Monday 1 August 2016

Popular Media and Gay People in the Past

So last week I saw The Lion in Winter (1968) for the first time. It was ace, I fully recommend you check it out.

Spoiler: The Lion in Winter (in 1968!) contains a scene which discusses the sexual history of the (characters of) Richard the Lionheart and King Philippe of France. With each other.

Once I picked my jaw up off the floor (1968!) I started wondering. Is there any historical basis for that? Are we looking at an Edward II situation or did this entirely come from the playwright's imagination? So, I did what any self-respecting PhD student would do. I googled "Richard the lionheart gay" and here's what I got:

Screenshot of the google search "Richard the Lionheart Gay"  the headlines are listed below

These headlines are: 
"Why Richard I Shared his Bed with the King of France" (The Guardian)
"Richard I of England" (the ubiquitous Wikipedia)
"Phillip II Augustus and Richard The Lionheart, 1187" (legacy.fordham,edu)
"Guest Author Richard Warren Field: Was Richard the Lionheart Gay?" (
"Richard I Slept with French King "But Not Gay" " (quotes original- The Telegraph)

The next link, just off the page, is from Gay Heroes "Richard the Lionhearted" [sic].

It's not my intention here to discuss whether Richard was gay, but rather to discuss responses to the assertion the he was, or wasn't, gay in popular media like these blogs and newspapers. He's an example, not the subject. My critique, as far as I'm aware, transferable to modern queer scholarship in history. They're probably way way way ahead of me, and that's fine. I address only popular media and popular historical imagination with this post.

So, background. Looking for gay people (or same-sex attraction) in the past is a tricky thing. All the sources we deal with are almost entirely hostile (for the history of Western Europe, that is). Western Europe was, seemingly, a pretty homophobic place. To find our evidence, we're often looking at court cases (See, for instance, chapter 1 in Sodomy and the Pirate Tradition by B.R. Burg, which is based entirely on 17th century court records); or defamations (e.g. almost everything Tacitus had to say about Nero); or inferences (Contemporary writer Roger de Hoveden says of Richard and Philippe "and at night their beds did not separate them"). We extrapolate, as people have done from Richard's lack of children with his lawful wife, or this Roger de Hoveden passage. It's necessary for us to do this because no-one would have written down "The king was homosexual", even had they mentally framed it that way.

Unfortunately, like all history, we can look at this through a variety of lenses. If you're looking for gay people in the past, you might say all this is very convincing and attempts to explain them away are merely homophobic. But others might argue the evidence is cherry picked: sodomy was often added to a long list of other charges, especially where divorce was concerned. Tacitus is literally trying to smear Nero, we can kind of assume he'd exaggerate things (or hope so... otherwise some really horrible things were done to unfortunate bystanders). And this Roger de Hoveden statement? The full passage reads:

Richard, [then] duke of Aquitaine, the son of the king of England, remained with Philippe, the King of France, who so honoured him for so long that they ate every day at the same table and from the same dish, and at night their beds did not separate them. And the king of France loved him as his own soul; and they loved each other so much that the king of England was absolutely astonished and the passionate love between them and marvelled at it.
(Please note that this is a translation and the original does not necessarily preserve the difference between "bed" and "bedchamber").

To the "objective" (and here read "straight and/or not interested in same-sex attraction in the past or the present") writer, it's obvious that queer commentators are reaching, and reaching a lot, in order to make these judgements. They point out that much of the evidence is circumstantial or inferential. They say, correctly, that cultural context is really, really important. Kings on the move in the 12th century didn't take that much with them; servants often slept on the king's floor. Maybe Richard literally had no other bed to put Philippe in, and so shared his own in a diplomatic gesture. This isn't too farfetched, after all. To those observers, we're the ones putting our "gay agenda" onto the past by insisting Richard was gay because he had no children with his wife (and actual argument that has been made).

The sad part is... they're not entirely wrong. Writing queer history is a political act. Queering the past is a political act. We can't, and shouldn't forget that. But the uncomfortable thing, and this is a bit unpopular, as opinions about sexuality go, I don't think homosexuality has always existed. By that I mean, the concept of a person who only and always experiences attraction towards someone of the same gender, has probably not always existed. After all, our concepts of gender are actually very fluid when we really look at them, historically, so it seem ludicrous to assume that sexuality would be fixed as concepts. This is not to say that there were no individuals who only experienced same-sex attraction, merely that they weren't perceived as a category. The binary (and obviously incorrect, and yet seeming impenetrable) conception of gay/straight is totally inapplicable to the past. If you're bi and you read any of those links, I imagine you're tearing your hair out. I know I was.
Let's look at two of the academic arguments made about Richard's sexuality:

John Harvey, 1948, was the first author to suggest Richard was gay, citing his late marriage, their lack of children, the confession of sins which may have included sodomy (it's unclear whether Sodom had acquired its association with gay male sex by this time), and the fact that he was rebuked by the papacy for not sleeping with his wife.

John Gillingham, 1999, pointed out that Richard was busy, like crusading and stuff, so maybe that's why he was too busy to have children with his wife. He had at least one illegitimate child, and maybe just didn't like his wife that much. Political marriages were often unhappy. Also, possibly she was infertile.

Like... seriously? We're seriously trying to deduce a person's sexuality (in modern terms) based on whether or not they liked their wife?! Is this either here or there when considering whether a person experienced or acted on same-sex attraction? This is the kind of category error I'm thinking of, when I say the modern idea of gay vs straight is inapplicable. You can't argue someone never had sex with someone of the same gender just because they had children.

It seems obvious to me, and every queer scholar I've ever spoken to, that same-sex attraction has always existed but that the ways in which it is codified have not. It's time popular media caught up. 

