Patriarchy and the Establishment of ‘Objective Facts’: The Narrative is Already Gendered

'The Fall of Icarus,' c. 1560-70.

‘The Fall of Icarus,’ c. 1560-70.

Every now and again, because I don’t know any better, I end up engaging with my favourite brand of Idiot on the Internet, the intellectual mansplainer. You know the sort of thing: you mention you’re studying late-medieval women’s reading, and they start to explain to you how Derrida helped them understand why it’d be better to read Chaucer. Or Shakespeare. Or, you mention gendered violence and they explain – more in sorrow than in anger – that men have always fought wars while women stayed home raised the babies, and history really teaches us how bad men have always had it. If you’re lucky – and I’m sometimes very lucky, because writing like a dyslexic does have a delightful tendency to make people underestimate you – they’ll eventually offer to dazzle you with the beauty of their logic. Ingrained in this discourse will be terms like ‘playing devil’s advocate’ or ‘the inherent bias of women’s studies’ or ‘the importance of looking at things objectively,’ or ‘letting the facts speak for themselves’.

It’ll all sound terribly, terribly educated and impartial.

Except, you’ll have the sneaking sense it isn’t.

We’re encouraged to believe that education teaches us how to argue impartially, how to set aside personal bias, and find objective truths (or at the very least, falsify obviously biased and incomplete perceptions of truth). But I think we ignore a fundamental inequality before we even begin to debate.

The image at the top of this page is a painting, once attributed to Breugel, and the subject of a poem by Auden. Both painting and poem make the point that, while the Greek myth traditionally centres on Icarus, the rash boy who escaped prison in Crete on wings made of wax and then fell to his death because he flew too close to the sun, the tragedy is only personal. If you take the perspective of the ploughman in the foreground of the picture, or the ‘expensive delicate ship’ in the ocean, the object falling out of the sky and the pair of limbs just visible in the bottom right corner of the painting are unimportant.

This is – I would argue – a really blokey way of looking at myth, or narrative at all. For the painter, for Auden – for William Carlos Williams, who thought Auden’s poem was just so damn awesome he’d have a crack at it too – this perspective is novel and exciting. There is a strong sense of these men giving themselves a pat on the back for imagining the scene in such a new and unusual way, with the supposed ‘main character’ reduced to a speck in the corner.

Both history and fiction de-centre women’s views a lot of the time. Researching medieval women, you spend a lot of time looking at the negative space between men’s communications to get a sense of the position of women. Establishing a valid narrative often requires a lot of caveats, a lot of uncertainty, because the perspective that is so strikingly novel in the Icarus painting is just plain normal here. This de-centred position isn’t a rhetorical or logical posture, a debate-team tactic you can congratulate yourself for knowing – it’s the default place from which you have to begin.

But there’s something even more problematic about the way the narratives we’re used to hearing when we hear about women in the past shape the way we interpret those women. I’m reading a medieval romance at the moment, which is supposedly an exploration of how men and women uphold truth and justice. In theory, it’s a lovely story of how truth wins out over treachery. In reality, I think it’s a story of how female truth is constantly de-centred, never accepted as objective fact.

This romance is full to bursting with untrustworthy male characters. The best of them – the hero of the piece – has no qualms about impersonating a monk in order to extract a confession on false pretenses. This character, the Earl of Tolous, falls precipitously ‘in love’ with his enemy’s wife on the strength of a description of her physical charms. He even accepts a sworn oath of manly loyalty from one of his enemy’s prisoners because this man is willing to promise him a glimpse of the beloved (aka, stalking 101).

from the Belles Heures of the Duc du Berry. Image from this site.

from the Belles Heures of the Duc du Berry. Image from this site.

The meeting is set up for the woman’s chapel. She turns up, dressed in her most expensive clothes, while he comes disguised as a hermit so that her husband’s men won’t discover him. Keeping perfectly in-character, he begs her for alms, and she gives him a handful of coins and a gold ring. And then she leaves again.

This woman demonstrates over and over that she’s utterly true to her word: in fact, she has a totally objective view of the truth, insisting upon telling her villainous husband when he’s legally and morally wrong, and refusing to break a vow of secrecy even when it could save her life. This aspect of her character is repeatedly set to one side by the other characters – except two chillingly manipulative would-be rapists who set out to blackmail her into committing adultery and, when she refuses, frame her for adultery anyway. This is the point at which Our Noble Hero really shows his mettle … by completely failing to take her innocence on trust. Instead, he leans on the Old Boys’ network, and fixes things with the woman’s confessor so that he can diguise himself as a monk, sneak into the confessional, and interrogate the woman about her guilt or innocence in the guise of her confessor. It’s charming, isn’t it? And needless to say, the entire establishment who refused to believe the woman are perfectly convinced by the word of a man who’s just impersonated a monk.

Despite this cornucopia of male distrustworthiness, the narrative manipulates us to think much harder – and much more suspiciously – about the motives of the woman at the centre of the story. It’s a classic ‘yes, but what did she do to encourage him’ story. As you can imagine, the suspicion focuses on that scene in the chapel when she gives the man who loves her – her husband’s enemy – not only coins, but also a ring. In medieval England, the connotations of this donation are sufficiently ambiguous to make things interesting. In a society where people still do an awful lot of payment-in-kind, it’s not exactly unusual for rich ladies to give pieces of jewellery as alms. And rings do not necessarily symbolise love: they range in purpose, from romantic tokens engraved with mottos, to reliqueries designed to hold bits of dead saint, to the even more passion-killing administrative function of signet rings used to seal boring documents.

