Category Archives: Women’s history

Books History Women's history

Reading a fine history of Delphi

A shorter verson was first published on Blogcritics

There’s a whole book about the history of Delphi, and the material to fill it handsomely, because it was an important place in the ancient world, influential and often rich for many of the centuries from before Greek history was recorded well into the 4th century AD.

But it wasn’t, by and large powerful. It wasn’t the centre of an empire, it never had large bodies of troops to call on, it lived in large part on its wits, navigating its way through the Persian Wars (probably rather less than heroically), the Peloponnesian War, centuries of Roman emperors and their foibles.

That makes its history, I found, particularly interesting. Most of the human race, for most of our history, has lived like this, town burghers, village elders, huddling anxiously together, trying decide which side to choose in a conflict, or whether they can get away with sitting on the fence, calculating whether flattery is a good option, or an appearance of independent mindedness. Most of us haven’t been at the centre, from which most history is written, but the peripheries, trying to cope with the power of the centre.

That balancing act is central to Michael Scott’s very readable but still scholarly and serious complete account of the Greek settlement’s history. I was particularly impressed by his credible refusal to try to answer unanswerable questions: not choosing which record of the oracle’s pronouncements to “believe”, but acknowledging that they were shaped to the purposes of the writers who recorded them often centuries after their reported utterance.

He doesn’t try to solve the puzzle of the lack of a chasm beneath the temple of Apollo, while recording the recent geological revelations that the site is at the centre of two fault lines, perfectly placed to produce the fissured bedrock beneath the temple, through which fumes of ethane, methane and ethylene, from the underlying bituminous limestone might have risen. Indeed, he notes that intoxication of the priestess, if part of the practice, doesn’t really do anything to explain how for 1,000 years carefully crafted prophecies emerged from the depths of the temple and were at the centre of maintaining the economic future of a inconveniently located site that had nothing obvious to recommend it as a place for a visit beyond its mystique.

He’s also interesting on the place of the oracle at its peak time, that of the classic period of Greek history, when city states with varying methods of government often used it as a “tie-breaker” in making tough decisions about their actions – his comparison with management consultants is interesting, although I rather like the idea of turning his approach around: thinking about management consultants as being like the Pythia – about the same level of science and probably as good at judging the desires of those who employ them.
read more »

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.)
read more »

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.”
read more »

Books History Women's history

Recent Reading: Women and The People: Authority, Authorship and the Radical Tradition in Nineteenth-Century England by Helen Rogers

You meet some fascinating women in the pages of Helen Roger’s Women and the People. The whole theoretical discussion left me a bit cold – not really my period or area, but I really enjoyed the characters,

There’s Miss Mary Anne Tocker, who in August 1818 successfully defended herself against a charge of libel brought by a lawyer who she had accused, writing under the name “An Enemy of Corruption”, of electoral malpractice in the West Briton and Cornwall Advertiser.(p12)

Then there’s Eliza Sharples – suspect I might not have liked her had I met her, but she in January 1832 arrived in London seeking, with remarkable sang froid, to be a “general” of the reform movement. In that year she became the “editress” of the Isis, the first radical journal run by a woman and a celebrated lecturer, and formed a “moral marriage” with Richard Carlisle, a leader of the campaign for a free press – quite a place for a 28-year-old daughter of a Wesleyan counterpane manufacturer from Bolton. (p48)

It isn’t a story that ends well – by 1849, a widow, she was appealing to a leading Chartist for help for her three children, saying that both she and the eldest, Hypatia, aged 13, “were employed in needlework, the girl earning only two shillings a week”. She wanted to pay for a few months apprenticeship to a milliner so Hypatia could get better paid work. The girl was “trading in the steps of womanhood to the same extent of helplessness in which we are all placed.” (p.161)

More cheerfully, we learn about the author of the posthumously published The Autobiography of Mary Smith: Schoolmistress and Nonconformist. Born into a rural family of small but insecure means, from an early age she managed the family grocery in Oxfordshire, but it was in part a move as a companion to the wife of a minister in Westmorland that enabled her to by step her meagre schooling and become a governess and schoolmistress – setting up the first school for girls in the area, although the villagers, who worked mostly in agriculture,could afford only scant fees.

What see wanted was to be a poet, but by age 40 she conceded that she did not have the means to pursue a literary career, and would have to “follow patiently the harder and narrower fortunes of meaner women”. But Shea also became highly active in politics – in temperance, suffrage and liberal causes, entrusted to be editor of the Liberal Club Circular in Carlisle before the first election I which many working men could vote. (p241-282)

Books History Women's history

Mary Beard’s always worth reading…

A shorter version was originally published on Blogcritics

Mary Beard is pretty well public intellectual of the year, after her spirited performance on Question Time, and strong-minded reaction to the flood of misogynist vitriol she received as a result. I was really looking forward to her new Confronting the Classics, but I was a little disappointed on opening it to find a little-edited collection of book reviews.

