Monday, July 31, 2023

Jan Rüger - Heligoland

In preparation for a recent day trip (of a lifetime!) to Helgoland (Heligoland in English) I picked up Jan Rüger's book in order to get some background to this isolated, but pivotal place. I am very glad I did. It is a readable, informative work that avoids focusing just on the North Sea archipelago's history. Instead it places Helgoland in the context of the colonial and imperial history which swirled around the island and sometimes focused on it.

Helgoland is about 45km from Germany, and its main island is barely one square kilometre. Rationally this would place the island in Germany, but colonialism is rarely that simple. Helgoland came to strategic importance during the Napoleonic Wars when England took it from the Danish to ensure it could not be used by the French. It assumed an importance far beyond its diminutive size when it was used as base to smuggle and spy on the continent. 

But it was with the late 19th and early 20th century that the island became most important - not least, as Rüger says, because it was "situated at the fault line between imperial and national histories". The relations between Germany and British were not simply those of antagonists. Helgoland came to prominence in a period when Germany and British rivalry was not automatically that of enemies. For Rüger, "the case of Heligoland is typical of this paradox. It offers history of both the transnational relations that bound nineteenth-century Germany and the British empire together and the reverse process". This is perhaps best summed up by the startling fact that Britain exchanged Helgoland for "colonial concessions in [West] Africa" in 1890. 

From then on, Helgoland essentially becomes a site for a war of position between the two empires. During the First World War the islands were fortified as a naval base, after which it was disarmed and put under British control. The island then became a symbol of German nationalism, epitomising the "punishment" of the Treaty of Versailles, and its re-fortification a favourite demand of far-right and fascist politicians. Hitler made sure he was photographed there on his way to becoming Chancellor, and once in power the islands were turned back into a massive military base. After the Second World War the allies disarmed the islands again, and they were returned to British control. The British bombed them over and over as "practice", destroying any historical locations in the process, until a renewed Nationalist campaign returned them to Germany were they once again became a tourist destination as they had been in the 1800s and the 1920s and 1930s. 

The detail of this oscillation is brilliantly told by Rüger who has an eye for absurdity, anecdote and a excellent way of telling the broader history of global politics by using this small set of islands as a narrative focus. I was very struck though by Rüger's point that it is impossible to tell the history of Helgoland without the "colonial dimension". This is partly obvious in the way that the two empires traded the island for Zanzibar. Essentially a tiny island was swapped for a major area of Africa without anyone bothering to tell thousands of people who lived in Zanzibar. As Rüger summarises:

While Heligoland turned German in August 1890, the protectorate over Witu [an area in present day Kenya] passed to the Brisih. There was no ceremony or public occasion marking the handover. In fact, there was no handover. Berlin and London agreed that 'Germany withdraws in favour of Great Britain her protectorate'. But they failed to communicate this to Ahmad ibn Fumo Bakari, the sultan whose sovereignty both governments had pledged to respect. 

The consequences were horrific, as confusion over rights and colonial claims led to the deaths of nine German colonists followed by violent retribution from the British military and the destruction of Witu. 

It is Rüger's insistence that you cannot separate the history of Helgoland from this "colonial dimension" that helps make this book so worthwhile. But I think it undermines his claim that his book's main aim is to allow "us to appreciate the many ways in which Europe and the British empire were bound up with one another." In fact, the book underlines the way that the world was carved up by competing imperial powers - and this included small islands near Europe as well as Africa, Asia and the Americas. Rüger notably points out that the people who were least considered in the various plans of Germany and Britain were those who lived on Helgoland itself, leading to confusion and despair. Like elsewhere, the Helgolanders were able to fight to preserve rights from their changing national powers, but their lives and livelihoods were eventually eradicated by the needs of the state - economic, or military. In this sense Helgoland is a microcosm of the conflicts between nation states, and a specific aspect for the early 20th century.

Despite the occasionally cultural reference today, and a lingering knowledge of the location from the Shipping Forecast, most people in Britain care little for these islands. On my recent trip I was struck by the fact that there were almost no British tourists there at all, despite its charms, idiosyncrasies and fascinating ecology and history. But it would be a real shame if Jan Rüger's book was only read by those heading out to the islands - it is an excellent example of how a detailed study of a very specific subject can illuminate much wider topics. In this case Heligoland tells us a great deal about how Great Power politics shaped our modern world. 