Or is it? Is there value in the political labelling of a historical person as gay? It is more important that we, the not-straight people of the world, are perceived to have a history, which at present is reflected most strongly through the lens of GAY? Am I making the history of queer people less visible with my insistence on nuance? Answers on the back of a postcard

Wednesday 11 May 2016

The Author Believes… The Academic Voice and Expressing Yourself.

In December, I attended a University workshop entitled “Does My Research Make Sense to You? Plain English for Research Communications”. The point of this seminar was to help us learn how to interact with the public and other non-specialists. Because, of course, four, five, even six years of academia had completely ruined our ability to write, and to a lesser extent speak, like a normal human being.  My supervisor particularly recommended I take this workshop as I am going to be speaking about archaeology to lots of chemists, and about chemistry to a lot of archaeologists. Academics may not speak the same language as the rest of us, you see, but nor do they speak the same language as each other.

What is academic language?
Academic language is, broadly speaking, the rhetorical style adopted by people in academia in order to write papers and books and speak at conferences and be accepted into the academic community. It is broadly characterised by formality and, to a lesser extent, archaism. It also attempts to sound objective and, in theory, sensibly structured. This language can range wildly. Let’s consider:
“The ageing data for each of the main taxa are presented in the form of mortality distributions” (Jennings et al 2004: 125)
“It would be more than satisfactory to classify the civitas centres into groups by the periods and rates at which they grew, and the pattern suggested is comparatively simple, based on the status and development of areas in the LPRIA [Late Pre-Roman Iron Age]” (Millett, 1990: 85).
These come from books I pulled off my shelves almost at random; the former is a site report and the latter a very influential monograph. Taking Martin Millett’s sentence, it seems fairly straightforward, if a bit wordy. You might struggle if you don’t know what a civitas centre is (an important administrative town) but the general gist is probably clear, if (of course) you’re used to reading words like “satisfactory” and “comparatively”, and sentences with stacked clauses. Most of the readers of my blog are, since I write like that too, but let’s remember that this is still a level above what many people can manage.
The first quote, however, is more difficult, if you lack the requisite vocabulary

What is jargon?
“Jargon” is one of those words that is generally only used as a pejorative. In a book section about jargon, one of my old lecturers wrote “Our specialised technical terms are of course indispensable for a proper understanding of the subject” (Morley, 1999: 122), intending to highlight the unspoken parallel: but their jargon is meant to obfuscate. In the  Jennings et al. example, though, I think their “jargon” is justified.  “Taxa” refers to the various species recorded, but includes within it the recognition that sheep and goats are almost impossible to tell apart from their bones, and are included as the same category. A mortality distribution is a graph showing when the animals were killed/ died. As population data, this might indicate whether a herd was kept for meat, labour, milk or wool, for instance. Here, their technical terms form part of a discussion of the animal remains, which is a very specialist subject with protocols and methodologies of their own. We wouldn’t expect their work to be readily understandable to a lay person on a first read, and nor should we.
But what about words with more than one meaning? Often, jargon comes from an instance when an academic wanted to apply an idea from outside the discipline to a problem within it. For instance, Chris Tilley (1994) and phenomemology. Wikipedia says that
“In archaeologyphenomenology applies to the use of sensory experiences to view and interpret an archaeological site or cultural landscape.”
But the Wiki philosophical definition is 
"the study of the structures of experience and consciousness
Which. You can see that they’re related but they clearly don’t mean the same thing. Your average philosopher would struggle quite a lot with some of the things archaeologists write about. Is this helpful? Can we always invent a neologism? Is it desirable that we should do that, rather than borrow from other disciplines? Sure, we bring some baggage with us, but we bring meaning too. I personally settle on the latter argument. You just need to be careful about making sure you know what the words mean in context.
But what about when jargon goes bad? Let’s not beat around the bush. Some academics (Shanks and Tilley for two) often use jargon and complex sentence structure in a way that is deliberately difficult to understand, as though you are only allowed to know their hallowed thoughts if you first wade through 40 pages of baffling waffle. I’ve not got a copy of any Shanks and Tilley on my shelves, but I’ve got something even better: Horden and Purcell, 2000: 423.
“While there are many factors contributing to the distinctive role of mutability in the religious history of the Mediterranean, we maintain that, among them, prominence should be given to the immemorial uncertainties of the microregional environment and interconnections.”
Yikes. It’s worth saying I know only a few people who have read this book cover to cover (including myself) and not one of us has a damn idea what it’s on about. I had to literally follow the lines with a pencil to prevent myself from getting lost.

The Academic Voice
Then, we come to the academic voice. Do you write in the active, or the passive. Do you refer to yourself as I, we, one, the author, or not at all? Do you seek to remove yourself entirely from the text; pretend as though it has been issued forth by a machine which has perfectly weighted the evidence and presented a perfectly accurate, objective narrative outcome? Do you speak in the passive, squeezing yourself smaller and smaller to try and squeeze yourself and your feelings out of the text. Do you pretend to befriend the reader, and control the conversation? “We will now turn to the topic of…”
Academics, in general, hate “I”. Somehow the admittance that one is a person (and not from the 19th century), that you are just one person, too, is terrible. That you have emotions and feelings and unsubstantiated opinions and gut reactions. This has become informal and so must be stamped out. But why is this such a problem? I really struggled with this as an undergrad. We were studying postmodernism, after all, which is all about subjectivity and personal experience and stuff. Why couldn’t I refer to myself as I?

