Don’t marry a Christian

Amanda Vickery

  • Women in 18th-Century Europe by Margaret Hunt
    Longman, 484 pp, £21.99, October 2009, ISBN 978 0 582 30865 7

It was a hackneyed truth that while European Christian women in the 18th century were essentially free, ‘“Oriental” and Muslim women were incarcerated body and soul behind veils,’ as Margaret Hunt puts it. Browbeaten British wives accused oppressive husbands of Turkish despotism, drawing attention to the illegitimacy of domestic tyranny in the land of Liberty as well as to their total ignorance of Ottoman Europe. The most influential Orientalist novel of the 18th century, Montesquieu’s bestselling Lettres persanes (1721), drew a melodramatic comparison between Christian and Muslim marriage, contrasting Muslim polygamists who made sex slaves of their wives with Christian monogamists who allowed their womenfolk to rove and socialise freely (possibly too freely). Montesquieu had not ventured into a single Muslim country when he wrote the book, relying instead on Orientalist cliché. A self-serving fantasy of the exotic East as foil to Western superiority took deep root. It even permeates letters I have read in provincial archives in the north of England in which happy British women congratulate themselves on having escaped the fate of their benighted sisters in the East.

It is precisely this comforting fiction that Margaret Hunt explodes in her impressive new synthesis, Women in 18th-Century Europe. There have already been several important surveys of European women’s history – not least Olwen Hufton’s The Prospect before Her (1995), Bonnie Anderson and Judith Zinsser’s A History of Their Own (2000) and Merry Wiesner’s Women and Gender in Early Modern Europe (2008) – but Hunt stakes out a hugely expanded terrain, mapping gender relations in what has come to be known as ‘big Europe’, from Ireland to the Urals, from Scandinavia to the main Mediterranean peninsulas of Iberia, Italy, the Balkans and Anatolia, including the Mediterranean islands. And where need be, she draws comparisons with British North America, Haiti, Mexico and even the Philippines as well as Aleppo and Damascus – the two major Ottoman colonial cities.

Hunt’s most striking innovation is the integration of a generation of scholarship on the Ottoman Empire, that hybrid European/ Middle Eastern state. Despite its role as Islamic other in the Western imagination, the empire was multi-confessional – sheltering large Eastern Orthodox, Coptic Christian and Armenian Christian as well as Jewish communities. On the other hand, Islam was its official religion, which troubles the conviction that Europe was an essentially Christian continent. The Ottoman Empire has tended to impinge on ‘European’ history only as a military threat to Western states, most shockingly when the Grand Vizier Kara Mustafa led 80,000 Ottoman troops and janissaries to the gates of Vienna in 1683. Though seen as profoundly unEuropean in institutions and culture, the empire and its successor states have been part of Europe for more than a millennium.

Hunt’s incorporation of ‘big Europe’ changes the core story, particularly the onward march of women’s rights led by Western progressives. Elite women participated in high politics to a far greater degree in Eastern Europe than in most Western nations. In Poland, noblewomen engaged openly in electioneering, asserted their views at the Sejm (noble assembly), served as diplomats, set up political salons, enjoyed political intrigues and engineered revolts. It was in Orthodox Russia that the first Married Women’s Property Act in Christian Europe was passed in 1753. Elsewhere, Catholic Portugal, followed by Spain, had the most advantageous property laws. In Ottoman Europe, sharia courts defended the rights of Islamic wives to their own property, even against the claims of their men. Consequently, Christian and Jewish women often resorted to the Muslim courts for redress they had failed to find in Jewish and Christian law.

It is worth remembering that an English wife enjoyed no legal rights in common law; her legal personality was annihilated at the altar, eclipsed by that of her husband. She had no legal rights over her children, or over any property she brought to the marriage. She could make no will because in common law she had no property to bequeath. She could not sue or be sued, or make a contract without her husband’s signature. Ecclesiastical law and Equity (the Court of Chancery) did recognise some separate property rights, but probably as few as one in ten women took out the premarital settlement necessary to protect a separate maintenance once wed. It was not until the 1880s that British women’s property rights were enshrined in statute law, with similar reforms passed in Scandinavia and North America. As Hunt tartly concludes, the legislation is ‘often put forward as proof of superiority of women’s treatment in the West – but based on abysmal, wilful ignorance of the legal position of women elsewhere’.

Hunt does not go so far as to claim that life for Muslim women was better than in the Christian West. She does not deny the features that so arrested the Western imagination, like the Ottoman imperial harem (which enclosed between 450 and 1000 concubines, female civil servants and pensioners), but sets them in a broader context. Montesquieu ‘conflated genuinely confining, but unique, royal institutions, like the household of the shah of Persia … with all Muslim marriages, while failing to mention the fact that the royal harems were important sites of political power’, and ignoring the huge majority of non-elite Muslims.

Polygamy was a minority practice. Probably only 2 per cent of all Muslim marriages were polygynous, and most of these involved only two wives – not the languorous bevy of erotic myth. Cost was a strong brake on polygamy. A husband had to pay a mehr (‘dowry’) for a wife and maintain each partner in a separate dwelling or apartment. Failure to treat each wife equally could land him in court. Unsurprisingly, women themselves were less than keen. Ottoman princesses would not share a husband and set a fashion for refusal; elite women introduced clauses into their marriage contracts ensuring the automatic dissolution of the union should the husband take another wife or a concubine.

Sex with slaves was much more common. It was permitted by law and many women were bought expressly for sex. However, if a sex slave bore her master children, she could not be sold on and automatically gained her freedom at his death. Beauty, musicianship, or secretarial and accounting skill aided female social promotion. If acknowledged (a big if), slave children could inherit equally with legitimate heirs. The Quran encouraged men to marry their slaves, especially if they were pious. Personal slaves and their children were often absorbed as ‘fictive kin’, and could use their alliances to advantage. Consequently, some of the most powerful people in the empire were former slaves: ‘The sultan himself was invariably the son of a slave.’