Related Reviews

Mazower - Hitler's Empire

Saturday, July 29, 2023

Octavia E. Butler - Kindred

Despite my left wing politics and love of science fiction and fantasy, I have neglected Octavia E. Butler for too long. So I am very glad that I picked up Kindred at the Marxism Festival in London this summer, ready for my holiday. Kindred is perhaps Butler's most famous novel and is regularly set as a text in schools in the United States, as well as being made into a recent, short lived, TV series.

The popularity of Kindred lies in part in its approach to its subject. The book deals with the reality of slavery, and the experiences of those who were enslaved, as well as more complex and related questions such as the position of freed slaves in the American South. These are not easy subjects and Butler spares little in her descriptions of the violence of slavery and the day-to-day brutality, including sexual violence, inflicted on the enslaved. 

Butler's approach places the reader at a slight distance, as the story is told by Dana, a working class woman from New York, who is an aspiring writer and married to a white man, Kevin. Dana's ancestors were slaves and she knows a little about them through the inscriptions of a family Bible. She travels back in time to the American South in 1815, pulled back each time Rufus, the heir to a Maryland plantation, life is endangered. Rufus must survive in order for Dana to be born in the future, so she forms a mutual relationship with him, that requires both to protect the other. Rufus' infatuation with Dana also threatens her, and Kevin's trip back in time upsets this dynamic. But Dana continues to return, and spends time with her fellow slaves - encouraging small acts of rebellion, such as teaching reading, while also trying to reestablish contact with Kevin.

This approach is very clever as it allows the reader to be one step removed from the violence, and observe events through Dana's eyes, that is until the slavers decide they need to discipline her. Then the reader, alongside Dana is pulled into the horror.

There is much else in this short novel. The dynamics between the slaves are described, as well as the oppressive and exploitative one between slaver owner and enslaved. These are not always positive. I also enjoyed the way that Butler uses the time travel aspect to illustrate some of the debates about slavery today, as well as demonstrating the way that white people - in the person of Kevin - could simply escape reality. 

This is an excellent novel, that deserves its wide readership and accolades and I look forward to reading more by Butler.

Related Reviews

Mitchison - Memoirs of a Spacewoman
Kuang - Babel
Klapecki - Station Six
Forna - The Gilded Ones

Wednesday, July 26, 2023

Chinua Achebe - An Image of Africa

This short book is actually a collection of two essays by China Achebe, the author of the superb novel Things Fall Apart - the classic exploration of the impact of colonialism on Africa. In this theme, the first essay is a brilliant study by Achebe of Joseph Conrad's Heart of Darkness. Conrad's book is, as Achebe points out, frequently studied and offered as a study of liberalism and imperialism. It is supposed to highlight the reality of colonial rule on Africa, through the mindset of its narrator. As such Conrad is let off the hook, and allowed to be the voice of consciousness for the reader. This, argues, Achebe is nonsense, because Conrad is "a bloody racist" and Heart of Darkness is a book which

parades in the most vulgar fashion prejudices and insults from which a section of mankind has suffered untold agonies and atrocities in the past and continues to do so in many ways and places today. I am talking about a story in which the very humanity of black people is called in question.

Achebe continues to preempt those who argue that it is not Conrad's voice, but his characters, by pointing out:

But if Conrad's intention is to draw a cordon sanitaire between himself and the moral and psychological malaise of his narrator, his care seems to me totally wasted because he neglects to hint, clearly and adequately, at an alternative frame of reference by which we may judge the actions and opinions of his characters. It would not have been beyond Conrad's power to make that provision if he had thought it necessary.

Achebe points out that Conrad might have seen the consequences of imperialism, "but was strangely unaware of the racism on which it sharpened its iron tooth". This is, of course, because Conrad shared those beliefs and racist attitudes - the Image of Africa that Conrad uses, "did not originate" with him, it is the "dominant image of Africa in the Western imagination" and Conrad simply "brought the peculiar gifts of his own mind to bear on it". While liberal Europeans might decry this characterisation of Conrad's racism in Heart of Darkness, Achebe notes that "victims of racism" have no such problems identifying the racism at the heart of the novel.