How do students learn to write?
In first year, you write essays. They come back covered in encouragement and admonishment and everything in between. The academic or PhD student marking your Introduction modules is on the lookout for bad academic writing and is there to train you otherwise. They bring their own personal ideas to the table, their own feelings about what just sounds right and what does not. These people shape our writing. More than one member of staff recommended we found an academic whose work we like and copy it. Yesterday, one of the postgrads in my office bumped a student down a whole grade for saying “I” and “we” throughout their otherwise excellent report. How else will they learn? You have to know the rules before you can break them.
The net effect of all this is that we write like our predecessors. And so do all our peers. And then we teach our successors to write the same way. I wouldn’t be surprised to run across a paper that made occasional use of “one” published this year, or next year. The net effect of that is that all of our voices become the voice of the establishment. If you want to be different, you’re going to struggle.
But what’s the problem with that?
Well… a) it hasn’t actually worked to stamp out our individual styles. We’ve still got them, but they’re bandaged down tightly like the breasts of the Amazons of legend. Flattened so as not to interfere with the perfect aim of our argument.
b) It helps perpetuate the idea that academics are objective, autonomous robots who never have feelings or instincts or make mistakes. This isn’t true, and I think we lose something by pretending it is.
c) It makes us really difficult to communicate with! We struggle to talk to each other. We struggle to talk to the public, which is more important than ever, now all out research is expected to have “impact”. Don’t believe me? My dad became an academic in his 40s. Here’s an article he recently wrote for the Guardian. He really, really tried to make it accessible.

How do we fix it?
How do you fix a worldwide, centuries old, deeply entrenched position? Good luck. But we could make a start by teaching our students that it is okay to use “I” and okay to write while acknowledging all it stands for. If you're a PhD student, why not occasionally question the mark scheme? If you're an academic, why not talk to your students about the problems of the academic voice? I was lucky enough that in Ancient History they took this seriously, prescribed us Writing Ancient History (which had been written for that exact purpose, by one of our professors). In Archaeology, I don't think I ever heard a single thing about the academic voice. Not in Introduction.  Not in Contemporary Theory. Sure, we had writing classes, seminars. Just last week we had a postgraduate "How to write" seminar which was really well attended. But these are practical guides, not lengthy discussions of why we write. So: we can do better. Maybe it's something I'll suggest for my research cluster: it's annual review time, and we're just desperate for something to do. 

Horden, P. and Purcell, N. (2000) The Corrupting Sea (Oxford)
Jennings, D.; Muir, J.; Palmer, S.; Smith, A. (2004) Thornhill Farm, Fairford, Gloucestershire. An Iron Age and Roman pastoral site in the Upper Thames Valley, Thames Valley Landscapes Monograph no. 23
Millett, M. (1990) The Romanization of Britain (Cambridge)
Morley, N. (1999) Writing Ancient History (London)
Tilley, C. (1994) A Phenomenology of Landscape (Oxford

Edit: I'm sorry; I have no idea why this is white-background when all the settings are as usual. Guess we'll just have to live with it

Wednesday 21 October 2015

Tired of Gender Archaeology?

So I don't think I've ever written about gender explicitly on this blog before, but, like, I think about gender a lot. A lot, a lot. I'm also currently taking an undergraduate course in archaeological theory, and this week I've been reading up on it. I've arranged this blog post into stages, which is a way I find helpful for thinking about my thought processes.

N.B.: "Gender" archaeology" and "feminist archaeology" aren't actually synonyms. However, many parts of the discipline do treat them as synonymous, and moreover, everyone kinda just knows that "gender" actually means "women", even when studies of masculinity clearly exist. I'm going to be talking chiefly about gender archaeology, but due to the nature of the work already done, and the way it is perceived, that means I'm chiefly going to be talking about women.

So, you wanna be a gender archaeologist?

1. Acknowledgement of the androcentrism of archaeology (and indeed, academia).

I'm specifically only talking here about androcentric views of the past, but it's important to recognise that female archaeologists working today often face greater barriers to success than men, both in the field and in the library.

The first ever archaeology conference about gender was held in Norway in 1979, and entitled "Were they all men?". It's worth noting that it took until 1987 for the papers to be published, due to academic gatekeeping. The same core question was asked of a BBC documentary series on the Celts, in a review by Rachel Pope in History Today:

"I always wonder when I encounter these utopian masculinist visions of my period, how these men reproduced. I resolved, on watching this programme, that perhaps they do it as worms do. Anyway, I think we should be told."

It's not facile to compare academia with "popular" history in this way; academics are drenched in the same toxic messages of the kyriarchy as the rest of us, as we shouldn't try to pretend otherwise.

Consider, for example, Hodges, 1989, who describes how women were part of gift exchange between Anglo-Saxon England and Frankish Europe. This is deeply androcentric. Even if high-status women did cross the channel to be married, this framing completely ignores the agency of the women in building political alliances and initiating cultural exchange- even though we know that's something high-status women of the age did!

Or how about Johnson, 1993, who studied medieval houses in Suffolk and, with no theortical justification or discussion, designated the central parts of the house as the domain of Man and the peripheral areas as those of Woman?

Feinmann and Price's 2001 "Archaeology at the Millenium. A Sourcebook" barely mentions gender.

In Revell's 2010 critique of Romanization, she remarks that "we generally either depopulate [the questions we ask of the past] or repopulate them with an under theorised adult male (the simulacrum of the majority of researchers)"

A particularly egregious example of how the gender binary and gender roles can distort the record, is Butler's 1987 piece on gravestone imagery in the Medieval period: books, chalices and weapons are identified as "male" images, keys, buckles, purses and shears are "female". When his study encountered a grave with both shears and book, rather than considering, say, the possibility of a subject who was not gendered male or female, or that perhaps his categories were wrong, he simply changed the parameters. There couldn't be such a non-normative person. Perhaps, it was a bale of cloth, not a book, so the person was a male cloth worker. Or maybe it was a sewing box, and the person was a woman. Either way, his study literally could not sustain any grey area, even where it "really existed" (bearing in mind that his categories themselves were constructs). Consequently, he distorted the evidence, to fit it into his gender norms. And he didn't even know he was doing it.