As I got into the book, however, on a long train journey from Madrid to London – appropriately a swoop through a large expanse of the Roman Empire – my disappointment vanished. Sure the loose thesis that ties it all together – really we can know little of the actual lives of the Ancients, and often what we say has more to do with our “life and times” than their’s – is hardly earth-shattering.

But the ascetic wit and brutal honesty we expect from Beard shines through (she’s an entirely fair reviewer, but doesn’t pull punches or suffer foolish theses gladly) – commenting on Vanessa Collingridge’s Boudica, she notes that the fiction writer of a series about the leader, Manda Scott “comes over as something of a nutter: ‘she now practices and teaches shamanic dreaming and spirituality’ and ‘she firmly believes her subject was given to her by the spirits’ … After this warning… The third volume of her series, comes as a relief (or at least the spirits we sensible enough to finger someone who could write”. (P. 156)

And Beard provide some fascinating details that we do know of ancient lives, and some great anecdotes that we don’t but are worth reading anyway,some supplied by the reviewees, some by Beard herself.
read more »

Books History Women's history

Disappearing into late Rome

A shorter version was first published on Blogcritics

Through the Eye of a Needle: Wealth, the fall of Rome and the making of Christianity in the West, 350-550AD has been hovering around the middle of my to-read pile for some time. Fascinating topic, fascinating period, but 530 pages of text, 758 pages with all of the accoutrements, made it just a bit daunting. Perfect for the holidays though, and so gripping that I ripped through it in three rainy days.

This is a period of the history of the West of Rome that we’ve tended to regard as dark and mysterious, but Peter Brown reveals that there’s a huge amount known. By starting with a theological debate, which has ripples and echoes throughout Christian history, he’s create a frame that doesn’t particularly grab me personally, but it creates a logic for exploring all over the western empire, primarily through the lives of prominent Christian figures, but in the process shedding lot of lots of obscure but fascinating corners that usually barely get a mention.

One key theme running through it is the persistence of what the Romans called Amor civicus, as embodied in the endowment of improvements: “At Calama for instance (modern Guelma in Algeria, which stood at the head of the Seybouse valley on the edge of the plateau of Roman Numidia, Annia Aelia Restituta received no less than five statues, and one of her father, so as to render thanks for her exceptional liberality to her fellow citizens in adding stateliness to her home town.” (p64) This continues, Brown attests, with bounteous evidence, well into the fourth and fifth centuries, and was a cause of considerable angst to Christian leaders, who thought the money should have been going into the church. Even in 421 the nobles of a blackened Trier sought from the newly created emperor Constanitius II funds to celebrate his accession through circus games – this was what was though to hold the city together in tough times, not the prayers of saints. (p. 452)

Another concept that proved both persistent but also malleable was otium. “It had unmistakable aristocratic overtones. Symmachus [one of Brown’s key characters] and his friends enjoyed long periods of otium in the countryside outside Rome or in Campaniea. ‘Tired of the affairs of the city’, they liked to ‘tame their great minds in solitude’ on their estates. ‘Turning over the learned writings of the men of old’ in the well-watered gardens of their villas, they renewed their allegiance to the culture that was supposed to make them truly noble.” When Augustine was seeking to encourage his followers, he put forward a programme for such a period – of Christina writings and reflection, aiming to show it was “possible to enjoy, through contemplation, the supreme happiness of a life lived in the presence of God”. (p. 164)

After Symmachus, Ausonius is one of the next key characters in Through the Eye of the Needle. “His family nursed a claim to ancient nobility that had been lost a century before in the civil wars of Gaul of the 260s. Ausonius’s grandfather had come to Aquitaine as a refugee from Autun … In reality, he and his family were little more than local landowners and town councillors who had risen by their talents. … One suspects that Valentinian I looked on favor on Ausonius in part so as to establish a comfortable relationship with Bordeaux and with Ausonius’s pupils, the landowners of Aquitaine. [How the empire had come down in the world.] In 379 he even became consul for the year. The old professor (now in his mid-sixties) was put on display. He was dressed in the same set of heavy, gold-stitched consular robes that had once been worn by none other than the emperor Constantius II.” (p. 188)

Otium gives him the chance to explore in a poem his “little family estate” – one of the most precise pictures we have from antiquity of what wealth was. Sounds pretty pleasant really – about 650 acres, of which 430 were woodland, a source of timber plus pitch for ships and wine amphorae, 124 for the plough, 100 for vineyards and 50 for meadows. Its warehouses could hold two years’ store of food. It was an account of what he saw as modestly appropriate wealth – which would have brough in around 1,000 solidi a year. (p. 191)

As both those sets of details of show, this is no dry theological tome; Brown is seeking to present a complete, detailed picture of his characters’ lives and those of their contemporaries. Not a time machine, but almost as close as we are likely to get.


