Saturday, September 26, 2009

Bridling the scold, or women’s speech silenced

I’ve been doing some research this month for an encyclopedia entry I’m writing on the ritual of the ‘skimmington’ or ‘skimmington ride’ in early modern England. The skimmington was a form of community censure that in England was primarily aimed at women who transgressed gender norms by dominating or beating their husbands, a transgression that was generally assumed to go hand-in-hand with female sexual infidelity.

Accounts of skimmington rituals tend to be embedded in broader analyses of patriarchal authority and social order during the sixteenth and seventeenth centuries, and so the material I’ve been looking for has often appeared alongside discussion of other gendered constructions of crime and punishment, such as the use of the cucking stool to punish women accused of ‘scolding’ and whoring. In a strong strand of continuity from the medieval period
, such censure persistently conflated uncontrolled or unruly female speech with female sexual disorder, with both forms of specifically female ‘sinfulness’ perceived as threats to proper patriarchal authority and social hierarchy. (Lydia Boose, in the article ‘Scolding Brides and Bridling Scolds: Taming the Woman’s Unruly Member’*, introduces an intriguing reading of the unruly female tongue – represented in the ‘scold’ – as an unauthorised appropriation of phallic authority which carries with it the implicit threat of male castration and a usurpation of man’s ‘natural right’ to rule.)

Anyway, I’d been reading through all this material with my usual sense of intellectual curiosity coupled with relative emotional detachment until I ran across a detailed account on the use of the ‘scold’s bridle’ or ‘brank’, a particularly nasty piece apparatus that emerges in records of the late sixteenth century as a tool of coercion to enforce women’s silence. The bridle was a metal contraption that covered or encircled the woman’s head and incorporated an iron bar or ‘gag’ to hold her tongue down, thus preventing speech. The association of the unruly woman with a horse that needs breaking is obvious, and no doubt part of the punishment was the shame of being reduced to the status of an animal.

A woman accused of scolding – basically, any form of unsanctioned female speech that was perceived as unruly or disruptive – had this vicious device forcibly shoved into her mouth and locked around her head. She was then subjected to the ritualised public humiliation of being led or dragged
through the town, tied up in the public square and pelted with rubbish and excrement, urinated on, and otherwise mocked and degraded. In parts of England, there is also some evidence to indicate that a husband could have his wife bridled and tied up to a hook embedded beside the fireplace in their home.

Scold’s bridles took various forms, but their general design is such that at the least, they would inflict a measure of pain and discomfort. Some versions, which featured spikes or rasps on the gag part that is inserted into the woman’s mouth, would clearly inflict severe pain and damage. A 1653 account from Newcastle talks of a woman being led through the town with blood pouring from her mouth; other accounts allude to teeth being broken or wrenched out, and even of jawbones and cheekbones being cracked. A perilously high price to pay for the ‘sin’ of voicing an opinion.

I found these descriptions of the scold’s bridle and its use – numerous of which have been preserved by various nineteenth century antiquarians and folklorists** – deeply unsettling to my normal scholarly sang-froid. In fact, I found them downright chilling. I felt both nauseated and enraged at the extent of physical violation and psychological degradation women may be subjected to in order to enforce a suitably meek and silent feminine demeanour in the face of male authority. When women today express what is often trivialised or dismissed as ‘unreasonable’ or ‘irrational’ anger at attempts to silence them, I think it’s against history such as this that their anger should be read.

* Lynda E. Boose, ‘Scolding Brides and Bridling Scolds: Taming the Woman's Unruly Member’, Shakespeare Quarterly 42, no. 2 (1991): 179-213.

** Boose includes descriptions from an 1858 account by one T. N. Brushfield of the Chester Archaeological society, and reproduces some of the drawings he made of devices he had turned up in places including women’s work houses and mental institutions. It adds another layer of horror to the history of these devices that by the eighteenth century, although they had largely fallen out of use for the public punishment of mouthy women, they appear to have found a new home amongst the tools of coercion and control behind the walls of state-run institutions wherein were incarcerated some of society’s most marginal and vulnerable members.