(If anyone's worried about the fact that some of these studies are twenty years old or more, they're probably a scientist! In archaeology, our wheels grind slowly, and it wouldn't be at all unusual to reference things from the 80s in a modern piece of work.)

One really interesting thing about this androcentrism is how it also de-genders men. The man becomes the default, the obvious, and (let's be honest) the mental stand in for a lot of researchers. In this way, he takes on a lot of modern gendered ideas in ways that are a little less obvious and more insidious than the "Man The Hunter" ideal of the 1960s. For instance, there is little discussion of the suggestion that a man was the head of a household, in almost all archaeological contexts I can think of. For someone to suggest a matrilocal society (where men leave their homes/ villages and move to those of their wives/ wives' families) or a matrilineal society (one where property, prestige, rank are passed down through the mother's line, not the father's), extraordinary evidence is called for. Consider, for instance, the controversies over Çatalhöyük. Yet when someone explains movement of, say, a type of spindle whorl through women moving for marriage (invoking patrilocality) (Mytum, 1992) no-one bats an eyelid. There is little room to think about movement or activities of men, unless they are doing the default things imagined by archaeologists, like being in charge of things, and having weapons.

Phew. That section went on a little long, and in my opinion is far more about feminist archaeology than gender archaeology. I suppose the two are more intertwined than I gave them credit for.

2. Pushback from men and "cool women".

So. You've decided to bust this androcentrism thing wide open. You're gonna write about how masculinity and femininity are constructed by archaeologists looking at grave goods. You're going to point out how deeply problematic it is to assume "man" or "woman" as an identity on the basis of a sexed skeleton! (For basic problems with osteological sexing, please see Walker 1995. A PDF may be available here, please let me know if the link is universities-only. If you think gender and biological sex are the same thing, you have a lot of reading to do, but this seems like a good start. Please let me know if you found this article problematic!)

Maybe you'll organise a conference panel, or submit an abstract.

Be prepared for pushback. This comes in many forms. As we saw above, in the 80s especially, the academics in charge of what could be published in the major journals acted as gatekeepers. They did not consider gender archaeology to be a "real" topic worthy of study, and rejected articles because of that. Consequently, many conference publications were significantly delayed, and much ended up circulating as "grey literature"- not quite published work. I'm sure the same thing happens now with other areas of work (queer theory maybe?) but it's harder to do now, since the internet exists.

It can also come in the suggestion that gender in archaeology just isn't that important. You get this from men, obviously, but also from the academic equivalent of the "cool girl". You may not have heard the term, but you've definitely met one. The cool female academic doesn't let her gender, like, define her. She's a woman, sure, but that doesn't mean she has to study women! I mean, come on, we all know that's not real archaeology. She studies wars and subsistence and pots, she doesn't have time for all that feminist bullshit about gender archaeology. And besides, isn't it kinda sexist that all these man-hating feminists want to privilege women over men? Surely that's just as bad! The cool academic probably also reckons they've never seen any of this institutional sexism anyway, and that feminists are probably just being paranoid. I've done a bit of a parody here, but as an undergraduate, another female undergrad definitely told me it was really offensive to assume women might be more interested in studying oppression in the past than their (white) (straight) (able-bodied) male colleagues. This line of thinking contends that only hard-core (and therefore man-hating) feminists want to study gender because it's a fringe subject. It's not "real" archaeology (whatever that is) and so it can safely be ignored.

[Edited to add: Being the "cool girl" academic is often something of a survival strategy employed by women when they realise that their peers who seem to have most of the power are all men. I understand that, but I do find it damaging and unnecessary, and I wish they wouldn't /end edit]

Probably the only good push back is the claim that studying gender is just too hard. Let's look at that now.

3. On the circularity of excavating gender

Just how, exactly, can one see gender in the archaeological record? If Christopher Hawkes had ever thought seriously about gender (and he probably didn't because he was a man in the 1950s) he would have put it right at the top of his ladder of inference. This was a system he used to describe how much guesswork, or inference, archaeologists need to make statements about stuff. So describing a technology like pottery production he ranked as quite easy, but describing religious practice was much harder and required more assumptions.

If you read the Walton paper, you know that there's a lot of grey area in the sexing of skeletons, even just to make a judgement about biological sex. Moreover, once you take into account the fact that someone's primary sexual characteristics (e.g. height, pelvis shape, genitals) may not actually match their gender (as it doesn't for many transgender people, as well as plenty of intersex people) you've got a bit of a problem. What else might you have with the body to help you know what gender it is?

Usually it's grave goods. Unfortunately, the gendering of these goods happens in the eye of the archaeologist! As with Butler, it's usually swords equal men and "domestic" equipment equals women. Even though plenty of people buried with weapons would never have been able to use them- there's plenty of children buried with weapons (and sexing of children is much harder, but usually these are assumed to be boys rather than girls), and some people with disabilities that meant they could never have fought, such as the Amesbury Archer. These assumptions often come from the archaeologists themselves. In some cases, we have literary or visual evidence to recourse to, but in the case of the Archer, they are well pre-literacy, and we have no images of people from that time.

So what can we do? While I don't think we have any good statistics, I do think it is fair to say that in the majority of human cultures, the majority of people have been cisgender rather than transgender. One way to go, then, might be to look broadly at what kinds of objects are generally associated with a particular sex of skeleton (sexed through osteology or DNA where possible), and use these to draw conclusions. However, these models would then need to make allowances for people who do not fit them, and be prepared to accept that they may well be viewing a non-gendered or differently gendered individual. The "male/ female" binary has to go. One option for breaking the binary that has been proposed is the use of stereotype theory. Since my lecturer's paper on it hasn't yet been published, I think I'll leave that there.

