Friday, June 26, 2009

Career angst and the scholarly life

Academic, Hopeful has a post up this week asking how graduate students should react to the inevitable question “what are you going to do next?” and/or variations on the theme of “why don’t you get a real job?”.

I’m having a hell of a month, just crazy-busy, and this post came close to triggering my own little existential crisis. I’ve come to graduate study as an older student, having already had two other careers. I suspect that because of my age, I've probably missed the boat on the standard academic career trajectory to tenured professor (and given the parlous state of academia these days, I’m not entirely sure it’s a career I would want anyway). The alternatives might be finding a niche in non-tenure-track academia, working as an independent scholar, or even being a genteel lady writer of historically-accurate medieval murder mysteries (I secretly quite fancy this last option).

Generally, people react positively when I tell them I’m doing graduate study until they find out I’m not doing something ‘useful’ like an MBA or a law degree. When I tell them I’m studying history, I’ll be received with bemused silence, a stuttered ‘why are you studying THAT?’, or – perhaps the most irritating response –patronising indulgence, as if I’m engaged in a somewhat eccentric hobby but at least it's keeping me out of trouble.

My personal experience is merely a microcosm. Those of us pursuing Humanities degrees are more likely to be accused of elitist dilettantism by politicians who have become increasingly focused on universities as factories for churning out tomorrow’s happy work-bots, rather than places where the pursuit of knowledge and intellectual freedom are considered as social goods in their own right. Because my main interest is medieval history, I get really prickly at the fact medieval studies often gets a star mention in newspaper articles scoffing at the ‘useless’ things universities are teaching these days. Yes, ‘useless’ things like critical thinking (perhaps politicians would secretly prefer it if the rest of us had less training in this area?), the ability to effectively analyse and synthesise complex information, or the skills to read and research both widely and deeply and then assess all the evidence on its own merits.

I’m fortunate to have earned a scholarship that covers my tuition fees (though who knows how long that will last?), and I also make enough from part-time PR contracting to pay the bills and keep a roof over my head. Without those factors, would I still be pursuing graduate study? I don’t know, and I’m certainly conscious of the financial privilege that makes my current situation viable. But at the same time, I simply can’t imagine being content with an existence where I’m not engaging in a life of the mind that rises above the mundane issues of our day-to-day world.

It’s difficult, daunting, and sometimes-tedious work (formatting references, anyone?), but when I’m doing it, there’s a thrumming inside me, a steady stretching of both cognition and intuition that seems to reverberate through my very centre. To anyone who hasn’t had the experience, it’s difficult to describe the sensation of discovering a single paragraph in 400 pages of text that opens a door in your mind, maybe even utterly changing the way you’ve been looking at the world. Or the secret thrill of finding a group of 600-year-old legal cases that appear – finally! – to confirm a theory you’ve been quietly harbouring for ages. Or the sheer enjoyment of the robust intellectual exercise that is taken tussling over the cracks in someone else’s long-cherished theory.

Rembrandt’s scholar may be a crusty old guy wearing a ruff, but I experience deep sense of empathy when I look at him. Across the gap of centuries, I can sense the cramping in his hand as he takes yet another page of notes, and I can feel the tired itchiness of eyes and a brain that have been tightly focused for hours. In him, I see my own drive to keep reading, keep looking, keep questioning. A drive that can sometimes be stronger than those most basic human needs of sleep and food. A drive provoked by an even deeper fear (certain knowledge that is yet unacknowledged), that my days will run out before my questions do.

That is ‘why’ and that is ‘what comes next’ because for me, it is coterminous with life itself.

* Image: Rembrandt, A Scholar, 1631. The Hermitage, St. Petersburg.

Sunday, June 21, 2009

A veritable medieval feast

The latest edition of Carnivalesque is now up at Food History, featuring an eclectic collection of posts on medieval catering, celebrity executions, maps, manuscripts, marginalia, miracle-making and a sprinkling of good old-fashioned rebellion.

Enjoy! (but my advice to you is not to visit Food History hungry...)

