Tag Archives: Birkbeck

Women’s history in my alma mater

I sometimes seem to have derived an unjustified reputation from the fact that my very first publication was about a woman.1 That was intentional, once I realised that what was mainly coming out of my second virtual archive trawl was mainly the actions of Abbess Emma of Sant Joan de Ripoll; I figured it would do no harm to be seen as a male historian who realised that women were sometimes important in the Middle Ages. But I didn’t expect it to necessarily become the thing people knew me for, and for some people it is. Thus, the thing I have up on Academia.edu that I got the most requests to upload, before I had done so, is a talk I gave in a Kalamazoo round table long ago, because a friend of mine with an actual track record in gender history thought I might have interesting things to say about women and power.2 Whether I did or not, I’m not sure, but several people wanted to see what they were, which put me in a quandary as literally all I had by way of a ‘talk’ was a sheet and a half of scribbled thoughts with marginal notes from the session crabbed in round the edges. I did, eventually, upload that and got a message back from one of the requesters saying they’d been “hoping for more”, but what was I to do? Admittedly, I have subsequently written more about women, though it’s always the women of Sant Joan de Ripoll, and the story of running my essentially first-wave feminism into the modern discourse which that provoked has already been told; but it’s for reasons like that that I’m always slightly surprised when, occasionally, I get asked to participate in events or projects relating to women’s history.

Archivo de la Corona d'Aragón, Cancilleria, Pergamins Seniofredo 39

Archivo de la Corona d’Aragón, Cancilleria, Pergamins Seniofredo 39, bearing the hands of most of the women I have ever directly studied

This post is about one of those occasions, then, on 17th June 2019, when the visit to London of Professor Rekha Pande of the University of Hyderabad occasioned a kind of scratch conference at Birkbeck, University of London, entitled ‘Medieval Women: Comparative Perspectives’. It was rather strange, having been back inside my old doctoral institution for the first proper time only a month before to hear Chris Wickham speak, now to be back there to speak myself for the first time. This was, however, being organised by my long-term collaborator and ally, Dr Rebecca Darley, then of that parish, which is why I was asked to join in, and it put me on my toes, because as I say, I really only have one well to draw on for this kind of work. That said, I think everyone involved was drawing from wells quite a long way apart from each other, and this actually made for a really interesting discussion. These were the papers:

  1. Rekha Pande, “Writing a History of Gender in Medieval India”
  2. Sergi Sancho Fibla, “Beyond Literati: instruction, cultural practices and literacy in Southern France nunneries (13-14th c.)”
  3. Jonathan Jarrett, “Nuns, Signatures and Literacy in 10th-Century Catalonia”
  4. Lauren Wainwright, “Piety, Patronage and Personal Agency: Theodora Douka Palaiologina”
  5. Daniel Reynolds, “The Real House-Lives of the Dead Sea Rift: gender and society in Byzantine Palestina, 400-650”
  6. Rebecca Darley, “Male Mediation of Female Holiness in Byzantine Hagiography”
  7. Discussion

You will immediately see from that that what I drew from my well was in fact a version of the paper I ran into trouble publishing, so I’ve already talked about it here and won’t again. But the others were all really interesting, considering issues in which I am interested from source-bases I didn’t or hardly knew. Professor Pande talked about the difficulties of trying to get women’s history considered when both the source base you have and the scholarship with which you’re dealing are made in two mutually reinforcing patriarchal traditions, the Arabo-Islamic and Indo-Persian ones, and her way through them was to focus on the Bhakti movement, a kind of vernacular mysticism drawing on Buddhist and Jain traditions that is detectable in Indian source material from the 7th century onwards, and in which women were often/occasionally highly regarded.3 As with any movement developing over centuries in an area the size of the Indian subcontinent, there were innumerable variations on Bhakti but some of them involved a refusal to set up buildings or temples, meaning that there were no premises from which women could be excluded. In the extremely scanty record of notable Bhakti practitioners, therefore, there are women as well as men, and their lives show some common patterns, and most especially a refusal to be constrained by the domestic requirements of marriage. There were lots of points of comparison with Western material visible here, from lone ascetic travellers like Indian Margery Kempes (but less tearful and more respected), to the acceptable pattern of life for a hagiography and how that might be shaping the record; but that there even was a trope of the suitably-edifying Indian religious woman is telling us something about a space they created for themselves in these societies.

