Warrior Women

Patrick Wormald

I was recently quite shocked – though I’m not sure why – when a cherished colleague upheld the study of women’s history on the grounds that it was ‘fashionable’. Most historians respond to contemporary trends in their discipline, though without being so frank about it. Would I have been as disturbed if he had defended his researches on Medieval literacy in similar terms? I suspect myself of reacting not to his reason for endorsing the subject but to the subject itself. Should I therefore be branded with the infamous three initials applied to so many of my sex?

Women’s history is indeed fashionable, but it does raise problems, which are no less real for being so banally obvious. Why is it appropriate to make the history of half the human race into a subject in its own right? If the answer is that historical writing has hitherto been monopolised by the other half, is this not because the pace of events in nearly all known human societies has been set by men? And, however undesirable this may have been, does not the resulting bias of the sources interpose near-insuperable obstacles for those concerned with the place of women in societies not responsive to statistical or anthropological analysis? There is the further difficulty that women’s history is now as ‘political’ a subject as that notorious crux, the condition of the English working class in the early Industrial Revolution. It is anticipated that one’s opinion of its value will be predetermined by one’s sex – something that most of us can do even less to change than our class-conditioned prejudices. It is studied and discussed by most of its exponents with the often avowed objective of teaching men about their past sins. To express doubt is reactionary if one is female, and worse (albeit predictable) if one is male. Clio’s academy hath few furies like Women’s Studies scorned.

But woman’s historical lot is not a new issue. At the beginning of the last century, when the working class was still experiencing its controversial ‘condition’, Sharon Turner (a man, actually) was writing, in one of the half-dozen best-ever books about the Anglo-Saxons: ‘Nothing could be more calculated to produce a very striking dissimilarity, between the Gothic nations and the Oriental States, than this exaltation of the female sex to that honour, consequence and independence, which European laws studied to uphold.’ In 1848, John Mitchell Kemble, in one of the top three, assured (reassured?) Queen Victoria that ‘woman among the Teutons was near akin to divinity, but not one among them ever raved that the femme libre could be woman.’ On the other hand, some scholars (few of whom would make the top hundred) imported their scandalised reaction to African bride-wealth into their perception of the Old English past: not only were ‘Anglo-Saxon women ... sold by their fathers’, they were also ‘always beaten by their husbands’, and were ‘menial servants even when of royal rank’ (my italics). In the end, however, it did not matter whether woman’s past was horrible or a great improvement on the present: all was grist to the political mill.

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