The second essay, The Trouble with Nigeria, seems at first to be a lot less accessible to a reader in the 21st century as it deals with the political and economic issues of post-colonial Nigeria. Achebe illustrates this through discussions of corruption, waste, inefficiency and lack of democracy in Nigeria in the 1970s. He focuses on local questions such as Tribalism, as well as wider issues common to many countries such as inequality. It is brilliantly, and fluidly written - as witnessed by Achebe's specific use of the traffic problem in Nigeria as a metaphor, albeit a concrete one, for the country's problems. How can, Achebe asks, a country like Nigeria - with its wealth of natural resources, people and experience - become a global power? While the book is rooted in its time and place, the questions are eternal - at least under capitalism. And this, is one of the shortcomings of an otherwise interesting essay. Achebe highlights many problems, and notes particularly the immense inequality in Nigeria which has seen a new Black African ruling class become supremely wealthy. The starting point for Achebe seems to be a collective national interest - with the different class interests of its population - farmers, workers and capitalists - placed in second place. The force to change this, is one that has hitherto been silent and includes Achebe himself - Nigeria's intellectuals. 

While Achebe skewers the hypocrisy and dishonesty of the country's politicians, he is curiously naive when it comes to the origins of Nigeria's troubles. These he sees as caused by the mindsets left behind by colonialism, which thus requires intellectuals to drive change. He fails to see Nigeria's problems as originating in the nature of  capitalism - a system that cannot ever be democratic or just, even when run by a black ruling class. It will take a revolutionary change to fully break free of the chains of international and national capital that continue to hold Africa's development back. Deep down Achebe perhaps knows this, as with his celebration of the black, Muslim socialist radical Aminu Kano, at the end of the book. 

I found both these essays highly stimulating politically. But they also demonstrate a powerful polemical talent - these are books that challenge liberal politics and viewpoints, and show that the legacy of European colonialism goes much deeper than many would admit, which is why this short book deserves a read.

Related Reviews

Achebe - Things Fall Apart

Sunday, July 23, 2023

Frederick Taylor - The Berlin Wall

I have a personal connection with the Berlin Wall. My mother took part in protests when the East German government built it, and travelled there to see it fall. We spent many a childhood visit to Berlin looking at the imposing edifice, and I recall my Uncle, in the summer of 1989 telling me and my best friend that the Wall would "always" be there. A few months later it was open, and a year later the place we were standing when we had that conversation was a massive building site as the Potsdamer Platz was rebuilt. I spent New Year's Eve between 1989 and 1990 at the Brandenburg Tour - too lacking in confidence to climb onto the Wall as thousands of other revellers did, I did swig champagne and swap bits of the Wall we'd chipped off with fellow celebrants.

A trip to Germany this year offered the opportunity to read more about the background to my family interactions with the wall through Frederick Taylor's book. Unfortunately, while there is much of interest, the book itself is an indulgent and overlong mess. Taylor begins his account of the Wall with the founding of the city in ancient times and only reaches the end of the Second World War, and the division of the city among the Allied Powers around page fifty. This tendency to over burden the reader with information and detail is a major flaw of the book, which helps push the page count to over 600 and have the effect of numbing the reader.

Another problem is the focus of the story. Taylor frames the history of the Wall mostly through an account of the machinations of East Germany, which means that his point of view is very much that of politicians. This is important when he is explaining the big picture (for instance when he shows the interaction between East Germany and the Soviet Union's interests). It helps the reader to understand why the Wall was built and so on. But it means that much of the human picture is lost. The account is at its best when it draws on interviews and personal accounts - but there is too little of this, and too much about the infighting between Eastern Bloc politicians and others.

I don't know Taylor's particular politics, but there is also a tendency to see the British, French and Americans as generally "good" and the Russians and then the East German's as "bad". This stems from Taylor's critique of the Eastern regimes as being socialist. Unfortunately Taylor makes no real attempt to interrogate what is meant by socialist, so he simply draws a continuous line between (say) Marx and Lenin and Erich Honecker and Gorbachev. Because what was done in the name of socialism by these regimes is abhorrent, he then implies that what was being done in opposition was thus positive. So those protesting against both the East German regime and its wall, as well as US imperialism in Vietnam are dismissed as being naive, or simplistic. Taylor isn't a socialist, so he probably isn't aware of Marxist debates about the nature of the (post Revolution) Soviet Union or the East European regimes. This is a shame - not for point scoring reasons - but actually because understanding the dynamic of those regimes' economies would have helped him explain why the various countries went into crisis in the late 1970s and why the collapse was so rapid.

