Category Archives: Feminism

Books Feminism Women's history

Notes from Tamta’s World: The Life and Encounters of a Medieval Noblewoman from the Middle East to Mongolia, by Antony Eastmond

p. 15 Despite its complexity, Tamta’s life can be summarised in one sentence. Of Armenian birth, she was raised at the Georgian court before being married to two Ayyubid rulers, raped and then married by the Shah of the Khwarazmians, captured by the Seljuks, transported by the Mongols, before finally returning to the city of Aklat as its ruler for the last decade of her life.”

p. 22 Even to define her family’s ethnicity is problematic. “… the Armenian-speaking historian Kirakos Gandzaketsi essentially regarded them as Armenian … his idea of what constitutes ‘Armenian’ fluctuates, as elsewhere in his history he notes the family was of Kurdish descent… the Ayyubid family of Saladin into which Tamta was to marry are similarly recorded by Arab historians as being of Kurdish descent, originating from a village near the Armenian city of Dvin … they reinvented themselves as Arabic-speaking rulers. ”

p. 26 Whatever the origins of Tamta and her family, the Mqargdzelis rose to prominence not in Armenia but Georgia. Following their father Sargis, Ivane and his elder brother Zakare found promotion at the Georgian court of Queen Tamar (r. 1184-1210_. Tamar, the only daughter of King Giorgio III, had faced considerable opposition to her elevation to the throne on her father’s death. However, after a decade of rebellion and plot she managed to establish herself as the legitimate, sole ruler. This later enabled her daughter Rusudan, to succeed to the throne after her son, Giorgio IV Lasha, died without legitimate heirs…. Zakare, the elder brother, was appointed by Queen Tamas … commander of her army, and Ivane was made … chamberlain…”

p. 73 Akhlat … is now a small provincial town on the north-west shore of Lake Van in eastern Turkey, its population of just 20,000 dispersed over a wide area … its old buildings were burned down during the Khwarazmian and Mongol sieges of the 1220s and 1230s and what was left was destroyed in two devastating earthquakes in 1246 and 1276…cold and snow are cliches in all of the medieval descriptions of the tosn … its key value lay in its location: it was the meeting place of four different worlds … to the north-east stood the Christian kingdoms of the Caucasus, Georgia and Armenia. It was from here that Ivane drew his army that was to face defeat in 1210 by the walls of Akhlat… the city’s population was largely Christian and Armenian … in the north and west was the plateau of Asian Minor. Although historically a province of the Byzantine Empire, much of the territory had come under the control of Turkish tribes in the course of the 12th century .. still contained a majority Christian population, mostly Greek speaking, but also Armenian and Syriac. To the south lay Syria and the Jazira, a confederation of Arabic city-states, divided among the Ayyubid family of Saladin. Finally to the south-east lay the Persian world of Azerbaihan and Iran. And … from the 1220s Akhlat became a frontier for yet more groups to cross and conquer, the Khwarazmians from Central Asia and then the Mongols.

p. 77 “Under its Sokmenid rulers the fabric of the city had been transformed over the previous 50 years using the income it earned from its position on the trade routes between Anatolia and Iran as well, perhaps, as the spoils it had taken from the Georgians in the 1160s. This had enabled Shahbanu, the wife of the Shah-i Armen Nasir al-Din Sokmen II, to begin an extensive building programme in the city. Like Tamta, she had come to Akhlat as a diplomatic bride to form an alliance with the neighbouring emirate of Erzurum… a campaign had begun to renew and repair all the roads leading to Akhlat; the old wooden bridges were replaced with new stone ones and a series of caravanseais was established along the roads leading to the city…

beseiging the city, Ivane was captured, p. 82 “although al-Awhad was still in command of Akhlat … it seems that he was barely in control: his army was effectively beseiged in the town’s citadel by its population Indeed even al-Awhad’s marriage to Tamta seems to have been organised without his knowledge … it balanced the needs and bargaining strengths of three different groups… although she started off simply as a pawn … she stood to be transformed by the wedding. The act of marriage provided a new and potentially powerful dimension to her identity as the figure that each party in the negotiation needed in order to placate the others. … Tamte’s ability to reduce taxation of monasteries and improve access for pilgrims to Jerusalem show she was able to capitalise on this, and convert her position to one with real power.