However we go about it, we can certainly see that gender archaeology problematises the manner in which a lot of archaeology of gender is done. It may not be impossible to excavate gender, but it's certainly a lot harder than many archaeologists would believe, and that's just one more thing gender archaeology needs to contend with. When so much of archaeology is currently paid for by developers trying to maximise a profit, it can be very hard to convince them of all this "extra" work you want to do.

4. Attrition

The final thing a gender archaeologist, especially an early career one, especially a woman, needs to contend with is attrition. Being told day in and day out, in the academia that we consume that men did things and women stayed home. When almost every reference to women or gender you come across simply reifies the stereotypes that surround you at every turn, in all media, it gets kinda hard to keep fighting it. Maybe you're the one who's distorting the evidence! Maybe in your crazy feminist quest to notice women and gender in the past, you're the one seeing what's simply not there. Maybe men have always done everything. Maybe men are smarter, stronger, keener, better.

I don't believe that's true, but sometimes it can seem like I'm the only one.

Friday 9 October 2015

How Did Soay Get Its Sheep?

N.B. Please excuse the poor justification of many of the images in this post. Blogger has done a thing and won't let me fix them.

Soay, as you may or may not know, is a small island off the coast of the Isle of Skye in Scotland.
Map showing the location of Soay. It is a small island directly south of the Cullin Hills on the Isle of Skye

It is populated almost exclusively by a feral, and very old breed of sheep, imaginatively named the Soay.

 Photograph showing three soay sheep on a steep hillside with the sea in the background

As my dear friend the Goat Lady has pointed out: Soay is a bit of a bitch to get on to. It's surrounded on almost all sides by large sea cliffs and the interior isn't much better. This means the soay is actually very beneficial to the ecology of the island, since they are able to get to ledges that modern domesticated sheep cannot reach, but this very feature makes it not a good place to retrieve your sheep from when you want to milk them, or shear them or harvest some of the lambs. Soay is also not the place where sheep evolved (this was probably somewhere near Mesopotamia. Certainly that's where we think they were first domesticated). So just how- and why- did the sheep get to Soay?   

Sheep can swim, but not very well, or very far. Therefore, I am going to go out on a limb and say it is unlikely they swam across from Skye itself. That leaves the possibility that people brought them there in boats. It was the Neolithic at the time, so we're talking small boats, but also small sheep. We've already mentioned how difficult it would be to retrieve your herd from the island, so I suppose that leaves us with two options:

1. The sheep were introduced deliberately, and when the time came to collect them, not all could be retrieved. The remaining few formed a population which has continued down to the present day. 

2. The sheep were introduced by accident, perhaps through a mistaken landing or a shipwreck. 

The former seems to me to be untestable. We can rely on common sense, and point to the difficulty of landing, the difficulty of collecting the sheep for herd maintenance, and so on. But it's hard to be exactly sure of what was going on. Perhaps someone was willing to risk losing some sheep to the landscape if that meant they could protect the rest from raids. Maybe someone young and foolish thought they knew best, and it turned out they didn't. People do irrational, illogical things all the time, and that's sort of that. 

Option two seems rather more interesting. Another friend of mine said they reckoned it wouldn't be a shipwreck, because where on earth would you be sailing to? We can't track the movement of specific populations of sheep in the Neolithic (Well, I can't for you right now. A large scale stable isotope analysis study on caprinae (sheep and goat) bones from the Neolithic would sort it out, but until I a) am a much better scientist and b) get a wacking great grant from the European Union, it ain't going to happen). What we can do is consider other artefacts as a proxy for movement, while bearing in mind that moving small objects like handaxes was much easier than moving animals. 

Arran Pitchstone:

Map of Scotland showing distribution of Arran pitchstone. Skye and Soay are well within the zone
Distribution man showing main areas of Arran pitchstone finds (note Skye, and therefore Soay) well inside the zone. Black circles mark large numbers of finds

Rhum Bloodstone:

Distribution map showing locations of Rhum bloodstone from other islands and the mainland. Soay does not have finds, but Skye has several
Distribution map after Wickham-Jones 1990

It's reasonably clear, then, that people did move goods across long distances, including sea distances, during the Neolithic. A consequent movement of people, their livelihoods, ideas and goods is not unexpected. Since we know that sheep had to be transported to Britain somehow- and indeed, across Europe- it is not unreasonable to assume that they too may have been traded, raided, given as kin-gifts, or part of pretty much any other mechanism of exchange you can think of. Given the clear sea connections existing between the islands, and given the fact that sheep must have been transported by sea at some point, it seems not at all unreasonable to me that they might have been the victims of a shipwreck, on soay. 

All we've done here is establish the possible of course. One would need stable isotope analysis of the oldest bones on  the island for that, and it may well still not give us the definitive answer. Archaeology's a bit of a bitch like that.  

Burns Throughout History #9

I've just finished reading R.G. Collingwood's general book on Roman Britain from 1924. As you might expect, it is by turns laughably out of date, horribly racist, and then weirdly prescient of stuff we thought we came up with in the 1990s. This has been my experience of reading almost any academic work from before 1940. At this point, he has been describing the development of Romano-British art forms, and states that this kind of art hybridisation happened all over the empire, which apparently was unpopular with at least one of his colleagues:

"Anyone who wishes to convince himself of its [the idea that hybridisation did not happen] falsehood as applied to the Empire in general need only examine photographs of a representative series of provincial sculptures, that is, if he has an eye for sculpture, which perhaps some historians have npt"


Monday 16 March 2015

The Past is a Foreign Country

'The past is a foreign country; they do things differently there.'