Friday, June 19, 2009

History played for laughs

My chickens are coming home to roost this week as I’m coming to realise how much I have to get done by early September. For school, that includes two research essays and a seminar presentation, and for work a major website project for which I am writing all the content and coordinating the design and development teams (herding cats). Oh, and I need to fit a couple of weeks of skiing in there, too. And it’s nearly the END of JUNE! So it was either turn to drink or find a little light relief.

An article this week on the Blackadder series – “the most successful historical television sitcom yet conceived” – reminded me how much this show made me laugh when it first came out. Here’s a scene from one of my favourite episodes in which, after the murder of Thomas Becket, the king has made his venal and slithering son Prince Edmund Blackadder the Archbishop of Canterbury. Blackadder and his henchmen immediately set about figuring out how they can make some cash out of the gig, and I think their take on the booming late medieval trade in indulgences and false relics would have brought a smile to Geoffrey Chaucer’s lips.

Monday, June 15, 2009

Revolting peasants and 'whores of the devil'

On this day in 1381, the Peasants’ Revolt reached a climax with the meeting between King Richard II and the rebels at Smithfield in London, during which their leader Wat Tyler was killed. Having cut a swathe across southeast England, the revolt’s leaders Wat Tyler, Jack Straw and John Ball, along with thousands of followers (which included people of the yeoman and artisanal classes as well as peasants), had descended on London with the intent of confronting the king. The Anonimalle Chronicle records their demands -
That for the future no man should be in serfdom, nor make any manner of homage or suit to any lord, but should give a rent of 4d an acre for his land. They asked also that no one should serve any man except by his own good will, and on terms of regular covenant.

The focus of the rebels’ ire was not so much the king himself. He was only 14 and, the rebels said,
had been led astray by wicked councillors, chief amongst them the regent John of Gaunt (Richard’s uncle), Chancellor Archbishop Sudbury and the treasurer Sir Robert Hales. Along with demanding and end to villeinage, the rebels wanted these councillors removed from office. Dissatisfied with the king’s response to their stipulations, the rebels had rampaged through the city of London for several days and much destruction, looting and killing ensued. The Fleet and Newgate prisons were broken open, John of Gaunt’s Savoy Palace was burnt, Sudbury and Hales were executed, and the rebels raided the Tower of London itself.

The Peasants’ Revolt and its social, political, cultural and economic contexts makes for highly productive research partly because a rich vein of sources survives that enables in-depth study from diverse perspectives. The written evidence alone includes tax records, legal statutes, trial records from multiple jurisdictions, writs of inquiry, petitions, the Rolls of Parliament, and the detailed pardons issued by the king after the event. Several chroniclers have also left us na
rrative accounts of varying reliability.

There is still much debate about the deeper long-term causes of the rebellion, but most scholars agree that the imposition of a third poll tax on a population already paying heavily for unsuccessful foreign wars was the immediate spark that caused diffuse grumblings and isolated rioting to ignite into organised insurrection. The revolt has been the subject of historical analysis from broadly socio-economic, political and religious perspectives but for me, another interesting aspect emerges when it is viewed through the lens of gender.

While most historical accounts up until the 1980s (at least) discuss the revolt as an almost wholly male enterprise, source documents including trial records and pardons show women were very much active participants, and even instigators and organisers of rebellion.
At left, for example, is an extract from a commission of Oyer and Terminer (‘hear and determine’) held in Essex directly after the revolt to seek out those responsible. Amongst the people accused of riding armed through the countryside and inciting the commons to rise against the king is one “Nichola Cartere who was lately taken as wife by William Dekne of South Benfleet”*. In another case, records from the court of King’s Bench describe Johanna Ferrour as the “chief perpetrator and leader” of a rebel group from Kent who burnt the Savoy and executed Sudbury and Hales**.

For me, these accounts raise a whole swag of questions about women as active agents in insurrection. Just for starters, on what grounds did they claim their authority to lead men in an armed conflict and why were men apparently willing to follow them? Were they acting alone or as part of a couple or family group? Were their motivations personal (vengeance and/or monetary gain) or broadly idealistic/political? How did officials react to their challenge, and was this reaction different in regards to women rebels versus men rebels?