For example, check out how many rings this girl's mother is wearing! Portrait of A Lady With Her Daughter, Barthel Bruyn the Elder (c. 1540). Image from wikipedia commons.

For example, check out how many rings this girl’s mother is wearing! Portrait of A Lady With Her Daughter, Barthel Bruyn the Elder (c. 1540). Image from wikipedia commons.

The narrative manipulates us to focus much more energy on the ambiguities of this scene than we do on the straightforward – but, narratively less pivotal – evidence of the male characters’ failure to remain true to their words. After all, it’s the first meeting between the hero and heroine, the first opportunity for us to see whether the heroine will be tempted to betray her husband, or whether she’ll betray the man who loves her to her husband. So, it encourages us to second-guess her motives, to put the evidence of her truthfulness to the side for a moment and dig into the narrative ambiguity. In short, the romance reinforces the idea that women’s truth is to be de-centred and women are to be second-guessed.

This gendered pattern – this narrative structure we find again and again in paintings and fiction and historical narrative – forms the cultural context we all bring with us when we sit down to argue about ‘objective facts’ or to hammer out the ‘truth of the situation’ with the mansplainers. At best, we’re conditioned to expect we’ll have to reconstruct women’s experiences from the margins, from the negative spaces. At worst, we inherit narratives about women that are already prompting us to second-guess those women’s experiences, to categorise them as dubious, uncertain, and problematic.

When I argue with mansplainers about history, or feminism, I’m happy to argue objectively, to play by the rules. But I think we also need to realize that it’s rather easier to make a rhetorical posture of giving up your central position to explore the evidence if that’s something novel and strange to you. It would be too much to say that traditional narratives – in history and in fiction – gaslight us into disbelieving women, but we need to recognise that there is a hierarchy there. When we start to argue about how to establish of ‘objective facts,’ we need to recognise that the ground we’re arguing over is already uneven.

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“My Well-Beloved Valentine”: Marriage, Medieval and Modern

Heart-shaped Book of Hours, BnF, latin 10536, 15th c. Image via this site.

Heart-shaped Book of Hours, BnF, latin 10536, 15th c. Image via this site.

Two of my oldest friends got married this weekend, at a beautiful woodland campsite complete with superhero-themed decorations, crazy dancing, and a campfire with s’mores. And it was particularly fun because they’d thrown out – or subverted – all the traditions that feministy types (or, you know, adults who’ve been responsible for their own lives for years) get irritated by, and this made everything more personal, and very touching. The bride was not ‘given away’ and they tossed a coin to decide who would speak first. The vows echoed the formal language we’re familiar with, but were written entirely by the couple. They’d done the legal bit the day before, so the ceremony just involved their promises to each other.

I loved this, and partly because it made me think about traditions and what it means to reshape a tradition into something new. In fact, this ceremony was, in a way, looking back to even older traditions. In medieval England, it was perfectly legal, and normal, to contract a marriage simply by making the promise to each other, ideally in the presence of witnesses who could be called upon to give public testimony that the event had occurred. It was only much later that weddings become religious ceremonies or required an official celebrant with legal power, and later still that it became customary for a male family member to ‘give away’ his daughter.

You can see how people were adapting traditions in the period I study, in fifteenth century England. What I love about this period is the amazing sense you get that, suddenly, you’ve got access to the thoughts and words of ordinary people making their own decisions about love and marriage. So, I thought I’d share the story of a fifteenth-century woman and her marriage.


Letter from Margery Brews to John Paston, c. 1477. From London, BL MS 43490, f. 23.

The image above is a letter, dictated in 1477 by a woman named Margery Brews, who was writing to the man she hoped to marry, John Paston. Margery and John were engaged to be married, but her father was refusing to provide John with sufficient money to keep his wife, while Margery’s mother was pleading with him to relent.

Despite this very real worry, Margery writes to John in deeply emotional terms, addressing him as her “well-beloved Valentine”the first recorded use of the term ‘Valentine’ to mean ‘lover’ that we have in English. In medieval England, letter writing could - like marriage vows – be an occasion for formal language, for phrases whose significance was much deeper than the mere words on the page. Yet here, we can see Margery reaching beyond the formal language she must have been taught as young girl, to find a more personal register. In effect, she coined a tradition.

True Love: 'Le Duc des vrais amants' with his lady, in London, BL MS Harley 4431, f. 143r. By Christine de Pizan, made for Queen Isabeau of Bavaria, c. 1410-14.

True Love: ‘Le Duc des vrais amants’ with his lady, in London, BL MS Harley 4431, f. 143r. By Christine de Pizan, made for Queen Isabeau of Bavaria, c. 1410-14.