Sadly the account of the fall of the Berlin Wall (and the rest of the East European regimes) is the weakest part of the book. Here we really are given the impression that the crisis arose out of the machinations of various politicians and the failure of the East German government to manage the economy properly. There's no real sense of the mass protests across East Europe driving a systemic political crisis that forced the politicians' hands. The key point of this, when Hungary opens its borders, is described as something that just happens - rather than being the result of a mass movement. Oddly, given Taylor's discussion of the Hungarian Revolution in 1956, there's no mention of the 1988 reburial of Imre Nagy's remains as a focus of this discontent. In fact, the story of the collapse of the East German regime really deserved more about the bravery of the masses than Taylor offers. He's more keen on praising Ronald Reagan, than exploring the ideas and motivations of the people of Leipzig, for instance.

This isn't to say there aren't real gems of interest in this book, but they tend to get lost in the mass of detail. A good editor would have cut back Taylor's digressions (do we need a three page account of the Maginot Line in World War Two to explain the metaphor Taylor uses for the way the Berlin Wall was eventually bypassed?) You do get a good sense of how the US in particular, and the West German's to a lesser extent, did see the Wall's existence as beneficial in the sense of providing stability in the 1950s situation. But readers looking for an overview will probably find this book useful, but it needed a sharper analysis of the regimes and more detail on the protest movements to make it more than a superficial read.

Related Reviews

Dale – The East German Revolution of 1989
Harman - Class Struggles in Eastern Europe 1945-83

Sunday, July 16, 2023

The Book of Margery Kempe

Reading Janina Ramirez's excellent Femina recently I was reminded that I had a copy of The Book of Margery Kempe on my shelves. Margery Kempe's book is variously described as the first autobiography and the a "spiritual autobiography" that is crucially important for understanding the Middle Ages. 

There is no doubt that the book is fascinating and important. It is an account of the life of Margery Kempe dictated to various scribes towards the end of her life. It details her extraordinary pilgrimages and journies to Rome and the Holy Land, as well as eastward from Danzig. It also tells us a little about her own life, though nothing in detail. Readers looking for an account of Middle Age life will not find it her, though you will read much about her own thoughts and ideas, framing the lives of women of the era.

Kempe was an incredible woman. She lived in Lynn in Norfolk (Now King's Lynn) and was the daughter of a wealthy and influential local merchant who was a longstanding Member of Parliament. She was born about 1373 and lived to the late 1430s. For much of her life she suffered from ill health and, what we would likely today term Mental Distress. The latter manifested itself through Kempe's belief that she was in direct personal communication with Jesus and other figures including Jesus's mother Mary and his Grandmother. Kempe engaged in extended dialogue with these figures, particularly Jesus, about her life and sin, and the lives of those around her. She was also prone to loud, distressing and extended periods of crying and wailing - often to the distress of those around her.

Modern commentators often spend time analysing what these symptoms might mean. I am not a medical or Mental Health professional and would not attempt to make those diagnoses. To me, what is most interesting is how Kempe experienced these and interpreted them. To many people around her she was seen as unwell. But not all. Many other people accepted her experiences as religious. Kempe was not seen as a prophet, but she was understood as holy by many people and her behaviour often won her friends and supporters. Frequently during her pilgrimages she was given money by others to help her, and to pray for them. Sometimes these were senior and influential members of the clergy. Often she gave that money away.

There were those who saw her behaviour as being a mark of mental distress or often that she had been possessed by the devil. Unsurprisingly, her symptoms were interpreted through the prism of religion - even by those who were critical of her.

People will read The Book of Margery Kempe, hoping for direct insights into ordinary life in her times. Finding that is not easy - though there are some fascinating bits about the role of women, and Kempe's own struggles with her sexuality and gender. The dialog with her husband about chastity, and the marital rape that takes place beforehand as he wants to continue to have sex with her, as she has decided that she would rather be chaste is often discussed. But less so are her fears of rape and assault while on her travels and the comfort she receives from her discussions with Jesus that he will protect her. These give the reader some insight into the fears of women at the time. I was also struck by the way she finds kindness - especially among "Saracens" while travelling in the Holy Land. She clearly was a woman who was able to communicate and find friendship - even though her behaviour often led some companions to decry and abandon her. 