p. 89 the marriage of Simonis, the daughter of the Byzantine Emperor Andronikos II Palaiologos (r. 1282-1328) to Stefan III Milutin, the King of Serbia …in 1299 the Byzantine Emperor was forced to agree to the marriage: Byzantine power was on the wane, and he needed a way to prevent further incursions from Serbia into his territory. Simonis’ dowry was Byzantine lands in the north-west of the empire, which were already in Milutin’s hands: presenting them as a dowry legalised the transfer of ownership and allowed the Emperor to save face… p. 90 Simonis was just five when the marriage was agreed. Milutin was in his forties. This would be his fourth marriage (possibly his fifth) and his sexual appetite was legendary.. Simonis’s age outraged Byzantine society. Andronikos had to plead forgiveness from the Patriarch of Constantinope, wringin his hands like Pilate and claiming that it was a matter beyond his control… Simonis was forced to go to live at her new husband’s court in Serbia, supposedly looked after until she reached puberty. But within three years – when Simonis was at most only eight – she was repeatedly raped by her husband, leaving her unable to have children. Over the years that followed she tried to escape and get back home on more than one occasion; but even when she succeeded … she was forcibly returned by her own brother. Adopting a nun’s habit had proved no defence; her brother simply ripped the clothing off her back and tied her to her horse for the return…. Milutin’s ability to mistreat his bride with impunity clearly symbolised the impotence of the empire”

Tamta married Al-Awhad’s brother Al-Ashraf when the former died … her influence seems to have worked throughout the Ayyubid confederacy. Tamta’s advocacy for pilgrims indicates that she also still retained contacts with the Georgian and Armenian heartlands in which she had grown up.”

p. 216 “The most impressive account of a pilgrimage made during Tamta’s time as wife of al-Ashraf comes away from Jerusalem, at the monastery of Gandzasar, located in the eastern Armenian prvince of AStsakh (now the disputed territroty of Nagorno-Karabagh in Azerbaijan). It concerns a woman named Khorishah, a senior member of the ruling family of the region and a close ally of the Mqargrdzelis.. an inscription set up on the north side of the nave in 1240 by Khorishah’s son … “my mother became a nun and went three times to Jerusalem. There, from the gate of the Holy Resurrection, she took herself to the dwelling of the nuns wearing a hair shirt and, after many years spent in … penitence, she passed into Christ, adorned with the seal of light, and her remains are preserved there.” [travelled between 1216 and her death in 1238 ” “Once in the Holy City she earned her own living my making and selling embroideries. Indeed, this was the one form of employment that was deemed honourable for (noble) women to undertake.”
p. 322 The battle of Garni “the latest invaders, the Khwarazmians, appeared in the Caucasus in 1225 at Garni. This site, in cetral Armenia, possesses the eastern-most building of the Graeco-Roman world. … a peristyle temple probably erected in the 1st century AD… still standing in the 13th century.. the shadow that Ivane drew up his forces to face the Khwarazmian army in 1225. .. Jalal al-Din captured Akhlat in April 1230 p. 327 “he entered the palace where he passed the night in the company of the daughter of Ivane”… “rape was a common tactic of war … but it was much rarer to employ it against female members of the elite … rape simultaneously humiliated the Georgians, the Armenians and the Uyyabids .. Tamta’s treatment was subsequently legalised by marriage, giving Tamta her third (and in this case bigamous) husband. The marriage only lasted four months we must assume she stayed behind in Akhlat.”

p. 340 al-AShraf … having restored Tamta to Akhlat her left the city and rode on to Sinjar and then back to Damascus. He was never to return to Akhlat. .. Tamta’s capture by the Mongols in 1236 shows that she cannot have travelled with al-AShraf … in 1232 Akhlat was firmly brough back into the Turkic world of Anatolia, after the 30 year interlufe of Ayyubid rule. .. it was possible for Tamta to shift allegiance without losing power.”

p. 347 “as the crow flies it is more than 4,800 km from Akhlat toi Kakakorum; on the ground, whether travelling on foot or on horseback, it is considerably longer. This was the journey that Tamta made twice, as she travelled to and from the capital of the Great Khan. She was probably away from Akhlat for between five and nine years.”

p. 369 “The decision of the Mongols to return Tamta to Akhlat suggests that they believed she still represented the Ayyubid government in Akhlat, even though no Ayyubid had been in control of the city for more than a decade. However, the fact that Queen Rusudan requested her return indicates that even after her years in capitivity Tamta still possessed a complex, multi-faceted identity which enabled her to retain a value and relevance among the different groups across the region … to the Armenians and others in Akhlat she was still regarded as their ruler, although she now had to meediate between them and her Mongol overlords, rather than the Turkic and Arabic powers that had previously been in power. It was convenient for all sides to believe that Tamta had inherited rule of the city and its surroundings from her husband.

p. 380 The cultural traditions of the Mongol world accorded women much higher status and independent power than they received among the people they conquered to the west. The women who married into the family of Genghis Khan and his relatives possessed considerable rights. Each organised her own ordo (court) Wwith multiple tents, carried on up to 200 carts ,… they had independent wealth, could own property and conduct trade, all of which could be passed on to other women on their deaths; they could command armies and even fight; and they determined the faith and education of their children. [[Culture and Conquest of Mongol Eurasia, TT Allsen.]]