Rajasthani portrait of Meerabai

This is a Rajasthani portrait, date unknown to me, on display at Delhi Haat of Meerabai, a fifteenth-to-sixteenth-century Bhakti practitioner who, starting from a princely family position, has left us more record than most including a temple which she had built. Image by Onef9dayown work, licensed under CC BY 3.0, Wikimedia Commons, whence you can find out more.4

The other papers, being closer to my areas of expertise, I can probably talk about quicker. Dr Sancho was interested in the education and learning of Carthusian nuns over the turn of the twelfth and thirteenth centuries, and had a range of examples of women patrons of artwork or even inscriptions for churches or nunneries which required a considerable depth of theological education to get, liturgical manuscripts owned and annotated by such women, and so on, which allowed him to conclude that while they might not have access to formal schooling or the universities, at least some such women were getting that level of religious and knowledge and literacy anyway. He has his slides online still, so you can find out more there, but the discussion focused on what modes of transmission of that knowledge we aren’t being shown by the texts which we have. Lauren was studying the wife of Emperor Michael VIII Palaiologos, and therefore the empress who returned Greek imperial empressdom to Constantinople; she had got interested in her because the Barber Institute of Fine Arts has a superb example of one of her seals, but it transpired that she was quite politically active—definitely not always the case with Byzantine empresses—including issuing judgements on religious matters and getting Persian geographical works translated into Greek. However, Lauren also had examples of other rulers in the Byzantine sphere putting their queens or empresses to work like this, including Serbia and the Despotate of Epirus, and so raised the possibility that this was actually Nicæa keeping up with its neighbours, rather than Theodora being a single exception.

Lead seal of Empress Theodora Doukaina Palaiologina, struck 1259-1303, Barber Institute of Fine Arts SL0165

Lead seal of Empress Theodora Doukaina Palaiologina, struck 1259-1303, Barber Institute of Fine Arts SL0165

Dan, meanwhile, was up against my sort of problem: a landscape, both social and geographical, about which we can talk mainly through archæology and land transactions, both of which will show you that women were there but rarely very much about what they did. He had some examples of patronesses for buildings and female land ownership (as well as male ownership of female slaves…), and mainly wondered if there was any way through these difficulties. One factor against him that I didn’t have is that Palestine in his kind of period still largely had professional scribes and notaries, so we don’t even have access to women’s signatures as I do. Then Rebecca talked about the one class of women Byzantine writers were usually happy to write about, that is, saints, and the problem, which Professor Pande was also facing, that this inevitably gives us a male view of female holiness and one written for a male audience, not least because only male monasteries have survived in the Orthodox world from the Byzantine period so any female writings have likely been lost. (It’s probably not safe to say anything Byzantine and monastic is lost for sure until we get to the bottom of the archives at Saint Catherine’s Sinai, but the odds aren’t good.) In that writing, then, the two trends we see is that female saints were firstly usually subject to male violence, which was seen as part of the trials they had to endure to attain sanctity, and secondly that they had to get free of both parents and children to live the holy life; only by breaking their social bonds could they be God’s agents.

Mary of Egypt being given a cloak by the monk Zosimos in the desert, as pictured in British Library Yates Thompson MS 3 fo. 287

Mary of Egypt being given a cloak by the monk Zosimos in the desert, as pictured in British Library Yates Thompson MS 3 fo. 287, image from http://www.bl.uk/catalogues/illuminatedmanuscripts/ILLUMIN.ASP?Size=mid&IllID=5837, Public Domain, via Wikimedia Commons. Not that Mary of Egypt was really a typical Byzantine woman saint, but she was one of the ones famous enough even to be culted in the West, as this shows.