As much of the book is reported discussions between Kempe and Jesus, it is not an easy read without much religious background. Nonetheless we are left with an interesting insight into spiritual belief and behaviour.

Related Reviews

Ramirez - Femina
Falk - The Light Ages: A Medieval Journey of Discovery
Jusserand - English Wayfaring Life in the Middle Ages

Friday, July 14, 2023

Donella H. Meadows & others - The Limits to Growth

Growth, and its counterpart, degrowth, have become hot topics for activists and theoreticians concerned about capitalism's destruction of the world and its people. The idea that we need to move away from an economic system based on accumulation of capital toward one that has a more sustainable relationship with nature is attractive. I have dealt elsewhere with the degrowth concept, and will produce more on that. But in researching the topic I wanted to read the book that is often seen as the grandparent of these current debates. The Limits to Growth was published in 1972 and came out of a group of thinkers known as The Club of Rome. It was enormously popular, influential and has spawned a number of updates and similar books in the fifty years since its publication. It is also a theoretical mess.

The book's authors explain that "The team examined the five basic factors that determine, and therefore, ultimately limit, growth on this planet-population, agricultural production, natural resources, industrial production". They conclude:

If the present growth trends in world population, industrialization, pollution, food production, and resource depletion continue unchanged, the limits to growth on this planet will be reached sometime within the next one hundred years.

The research is based on the then, relatively new, idea of computer modelling, something the researchers place great faith in. The computers of the era were of course much less powerful than modern technology, and this naturally limited the scope of the models themselves, nonetheless the team were proud of their achievements:

Since ours is a formal, or mathematical, model it also has two important advantages over mental models. First, every assumption we make is written in a precise form so that it is open to inspection and criticism by all. Second, after the assumptions have been scrutinized, discussed, and revised to agree with our best current knowledge, their implications for the future behavior of the world system can be traced without error by a computer, no matter how complicated they become.

With the development of Computer Science also came cautionary arguments, and one of the best known of these was GIGO - "Garbage In, Garbage Out". In other words, your model is only as good as the data and assumptions that it rests upon. In the case of The Limits to Growth, the problem with the book comes down to the assumptions made in the modelling, and in particular the authors' focus on the two biggest drivers of "growth" in their view - capital and population. 

As such the models themselves are not particularly at fault, and tend to show what you might expect. Industrial economies rely on the availability of natural resources and labour, and when these are undermined by shortages or other effects (such as pollution affecting health) the system tends to go into crisis. Much of the book's diagrams consists of models that demonstrate things like this:

Thus population and capital, driven by exponential growth, not only reach their limits, but temporarily shoot beyond them before the rest of the system, with its inherent delays, reacts to stop growth.  Pollution generated in exponentially increasing amounts can rise past the danger point, because the danger point is first perceived years after the offending pollution was released. A rapidly growing industrial system can build up a capital base dependent on a given resource and then discover that the exponentially shrinking resource reserves cannot support it. Because of delays in the age structure, a population will continue to grow for as long as 70 years, even after average fertility has dropped below the replacement level (an average of two children for each married couple).

Modern readers might be amused at the old-fashioned diagrams. But readers then were very impressed. The computer outputs proved that a system based on growth would go into crisis and this would have a severe impact on the world unless stringent and urgent action was taken to arrest this growth. Even then, the world hung in the balance.

The data did draw some interesting conclusions. They noted, for instance, that growth increased inequality. That technological innovation was not the answer:

it is sufficient to recognize that no new technology is spontaneous or without cost. The factories and raw materials to produce synthetic food, the equipment and energy to purify sea water must all come from the physical world system. 

and the very real limits there were to the system which was "being pushed toward its limit-the depletion of the earth's nonrenewable resources."

So what's the problem? The problem is the model is based on two key drivers of growth "population and capital" (as in, for instance, "we are interested only in the broad behavior modes of the population-capital system."). The authors don't really have a concept of growth as fundamental to the capitalist system - unlike the best degrowth thinkers today. Instead they tend to see capital growth as an offshoot of the system, though their real argument is that everything is derived from population growth. In effect, this makes the book essentially a 1970s computer powered modelling of Malthusianism. There is nothing here to link the problem of (say) unsustainable resource use to an economic system based on the accumulation of capital. It is worth noting here that it is written in the 1970s so the Soviet Union and Eastern Bloc countries also suffer from this problem. The authors' tend to see these as some form of socialist society, but they too were governed by accumulation through their competition with the capitalist west. The authors of The Limits to Growth however don't dwell on these details - rather focusing on growth as being separate to the global economic system.

