Where are the Women? A Discussion on the Role of Theory in Historical Analysis

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If you need a good medieval woman, look no further than St. Hildegard von Bingen.

Greetings and salutations!

These last several months I have been furiously applying to and visiting graduate schools for Medieval Studies programs, and now that this has died down I thought I would take the time to talk over something that I find both interesting and troubling. Specifically, the use of theories. (Warning, Academic Mode on High.)

Now to set up the framework of this discussion, a theory is a way to organize a discussion/book/article/etc. so that it can be more easily understood by others engaging with your text. It also acts as an analytical framework to help the author discuss the questions he or she is trying to solve, or at least pick apart. Let’s use as an example Marxist theory. Marxist theory can be applied to an analysis of economic and political history to help frame the discussion around issues of class and socio-economic status. But dear reader, you may be wondering: how does Marxist theory apply to what you talk about normally, like Vikings and Medievals and such. And I would answer that it doesn’t. It’s anachronistic to the Medieval Period, and any period before Marx was alive and writing. However, there would be those among the academic community who would consider me close-minded, and that using different theories like feminist, queer, Marxist, etc. help broaden the mind and elucidate certain neglected areas of history. Now I’m not denying that feminist theories have certainly generated a lot of useful discussions and literature on the role of women in various past societies, but I think it might be a mistake to blanket laud such efforts without understanding how to properly apply theories in the first place.

So, I’m going to do something that will probably piss off a large portion of the internet, but I’m going to do it anyway. I’m going to take a critical view of feminist analysis of history in order to elucidate my point about the role of theories, and why in my view they should really be guidelines and idea generators, not frameworks on which to base an entire argument and discussion.

Let’s start with a base argument I heard recently and pick it apart. The discussion was that in x period historians used to think that only men went to church (these presumably were male historians), and that now that we have feminist and minority theory we know that women and children were also going to church. Therefore, feminist theories benefit the historiography (or the history of history writing) because they help us see history for what it truly was.

Now, this whole argument seems absurd to me for multiple reasons. First of all, it can be easily argued that these male authors were using a theory/view point of their own: namely a male-centric theory (my own term), and this theory clouded their analysis of the history they were studying. Can it not also be argued that, taken to the extreme, feminist theory can also cloud the historian’s analysis of the material? If one takes feminist theory in order to only find women in history and ignore men, then they will not see the material for the nuances within it, only lots of feminist things. What I mean, in short, is that in both cases the historians are using their own opinions and biases to shape the history before them into something that agrees with their world view. This is an inherently flawed approach because it does not take into account the culture and world view of the people and history being studied.

Indeed, in the above discussion of church attending, no mention was made of what the sources from the period say, or how we may interpret said sources. Perhaps the male authors only saw men being mentioned in the historical texts, and presumed from that evidence that only men went to church. This would be a narrow, but not inaccurate reading of the material. A more nuanced reading would be to say: “Well, this says only men went to church, but based on what I know of writing in this period – that the writing was all done by men and that they really only mention men in the writing – perhaps women are being left out of the picture.” That is sort of a feminist theory, but look at it more closely. I’m not saying: “Look at those men neglecting the important lives of women.” I’m only saying: “Perhaps women were there. I cannot say with certainty whether they were there or not, because the sources did not tell me.” I would perhaps have to look at archeological evidence (maybe there’s a spindle left on the floor in the church?), or try and read between the lines of certain texts for one or two mentions of women. Maybe, when they meant by church, they meant the main area of the church, and women stood segregated to the side. Or, maybe women held services of their own somewhere else. But these are all nice, women-ego-supporting guesses. Without physical evidence to support these other theories, all that we can say for certain is that, with the materials given to us by the past authors, men went to church. And I don’t find this conclusion bad at all. To me, it simply tells me what life was like in the past. My opinion doesn’t matter to the ancients. Their culture was what it was.

And that, dead reader, is what an historian does. A historian’s job is to OBJECTIVELY read the source material and tell others what it says.

Let’s take a step back. You may be wondering: but blog writer, how can you say this if you are a women? And I’ll say right back that I am a woman, and have always been a woman, and feel very satisfied in my womanliness. I do not need to bring the male patriarchy of the past down because I do not feel threatened by it.  I can still be a strong, kick-butt, independent woman and acknowledge that in the history I study men were in charge of politics and society (that’s the Middle Ages in my case). When I was writing my honors thesis for my undergraduate degree, one of my female professors suggested that instead of analyzing religion and politics, I look at the role of women in the Viking world. She was basically telling me that instead of using a religion theory, I should use feminist theory to frame my discussion of history. But I did not look at my writing in that way. I looked at the influence of religion and politics in the reigns of Olav Tryggvason and St. Olav Haraldsson because that was where the sources led me. If religion had had no impact on their reigns, then I would not have included it. And if I saw that women had had a role in their success, then I would have included it in the narrative.