Margery continued to write to John as “well-beloved Valentine,” and later signs herself “your Valentine,” in a letter promising that if John and her father can come to an agreement in their planned meeting, she will be “the merriest maiden on the earth”. Reading Margery’s letters is rather like reading only one half of a conversation, but we can guess at John’s character, not only because he insisted upon marrying Margery despite her lack of money, but also because of what we know of his strong-willed younger sister. Almost a decade before Margery Brews wrote her letters, Margery Paston, John’s nineteen-year-old sister, married her parents’ steward Richard Calle. At the time, John – aged about twenty-five – was both worried and contemptuous at his sister’s unconventional choice, but she stood firm, refusing to renounce the marriage even at the urging of the bishop of Norwich. It seems possible that, when John found himself, like his sister, weighing up the possibility of a marriage for love rather than money, he found himself rather more inspired by his sister’s example.

Both stories have happy endings. Margery Paston and Richard Calle’s marriage endured, producing three sons. Margery Brews proved herself to be a quick-witted person, whose letters to her husband carry a tone of partnership in business when she writes to him “in haste” to inform her husband of his responsibilities to his tenants and her concerns about his business, and ends with news of the good health of “all your babes”.

Margery Brews’ letters began as an intimate record of a one ordinary woman setting out to write something more personal than the formal language traditionally used by engaged couples. Now, though, they’re famous as the ‘first Valentines’. It was lovely to be at a wedding that involved the same re-writing of tradition to make it more personal and more meaningful. I hope people reading this post enjoyed it, and I hope you’ll take a (soppy, yes!) moment to send my friends some good wishes!

Walters Museum MS W.166, f.16r. via Wikipedia Commons.

Walters Museum MS W.166, f.16r. via Wikipedia Commons.


Anyone who has read Cynthia Harnett’s The Wool Pack, with its story of Nicholas and Cecily’s betrothal, might recognise the quotations from Cecily’s letters as being lifted from those of Margery Brews.

If you want to know more about the Paston women, Diane Watt has published a selection of their letters as The Paston Women: Selected Letters, which has lots of helpful notes and is in modernised spelling. You could also try Colin Richmond’s book The Paston Family in the Fifteenth Century, or the first section of Rebecca Krug’s beautifully written book Reading Families (the whole book is well worth reading).


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Women and Folk Art in the Eyes of Male Artists: Yet more Cultural Femicide

Folk Art by a Woman - Who Knew it Existed?!

(Slightly crappy) folk art by a woman – who knew it existed?!

This post isn’t my idea, but came about when I read a comment by the brilliant Bee Jones earlier today.

She wrote:

“I have just watched The Culture Show on catch-up. All about a Tate exhibition of Folk Art. The introduction explained that it was going to focus on the real lived democracy of art which has always existed outside the art establishment. Great, I thought, this will be celebrating the explosion of women’s creativity we see every day, all over social media etc etc…but NOPE. You’ve guessed it, the programme didn’t feature a single woman artist, or even mention that women have long been underappreciated for their talent, despite being EVERYWHERE making beautiful things. So this post is about celebrating the fantastic women who regularly astonish me with their creative skills. Please feel free to share this and add your own.”

I think this is a great idea.

I’ve just watched the programme she’s referring to – it’s up for another week, so feel free to check it out if you particularly wish to be patronized by a couple of blokes. They start out with some working definitions of folk art, before oh-so-hilariously ‘insulting’ each other by applying the term to their own work. From this, we moved on to the Tate’s Folk Exhibition, which is open through the summer. There’s a nice review of the exhibition here.

Our two presenters, Jeremy Deller and Alan Kane, stared at the first display, which was absolutely fascinating: a wall of objects once used as shop signs, and ranging from a beautiful, giant gilded key, to a teapot marked with fading lettering, to a pair of humble shoes. Apparently, all of this was very funny. “Anything that’s bigger or smaller than it should be is automatically funny,” commented Deller, begging a reference to Freud. After this, “we’re off to Blackpool, perhaps the spiritual home of British folk art today,” and I began to sense a pattern. The presenters explained they were looking for anything they liked the look of, “anything that makes us laugh,” basically. Here we got our first glimpse of women: as the voiceover wittered on about folk ritual, the camera lingered on a middle-aged woman wiggling her bum cheekily at us. Oh, these Northerners and their down-to-earth folk humour! Stopping by a stall selling fake tattoos, Deller tried his hand at the popular voice, explaining, “these tattoos, they’re basically like Warhols … I think, for me, that’s like what artists do, they take something from popular culture and do something with it”. It was about as convincing as David Cameron trying to tell us he, like, thinks that Inbetweeners show is more or less Shakespeare.

Everything to do with folk art, we were told, was ‘fun’. Oh, such fun. A T-shirt, wittily printed with a sexist joke about wives and terrorists, obviously merited being included in all of the hilarity. Seriously, if you watch this bit, it comes with a health warning, because I think I have strained my eyebrow muscles from listening to these two pontificate about unselfconscious art while looking at a T-shirt reading ‘I beat anorexia’ they’d claimed as a ‘public art work’. Nothing so folksy as sweat-shop-produced misogyny.

I’m not going to go through the whole thing – you get the gist. It was massively patronizing, with one eye on the audience snickering along with the Proper Artists. Towards the end, I held out hope we’d left the snickering behind as both men, looking at sculptured figureheads, so far forgot themselves as to sound genuinely impressed. But not for long: “it’s a classic figurehead, to have the top half person, bottom half boat … and maybe with one or two breasts exposed … preferably two! Hur hur”. One of Deller’s childhood highlights, we’re told, was a visit to the Cutty Sark, memorable for “a whole row of these topless women … I thought that was pretty cool!”