So the book is essentially Malthusian:

Some pollutants are obviously directly related to population growth (or agricultural activity, which is related to population growth). Others are more closely related to the growth of industry and advances in technology. Most pollutants in the complicated world system are influenced in some way by both the population and the industrialization positive feedback loops.

The problem then is that the authors have no way to argue against growth, because they see it as arising out of the nature of people. They recognise that population growth can level off, but that it won't happen fast enough, and thus see solutions as arising out of restricting population levels and challenging the growth of capital - though how this can happen in a system where capitalists are "compelled" [Marx] to accumulate capital is not addressed at all. In fact, the writers explicitly argue that there will be no fundamental change in their models, what they call the "standard run":

Let us begin by assuming that there will be in the future no great changes in human. values nor in the functioning of the global population-capital system as it has operated for the last one hundred years.

In other words, not only is the data input into the model flawed, the model itself assumes that you cannot change the system. But the problem, as millions of people currently understand, is the system - a system that drives growth. While The Limits to Growth is striking because it identifies that serious thought was given in the 1970s to the looming ecological and resource crisis, its flawed approach failed to identify the problem. Thus a generation of people, including millions of readers, were given an incorrect explanation for the coming crisis. Neo-Malthusianism blamed the masses and diverted attention from the real issue - the accumulation of capital. Here is not the place for me to critique Malthus again, I've done that elsewhere. But while The Limits to Growth has some insights - not least in its critique of what we would now call ecomodernism, or those who put their faith in technological development, its Computer driven Malthusian arguments are of no real use. GIGO.

Related Reviews

Paulson, D'Alisa & Demaria - The Case for Degrowth
Hickel - Less is More: How Degrowth will save the World
Ehrlich - The Population Bomb
Dorling - Population 10 Billion
Marx and Engels on the Population Bomb

Thursday, July 06, 2023

Janina Ramirez - Femina

I expected Janina Ramirez's book Femina, subtitled "A new history of the Middle Ages, through the women written out of it" just to be a collection of portraits of individual women. While that would have been interesting enough in and of itself, Femina is much more than this. What Ramirez does is to look at the Middle Ages, not simply by telling the story of various women, but also by discussing issues like gender, sexuality and labour within wider contexts. It makes for a fascinating read. 

In the preface Ramirez explains that she wants to "show... that there are so many more ways to approach history now". Surprisingly she begins, not in the Middle Ages, but in the 20th century and Emily Wilding Davison, the Suffragette who was killed at the Epsom Derby in 1913. Davison was an accomplished medievalist who took inspiration from individuals from history and Ramirez explains that she seeks to develop this much further: "we need a new relationship with the past, one which we can all feel a part of".

The women discussed in Femina range from some who are already well known, such as Hildegard of Bingen and Margery Kempe, to anonymous individuals such as the women who made the Bayeux Tapestry and the Birka Warrior Woman, a Viking who was found buried with arms and armour. The latter is a fascinating study, not least because it is a massive challenge to many who thought Viking warriors must surely all be male. Ramirez argues that this burial "shows us a Viking world connected across thousands of miles; a city teeming with ideas and influences; a cosmopolitan, complex and fascinating environment that challenges traditional representations of Vikings". She continues:

A ninth-century Scandinavian trading town like Birka would be home to all manner of people from all types of backgrounds. it's likely we'd find women who had faced conflicts and threats, then developed the means to defend themselves in response. There is no single narrative, and the skeleton in grave Bj581 reminds us not to look for a collective 'woman' of the past, but instead to examine individuals, and what they can tell us about the particular time and place they lived in.