Books Feminism History Politics Women's history

Notes from The Kingdom of Women: Life, Love and Death in China’s Hidden Mountains by Choo Waihong

p. 120 The very existence of a woman-centric society in a sea of patriarchy that has inundated the whole world … calls into question the inevitability of human society involving as the male-dominant archetype. The Kingdom of Women has shown that it is possible to have an alternative model … forging a better environment in which a woman can e nurtured and fostered to reach her full potential as a complete, confident person ready to contribute as meaningfully as a man to society … the Mosuo model that puts the female at its centre without downgrading the male to purgatory appears to be a much better option. In a mad moment … I had a vision that I must have been a Mosou woman in a past life. How else could I make sense of the feeling of connectedness I feel in the midst of my Mosuo friends, never again having to fight against covert male chauvunusm in my previous law firms in Singapore or be as aggressive as the next man in an all-male network of lawyers in Los Angeles.”

p. 121. “Gumi … her direct maternal ancestor is Malaxshimi, whose clan is found today in the southern parts of Asia and on the islands of the Pacific as well as in Mongolia, Korea, India and Pakistan.”

p. “I became curious to find out where Zhaxi’s ancestors [a particularly prominent, popular, six-foot man] came from … his genes revealed that he was descended from the paternal clan ancestor of Sigurd, the dragon-slayer of Norse mythology. Here was a he-man from Lugu Lake who could trace his ancestry to the Vikings of Norway .. it might suggest why Zhaxi and his Musou brothers look so different from the Chinese and other ethnic minority groups in this part of the world.”

p. 147 “An axia pair may decide to go on meeting on a regular basis that progresses over time into a stable relationship, and this is when their affair is more open, with the ‘walking’ man not hiding his presence in front of the woman’s family … the male axia comes and goes openly, though still only at night “

p. 149 “the ‘nuclear’ family is a separate unit consisting of the grandmother and her children and all her matrilineal descendants’”

Books Feminism History

The more things change … girls and moral panics

Have been reading Carol Dyhouse’s excellent Girl Trouble: Panic and Progress in the History of Young Women.

It begins with the white slave panic of the late 19th and early 20th century, concluding “girls travelling along in the 1900s were much more likely to be accosted by social workers determined to protect young innocents than pumps or predators. England’s ports and railway stations were by then swarming with voluntary social workers undertaking to safeguard young country girls about to enter they big city.” The panic had real consequences – “The social historian Dorothy Marshall, who grew up in the North of England before the war, recalled an unhappy year spent at a boarding school in Blackpool where she was subjected to lurid accounts of white slavery from other girls in the dormitory. Dorothy’s parents … instilled anxious warnings. Looking back, Dorothy considered that these early fears ‘provided one strand in my make-up, it is one I should be very happy to do without’.”(p 26)

I hadn’t previously heard about the Girls’ Friendly Society, which was obviously huge for decades, and vicious…. Dating from 1875, “stood for an uncomprising standard of purity. Loss of virginity meant loss of virtue and disqualified a girl from being or becoming a member. An early attempt (in 1878-9) to soften this rule, in order to allow work with girls who repented of any ‘lapse from grace’ met with opposition from both the founder, Mrs Townsend, and the bishops. The society’s aim was the prevent girls from ‘falling’. Upper-class lady ‘associates’ took it upon themselves to act in a semi-maternal capacity towards unmarried, working-class girls,…. astonishingly successful in the UK and even internationally, with strong links throughout the British Empire…. peak membership in 1913, with 39,926 associates and 197,493 members in England and Wales….a massive publishing endeavour… the aim was to combat the appeal of ‘shilling shockers and penny dreadful’ … offered uplifting stories of moral endeavour and self-sacrifice, often illustrated with images of female saints, and with floral motifs. White flowers, of course, carried a special symbolic charge. Snowdrops and lilies were emblems of feminine purity and heavily resorted to by Victorian sentimentalists. A separate group of organisations calling themselves Snowdrops or White Ribbon bands flourished alongside the GFS from around 1889 to 1912, particularly among factory girls in the North and the Midlands. … All this flowering-plant imagery became somewhat stretched at times: The Snowdrops featured an obituary column under the subtitled ‘Transplanted’. (p. 28-30) Reformers in the GFS “only succeeded in changing the rule as late as 1936 and even this was in the teeth of strong opposition, and many of the old guard resigned” (p. 34)
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Books Feminism History Women's history

Early modern women healers – a further blow to traditional views

First published on Blogcritics

The traditional view of women healers of the medieval and early modern period has been that they were marginal, distrusted figures, at risk always of being cast as witches, enjoying little or no respect, if some fear. It’s a view that modern scholarship is gradually overturning. I was fascinated when I was reading about early modern England to learn of the respect with which midwives were held, and how, particularly in London, they were subjected to rigorous training and a strict licensing system that involved testimony from women they had attended in childbirth.