The chronicles of the revolt also use distinctly gendered language to frame the rebellion. Thomas
Walsingham, for example, describes the rebels as “whores of the devil”, and language that represents rebellion through images of out-of-control women appears throughout the other chronicles and official accounts. This doesn’t so much reflect the writers’ preoccupation with actual women as rebels as it does the common medieval association of threats of political and social disorder with a peculiarly feminine sexual disorder. In this sense, while women as individual actors may have been largely absent from medieval sources for political history, the feminine was very much present in discourses about power.

In another example from the Walsingham chronicle, the king’s mother Joan of Kent (sister-in-law and influential supporter of the hated John of Gaunt) suffers what reads uncomfortably like a metaphorical rape when the rebels invade her bedroom*. They “search the most secret places there at their wicked will”, lay on a bed and demand that Joan kisses them, and drive their swords into the bedclothes in gestures that are unmistakably phallic. The king’s men (and by association, the king) seem helpless in the face of this masculine sexual aggression, and stand by passively while the rebels stroke “and lay their uncouth and sordid hands on the beards of several most noble knights”. This gendered discourse emerges again in the tracts and documents that advocated and justified Richard II’s deposition in 1399.

What do these representations of rebellion tell us about the dynamics of gender and power in late medieval England? There seem to be oppositional ideas at work here that that connect conceptualisations of the masculine and feminine to political ideology that defines and shapes the legitimate and illegitimate exercise of authority (although anything more than a cursory look reveals complexities that go well beyond these simple binaries). Histories that approach the Peasants’ Revolt from traditional political or socio-economic perspectives that overlook the role of women and dismiss gender as a valid frame for analysis risk missing the opportunity to create a greater depth of understanding of how discourses of gender and sexuality shaped (and continue to shape) political ideology and practice.

Image: The rebel leaders John Ball (on horseback) and Wat Tyler meet outside London, from a late 15th century edition of Froissart’s Chronicle.

* From the permanent online exhibit at the British National Archives.
** On this and other cases involving women as perpetrators and leaders of the revolt, see Sylvia Federico, “The imaginary society : women in 1381”.
*** On this incident and its wider implications, see Mark Ormrod, “In bed with Joan of Kent: The king’s mother and the Peasants’ Revolt”.

Friday, June 12, 2009

Medieval women and the myth of illiteracy

An intriguing manuscript recently surfaced in the Biblioteca Nazionale in Naples that sheds new light on the reading abilities and habits of women in late medieval England. The manuscript, which was serendipitously unearthed by Canadian scholar James Weldon while he was looking for something else entirely, has attracted some attention from the mainstream media*. This article rather flippantly describes the manuscript as a ‘medieval women’s magazine’, composed as it is of a varied collection of ‘articles’ (if you will) on topics of supposed feminine interest – as the subhead puts it, ‘Canadian researcher discovers historic document filled with romance and recipes’. The anthology is written in Middle English and includes extracts from a variety of different sources, including medicinal recipes, household tips, romances and a saint's life.

The Naples manuscript is a rare example of vernacular literature that appears to be aimed at a secular female readership, and as such is a pretty interesting find in itself. But what also interests me are the reader comments at the end of the newspaper article. Overall, they reflect the popular belief that most people in the Middle Ages were illiterate, and that literacy was a privilege almost exclusive to male secular and clerical elites. This assumption has led some scholars astray when it comes to considering the contribution women – especially non-aristocratic women – could have made to the literary culture of late medieval England, and it has produced interpretations that dismiss works purportedly by women as the work of men writing under pseudonyms.

Such has been the case with The Book of Margery Kempe (1430s), which many a scholar has argued was entirely the creative production of male scribes (I talked a bit about their varying interpretations in a previous post). At the start of her book, Margery describes herself as illiterate and thus entirely reliant on her priestly collaborators, but this statement cannot be read as transparent. On one level, it operates to place her within an orthodox tradition of women’s mystical experience recorded and transmitted by male clerics. In this respect, Margery’s ‘illiteracy’ serves an important strategic function by shielding her from charges of heresy, which at this time was strongly associated with women’s ability to read the Bible in vernacular English.