But as I say, it was the discussion that was probably the most fun. Rebecca noted a big difference between women in the West and women in India at the stage of widowhood; in the West that could be women’s most independent stage of life whereas in India it ended their access to resource and prevented them from carrying on with the spiritual life unless they could find other support. There were also sharp differences over virginity and sex, with which the West was obsessed and India not so much, and celebrating the latter rather than the former if it did anything. We also had a profitable discussion over the rôle of individuality: Professor Pande was keen to stress that her Bhakti women were not proto-feminists, in so far as they did not agitate for the emancipation of women but only for themselves and their religious practice, and this led us all to reflect on the historian’s desire to create movements out of the very few individuals, usually very individual, whom we can see. Then we had a long exchange over the social value of literacy in our various spheres, and thus the price of and restrictions on access to it; this turned out to be one of the most variable things of all, depending on what other structures of writing and education existed. One can say that women were rarely taught to write throughout the Middle Ages, for example, but that had different value in a world where basically no-one was so taught outside a small Church group from one where there was a university in almost every major city, from which women were excluded, but which generated an overflow of literate tutors that might still result in broader general, and therefore also female, literacy overall. We could obviously have talked for much longer about this than we had, and though some sketchy plans to create a teaching book out of all of this were probably best let drop, given how many of us didn’t usually do this stuff, I still wonder what it might have looked like. A good day, anyway, to which I’m glad my dubious gender history credentials were able to get me entry!

1. Jonathan Jarrett, “Power over Past and Future: Abbess Emma and the nunnery of Sant Joan de les Abadesses” in Early Medieval Europe Vol. 12 (Oxford 2003), pp. 229–258, DOI: 10.1111/j.0963-9462.2004.00128.x.

2. There were two things in that presentation I’d still quite like to write up, even though it was short, because I’ve kept on thinking with them since having thought of them. One was that we need a word, when we speak of powerful women in the Middle Ages, for something that was unusual and always non-default, but still happened quite a lot, and which society could accept as a reasonable thing to happen that still normally wouldn’t. As it is we’re always forced to discuss each powerful woman as an outlier, and that’s not wrong but it’s also missing the fact that her position was a fairly normal abnormality. The other is that those who minimise women’s political influence in the period tend to point to the men they had to operate with and delegate to, as if to suggest that without men they had no power. Well, fine, but I wouldn’t mind people recognising that this also applied to men in power. Granted, it was much rarer for women to settle anything by armed violence – though there are cases and even times and places where it was more normal – but even kings who were tournament champions and so on had armies and champions of their own, you know? There is something different about the kinds of power men and women could wield, for sure, but the necessity of delegation ain’t it.

3. If this all sounds interesting, and you can find it, the obvious thing to read would seem to be Rekha Pande, Religious Movements in Medieval India: Bhakti Creation of Alternative Spaces (New Delhi 2005).

4. See also S. M. Pandey and Norman Zide, “Mīrābāī and Her Contributions to the Bhakti Movement” in History of Religions Vol. 5 (Chicago IL 1965), pp. 54–73, I assume with suitable period caution.

Seminar CCLXXI: feudalism beats capitalism for most of history

Chris Wickham setting up for the Eric Hobsbawm Memorial Lecture at Birkbeck, University of London, 14 May 2019

Chris Wickham setting up for the Eric Hobsbawm Memorial Lecture at Birkbeck, University of London, 14 May 2019, photograph by your author

Well, I am back and I made a promise, and so here is the post which was promised, in which as has happened here a few times before I sing Chris Wickham’s praises. This is not musing on the his classic works of the 1980s or even 1990s, however, because this post is reporting on the Eric Hobsbawm Memorial Lecture at Birkbeck, University of London, on 14th May 2019, which was given by Chris and which had the title, “How did Feudalism Work? The Economic Logic of Medieval Societies”. I was there—and it was a little odd to be back in my alma mater as a guest rather than as a student—and I took extensive and enthusiastic notes, but the lecture has since emerged as an article, under a slightly different title, in Past & Present for May 2021.1 So I’ve checked the article against my notes on the lecture, but I think having done so that a report on the lecture gets you the substance of the article without misrepresenting it; so, here goes.

To start with we have (of course) to define what we mean by ‘feudal’. Chris was addressing the term in the strictly Marxist sense, as an economic ‘mode’, in which the productive class, for the Middle Ages the peasantry, have more or less full direction of their own labour, but do not get to keep the proceeds, or at least are subjected to rent, levy, tribute, pre-emption or whatever else one might call it by the governing class, whose lifestyle and endeavours, including of course all government, are made possible by their right or ability to appropriate that peasant surplus. We’re not talking feudalism as in knight service, fiefs and vassals, arbitrary violence and private justice or anything like that, though those things might also have been present in some of the societies concerned, but just the economic relationship between producers and governors.2 Now, for most commentators this is a restrictive system, with no room for growth, because it rests fundamentally on the basis of peasant farming, and that can only be ratcheted up so far and only so much surplus extracted from it before peasants can’t survive; other than extract more from them, the only obvious means of growth for such an economy is to farm more land with more people, and there are usually effective limits on that too. For those same commentators, Marx was right that the game-changing phenomenon was industrialisation, which enabled the development of capitalism, in which the ruling class control the productive class’s labour directly, take all the proceeds and then pay the proletariat thus created for that labour. Marxist dialectic sees the end of the Ancien Régime and the Age of Revolutions as the messy and difficult transition of European society from the ‘feudal’ to the ‘capitalist’ mode, and from aristocratic land-owning ruling classes to bourgeois, commercial ones.