It is an important point, because as Ramirez highlights, women in the Middle Ages were not all the same. Their roles, lives and experiences depended on their class, where they lived and the work they did. But we must also be wary of understanding our subjects only through the lens of our own era. Ramirez makes this point well with her discussion of Æthelflæd a powerful figure in late 9th and early 10th century Mercia. Æthelflæd's "story" was told, and retold. A twelfth century poem included the lines, "A man in valour, though a woman in your name / Your warlike hosts by nature you obeyed / Conquered over both, though born by sex a maid." The Normans saw her as a "warrior woman who deserved fame", but her reputation was lost in favour of King Alfred her father, as later generations preferred to remember his male role. As Ramirez says,

She was a victim not of medieval prejudice, but of modern attitudes towards female leadership. Seeing her as her contemporaries did shows us that women could wield influence, and their voices, now written out of the records, can still be heard.

Ramirez asks us to remember her as "Æthelflæd the Great". As the account of Æthelflæd shows, we should be wary of seeing the Middle Ages as contemporary prejudice implies. Women were often, though not always, celebrated, encouraged and supported. Ramirez makes this point about Hildegard of Bingen who "broke gender barriers, but the encouragement from the men around her suggests we should not only be reviewing our understanding of how women thought and felt in the twelfth century; we should also be turning our attention to the way we view the men of this time." It is a theme of this book that modern prejudices obscure a clear understanding of both women and the wider society they inhabited.

High class women, are more likely to make it into records that survive into modern times, or be buried, like the Viking warrior, in graves that highlight their wealth and power. Even so, picking women out in the historical and archaeological record is difficult. It means that the sections of the chapters were Ramirez explores how we know about these women are important. But this book does not neglect the lower orders. In addition, while the focus is very much on what we would now call Europe, Ramirez also explores how modern research offer insights into a Middle Age world that is significantly more connected than usually thought. For instance, we learn that of the London plague victims whose DNA was studied, 29 percent "were classified as Asian, African or dual heritage. Of these, four women and three men had black African ancestry. One woman had black African/Asian ancestry, but the evidence from her teeth and bones revealed she had grown up in Britain". In other words, Ramirez argues, if you were in medieval London "you could expect to encounter a similarly diverse range of people" as you would today. 

This section of the book also looks at one example of someone who would likely call themselves transgender today, though as Ramirez points out, "retrospectively applying terms that have only recently been defined" is problematic. This woman, Eleanor Rykener, worked as a sex worker and a seamstress, and is one of the few examples we have of someone who was gender nonconformist in the era and whose trial is the only example of a trial of someone that documents "same-sex intercourse". Ramirez explains though that the records show that it was "dishonesty in trading, breaking of curfew... etc.. that were of greater concern... than their gender nonconformity". While only a short part of the book, the chapter on race and gender is perhaps the most fascinating of the whole work.

Femina takes it name from the books that were written by woman and labelled heretical by the Church. It is a profoundly interesting, insightful and readable account - that doesn't simply tells us the forgotten stories of women in the Middle Ages, but locates them in their times and explores how our own present is a "Distant Mirror" with which we can understand or misunderstand the past. It's an excellent work.

Related Reviews

Dyer - Standards of Living in the Later Middle Ages
Dyer - Making a Living in the Middle Ages: The People of Britain 850-1520
Falk - The Light Ages: A Medieval Journey of Discovery
Bolton - The Medieval English Economy 1150 - 1500
Orme - Going to Church in Medieval England
Firnhaber-Baker & Schoenaers - The Routledge History Handbook of Medieval Revolt
Bax - German Society at the Close of the Middle Ages
Frankopan - The Earth Transformed: An Untold History

Tuesday, July 04, 2023

John Dickson Carr - The Eight of Swords

The Eight of Swords is the third of the Dr. Fell series of detective stories written by John Dickson Carr beginning in the 1930s. It begins with Fell returning from America and immediately becoming sucked into representing the Metropolitan Police at an investigation into a Country House murder. His investigation is hampered by an overly enthusiastic, and eccentric, bishop who is convinced he is an expert detective. The murder victim is an oddly named, Septimus Depping who turns out to be anything but the wealthy owner of the country house.

Unfortunately the book suffers from far too many supporting characters and an overly complicated investigation. As is his want, and tradition dictates, Fell does not reveal his insights until the end (though on occasion he does try, only to be interrupted). The story has a secret passage, midnight shootings, a tense scene in a village pub and a red herring tarot card. All these things ought to make for a cracking read, but I found myself bored and confused by the meandering story and unsatisfied by the outcomes. Why did the bishop slide down the bannisters? One for the fans.

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