When I started doing some research on the Book, I discovered another interesting angle a
round the concept of 'literacy' (which incidentally gave me a good reminder about not applying modern categories and definitions to analysis of the past). I'd approached the problem of Margery’s authorship by first asking the question, ‘given Margery’s social background and family history (as she tells it herself and from what we know based on other records), how probable is it that she would have truly been functionally illiterate?’. To answer this question, I was initially thinking broadly in terms of a 21st century standard of illiteracy – roughly, the inability to read and write at a basic level that allows one to function in society.

However, with a bit more research, I discovered that this definition becomes quite misleading when applied to the later Middle Ages. To be ‘literate’ during this period meant to be ‘Latinate’ – to have the skills to read and write in Latin. These were skills almost exclusively reserved to men, particularly as the developing university system excluded women and tied Latinity to a clerical education. But at the same time, English culture was undergoing a transition to the vernacular. Strong growth in lay piety was creating demand for works of devotion and meditation written in English and this drove a corresponding expansion in the ability to read in English. Alongside this trend, technological advances like the replacement of parchment with paper and the development of methods for bulk book production were making books cheaper and more accessible to the urban merchant and trading classes.

The women of these classes were generally capable of at least the basics of reading and writing in English – enough to enable them to pursue their religious devotions (and possibly educate their children and servants), run households, and work in family businesses. Far from being illiterate, by the 14th century they had emerged as a distinctive group of book owners, something we know by the number of books accounted for in their wills. The discovery of the Naples manuscript is a timely reminder that we need to leave behind old-fashioned assumptions about just how 'dark' the 'dark ages' really were, and instead look more deeply into the many ways women of all classes – not just the aristocratic elite – were participating in cultural production and reproduction during this period.

Image: The gisant of Alienor d'Aquitaine at the Abbaye Royale de Fontevraud. She is depicted reading rather than in the more usual pose of hands piously folded in prayer.

* Props to jliedl for the original link

Sunday, June 7, 2009

Lessons for girls: If you don't ask, you don't get

I’ve been prompted to add my own contribution to the Lessons for Girls meme kicked off by Historiann by some new research on gender and pay (in)equity. The research on the technology sector shows that even in this relatively new industry, which you might expect to be free of the shackles of historically embedded gender inequities, women still earn on average $5,000 less than men in jobs where in all other respects (skills, experience, qualifications) they are on an equal footing.

Why is this? One reason is that in a competitive world, if you don’t ask for something – or even vociferously demand it – you’re not going to get it. And it seems that too many women simply don’t ask.

AbsoluteIT director Grant Burley says the extent of the difference between the earning power of men and women – approximately $5,000 – was a surprise. He puts it down to the fact women don’t always negotiate as aggressively as men when they’re offered jobs.
“As a recruitment firm, we see evidence of that – when job offers are made, there’s less bargaining from female candidates”.

When we are less assertive than men in our pay negotiations, it may only make a small initial difference between what we earn and what our male colleagues earn. But that small difference gets magnified over time when annual raises or bonuses are based on a percentage of base salary. Dr Crazy recently ran some numbers for academia which showed how big the gap in salaries can become over the long term when women don’t hold out for what they want (and deserve) early in their careers.

So why don’t we women put more monetary value on what we bring to the workplace? As a girl, I was brought up to take what I was given without complaint, so when I started working, I believed that asking for more made me ungrateful and greedy. I thought that if I displayed a forthright interest in money, it would be seen as a sign of flawed character and might even prompt my potential employer to withdraw their offer in distaste. It was many years before I got past the unspoken conviction that bargaining for higher pay was somehow classless and, dare I say it, ‘unladylike’. I hope you can learn from my mistakes.

When you get that job offer, don’t immediately say yes. Don’t take the first offer on the table out of unwarranted gratitude for even being considered for the role. And don’t fall into the trap of thinking, ‘they really want me, but they’ve said they can’t afford to offer me more’. You are always worth more than their first offer and they expect you to negotiate. If you had a Y chromosome, you’d bargain as a matter of course. Consider your many talents, your experience, the qualifications you worked so hard to attain. And then ASK FOR MORE. Believe me, you would if you were a man. And if you don’t, nobody is going to just up and give it to you.