OK, so far, so much Marxism 101. But despite the Middle Ages usually being characterised as ‘feudal’ in this sense, it’s pretty easy to point to things like factory-scale industrial production of textiles in Flanders and Florence, plantation sugar cultivation in Sicily, day-labourers in England and many other places, extensive peasant access to markets and commercial goods, banking and credit and of course the rise of the middle class, a phenomenon which as someone I didn’t know once said at a paper I was at is one of those that seems to have happened in every age that anyone studies, and which then propelled the development of self-governing towns and so on. Quite a lot of this looks capitalistic, even if it really only seems to be visible after 1100, and it has led to angry if sterile debates about whether the profit motive was known in the Middle Ages, how rational an economic actor the medieval peasant was, and so on.3 And, whatever its mysterious cause, the medieval economy did manage a quite substantial amount of growth, punctuated by some dramatic but not total collapses. Probably no-one would disagree that the number of people and average standard of living, if what we mean by that is availability of market goods, was vastly higher in 1450 than in 550 despite the Black Death intervening (though, to be fair, 550 was also a plague period).4 So if this was a feudal economy, how did it contain all that?

Chris Wickham's Eric Hobsbawm Lecture at Birkbeck, University of London, May 2019

To this, a question which Chris himself had raised, his answer was brilliant and simple. Firstly, probably no society ever has been entirely formed around a single Marxian mode of production; we’re only ever talking about the dominant one. England didn’t become instantly capitalist the minute the first factory started operation, and the Middle Ages could accommodate a few textile manufactories without needing reclassifying, because so much more of the overall economy than that, even than Florence, was economically constructed on the ‘feudal’ basis. But the second part of the argument was for me the winner: actually, historically speaking, feudal economies could be very complex, could expand, and could do so quite a lot. Indeed, since the Middle Ages show that they could, by Chris’s argument, the real question is not ‘whether’ but ‘how’, and to that Chris said firstly that evidently, normally, peasants could amass a surplus of their own and were thus consumers and an economic force on the market alongside the lords who had the first claim on their stuff; the proportionally less the lords took, the more peasant action on the market there could be and the more market-based the economy could get. But peasants were not themselves dependent on that access to the market, because they were in control of production; if they didn’t get to keep enough to feed themselves, the whole economy stopped, but if there was difficulty, obviously the first thing peasants would do was look after themselves and withdraw from the wider economy. These capitalist-looking super-phenomena would then shrink or disappear. Because of this basic safety valve in a feudal system, it would never reach conversion point and become capitalist without some other factor developing. Such an economy could be stable, large and complex, even slightly industrialised, and remain feudal.

This didn’t meet much opposition in questions; instead, there was a small slew of people asking ‘do you think such-and-such-a-place fits or doesn’t?’, to which Chris naturally enough said that they all fitted if you looked at it right; someone asking about wage labour, which Chris thought was never very important, since seasonal labourers must still also have fitted into the economy some other way the rest of the year; and Caroline Goodson, suggesting the importance of at least Islamic states as economic drivers, to which Chris argued that as long as it was taxing peasants without telling them how and what to farm, the state was just a big lord in economic terms and his classification was safe. I didn’t get to ask my question in the session, but did get to catch Chris a bit later, and what I wanted to know was, what doesn’t fit into a feudal classification like this? Wouldn’t the whole ancient world, except the very few bits and times of it which really did run on plantation slavery, be ‘feudal’ in these terms? And if so, what did this mean for Chris’s early work, still much cited, on the transition from the ancient to feudal modes in late antiquity?5 And Chris said, yes, it pretty much would, and what this meant was that he’d been wrong. This actually rocked my thought-world a bit, not just because of someone with Chris’s stature disavowing some of his most influential writing but also because I still find ‘The Other Transition’ and ‘Marx, Sherlock Holmes, and Late Roman Commerce’ intellectually compelling and explanatory. But so did I this. It has taken me some effort to prune the old work from my reading lists since then, and I’m still not sure it’s pruned from my own picture of fourth- to eighth-century European and Mediterranean change, despite the pretty major mounting block presented by Chris’s work in between.6 So for me at least, the way I used to understand about a thousand years of European history and indeed focus on about five hundred of them has changed because of this lecture, which is the power a really brilliant bit of work can have. But since the print version is very much the same paper, that is an experience you too can have, and I do recommend it!