Ottoman slavery could be brutal, however, especially if your skin was brown. Hunt makes clear that ‘the forced march of central African and Sudanese captives north across the Sahara desert to slavery among the Ottomans was every bit as brutal and dangerous as the Middle Passage of slaves to the New World.’ But crucially, slavery was usually temporary – more like indentured servitude, with release after five or seven years. If a master reneged, a slave could petition the courts for freedom. Slavery in the English and Dutch colonies was lifelong and extended to one’s children and grandchildren, entailed no rights to property and no legal defence against abuse. Family ties in Africa were viciously severed, while fragile slave families could be smashed at will. Slavery in the Spanish, Portuguese and possibly French colonies lay between these extremes – a smooth generalisation which covers an epic’s worth of misery.

Meanwhile, much of the Christian European population was essentially unfree. The so-called ‘second serfdom’ immiserated labourers in vast swathes of Central and Eastern Europe – Russia, Romania, Silesia, Lithuania, Livonia, Bohemia, Hungary, Poland, Germany and even further west in Denmark. All over Europe, the illegitimate, the diseased and the disabled were treated as less than full citizens, while ethnic and religious minorities suffered varying levels of persecution. Africans, Roma, Jews, Saami, Muslims in Russia, Shia in the Ottoman Empire, Protestants in some Catholic countries (and vice versa) were all stigmatised. Certain trades and professions were considered so filthy and contaminating that their practitioners (and their families) were disqualified from borough privilege, guild membership or marriage to the respectable. Tanners, skinners, executioners, mourners, gravediggers and prostitutes were included in this category, but also in some places travelling musicians, actors and actresses and even professional women. Spinsters, the aged, simpletons and orphans were also low on the ladder of life, vulnerable to exploitation or abandonment.

Hierarchy, servitude and stigma were part of the natural order of things. The haughtiest performance of power and the brute humiliation of underlings were utterly unremarkable. Hunt sets female subordination against other competing hierarchies which complicated the assumed superiority of men over women. But femininity did render a woman unfit for most important roles and opportunities. Women everywhere were more likely to garner prestige and power via men than by their own abilities or female contacts, and they were always and everywhere ‘more encircled by unfreedom and constraint than men’. Women were not any more likely than men to make common cause across rank and racial lines, nor were they inherently more compassionate. A Scottish visitor called Janet Schaw was unmoved by a flogging on a West Indian plantation in 1775 because she considered the slaves to be like cattle, with no inner life.

When one comes to be better acquainted with the nature of the Negroes, the horror of flogging must wear off. It is the suffering of the human mind that constitutes the greatest misery of punishment but with them it is merely corporeal. As to the brutes it inflicts no wound on their mind, whose Natures seem made to bear it, and whose sufferings are not attended with shame or pain beyond the present moment.

Women were often at their most vociferous and confident in public defence of tradition. Indeed, Hunt is scathing about a common tendency among historians to search out and celebrate forms of female agency sympathetic to modern liberal taste, ideally acts of resistance to male authority, rarely extreme female piety or sectarianism. It is, nevertheless, a relief to read of some instances of female solidarity, like the successful prosecution for rape of the director of a Rotterdam poorhouse brought by 12 girls in 1700, or the Polish convents which took in battered women, or the French convents which gave material aid to abused slaves.

Hunt is everywhere at pains to demonstrate how female agency was hedged by local constraints and conflicting imperatives. When a Londoner called Elizabeth Spinkes lay bleeding in the street having leapt out of the window to escape her husband, ‘some of the women of the neighbourhood came to her assistance,’ though they were forced to retreat when her physician husband threatened to have their husbands arrested for debt. The physician’s wealth probably explains why one of their female servants testified against Elizabeth in the church court in 1711, arguing that she had it coming because she was licentious, abusive and prone to drunkenness and had even sought to bewitch her husband on the advice of a Whitechapel fortune-teller. The court believed the bruised wife and awarded her a legal separation and modest alimony. Spinkes had gone to law and won.

Complexity is Hunt’s organising theme. Her heroines seem exquisitely poised to take advantage of the relative advantages of competing regimes. In the 1760s unhappy Genevan wives exploited a loophole in the law of desertion (which banished men for the crime, but made no mention of women) and simply crossed the border with their children to establish residency in Piedmont or Savoy. The Ottoman Empire was full of Jewish and Christian wives who had achieved de facto divorce by converting to Islam. Scandalously, in 1796 a Venetian noblewoman poisoned her diplomat husband, fled with her daughter to the house of a kadi (‘judge’) and precipitately converted to Islam to put herself beyond the reach of the authorities. Increasing female legal literacy is one of Hunt’s unexpected findings.

Hunt’s stated aim was to write a history of Europe that decentred the West, especially England and France, and in this she has triumphantly succeeded. Her ‘big Europe’ is remarkable for its dizzying cultural diversity, though infinite variety does not lend itself to digestible generalisations or a single narrative. Nevertheless, the broader focus does lend credence to Hunt’s observation of the aspects of Western culture that were genuinely more advantageous to women: high and rising female literacy (especially strong in the Protestant cities of London, Edinburgh, Amsterdam and Geneva, and near universal in parts of Scandinavia), a greater commitment to the education of girls and women and a burgeoning print culture. This is a doorstopping textbook aimed at the universities. Its admirable scope is an admonition to myopic Europeanists. I shiver with guilt myself. At times the tone is morally pained and bespeaks the distress felt in the American academy at post-9/11 Islamophobia. It is not a pleasant book to read because women’s options were often so relentlessly bleak, but it is undeniably an important one.