It’s perhaps no surprise, given the way this programme treated misogyny as ever so funny, that there wasn’t any discussion of women and folk art.

Back in the Tate exhibition, the presenters mentioned a woman’s name for the first time: Charlotte Alice Springall, who, with her husband-to-be Herbery Bellamy, pieced together a beautiful quilt in just one year (known, you’ll be shocked to discover, as ‘The Bellamy Quilt’). This was, apparently, very funny too: “they obviously didn’t work” sniggered the presenters, before moving swiftly on to discuss another group of people who made art (apparently), because they had nothing better to do: modern-day prisoners.

No, really. I’d say I found the juxtaposition telling of their impression of the restrictions of women’s lives, but I’m not sure they’d thought that deeply.

This was the point where I really got annoyed – because quilting is a hugely important form of folk art, which has historically been practised by women, and which has a very rich social as well as artistic history. Quilts often don’t survive, because textiles eventually wear out or rot, but the V&A tells me this quilt of the story of Tristram and Iseult was made c. 1360-1400. That’s a full century earlier than the most famous written English version of the story, in Malory’s Morte Darthur.

In the past, women needed to make quilts – not because they ‘didn’t work,’ but because it was a practical way to recycle fabric and a necessary means of keeping warm. But they also turned quilting into an art form, as the York museum of quilting will show you. It’s only fairly recently that quilts have been treated seriously as art works. In the last century, for example, Lucy M. Boston (who also wrote beautiful children’s books)  declined to have her quilts exhibited at Kettle’s Yard Folk Museum in Cambridge, because she felt they were things to be used, not art to be exhibited.

In fact, barely five minutes had gone by, after Bee posted her response to this show, before women were swapping images of work they’d made. I’ve got permission to share this beautiful quilt, made by the author Cassandra Parkin.



And here’s the one she’s working on now:

quilt 2

Aren’t they beautiful?

I love Bee’s idea, and if you would like to add images or comments about women’s art – whether you’ve made it, your friend made it, or you just happen to love it, I’d enjoy that. And please consider sharing Bee’s post with people you know: we could discover some brand new women folk artists!

There is now a hashtag, Artbywomen, where you can share images, links or anything else you like about women’s art, especially women’s folk art. Enjoy!

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Male Fantasies, Historical Fiction, and Game of Thrones Geekery


This is how I imagine John Snow would die. You know nothing, John Snow.  The Hague, KB, KA 20, f. 34r. From

This is how I imagine Jon Snow would die. You know nothing, John Snow.
The Hague, KB, KA 20, f. 34r. From this site.

This is an unashamedly geeky post, which I writing because it’s hot, and I’ve been doing a lot of proofreading, and because I enjoyed writing about Game of Thrones, misogyny and medieval romance last time. I’ve had a question from Rachel Moss (tweeting over on @WetheHumanities today) going round and round in my head today. She was talking about the popularity of the medieval era for fiction writers, and asked ‘What is it about the Middle Ages than encourages people to use it for fantasy?’

As I was thinking about this question, I came across this piece, titled ‘Why “Game of Thrones” Isn’t Medieval, and Why That Matters’. Now, normally, that title would make my heart sing, because I am fed up with the lazy justifications of G. R. R. M.’s misogyny as ‘just the way it was back in the Dark Ages’. There were some nice points in the article about how Martin picks different technologies from different eras. And I liked the point that, aesthetically, Game of Thrones is closer to Victorian romanticism of the medieval, than to the medieval itself. But, unfortunately, so is this article.

The author, Breen, puts forward the argument, basically, that Martin’s world isn’t medieval because it’s too technologically and scientifically advanced. The majority of Martin’s world, he argues “belong[s] to what historians call the ‘early modern’ period”.

I admit, in my fantasy world, there will be some kind of cosmic retribution system for anyone who uses the phrase ‘what historians call the [insert name] period’. I’ve never seen two historians agree unreservedly on the limits of pretty much any historical period, and when they do, you can be damn sure they won’t be talking about the medieval/early Modern division. But here’s what the author describes as being definitively post-medieval in Martin’s world:

“Seven large kingdoms, each with multiple cities and towns, share a populous continent. Urban traders ply the Narrow Sea in galleys, carrying cargoes of wine, grains, and other commodities to the merchants of the Free Cities in the east. Slavers raid the southern continent and force slaves to work as miners, farmers, or household servants. There is a powerful bank based in the Venice-like independent republic of Braavos. A guild in Qarth dominates the international spice trade. Black-gowned, Jesuit-like “Maesters” create medicines, study the secrets of the human body, and use “far-eyes” (telescopes) to observe the stars. In King’s Landing, lords peruse sizable libraries and alchemists experiment with chemical reactions and napalm-like fires. New religions from across the sea threaten old beliefs; meanwhile, many in the ruling elite are closet atheists. And politically, in the aftermath of the Mad King and Joffrey, the downsides of hereditary monarchy are growing more obvious with every passing day.”