The images are from 1899’s Bygone Punishments by William Andrews , which draws on Brushfield’s earlier work.

ETA: After I posted this, I remembered a podcast I listened to recently featuring Martin Rediker talking about his book The Slave Ship: A Human History (great book, by the way. I thoroughly recommend it). While I’d previously understood on an intellectual level what he meant when he was talking about how personally draining doing this sort of history is, it wasn’t until I read the material on the scold’s bridles that I really understood at a visceral, emotional level what the cost of doing this type of ‘history from below’ – the history of the poor and despised, the marginal and the silenced – can potentially be.

Thursday, September 17, 2009

Just write, damn you!

So it seems I’m not the only one who’s engaged in a grim battle to write at the moment. Academic, Hopeful is trying to wrestle the thesis into submission. Clio Bluestocking has writer’s block (though she phrases it rather better as “I cannot get to the place where I keep the words.”). Fait Attention is writing the ‘why this happened’ chapter, and finding historical explanation is never as simple and straightforward as it may at first seem. And Notorious PhD reflects on writing as an act of defiant optimism in the face of the sterile corporatisation of education.

As for me, I got nuttin’. My word count for the day – hell, my word count for the month! – is a big fat goose egg. I can’t figure out why I’m not into full on panic mode at the moment, because I have a major essay due on Monday and no sign of even a shitty first draft yet. Oh, I have lots of notes, both in Word and scrawled on various index cards and sheets of paper (many of which are currently drifting aimlessly around the legs of my sofa. My feet are up on the coffee table so they can’t pounce on me and assert their demands to be immediately organised into their rightful paragraphs.) I even have a very detailed outline, including a bunch of quotes and citations I want to use, which is derived from a recent seminar presentation on this very essay topic.

But despite having all the groundwork in place, I’ve been finding all sorts of ways to procrastinate the act of writing. I’ve formatted up some references I have no real intention of using (for some bizarre reason, my institution does not use any of the standard citation models in EndNote but has its very own, unique-in-all-the-world reference system, so I always have to fiddle about with adding commas in the right places and other such pointless activities). I’ve read a completely extraneous book chapter that I know will add nothing to my overall argument but simply re-states information for which I’ve already got better citations. I’ve taken the pup for several walks even he doesn’t need. (Who knew ten-month-old puppies actually don’t have a boundless supply of energy?)

I’ve been alternately kicking myself around the house yelling, “just write, damn you!”, and falling into zen-like states wherein I manage to convince myself that inspiration will come when the time is right, and when it does, the words will flow “like water my friend”. Academic, Hopeful’s post backs me up with the advice, “Don't worry about finding inspiration. It comes eventually.” But if that’s the case, it better hurry the hell up!

Bruce Lee advises, “You must be like water, my friend.”

Tuesday, September 15, 2009

On the moral responsibility of the historian

(and other such heavy-duty ponderings...)

I’ve just been on another residential seminar at the university for the paper I’m taking in Advanced Historiography. Basically, this is the study of how historical knowledge is generated and transmitted, and incorporating a soupçon of methodology and a tasty portion of philosophy. This is a required paper for postgraduate students and a number of my classmates were having a good old moan about it, expressing the desire to just do history, without having to think about how and why they’re doing it the particular way they’ve chosen to do it.

To each their own and all that, but I’m actually really enjoying this paper. I’ve discovered some interesting (if sometimes irritatingly pompous) late-nineteenth and early twentieth century writers that I probably wouldn’t have read otherwise, and I’ve gained a better insight into French culture and politics by engaging with the work of the Annales school. In particular, I’m really enjoying wrestling with poststructuralist approaches history, in both their ‘standard’ and overtly feminist guises.