Brown also drops in an occasional fascinating comparison with Confucian China coming to terms with the arrival of Buddhism. He compares the 4th-century empire, with Christian taking hold, to “that of the Chinese mandarins …. An official of the Ming empire reported that the Buddhists in his province had shown great zeal for building bridges. This was a public venture of which any traditional Chinese gentleman was bound to approve. But the official learned that the Buddhists were building bridges for entirely the wrong reasons. They were acting on the belief that they would gain personal karmic merit in another existence by contributing to the building of such a bridge…. The mandarin was shocked…. ‘This is all contrary to the spirit of good works!'” (p. 90) And this dry note: “it is an observed fact that other-worldly religions … often manage to become very rich very soon. As Chinese observers noted … there was a lot of wealth to be gotten from fo-shih – “Buddha business”. (p. 523)

He’s also exploring big themes, such as the rise of the villa in Roman life. He doesn’t deny that these often show, and were designed to flaunt, great wealth, but he denies the certainty of this wealth and that there was a “lost middle” between their inhabitants and the poor. Country wealth was never independent of the cities and the government, he says. “Aquitaine was a rich agrarian region, which furnished supplies to the Rhine frontier … even if not all of its members had made their way to Trier to become courtiers as Ausonius had done. (p. 196)” Rich villas only appear, Brown adds, “in regions that served as corridors of empire”. This was the last flowering of a belle epoque he says – “the moment that the Roman state and its fiscal energy began to wobble, as a result of civil wars and barbarian invasions … many villas survived as economic centres. They served as places for storage and processing wine and oil. But they became faceless. Their owners left no strong impression on them. For they no longer served as the blazons of new wealth.” (p. 197) (McMansions anyone?)

As things fall apart, the need to hold on to a labour force happy to run when it gets a chance is another persistent theme. “The bishops who gathered at the council of Macon in 585 declared that slaves who had been manumitted on the estates of the church … could not be reenslaved…But … old Roman law had insisted that freed slaves should continue to render obsequiuum – personal service to their masters. This law was maintained with particular vigor in the church.” (p. 499)

Brown’s also big on trying to get into the heads of the ancient world, rather than accepting later, sometimes lazy, understandings. So, he says, the frequent complaints about religious ascetics, such as Priscillian, (an interesting character who welcomed women followers as the equal of men – bound to get him into trouble) were not for the same reasons that shocks us – not the self-mortification, the denial or marriage or the abandonment of social duties, but the fact that such ascetics built close links with wealthy donors. He quotes the pagan emperor Julian “They are men … who by making small sacrifices … gain much … from all sources … levying tribute on specious pretenses which they call ‘alms’.” (p. 214)

And he says the idea that wealth came from the Christian God was late in arriving. Around 400AD Paulinus of Nola was still trying to assert this, clearly against the view that wealth came through family, wealth came from nature, or the bounty of the emperor. But it could remain theirs so long as they followed the will of God. (p. 238)

Brown explores both the continuity of the period, and its shocks. So he finds that while Ausonius’s contemporary and friend Paulinus had renounced his wealth in the 390s, as late as the late 6th century a descendant of his brother, Leontius, the last of the line and bishop of Bordeaux, had refurbished his ancestor’s villa at Preignac, and lying back on the traditional Roman stibadium couch, was still referring back to Ausonius’s poetry. (p. 218)

He also looks at the various ways in which individuals came to terms with the collapsing of the empire. Prosper went for the irrelevance of the state: “his Augustinianism convinced him that nothing in the past contributed to what happened in the present, just as nothing – no social advantage, no cultural gift, no ascetic labour – could precede the workings of grace in the individual heart.” (p. 430) More practically, the super-rich noble families, with estates spread across the empire, could no longer control them, they had to settle down to one local region, one area where they could exert personal control – and so it was that the church, which hadn’t really got that rich in form terms, came to be one of the richest forces going. And families husbanded their recourses by dedicating girls to the church as forced nuns, to save on dowries, and boys pushed into the clergy, renouncing their family wealth, which didn’t please the church, which hoped they’d bring it with them. (p. 439)

There’s lots of fascinating women in this period – Brown explores in some detail the great widow Melaniia the elder, who supported the Nicene cause. “She arrived in Alexandria with a shop loaded with gold and silver to help the monks of the Nile Delta, whose lay support had been cut off by the repressive measures of the pro-Arian emperor Valens. Going on to Palestine, she helped feed 3,000 Egyptian monks in exile.” (p. 261) And many more… read more »