These early fourteenth-century Lincolnshire folks better not be drinking wine before they've learned to import it! London, BL, MS Add. 42130, f. 208

These early fourteenth-century Lincolnshire folks better not be drinking wine before they’ve learned to import it!
London, BL, MS Add. 42130, f. 208

So: what makes a world post-medieval is good trade networks, navigation, urbanisation, scientific inquiry, religious diversity, and growing disinclination for hereditary monarchy (no one told Henry VIII about that last one, did they?). To me, a lot of this sounded rather like the Roman Empire, but I’m no Classicist (and I couldn’t think of a parallel to the Iron Bank). I couldn’t really see how any of it was distinctively post-medieval, as opposed to fifteenth-century English, and I’m inclined to think the Braavosi are Lombard bankers, or maybe the Florentines who’d financed Edward III’s wars back in the fourteenth century.

However, Breen goes on, rather disingenuously I thought, to discount the fifteenth century that Martin claims to be drawing upon, and to look at the High Middle Ages:

“A world that actually reflected daily life in the High Middle Ages (12th-century Europe) would be one without large cities or global networks. A diversity of religions would be inconceivable. Many aristocrats wouldn’t be able to read, let alone maintain large libraries. And no one would even know about the continents across the ocean.”

What Daenerys has in store for the wildlings. London, BL, Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 62r. Note: I'm showing you elephants for a reason ...

What Daenerys has in store for the wildlings. London, BL, Royal MS 12 C XIX, f. 62r. Note: I’m showing you elephants for a reason …

Because I’m nice, I’ll accept that what the author means by ‘large cities’ and ‘large libraries’ isn’t defined, so he may have a point. That said, wiki (yes, I’m citing wiki. You’ll live) reckons the population of Paris in 1200 was about 110,000. In 1530 (‘early Modern’ according to the author), the population of London was about 50,000. The point about many aristocrats being unable to read is one that makes me want to curl up and whimper in a darkened room, and I accept that’s one of the inevitable side effects of writing 90,000 words on medieval reading and calling it work. But it’s the claims about religion and geographic knowledge that get me the most.

For starters, let’s look at what medieval Europe knew about continents across the sea and ‘global networks’. Twelfth-century England knew that Africa existed – there’s a brilliant series of books called The Image of the Black in Western Art, which demonstrate that true-to-life images of black Africans made their way into Western Art at a pretty early stage. They knew of the more distant reaches of the Islamic world, to a surprisingly detailed degree. I came across this lovely article about Arabic influences on medieval England, which claims the earliest Arabic-English loan word to be the Old English word ‘ealfara’. In the Anglo-Norman romance Boeve de Hamtoun, written sometime around the last decade of the twelfth century, hero explains:

“I was in Nubia, and Carthage, and the land of the Slavs, and at the Dry Tree, and in Barbary [North Africa], and Macedonia ….”

(quoted from Dorothee Metzlitzki, The Matter of Araby in Medieval England (London: Yale University Press, 130).

Österreichische Nationalbibliothek,

Saracens and Crusaders.

As this quotation might remind you, England was a nation familiar with the Crusades, which necessitated contact with Islamic religion and culture, but that’s not the only way in which the idea that twelfth-century England was a religious monoculture is inaccurate. At the beginning of the twelfth century, in England, there were basically two religions you’d expect most people to belong to: Christian (majority) or Jewish (minority). It also seems likely, looking at the prohibitions against witchcraft and superstition you find, that there were also people whose beliefs and practises were, at the very least, not exactly theologically orthodox Christianity. I don’t really study the twelfth century, but when I do, I’m always struck by the extent to which scholars were working with concepts not only from Christianity, but also from Judaism and Islam. In fact, this period is sometimes called the ‘twelfth century Renaissance’ because the rapid changes to intellectual life and culture marked a kind of ‘rebirth’ of learning. This book is just slightly later, but check it out – it’s Euclid’s mathematical textbook, written originally in Greek, translated into Arabic, and, in this thirteenth-century version, into Latin. How’s that for networking?!

As you might expect – and appropriately in the context of Game of Thrones – there are some rather horrible downsides to this era. For starters, anti-semitism seems to have been predictably present, leading up to the official explusion of the Jewish people from England at the end of the thirteenth century, and including the notorious massacre of York’s Jewish population in 1190. Slavery – both of serfs who were born into a system of extremely limited rights, and of foreign captives or trafficked men and women – isn’t a uniquely early Modern phenomenon either. The Vikings, when they weren’t busy journeying to Constantinople and being part of the Varangian Guard, were enthusiastic slave traders. In short, twelfth-century England (and Europe) had both the good and the bad bits of what the author of this article believes to be uniquely post-medieval about George R. R. Martin’s pseudo-medieval fantasy.

And I think it’s this – the genuine nuance of medieval England, the complicated, mixed-up world where people were both barbarically anti-semitic and intellectually fascinated by Arabic and Hebrew learning, where merchants traded with Africa yet also looked at maps that placed black men alongside monsters on the edges of the world – that the author of this article can’t get to grips with.

Concluding the article, he observes:

“as Martin’s books progress, we find that his is a world where women and people of color struggle to gain leadership roles, where religious diversity (if not toleration) proliferates, where characters debate the ethics of abetting slave labor, and where banks play shady roles in global politics.

Sound familiar?”

Breen’s argument singles these aspects of Martin’s narrative as historical anomalies, things unheard of prior to the early Modern world. He relies for contrast on a fantasy version of medieval Europe, a fantasy of the primitive world that lies beyond the world we know, just as monsters and dragons lie at the edges of medieval mappaemundi, beyond the borders of the known world.