Panaceia’s Daughters: Noblewomen as Healers in Early Modern Germany by Alisha Rankin is a further piece of the story, showing how a wide cast of noblewomen enjoyed considerable respect for their medical knowledge, not just from their peers but also professional physicians, with whom they operated in general in concert, rather than competition.

Indeed the final chapter in this book, focused on Elizabeth of Rochlitz, who had a modest reputation as a healer, but here is studied most as a patient, provides a fascinating Insight into the actual experience of being treated for illness in early modern times.

Physicians – classically trained in book learning dating back to classical times, and with a traditional contempt for empirical evidence (although Rankin suggests that was fading) – tended to prescribe regimens, particularly diets, to match what they saw as the underlying problems of the patient, rather than treat particular symptoms. Barber- surgeons dealt with wounds and at least some of the time dressings. pharmacists, including the gentlewomen described here, were the true scientists of the time, testing and trying herbal and chemical treatments, sharing and comparing them.

Elisabeth – it is a sad story, suffered more than a decade of illness, which she resolutely refused to allow to be diagnosed as “the French disease” (syphilis). Rankin maintains her professional uncertainty in saying we can’t be sure, but given her father and brother died of it, this seems highly likely. There was of course stigma attached, which Rankin says may have been one reason for refusing to accept the diagnosis, but another may also have been her dislike of regimens- one suggested to her involved giving up garlic, onions, mustard, horseradish, spices, smoked protein, all food fried in butter, beans, lentils and sauerkraut, and wine. Quite a lot to ask of an aristocrat, even a minor one.

Instead, she put her faith in herbal remedies, aqua vitae (distilled strong liquor – which certainly must have made the patients feel better) and a barber surgeon’s plasters of egg white, honey, saffron and flour. (Which might actually have done her some good.)
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Books Feminism History Women's history

Sex, love, marriage, a complicated story…

First published on Blogcritics

Reading The English in Love: The Intimate Story of an Emotional Revolution, which covers relationships, courtship and marriage from 1920 to 1970, with a particular focus on the period around the Second World War, is a powerful reminder that marriage has never been a fixed and stable structure, but has changed regularly, certainly with each 20th-century generation.

Author Claire Langhammer relies chiefly on individual accounts, often painfully frank and honest, looks into the guidance of “agony aunts” and other media reports, and occasionally official reports and studies, to conclude that over the total period of her study there was a significant shift from marriage as primarily an economic relationship – breadwinner support traded for the creation of a comfortable home –  towards a more “emotional”, demanding relationship even during the Fifties, which she suggests relationships were much less stable than we commonly suppose, meaning that the freewheeling Sixties were not marked by more demand for continuing love, but rather the transition of marriage into the late teens and early twenties, a reflection both of increasing wealth and less need to save for marriage, but that also that this was seen as an essential, normal step into adulthood.

Langhammer quotes a 1959 survey showing that a quarter of working class brides were teenagers on their wedding day; more than three-quarters were under 25. A telling item in the initial Boyfriend magazine in the same year tells the story of a young woman determined to do something with her life – transform and modernise her aunt’s cafe, which interferes with her love life. But eventually she finds a man who also wants to run a cafe, so they settled down together.

And particularly as the ideology of love and marriage going together, indeed being essential, spread, many of the same tensions and concerns we recognise in relationships today emerge.

One painfully honest ‘case history’ from the Mass Observation Survey from 1949 tells of a 19-year-old woman who has sex with a 24-year-old merchant seaman – although only after he reassures her he’s using a condom. “I agreed then. I didn’t want to but I liked him and he wanted to. He said: ‘You can’t be in love with me unless you will do it.”
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Feminism Politics

What I See when I look in the mirror…

I was delighted to be asked to participate in a project in which I was asked to answer this question.

You can find the video here.

Lots of great women have taken part and it’s regarded as a chain, so the next participant is Kat Molesworth at Housewife Confidential.

All women are invited to participate – you can contribute your own video… It’s an interesting question to contemplate.

And if you’d like to know more about the Green Party part of my life you can find snippets on my leader’s blog.