Think of it like painting: I included religion like one includes green to show the color of the leaves in a tree they are trying to paint from life. Without the color green, the leaves would not be there, and you would see a bare tree (even though I was standing in front of a full tree when I painted it). And if I thought that everything should be in feminist blue, then I would paint the scene blue, or I would only paint the sky, but in either case the image would not show how the scene I based the painting on actually looked. It’s a style, to be sure, and many have done it. But I’m going for the objective, natural look to my paintings. I see a brown tree with green leaves and a blue sky, and so I will give you a painting with all the colors accurately represented. Thus, I think that if one is to include women in history, and by all means we should, we should do so in order to portray as accurate a picture of history as possible, NOT because we think women should have been more prominent in the history.

For instance, there are many prominent women in Viking and Anglo-Saxon history. King Ethelred II’s wife, Emma of Normandy, is one of them, and we know this in part because she had a biographer record her life. However, this text was written after Cnut conquered England, and thus it was just enough beyond my study of the Olavs’ reigns that I did not feel it was pertinent to include it. But here’s the thing: accounts of women’s lives in general in the Middle Ages are comparatively few and often written by men. That’s an inescapable fact. You are lucky when you get writings from women on women’s topics. Do I rage at the system because of this fact? No, that would accomplish nothing, and it would show my lack of understanding of Medieval culture. Rather than blame the past, we should instead look at it and say, “It is clear that Medieval society did not treat women as equal to men. Yet, despite this, we see accounts of women and know what women were doing during this period. So what does that say about how they thought of women, and how women thought of themselves? How did women break barriers in order to be seen and heard? What has been lost to history that we can infer from the writings we do have?” These are the sort of questions we should be asking, and I think when we do ask them, we can gain a lot of useful information about medieval society as a whole, which in turn helps us understand why historical events occurred as they did.

For example, from reading early conversions narratives of the Frankish kingdoms and what became England, it seems that in several cases it was the queens who converted to Christianity first, and then convinced their husbands. Were they the ones making the decrees for mass conversion? No. But they knew that their husband could, and so worked through them to enact social change. That phrasing, however, turns the king into just a physical object (something that normally is done to women), so let’s change the wording a bit, shall we? Yes, the queens often converted first, for innumerable reasons not told to us by the authors at the time, and perhaps unknowable to all but the individual herself. Then, after multiple factors such as seeing their wife’s faith, hearing the missionary speak, and thinking over the political ramifications of the act, etc., the king too converted. Of course, we do see cases where popes would send goodies to the queen in order to help convince her to convert her husband, so we know that some people were trying to use others like objects. But we also have mixed evidence of the effectiveness of such tactics. Because women know when they’re being used as tools, and I bet you that a powerful women would have understood the political ramifications of converting her husband to Christianity as much as her husband did. But do you see? Even in parsing out this idea of how these kings and queens converted, we’ve gained a nuanced view of the role of women while still acknowledging that men still had more political power than their wives did.

I could go on and list to you the number of women we do know of in medieval history and literature who kicked major ass and took names despite the fact that socially and politically men were more powerful. There are quite a number of them. We see it over and over again. But I think to judge the Middle Ages because of its male-dominated society is to not understand that the world is rarely as black and white as “men all-powerful, women all-downtrodden”. Factors such as culture, wealth, status, education, ambition, and opportunity all play in a role in the way anyone, man or woman, becomes someone that history remembers. But acknowledging these factors does not diminish this history or the people who were in it. Rather, it helps us understand how these people were able to do what they did and how their society functioned. A good historian does not judge the past, because then the historian is placing his or her societal norms on a completely different culture. A good historian sees the history for what it is and helps bring out a clearer understanding of that history through his or her writing. Perhaps being objective then, is a theory, but I would prefer to call it a methodology. I can use certain theories to help me think in new ways about the history I’m reading, but when I neglect the history itself for the theory is when I go astray from my purpose.

 

That’s all for now! Feel free to have courteous but invigorating discussions in the comments.

-The Valkyrie

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One thought on “Where are the Women? A Discussion on the Role of Theory in Historical Analysis

  1. LOVE IT!  Including the painting analogy! Since we have had similar discussions in person, I will refrain on commenting publicly. I very much enjoyed the read!

    Like

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