Poststructuralism’s challenges to the claims empirically grounded knowledge are inherently and deliberately destabilising, so they make many people (including most of my classmates at this seminar) deeply uncomfortable. And, as usually happens when people start questioning the possibility of eliciting objective truths about the past or questioning the politics involved in creating knowledge, it’s not long before the phrase ‘moral relativism’ gets an airing, closely followed by a reference to the David Irving case.

Fear not, I’m not about to get into the ins and outs of that story here. But what interested me when we discussed the case in class were the questions raised about whether historians have some sort of moral responsibility in society (over and above their responsibilities as professional scholars). Lord Acton, Cambridge Regius professor and first editor of the Cambridge Modern History, certainly thought so, advocating “it is the office of historical science to maintain morality as the sole impartial criterion of men and things.” (Incidentally, he was also the guy who said “Power tends to corrupt, and absolute power corrupts absolutely,” in a debate over whether popes and kings should be judged by the same standards as us mere mortals.)

The question of the historian’s moral role is one I find somewhat difficult to resolve myself. For a start, it’s much easier to suspend moral judgement and remain neutral when it comes to issues and actions in the distant past – whether or not Richard II betrayed the people after the Peasants' Revolt, for example – than it is when it comes to much more recent historical debates, in which there seems to be much more at stake for those of us living now.

When this discussion came up during our seminar, I was also struck by the question of ‘whose morals?’ At first, there seemed to be an implicit assumption amongst the other students that we all shared a common moral standard, broadly based on a Judeo-Christian belief system. When I pointed out I was not a Christian – indeed, that I didn’t believe in any god – that created a plenty of consternation. It seems to be a widely held belief that if you don’t at some level believe in a god (and in my experience, the assumption generally seems to be a Christian god), you have nothing on which to base your morality. (And as an aside, I find it deeply strange that people feel they’re free to talk to me about going to church, god etc., but if I say I’m an atheist, they get very uncomfortable all of a sudden. It’s a real conversation-stopper.)

I find the idea that you can’t be moral without a god to be bizarre, and frankly, a bit offensive. But then I end up struggling to find some philosophical position from which to argue for a fundamental human morality that doesn’t require god as an enforcer. I tend to end up with three options. The first is that humans are naturally and inherently altruistic (perhaps we could call this the Jean-Jacques Rousseau theory), but frankly, looking at the world around me (and human actions throughout history), I have some trouble really accepting this. The second is what I guess falls into the category of evolutionary theory, whereby we assume that humans, as social animals, can only survive by helping each other more often than we hurt each other. This seems a bit too essentialist to me, and doesn’t leave much room for individual or group agency, or for any higher ideals above purely survival of the species. It also smacks of sociobiology, which I’m keen to avoid like the plague for all sorts of political and practical reasons.

So finally, I’m left with falling back on the values of liberal, secular humanism, but I recognise that these ideals are historical products of the Enlightenment and post-Enlightenment west. I’m also aware that while on the surface, they may seem
(at least to many of us in the west) flawless in theory, if not in practice, their history means they carry their own problematic meanings and associations.

Eh, I guess I’ll be pondering this for a good long while, and may even resort to reading something like this. (Though the reviews aren't that promising. Any other suggestions most welcome!)

In the meantime, I think I'll leave the last word to Ricky in Trailer Park Boys: “I’m not a pessimist, I’m an optometrist.”

(And if this post made your head hurt, here's some more Rickyisms to alleviate the strain.)

Friday, September 11, 2009

Lest we remember

I’m back from holiday and for my sins, this week I’m puppy-sitting while the pup’s owners head off on their holiday. This morning, I took the beastie for one of our favourite walks around the neighbourhood, taking in the local war memorial. The memorial sits on top of a hill, tucked into a little patch of grass and bush off the road. It has a great view over the harbour and city, so I usually stop there for a few minutes and enjoy the scenery while the pup has a bit of a run in the grass.