The Hereford Mappamundi. England, c. 1285.

The Hereford Mappamundi. England, c. 1285.

Yet, these maps were made not as cartography, but as religious idealism: they do not represent the world as medieval people knew it, but the world as the medieval Church wanted to imagine it. This fantasy glosses over the complexity of the Middle Ages under the guise of interest in ‘strong women’ or ‘women and people of colour as leaders’.

I get that this is a nice trendy argument. We love historical fantasy because it offers up to us an unflinchingly grim perspective on our own struggles. It might be unfair to speculate that it’s particularly common for right-on leftie white men to appreciate such unflinching, grim perspective, perhaps because it’s less of a novelty to the rest of us? The problem is, I suspect you can make the same observations about pretty much any period of history. Can you imagine a time when women and people of colour decided, en masse and without exception, ‘ah, heck, let’s just accept our destinies and keep our heads down’? No, me either. Though I can think of plenty of periods in which rather more scholarship has been devoted to noble white men who worked to free slaves and emancipate women, than to the slaves, ex-slaves and women who worked alongside them.

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Women, Art and Authority: The Language of Exclusion

Fede Galizia, 'Judith with the Head of Holofernes' (possible self-portrait). 1596.

Fede Galizia, ‘Judith with the Head of Holofernes’ (possible self-portrait). 1596.

I recently watched Amanda Vickery’s series, ‘The Story of Women and Art,’ which you can catch on Iplayer (and catch it soon, before it goes).

I am a pretty obvious target for this series. The name I blog under, Jeanne de Montbaston, is the name of one of the few medieval women artists about whom we know a fair amount. I’m not an Art Historian, but I’m very interested in women artists, because in medieval England (and France, and Italy …), you often find that the people illuminating books –  or making tapestries and other works of art we’ve now lost – were women. I suspect that the fourteenth and fifteenth centuries were actually a reasonably good time to be a woman artist. Yet, ironically, I suspect that’s true for women like Jeanne de Montbaston simply because being an artist who illuminated medieval manuscripts did not carry the level of (masculine) prestige we now associate with the word ‘Art’. She was simply a woman working to support her family. And even then, few non-medievalists would know about medieval women artists, so her name is obscure.

Vickery’s first programme began with Renaissance Italy, so we didn’t really get to talk about what was going on in medieval England or France (maybe there could be another series?). But this was fine with me since I know much less about Renaissance and post-Renaissance art. The story that stood out for me was that of the nun, Suor Plautilla Nelli, who painted a huge seven-metre Last Supper. The theme, so the programme argued, was typically taken on by male artists, but Vickery points out that Nelli’s models were probably other women, and consequently, she created a strongly feminized Last Supper. This is not only artistically significant, but also theologically: nuns who used this painting to focus their meditations would have been able to identify closely with a Christ whose human form was visibly similar to their own female bodies. If you think about the implications of that, it’s revolutionary – yet this work was hidden away in a convent.

The pattern was repeated. Vickery demonstrated that, when she looked for women artists, she found their work hidden away in basements, or overshadowed by better-publicised male contemporaries. Women worked in media men chose to allow them to use – including, in one fascinating example, sculpting intricate designs on peach stones – and even if their work did become popular and well-known, after their deaths few women artists retained their reputations. As the series constantly stressed, women struggled to get – let alone to keep – recognition in a male-dominated and often hostile environment. Fede Galizia, the woman who painted the picture at the top of this page – a self-portrait in which she stands in for the ball-breaking Judith, calmly toting the severed head of vanquished general Holofernes – was the daughter of a celebrated painter, and yet her father’s colleague commented patronizingly “this girl dedicates herself to imitate our most extraordinary art”. He probably thought that was praise.

I wasn’t particularly planning to blog about this series. I reckoned I didn’t have anything to say. But then, browsing through twitter, I saw Vickery’s own tweet responding to a Telegraph review:

Am ‘the ever-voluble historian’ in Daily Telegraph. Garrulous girl not Professor. Thanks for making that clear.”

I know there’s plenty else to be angry about today, but that made me angry for her, because I recognised the pattern here. Generally, presenting TV programmes does involve a wee bit of talking, that being sort of the aim of the whole thing. But when women talk from a position of authority, there’s almost always someone around to claim it’s all just a bit uncomfortable.

I didn’t find the review in question. Instead, I found some pretty telling alternative perspectives.

One (male) Telegraph reviewer decided to go for the backhanded compliment. While the content and argument of the series (y’know, the stuff most of us mere mortals are interested in) was great, Vickery’s delivery was, apparently, ‘overbearing’. As if she knew her stuff or something, perhaps? Further googling brought me to another gem from The Arts Desk, where the (female) reviewer  decided Vickery was ‘breathlessly enthusiastic’.

Of course, reviewers aren’t obliged to read, let alone agree with, each other’s opinions. It is possible that breathless enthusiasm, with all of its connotations of girlishness and lack of gravitas, is the same thing as being overbearing, with all that word’s connotations of excessive authority. But it’d be quite tricky to pull off that effect, wouldn’t it? Almost as if what both reviewers are really objecting to is simply the fact that Vickery is a woman and that’s enough to strike a false note.