The above is a quote I've been thinking a lot about today and yesterday, courtesy of Robert Higham's "Making Anglo-Saxon Devon". It's the opening sentence from L.P. Hartley's 1953 novel "The Go-Between", which is a novel I have not read. And nor does the Wikipedia article leave me feeling knowledgeable enough to talk about it.

However, it has become an almost common place proverb. A historian need only refer to "that foreign country" or even, as Higham did, that "other country" and we all know what is meant. Perhaps the modern slippage from "foreign" to "other" or "another" is an internal piece of code-switching. Equating "foreign" with "different" does not sit quite right in the modern mind. Or at least, it doesn't sit quite right in my mind. The quote, then, is shorthand for a particular kind of historical maxim: that the past is, to some extent, unknowable; that our assumptions are faulty; that we are distant and distinct from our past. At first glance, this seems sensible and congruous, but I'm going to discuss the flaws in how we apply it to our thinking.

One of the central tenets of postmodernism, and modern-day social movements' theories, such as intersectionality, is that other people's experiences are unknown to us. That our background, beliefs, experience inform our viewing of the world to the extent that they distort it. This is why, for instance, if one is a white person, one should believe a black person about whether something is racist, rather than one's own perceptions of it. Equally, one should believe a woman over a man as to whether something is sexist; a disabled person over an able one as to whether something is ableist. If you've not encountered this line of thinking before, I advise you to sit with it a while before rejecting it out of hand. In the Western world (outside of religious cults or abusive relationships) we're taught to trust the evidence of our own experience as the ultimate arbiter of truth. People often, wrongly, claim that this alone is the whole of the scientific method. 

This problem of personal experience is only compounded when we move to the past. Of course, we accept that we can't recover the experiences of those who lived under Rome, but that doesn't necessarily seem to have stopped us from trying, or invoking those faulty assumptions. Or, of course, we sweep them under the rug, and say well, surely if the Gauls or Britons had hated the Romans that much, we'd have heard about it from the written sources! Casually, forgetting, of course, that and Gauls or Britons Tacitus is likely to have met would have been wealthy men who had adopted certain trappings of Roman culture (whether by Romanization or through code-switching), and who benefited from the Empire. Yes, I'm certain they would have been an excellent source of information about Gallic or British mistreatment under Rome.

My reference here to code-switching or Romanization is emblematic of the entire post-modern problem. Romanization, first really expounded by Haverfield in 1912, is considered to be something of a theoretical monolith. It describes a phenomenon whereby the Britons (or anyone else) simply looked at the pure "Roman" culture and said "Aha- those square buildings are clearly better than our round ones; wine is infinitely superior to beer and who needs p-Celtic when we could be speaking Latin!", and thus instantly switched over to a "Roman" way of being, doing and thinking. The fact that this is not, actually what Haverfield said has not really discouraged the development of the top-down, monolithic model.  Considering this now, we can all see it's pretty ridiculous. However, it fitted well with the early 20th century narrative of empire. Sure, we'd violently subjugated large swathes of the planet, but this was our due! Besides, we had spread the light of English (and these were strongly informed by the Classical) morals and habits and ideas throughout the world, to all the savage peoples who had hitherto lacked them. It fed into the idea that there was an objectively better culture (i.e. Western or Roman) which all human beings could perceive and would desire to emulate.

The superiority of British (Western; Classical, whatever) culture has come under serious criticism in recent scholarship say, the last twenty or thirty years. Whereas in 1990 Millett wrote "The Romanization of Britain" without ever really deconstructing the term, by the late 90s it was unfashionable to use the term, and people cast around for a better descriptor. "Creolisation" was considered (see especially Webster's work), as was "Globalisation" (Hingley) and "Discrepant Identities" (Mattingley). Finally, along came Code-switching (see especially Wallace-Hadrilll). Code-switching is a term originally from linguistics. Wikipedia describes it as "the practice of alternating between two or more languages or varieties of language in conversation". Probably the best example in pop culture is in Dexter- some of the Hispanic characters speak to each other in Spanish (with subtitles) and speak to the non-Spanish speakers in English. Because, of course, they are bilingual, and have no need to speak English if there are no English monoglots present. Conspicuously, this does not describe someone changing over all aspects of their culture. Instead, they learn the cultural (or linguistic) signifiers that allow them to communicate, but not necessarily to assimilate. Under this model, the Britons did not stop speaking p-Celtic, they simply learned additionally to speak Latin. This gives the ancient people back some of their agency. They no longer lose their culture, they simply learn to navigate a new one.

Of course, this development did not happen in a vacuum. It happened in the midst of post-modernism (which was, among other things, about rejecting monolithic, simplifying models), and in the midst of post-colonialism, which sought to fight the damaging narrative that western culture was inherently superior to everyone else's.

So... what's the point? If Romanization is a reflection of Empire and code switching a version of post-colonialism, is one necessarily better than the other? How important is the distinction?

On the one hand, we might say it isn't important at all. The fundamentals of the phenomena we observe ( increasing use of inscriptions, almost universally in Latin; increasing prevalence of square buildings over round, and so on) are basically the same. All that's changed is the gloss we put on it. On the other hand, we might say that a fundamental change has been made; that how we frame the problem is the very problem itself, That to make a distinction between say "pure" Roman culture and "pure" native culture is to see it in the data- whether a "real" distinction is there or not. How are we to reconcile this problem? How foreign, or other is the past, really, and how much is it that we ourselves have done the othering? Further- how much have we convinced ourselves that the past is sterile and remote, only to construct it in our own image? This is the cognitive dissonance at the heart of "the post-modern problem", and it's not one I have the answer to.