Pretty much every town in New Zealand has one of these 1914 – 1918 memorials. In the smaller provincial towns, it’s sobering to see how many of the soldiers listed have the same surnames and to reflect on the impact their loss must have had on their families and communities. My local memorial is no different, and the list of the dead usually elicits in me a certain wistfulness. But today, for some reason, I was struck instead by the standard war memorial admonition, ‘Lest we forget’.

Lest we forget? I think it may be more apt to say ‘Lest we remember’. While the memorials keep us focused on a romanticised image of the flower of the country’s youth falling heroically in some foreign field, we can avoid remembering the greed, egotism, racism and vicious nationalism (on all sides) that fuels most wars. And we can avoid remembering darker legacies, like domestic internment or the systematic rape and other crimes perpetrated against civilian populations as part of the ‘collateral damage’ of victory.

Then there are the smaller domestic tragedies. The children fathered by servicemen on leave who were left unacknowledged and unsupported, and were sometimes shunned by their communities for their illegitimacy. The children who were sent away from their homes in places like Belfast and London to protect them from the bombing, but who ended up in rural foster homes where they were neglected, abused, and worked like slave labour. Or even the simple, gnawing want created by a war machine that sucked up almost all available resources and made rationing a way of life, not just during the conflict but for years after it.

It was only after I finished writing this post that I realised what day it is today. I expect that the news and documentary channels will be running their usual mix of commemorative programmes and exposés of terrorism. We’ll be asked not to forget the civilian lives lost on September 11, and the US and British soldiers who’ve died since in this futile ‘war on terror’.

But I don’t expect we’ll be called upon to remember the dead and maimed amongst the Iraqi civilian population (including those raped and/or murdered by their ‘liberators’), or to remember the many private interests who have profited from this latest war to the tune of billions. And I don't expect we'll be asked to remember, or even think about, how our own fear of a Muslim 'other' who is not and can never be 'like us' prevents us from searching for any solution that doesn't involve either conquest or assimilation.

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

There's an Aussie in my soup

I’ve just realised I missed posting anything for the entire month of August. It’s partly because I was just too damned busy at the start of the month finishing off some projects before I could go on holiday for three weeks. I’ve been in the beautiful South Island town of Wanaka, enjoying some great skiing and snowboarding and a lot of excellent Otago pinot noir and pinot gris.

The only problem this year is the very noticeable infestation (I know I shouldn’t put it like that, b
ut I can’t really think of a better term) of Australians. Kevin Rudd’s stimulus package – Australian taxpayers got an average of about $1000 each to help kick-start the Australian economy – back-fired somewhat as they’re all over here, spending it in the New Zealand economy. And while the local businesses here are loving the cash injection, sadly there are suddenly queues at Treble Cone, where we used to be able to ski all day without ever having to wait to get on a chairlift. Saturday was an awesome blue sky powder day (photo below for your edification) but the wait to get on the chairlift was 20 minutes.

[Warning: What could be construed as a wee tiny rant follows.]

Worse, most of the Aussies I’ve encountered on this trip (to be fair, mostly young white men) confirm the stereotype: br
ash, loud, excruciatingly nasal accent; arrogant; somewhat racist. Extremely (uncomfortably) sexist. Also, completely dangerous yobs on snowboards. The kind that think it’s hilarious to race through the beginners area cutting so close to the already-shaky novices they make them startle and fall down.

On the plus side, there are also lots of French people here this year, so I’ve been able to get some practice at conversation. They seem delighted that anyone local would attempt to speak to them in their own language. Odd when you think about it, because most native English-speakers seem to take it for granted that the locals will converse with them in English when they visit France. Oh, and in general, the Frenchies’ opinion of the Aussies they’ve encountered has not been much better than mine. As one Frenchman put it to me, “They seem to lack…how you say…civilisation?”

I know this post lacked anything whatsoever to do with history, but I’m heading home tomorrow so it will be back to regular programming after that. Also, back to catching up on the many blog posts I’ve missed this last month that have now stacked up to terrifying proportions in
my Google Reader.

I've been told this is the best view from a ski field anywhere in the world.