1. Chris Wickham, “How did the Feudal Economy Work? the Economic Logic of Medieval Societies” in Past & Present No. 251 (Oxford 2021), pp. 3–40. It probably is worth mentioning that Chris reckons this article a partner to his earlier “Productive Forces and the Economic Logic of the Feudal Mode of Production” in Historical Materialism Vol. 16 (Leiden 2008), pp. 3–22, which I haven’t read, and should therefore mention so that you can.

2. My checkpoint for these distinctions remains Chris Wickham, “Le forme del feudalesimo” in Il Feudalesimo nell’alto Medioevo, Settimane di Studio del Centro Italiano di Studi sull’Alto Medioevo 47 (Spoleto 2000), 2 vols, I, pp. 15–51, but there is a quick run-through in Wickham, “How did the Feudal Economy Work?”, pp. 8-10.

3. For the latter, see Cliff T. Bekar and Clyde G. Reed, “Open fields, risk, and land divisibility” in Explorations in Economic History Vol. 40 (Amsterdam 2003), pp. 308–325, ridiculed at the post linked. We might also note the weird branch of this scholarship which sees the Church as the only capitalist force of the Middle Ages, and thus essentially assumes, as do all those who like to bash the corruption and cynicism of the medieval Church, that everyone who believed was actually outside the organisation which mediated belief; for the one see Robert B. Ekelund, Robert D. Tollison, Gary M. Anderson, Robert F. Hébert and Audrey B. Davidson, Sacred Trust: The Medieval Church as an Economic Firm (Oxford 1996) and for the latter Alan Ereira, Terry Jones’ Medieval Lives (London 2005).

4. On the plague of c. 550 see Peter Sarris, “The Justinianic Plague: origins and effects” in Continuity and Change Vol. 17 (Cambridge 2002), pp. 169–182, though just lately a rook of exciting new work on it and its consequences has emerged that I haven’t yet followed up, beginning with Merle Eisenberg and Lee Mordechai, “The Justinianic Plague: an interdisciplinary review” in Byzantine and Modern Greek Studies Vol. 43 (Abingdon 2019), pp. 156–180. We still lack a general economic history of the medieval period that I’d trust: Norman Pounds, An Economic History of Medieval Europe, 2nd edn, (London 1994) is OK in a traditional mould, but that’s kind of it. However, the last time I spoke to Chris Wickham, only a few weeks ago, he referred to an ‘economy book’ that he’d just sent to the press, and I wonder if that will prove to be the thing we need…

5. This work is collected and revised in Chris Wickham, Land and Power: studies in Italian and European social history, 400–1200 (London 1994), but includes especially idem, “The Other Transition: from the Ancient World to Feudalism” in Past & Present No. 103 (Oxford 1984), pp. 3–36, rev. in idem, Land and Power, pp. 7-42, and idem, “Marx, Sherlock Holmes, and Late Roman Commerce” in Journal of Roman Studies Vol. 78 (London 1988), pp. 183–193, rev. in idem, Land and Power, pp. 77-98. Of course John Haldon, a long-ago colleague of Chris, was arguing even then that ancient and medieval states worked in fundamentally the same way in Marxist terms, and wanted rid of both ‘ancient’ and ‘feudal’ modes in favour of a more capacious ‘tributary’ mode: see John Haldon, The State and the Tributary Mode of Production (London 1993).

6. Most obviously Chris Wickham, Framing the Early Middle Ages: Europe and the Mediterranean 400-800 (Oxford 2005), to which cf. Historical Materialism Vol. 19 no. 1, Symposium on Chris Wickham’s Framing the Early Middle Ages (Leiden 2011).