I read recently (in Everyday Sexism, if you’re interested) that only one in five professors in British universities in a woman. Do a google image search of the word itself, and this is what you find: mostly men, mostly old, mostly white. I scrolled down looking for women and found four blondes in glasses with the banner ‘Beauty Professor’ and, erm, a semi-clothed manga figure. No, I didn’t click to see what that has to do with being a ‘professor’. Delightfully, the first page of google search results for the word ‘professor’ came up with the old Spectator crap from Rod Liddle laying into Mary Beard by claiming it’s ‘not misogyny, Professor, it’s you’. So that’s the impression we have of the term: professors are mostly men, unless we’re busy putting them in their place with a little slap down. How nice.

If this rant has a purpose, it’s to underline the really quite staggering irony of the barbed little criticisms Vickery (and other female professionals) attract. Many people would prefer to believe that women are excluded from prestigious positions, such as a place in the History of Art or a career in academia, because they choose to opt out. If we believe this, we forget about the active opposition women face, that chips away at us with little, barbed, patronizing comments. This series recovers forgotten work by women artists and explains how and why women adapted their work to fit into a male-dominated environment.  As Vickery argues, the point is not that women simply did not make art – the point is that the art they made was sidelined, excluded, put away in the basement and forgotten about. Yet, the reviewers appear incapable of making a link between this pattern of female exclusion, and their own perpetuation of that exclusion.


There is now a hashtag for sharing art, especially folk art, by women: #artbywomen, which grew out of ideas by Bee Jones, Millie Slavidou, and this post. Please do feel free to join in and celebrate the women you know who make beautiful things!


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Mind-boggling Arrogance in the Face of Feminism. A quickie.

This isn’t really a ‘post’ as such, it’s just a space to express my disbelief in more characters than twitter allows me.

You may have noticed that the Name Equality campaign has been in the news (you can find them here, and I’ve blogged about their extremely sensible, historically important campign before). The campaign asked for a very simple change to the marriage certificate, to bring it up to date: the insertion of a space for the name and profession of the mothers, as well as of the fathers, of the couple. This information is already on the certificate in Scotland and NI, but England and Wales lag behind. The Deputy Registrar for England and Wales, with spectacular misjudgement, has responded he doesn’t fancy bothering with changing anything. 

Now all of this is annoying enough. But the cherry on the cake, for me, is the response I found the the Telegraph article published today:

The certificates have always allowed for the Mothers name and job. This seems to be a campaign for the sake of a campaign”

Yes, really.

There are people out there so stupid, and so knee-jerk anti-feminist, that they simply cannot process the idea that any feminist campaign might have a point. Let’s just take a minute to consider this, shall we? This is a person, with access to a keyboard and the capacity to type, who has accepted without a murmer the idea that a professional woman, a national newspaper, and the deputy registrar of England and Wales, are all three of them in a conspiracy to lie about the content of a publicly available document. For what reason? For no reason.

Isn’t that just stunning?

Imagine the depths of arrogance you would need to write that post, and the level of security you’d have to have in your own rightness. Now imagine that depth of arrogance in everyday conversation. And people wonder why we’re still living in a world where women find it harder to get their voices heard. 

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Blurred Lines, Medieval Margins, and the Voice of the Ordinary Man

This post grew out of a paper I gave a few weeks ago at a conference in Bristol, and a short conversation sparked off by some fascinating tweets by Dr Sjoerd Levelt (who’s awesome, by the way, and you should follow him if you don’t already). I thought it’d be a snap to write, but for some reason it kept getting longer and messier, until I sat down to watch Kirsty Wark’s documentary Blurred Lines. It’s still up on Iplayer and I thoroughly recommend it, though it’s not easy viewing.

The documentary explores whether the internet has made misogyny more socially acceptable. What came across strongly was that a lot of men were deeply invested in presenting themselves as ‘ordinary’ and insisting that they spoke with the common voice. This was most obvious in Wark’s interview of the ex-editor of Loaded magazine, who felt that his magazine had simply expressed what ‘working-class white males’ already felt. He’s presumably playing heavily on his ‘my dad was a coal miner’ credentials here, rather than his ‘but I went to university and made a shitload’ credentials.

A little later Rod Liddle took up the baton for poor oppressed white men, explaining that threats and verbal abuse on the internet are “distressing to all of us”. But, you know, especially him. He wanted you to know that, and he launched into a detailed catalogue of all the internet abuse he personally had risen above (if I’d ‘risen above’ my GCSE revision the way he’d ‘risen above’ these insults I’d still be collecting the A* grades). Anyway, this led in to a delightfully oblivious encounter between him and Wark. Liddle complained bitterly that someone on the internet had told him he looked “like a drug-addled middle-aged lesbian,” but he, bravely, chose to ignore such slurs. “That’s quite insulting to lesbians,” pointed out Wark, presumably hoping he’d recognise that this insult derives its power from the idea that being a middle-aged heterosexual man is innately better than being a lesbian.

The implication completely passed Liddle by.

Now, I was struggling with this, because it’s hard to watch without ranting at the TV.  Liddle wanted both to claim both the voice of ‘everyman’ and to make it all about himself – to the extent that he couldn’t even recognise that he’d managed to derive offence from a comment designed to stigmatize a whole group of women. The take-away message from him and from several other men (and women) Wark interviewed was simple: if you find it offensive, it’s because you’re taking things too seriously. All of this misogynistic communication on twitter, in Lads’ mags, in stand-up shows, in computer games – it’s all just a joke. Non-traditional media, and especially the internet, are outside the rules that bind serious communication. What you see there can’t be analysed seriously, because it was never intended seriously.

