of that great historian of gender, Frank Stenton (and that was not totally sarcastic) who thought the prominent role that female names play in place-names reflected the fact they had a more important role in society and politics in the early Anglo-Saxon period than the documentary sources imply. Whilst his arguments probably do not all seem so strong today (I’d see a lot of the names as later for example – Bibury (Gloucestershire) for example has to be late-eighth century at the earliest as the eponymous owner is only attested then) as ever with Stenton he is probably still right on a lot of what he said.

  2. Jonathan, I think we need to keep in mind that jewelry was given by women who were in some ways trophies of their men. Men cared about how regal or elite their wife or daughter looked to the people (ie mostly other men). Men also had plenty of bling as the Sheiffeld hoard shows us. Since they were more likely to die in battle, their bling would have been taken as loot, or in weapons handed down as family heirlooms. I wonder if some of men’s bling associated with arms would go back to the king upon their death – most of which would be melted for new bling to hand out.

    • Specifically to the Staffordshire Hoard comment, Michelle, I think this is one of the things that has been argued about it: that the reason for stripping the weapons whose fittings the hoard is might be part of a new tooling-up of the weapons as part of a new régime branding, which might of course be succession but implies that the weapons were always really property of the lords, not their men. I’m not sure everyone would agree with this interpretation but there is some very limted textual support for this in terms of later heriots.

  3. I like how these comments, independently written, nonetheless sort of answer each other. Stenton had help with gender matters, of course, but yes, he certainly wasn’t blind to these issues. The place-names argument also has some of the strengths that, as I said and you point out, Michelle, the argument from grave-goods does not in terms of the status being associated obviously with the persons not their families. A rich burial might just represent a life lived as clothes-horse for the family investment in worked copper-alloy; but a place-name suggests a personal rôle people thought both well-known and worth remembering, don’t you think?

  4. It also reminds me that in India, women’s wealth is kept in gold jewelry while men have other forms of wealth, presumably land/business. Women need portable wealth because land doesn’t belong to them.

  5. A couple of points to add. Firstly, Judith Bennett wasn’t arguing that the patriarchal equilibrium excluded some changes in women’s status: there’s an interesting post by her at the end of a long discussion on ‘History Matters’ where she uses graphs to clarify that she is suggesting that there are fluctuating situations within an overall trend in which women are consistently seen as less fully human than men.

    Secondly, I don’t see an intrinsic problem in ethnic identities re=emergin/developing very quickly. There’s been a lot of work in psychology on the minimal group paradigm in which trivial differences can become the basis for in-group cohesion and out-group hostility very quickly (cf football hooliganism, Blues versus Greens in Byzantium). So if the ‘FA cup model’ of early British kingdoms is correct (tiny kingdoms fighting each other with winner absorbing the other and going on to the ‘next round’) then you’d expect to get such labels back fairly soon and warfare to increase their potency. Though I gather that Guy Halsall is now challenging that model and arguing for big kingdoms from the start, isn’t he?

    • I’m not yet aware of Guy’s latest arguments, although I should be, I admit, but as I think the situation was one of breakdown from big in the British highland zone and build-up from small in the Anglo-Saxon lowland, and am already prepared to make big if short-lived British-style exclaves out of London and Lincoln, I might not have too much trouble with that. It will be interesting to compare his view to Ken Dark’s and Nick Higham’s, though. I don’t think either view prevents someone in power grabbing a label, anyway, and it might become accepted faster if someone in control of a large zone did so; indeed, I’m sure that anyone gathering a group together that was larger than a few men in a hall would need some kind of banner for people to identify with. I think the interesting question arises when that person dies and power has to be handed over: in what circumstances does the brand become worth holding on to? Mercia, for example, was obviously a keeper even though Penda died in defeat as only first among equals; Middlesex, if it ever was a unit—that London exclave?—can’t have lasted much more than a generation given the time there is in which for it to happen and lose out to Essex and Kent, and yet the name survived for some reason. All this ties up quite closely to the next post, in fact, so stay tuned!

      As to the patriarchal equilibrium, I probably should have given that more thought, that’s what attempted brevity gets me. But are you thus suggesting that we should in fact read this as a brief period of relatively high female status even as they remained second-class members of their communities? (And how would you</em? fit Allan's point about the place-names into that?)

  6. “probably nobody knew who they were in the kind of national or population terms we use, perceived little enough kinship with their neighbours …”: but they surely would have distinguished between people whose speech they could understand, and those whose they could not? Shared superstitions might also have counted for something. It’s not as if we demand that they march about singing “We’re German and Prahd Uvvit” and demanding to be provided with the Pickelhaube.

    • Firstly I should apologise for the grammar of that sentence, something obviously went wrong there and I can’t entirely reconstruct what. Secondly, yes, I imagine that Germanophones and Brittonophones would have seen differences there, but what we don’t know is how divided those groups were between themselves. This is an especially sharp question with respect to British and Picts. Bede tells us they had two different languages, and St Columba needed interpreters to talk to at least some Picts, but the current sketchy understanding of Pictish is that it was a P-Celtic dialect like Brittonic or Gaulish (perhaps more like the latter), so that it seems unlikely that those at least should not have been mutually intelligible, even if Old-Irish-speakers might have had rather more trouble. This gets even odder in the light of Alex Woolf’s current position that the Picts were simply ‘Britons outside the Empire’. Yet for Bede, they were different tongues, and while he may not have heard Pictish himself he certainly knew from people who must have, most obviously the exile Bishop of Abercorn, Trumwine. Likewise with the Germanophones: Austrian German and northern High German speakers struggle to understand each other now, but Old English is still just about understood in some parts of Frisia. There’s room for a lot of variation here, but there are also shared elements deriving from common roots (like the host of very similar words for `king’). Would all these people whom we put in the same branch of a language tree have recognised their fellows? And would they have had enough wider knowledge of who else was `out there’ to form any kind of wider group sense of ‘us’ and ‘them’ that related to any more than the neighbours? I would guess not, at least until the two or three generations had passed by which such distinctions would be more a matter of what grandma spoke than what they did…

      The superstitions case has different power and problems. Yes, there ought to be a big difference visible between those who invoked Woden and those who invoked Cerunnos (I know very little about Celtic paganism so take that solely as an example), but we know far too little about what gods people did invoke on an everyday basis, whereas we do know or suspect that some superstitions are as much tied to place as to belief systems. If you, as a Woden-fearing Jute or whatever, have just arrived on your keel from Jutland and you gather that the locals avoid a certain place or make sure to leave grass stems there when they pass by… odds are pretty good you’ll make sure you have some grass next time you go there, wouldn’t you say? And again, two generations down the line, even if your family remained proudly Jutish in other aspects, you’d have that local practice well embedded. All this kind of thing changes once an exclusive religion like Christianity turns up, of course, and there must have been a lot of that left at, er, grass-roots level, but again at grass-roots level Christianity can accommodate a lot of other practices…

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