Thursday 11 December 2014

How Kings Got The Epithets

Man... people in the past had such cool names. Alexander the Great, Pompey the Great, Cyrus the Great. Okay, there were a lot of greats. But just how does one get one of these cool monikers? Let's look at some classic Medieval English kings.

Edward the Confessor

Edward the Confessor (1003/5- 1066, reigned 1042-66) was the last Anglo-Saxon king of England. As a young man, he was the last of his siblings in line to the throne, as his name is always listed last on charters. His father was unseated in 1016  so Edward spent a quarter of his life in exile. It's suggested he was in Normandy, Northern France, for much of this time, but we can't be certain about this before c. 1030- we can place him because he witnessed four charters in the early '30s, signing two of them as the King of England (even though one of his brothers, Alfred, may have been still alive). This was quite a bold thing to do. It made certain there was a record that he was making a claim to the throne, and given father's usurper's son, Cnut the Great (there's another one) was currently the King of England, Denmark, Norway and parts of Sweden, that's not an idle remark. Cnut's territory was known as the North Sea Empire, by the way, and you should really look it up sometime.  Edward's mother had also married Cnut in 1017. That probably stung a little.

Cnut remained on the throne until 1035, when he died, making Harthacnut king of Denmark. It's not certain whether he intended to bequeath his English throne to Harthacnut too, but what actually followed was a period in which Harold Harefoot, Harthacnut's elder half-brother was regent while Harthacnut was busy settling things in Denmark.  Edward and Alfred both invaded at this point and the latter was captured by Godwin, Earl of Wessex, who turned him over to Harefoot. Harefoot had Alfred blinded, y'know, as any self-respecting man does to his enemies (caution: sarcasm), which is probably why Edward had Godwin exiled when he became king. Alfred died of his wounds, in case you were wondering. Edward fought a skirmish near Southampton, decided discretion was the better part of valour, and retreated back to Normandy.

In a move literally everyone was expecting, Harold Harefoot made himself King of England. Harthacnut planned to invade, but Harefoot died in 1040, meaning Harthacnut crossed the channel and made himself king without difficulty.

That should have been in for Edward, but Harthacnut was not long for this world. He invited Edward back to England, presumably as an heir in 1041, and died June 8th 1042, leaving Edward, improbably, to become king of England. There'd been three English monarchs between Edward and his father's reigns. That's probably a record.

His reign was pretty uneventful (as far as we're concerned anyway. The rise of the Godwin family is pretty interesting), but when he died in 1066, he too had no heir. Remember all that time he spent in Normandy? Well, the official claim on the part of William of Normandy (better known as William the Conqueror) was that Edward had made him heir during that time.  Harold Godwinson (the same Godwin who had Alfred's eyes burned out) claimed that he, too had been made heir, and indeed Edward had been dependent on the Godwins since the 50s. A Viking king called Harald Hardrada also made a claim to the throne, based on some sort of agreement that Harthacnut had apparently had with his father, Magnus. It's pretty tenuous, anyway.

Well, surely then he should be called Edward the Indecisive! Or Edward the Blown About By Winds of Fortune? Or Edward the In The Right Place At The Right Time? What's this Confessor business all about?

Sorry, I got a little bogged down in all the cool succession crises and stuff. Edward was also, apparently, super-pious, and "Confessor" is a religious epithet reserved for those who lived holy lives without becoming martyrs. He was canonised (made a saint) in 1161.

Richard the Lionheart

Okay, that Edward guy wasn't amazing, but Richard the Lionheart was AWESOME, RIGHT? I mean, with the Crusades, and the evil brother and the Robin Hood thing. I mean- he was played by Patrick Stewart that one time! He lived 1157-1199 and ruled from 1189. Richard's moniker is well deserved: he was commanding an army from the age of 16, and was a central commander of the Christian forces during the Third Crusade. However, he preferred to treat England as a source of revenue for his armies, spending possibly as little as six months here in all of his ten year reign. Reputedly, he also did not speak English, despite being born here, but instead spoke two French dialects. He communicated with his English advisors in Latin, as they did not speak French.

Also responsible for: all those tax hikes the animals hate in Robin Hood, and then selfishly died, leaving wicked Prince John as heir, despite Prince John's revolt in his absence. This, presumably, is where the Robin Hood myth's "usurper king vs true king" dichotomy comes from.

Athelred the Unready

Athelred was Edward the Confessor's father. He ruled from 978-1013, 1014-1016, first coming to power aged around ten, when members of his household murdered his teenaged brother, King Edward the Martyr (guess how he got his epithet). Athelred's kingdom was frequently raided by Danes, and in 991 he began paying tribute, called Danegeld, to the Danish King Sweyn. Athelred ordered a massacre of Danish settlers in 1003, causing Sweyn to invade England. He left in 1005, possible because of a famine, but returned in 1013, ousting Athelred, who fled to Normandy. Sweyn died suddenly in 1014, and English noblemen conspired to return Athelred to the throne. He was later succeeded by Cnut, after Cnut invaded England, won several battles and made the agreement that they would split the kingdom. Conveniently for Cnut, Athelred died soon after, making Cnut king of all England, in addition to his other territories.

"Athelred the Unready" is actually a mistranslation of his Old English name, Athelred Unraed. "Athelred" means "noble-counsel". This kind of compounding was typical with the names of the House of Wessex: see also Athelwulf (noble-wolf); Athelred (elf-counsel), Edward (rich-protection) and Edgar (rich-spear). It's actually a kind of pin: "Unraed" is an adjective for plans and stuff, and means "bad counsel". This, "Ill-advised" is probably a better translation. However, some quirk of fate has meant our language kept the pun, while lost the meaning. Cool, huh?