This was the point where I started thinking back to the medieval manuscripts I’d been trying to write about. This image comes from a manuscript copied in about 1430, by a Yorkshireman called Robert Thornton.

Lincoln, Cathedral Library, MS 91, f. 52v.

Lincoln, Cathedral Library, MS 91, f. 52v.

On twitter, Dr Levelt had started off a conversation about marginalia like this image, and he’d linked to the very cute drawings in the manuscript he’d been working on. Even amongst academics, these types of marginal drawings go by no more technical term than ‘doodles’. A fellow medievalist blogger sums up the general view:

“the thing about medieval doodles is they look just like modern doodles.”

It’s hard not to engage, not to feel we’ve been given a glimpse of the ordinary medieval reader, drawing something spontaneous, personal, and endearingly messy. Just as the internet is a more democratic, immediate, equal kind of communication than traditional print media with its inbuilt economic, educational and social privilege restricting authorship to the few, so too are the margins of medieval books. These doodles escape historical context and academic analysis, looking the the same in 1430 as in 2014. 

Or do they?

I admit, I love it when people engage with medieval manuscripts and I’d a darn sight rather you were smiling over Robert Thornton’s doodles of knights than Rod Liddle’s Spectator column. It’s true that you can make a case for Thornton, the ‘ordinary’ man. His Latin is a bit dodgy and his handwriting isn’t very professional. But he’s also monumentally privileged, educationally and socially and financially (a bit like someone who went to university and got into journalism, I guess).

Thornton’s other ‘doodles’ or ‘scribbles’ show us what use he made of the marginal spaces in his book. The drawing of knights serves as a crude front cover to a story about exactly the same subject. Thornton copies a version of the story of King Arthur’s death, the Alliterative Morte Arthur. Carefully, he adds a rubricated title at the top of the page and a rubricated copy of his own family motto at the bottom, as if to point out that the story of King Arthur also belongs to him. At the end of the text, he identifies himself even more strongly with the hero of the story, providing poignant, self-aggrandizing epitaphs for both the fictional king and for himself, suggesting they come as a pair.

This is actually pretty disturbing, once you know that the Morte Arthur is one of the darkest versions of the story, with a weak, incestuous king surrounded by gratuitously violent knights, one of whom (his own son) threatens to rape the queen. Robert Thornton – the same man who doodled that endearing, personal, child-like drawing – identified with this world. And he wasn’t identifying with it from a position of innocence or as an outsider: he was himself a knight and a landowner, a member of that powerful class. Like Liddle, like Daubney, he has no hesitation in presenting himself both as ‘everyman,’ the voice in the margins who says what everyone else is thinking, and as the centre of attention, Robert Thorton, up there with King Arthur.

Yet we forget Thornton’s privilege, even those of us who are trained academics, because we want to believe that a voice that speaks to us from the margins is a voice that speaks as ‘everyman’. We want to believe that, in the open spaces of communication such as this, such as the internet, we can all discount the complicated structures of analysis that we know we need for proper, serious communication.

With Thornton, as – I would suggest – with the ‘working-class white males’ Daubney referrerd to reading Loaded, we’re not looking at the disenfranchised discovering a voice for themselves on the margins of a culture. We’re looking at people who were accustomed to slapping their names on things to mark ownership. And we’ve been fooled into accepting that what we’re seeing is the voice of the ‘ordinary man’.

I don’t have anything clever to say in response to Wark’s documentary, but I do feel disturbed to notice how easily we academics forget about privilege when it looks conveniently close to the sort of open, digital culture we’re so keen to romanticise as a space for equal debate.

So is there something special about the internet that facilitates misogyny? Or is it that we fetishize the idea of the ‘ordinary man’ who speaks directly to us, who is separate from all of these complicated ideas about privilege and oppression, who just happens to get his voice heard above everyone else’s? When Rod Liddle fails to see how anonymous threats on twitter might affect women more than men, when he fails to see that the insult directed at him as an individual is also directed at an entire class of women and uses him to reinforce their oppression, I can’t help feeling we’ve made very little progress in 600 years.

Note (skip this unless you want random musings on textual analysis)

This post is already a monster, but I wanted to note that some of my thoughts came from comparisons to print culture, specifically eighteenthc-century print culture. On twitter, Dr Angela McShane and Professor Joanne Bailey shared images of eighteenth-century printed books that had been ‘doodled’ in by their owners, which you can see at the V&A site and here. It was the V&A site that interested me most. Although to me, honestly, these doodles look much of an artistic quality with the medieval ones, the scholar working on the book treated them as examples of sophisticated participation in textual culture. This made me think of the famous instructions to the reader in Tristram Shandy, since Sterne’s invitation to his readers to doodle a picture of Widow Wadman is generally taken by scholars as a subtle literary joke, and taken seriously. I’m not going to draw any conclusions from this, or rabbit on further, but I did find it striking that we seem, as scholars, to be taking print culture much more seriously than we take more open-access cultures, and I wonder if we’re not missing something here.

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