Money is not inherently dirty and it is not a character flaw in women to want more of it (within reason – I’m not saying we should start channelling Gordon Gekko). Asking to be properly remunerated for what you do doesn’t make you arrogant or selfish or greedy. Dealing fairly but firmly in pay negotiations does not make you an aggressive bitch. It makes you smart.

Updated: This post sparked some lively discussion over at Historiann and at The Chronicle of Higher Education - check out the comment threads.

Oh, and in case anyone thinks I believe that all it takes to close the pay gap is for women to get better at salary negotiation, here's a refresher on pay equity and patriarchal equilibrium.

Thursday, June 4, 2009

Silencing and the sexual slur

Last month, I wrote about the issue of gendering public space and how tactics used to constrain and silence people in the physical world have emerged in the online world, often in distinctly gendered forms. I had a number of replies, both in the comments here and via email, recounting personal experiences of this. I also received this comment:
For better or for worse, crude sexualised insults are part of the blogosphere's vernacular... The correctness or otherwise of insisting on sanitised discourse is worth pondering.

And ponder I did. Was I being a hopeless idealist? Or simply talking out of my ass? (My commenter, who is an IRL friend, would probably vouch for the latter and then prescribe a calming glass of pinot gris). Perhaps I didn’t make my point clearly enough, leading my commenter to assume I’m advocating some sort of censorship. I’m not. Quite the opposite, in fact. I understand very well that censorship has always been the servant of political, social and cultural oppression. But when people scorn a valid argument or silence the speaker by using humiliation or intimidation, or by wilfully misrepresenting what was said, that is a form of censorship, albeit an informal one. What else can it be called when power is deliberately wielded to deter others from voicing their opinions or beliefs, whether the forum is real or virtual?

Maybe it’s my naturally rebellious side, but I’m also bothered by the notion that just because something exists (crude sexualised insults in the blogosphere) that is the way it must be and we should all just lump it. Crude sexualised insults used to be much
more widely accepted as part of normal workplace culture, too. They function as a way to police boundaries and enforce hierarchy, and things only change because people get to the point where they refuse to passively accept it, “like it or not”.

Passive acceptance is what enables a mass media culture (I almost wrote ‘ass media’ there – Freudian slip much??) that is governed by the lowest common denominator, where intellect is openly mocked and political debate is reduced to facile sound bites and vacuous rhetoric. Really, how low does the lowest common denominator need to get before we stop placidly tolerating it? Frankly, I’m with Howard Beale: "I'm mad as hell, and I'm not going to take this anymore!"

Let me be clear here. I’m not talking about common or garden variety swearing (to object to that would make me a hypocrite of the highest order). Nor am I offended by sexual banter per se: It can be plenty of fun to indulge in when it’s exchanged between people operating on a basis of equal power and mutual consent. But sexualised language becomes more problematic when it’s used to construct and perpetuate unequal relationships of power. The sexual slur has always played a potent role in political and social discourse because it is so effective at achieving this end. As one demonstration this effectiveness, consider the scandalous, scurrilous and downright pornographic pamphlets produced about Marie Antoinette and other hated representatives of the ancien regime. Their accusations and lurid portrayals were generally ludicrous (and frequently physically impossible except on the part of a contortionist – or maybe I’m just not as flexible as I used to be). But this highly sexualised polemic, particularly that directed against the queen, played a critical strategic role in the French Revolution and, especially, in The Terror of 1793-4*.

All of this is to say that the sexual epithet is rarely transparent or simple. It carries with it a host of deeper claims – often the unconscious products of gender, race and/or class privilege – about who can and cannot hold power.

When we bridle at such usage, either online or in the real world, we’re usually told to let it slide or that we should ‘lighten up’ and ‘get a sense of humour’. Sometimes, ignoring it or walking away is the best course of action, especially when it’s an argument you know you can’t win (cue the old adage about refusing to engage in a battle of wits with an unarmed opponent). But not always. Sometimes we need to expose and confront the claims that inhere in sexualised insults, to refuse to brush them off as ‘just jokes’. Sometimes, we need to challenge ourselves to think more deeply about the potency of language to create and define our realities. And then we need to ask ourselves if those are the realities within which we truly want to exist.

* For more on this, check out the excellent book Marie Antoinette: Writings on the Body of a Queen