Friday 11 April 2014

Ancient Judeo- Christianity and the Big Society

I'm sure you've all heard about Cameron's Easter Reception speech (yes, that time he called himself a giant Dyno-rod- what even?) But he said some other things. Things like "Jesus invented the Big Society 2000 years ago, I just want to see more of it and encourage as much of it as possible." Well, I'm no Bible scholar, and I'm probably not the person to do a decent scripture deconstruction of it. Instead, I'm going to look at the three major things Cameron said he cared about in his speech, and how they align up with what things were like in ancient Judeo-Christianity.

If you are interested, you can read the full text of Cameron's speech here.

1. "To expand the role of faith and faith organisations in our country."

I'm going to liberally replace "faith" here with "non-governmental". This is because there was no seperation between faith and state in the ancient world; people working in civil magistracies were the administrators of local law and goverment and also the important people in festivals, performing the sacrifice or saying the prayer, or making the annual dedications.  But, basically, Cameron would prefer it if the state did fewer things, and the slack was picked up by people further down. Preferably people he doesn't have to pay.

Good news, Dave! The Roman system is just the model for you! What you do, simply, is take over a place with violence or the threat of violence, and then offer financial or status incentives to the existing elites. Allow them to keep their cushy jobs, as long as they go along with what you say and don't rock the boat. Don't worry about accountability, these kinds of local politics are so obscure we in the modern world know almost nothing about them. If people have a problem they can complain to the governor of the province, or to the emperor (we have papyri archives of people's documents, giving court dates and trial details and contracts. One published example is the Babatha Archive, from Judea.) If you complained to the Emperor, you usually had to do it as a whole city, after which you would engrave both your petition and the emperor's response onto a tablet and proudly display it. Look! The emperor had, for a few glorious minutes, thought about your small town! And he'd tell the governor to do something, and if you were lucky the governor actually would.

In the absence of the internet, high-speed communication or Public Schools producing a particularly viciously patriotic brand of civil servants (looking at you, British Empire), this was how the Romans chose to govern. For the most part, it worked. If you don't mind non-existent public services, a postcode lottery like no other, rampant corruption, nepotism and impossible legal systems.

When Judea was first taken over, they had  successive series of client kings and procurators or prefects. The only real difference here was that the client king was from a previous royal familiy (or the Romans had decided he was), and the procurator (or prefect) was a Roman official. Pontius Pilate was the procurator between 26-36 CE. The Biblical story of Pilate is rather relevant here. Famously, he "washes his hands" (Gospel of Matthew) of the Jesus business, and lets the Jewish High Priests do what they want. This nicely epitomises the differences: Pilate is hands-off (literally) and not interested in understanding the intricacies of
Jewish law.

2. "To raise the profile of the persecution of Christians around the world." 

If he'd just left that there, I'd have been happy (ish). Religious persectution is bad, as all forms of persecution are bad, and not to be condoned in any sense. However, he then went on to say "It is the case today that our religion [Christianity] is now the most persecuted religion around the world." He barely elaborates on what this persecution is, and how it is to be definied. Therefore, I'm going to be very clear about this: There are places in the world that Christians are persecuted, and I am not saying that isn't happening. However, contrary to what many panicked Daily Mail readers think, Christianity is not under threat in this country.

In this country, a Christian nurse might be told she can't wear a crucifix on a chain at work. She can wear it on a pin, though, or inside her clothes if this specific one is important! It's just that dangling necklaces are considered a heath and safety violation.

In Judea, and across the Roman world, Jews and Christians were subject to all kinds of discriminations and were often persecuted. The famous Christian persectutions were sporadic but horrible: under Nero some were blamed for the great fire at Rome and were burned to death in AD 64; Pliny wrote a letter between AD109-111 detailing how he'd had to have a Deaconess tortured for being a Christian, in case the rumors about them eating babies was true (Letters x.96); and of course the Great Persecution of AD303, in which an estimated 3,000 Christians were killed and many more imprisoned or tortured.

But persecution doesn't have to just mean death! It means being prevented from practising your faith! That's what's going on in this country!

Well, Jews were exempt from having to sacrifice to the Imperial Cult (the Emperor-worshipping part of Roman practices. Sacrificing to another god (not Yahweh) is banned in the Old Testament which affects both Jews and Christians), except for in their Temple in Jerusalem, where sacrifices were made "on behalf of the Jewish people". So... they were only compelled to worhip the Emperor in their most hold space. That's not so bad! (Caution: sarcasm) Also, after the First Jewish Revolt, the Temple was burned down, and after the Bar Kochba revolt (the second Jewish revolt) the Romans established a Roman colony on top of Jerusalem and put a big temple to Jupiter Capitolinus (Jupiter of the Capitoline, one of Rome's seven hills) right on top of it. Then they banned Jews from entering for ten years and put up a carving of a pig on one of the gates (probably).

As for Christians, in AD250, in an attempt to reassert Roman religion, Emperor Decius established a precedent. He ordered that all people (excepting the Jews) had to make a sacrifice to the gods in the presence of a Roman magistrate and obtain a witnessed certificate that they had done so. This forced Christians to violate some of their most deeply held convictions: that they could not worship another god, and that they could not make sacrifices. There are no estimates for numbers of deaths, but many Christians apostatised, and the incident is bitterly remembered in some of the texts from the period.

I think we can all agree, this is not the kind of systematic persecution of Christians that happens in this country.

3. "We [church and state] both need more... evangelism"

Well, the Bible (and other sources) do record early Christians  as evangelisers, no doubt about that. But I thought the Conservatives were in favour of private-run things, because they believe private is better than public for running services at a profit, apparently. In which case... does he really want people to travel the length and breadth of the country preaching the values of the state, of the way it can all benefit us if it worked better? I'm pretty certain we have those people, and they're called "trade unionists". And I don't think Dave likes them.