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Gender in the Merovingian World

Thursday, 7 February 2013

Classical Gender in Deconstruction


[Next week I am off to Padova to the VI Congresso della Società Italiana delle Storiche, where I've been asked to speak about a n episode in Gregory of Tours Histories.  I think that what the organisers wanted was my paper on the implications of this for the gendering of grave-goods, as published in Cemeteries and Society in Merovingian Gaul (2010), ch.9.  What they're getting though is this doubtless cock-eyed cod-Derridean meditation...  Mwahahahahahaha.....]

Until quite recently, one of the stranger stories in Gregory of Tours’ Historieshad largely gone unremarked upon, in spite of its interesting possible implications, or its possibly implied possibilities.  When the Nuns’ Revolt at Holy Cross, Poitiers (590) was supressed, says Gregory, the nuns’ leaders, Chlothild and Basina, made a series of accusations against Leubovera, their abbess.  One of these was that the abbess kept about the nunnery a man dressed as a woman, so that she could have sex without arousing any sort of suspicion.  Chlothild pointed the man out.  And so a man stepped forward, dressed as a woman.  He said, though, that he was impotent and that that was why he dressed that way.  In any case, he claimed, he lived a long way off and, though of course he’d heard of the abbess, he’d never actually met her.  This testimony was enough for the bishops (including Gregory) sitting in judgement and the charge was dismissed.

Now, one might say that the bishops had been surprisingly easily duped by this implausible tale and assume that Leubovera had indeed been rather less than virginal in her abbacy.  The presiding bishops had a vested interest in suppressing the rebellion and so simply squashed the evidence that it had been justified.  That possibility should be no means be ruled out, although the story rather loses its potential interest in the process.  One might also wonder why we would want to dismiss the nameless Poitevin’s own account.  It seems to mark a double suspicion.  Firstly a suspicion of the Church – the Catholic Church, the medieval Church – and a suspicion of testimony that something as troubling and seemingly ‘modern’ as cross-dressing might have gone on in early medieval society.  This leads to the preference of one greater ‘conspiracy theory’ over a lesser, local one, of one story over another.  Nonetheless, as stated, that might have been what happened. 

Venantius Fortunatus riffs on the subject of plums
(Carmina 11.18, 11.20; cross-dressing Poitevin [probably]
not pictured)
Alternatively, one might take the Poitevin’s testimony at face value; the rebellious nuns’ were searching desperately to justify their actions and made up a story based around the presence at the tribunal of the man in women’s clothing.  The judgement was not entirely uncritical of Abbess Leubovera; though it made no condemnation of her lifestyle, there’s no reason to suppose it would not have done had the evidence been compelling.  The rebellious nuns were frequently of the same aristocratic senatorial origin as the presiding bishops and two of their leaders, Chlothild and Basina, were royal princesses; other reasons stated for the nuns’ actions included resentment of the abbess’ strictness.  Nonetheless, Venantius Fortunatus’ poems to the abbey’s founder, Saint Radegund, do not suggest that the abbess’ dinner table was as ascetic as one might have expected.  Accepting the Poitevin’s account might be somewhat naïve but, again, he might have been telling the truth.

Gregory’s narration provides little to help us decide between these alternatives.  He largely employs reported speech, about which he passes no comment.  There is no analytical resource in his silence.  For him the whole episode illustrated a key theme of the Histories: that transient worldly life and status cannot be translated into the eternal merit of the truly saintly.  The only thing that might help us evaluate the story is the fact that, if Gregory’s account is truthful, the Poitevin had come up with this explanation in the first place in the expectation that it would be believed, and that he had come to the tribunal dressed as a woman.  If Chlothild’s accusation were correct, it certainly seems odd that the abbess’ former lover should have attended to tribunal in his usual disguise.  This, however, is not something that the historian can second guess.

I am going to proceed on the basis that Chlothild’s was a groundless accusation and that a man from sixth-century Poitou did feel compelled to dress as a woman because of his impotence.  This allows us to think through some changes that had taken place in gender-construction since the late Roman period and perhaps others that were under way when Gregory was writing.  It is quite interesting that, within a house of female religious, the accusation of sexual transgression was entirely in terms of heterosexual activity.  The possibility of same-sex desire among the women of the abbey is simply concealed by silence.  This is hardly unusual.  What I want to concentrate upon is the relation between sexual activity, reproductive or otherwise, clothing and gender-construction.  In particular, I want to explore the origins of the social space within which the anonymous Poitevin acted.  This, as I have written before, enables us to read some aspects of post-imperial funerary archaeology in more nuanced and less essentialist fashion.  My starting point in understanding this story might be mistaken; it is certainly not the only one.  And I will not draw any definite conclusions but leave different possibilities open.  That is not simply out of methodological honesty, but also because I cannot myself decide which interpretive possibility I prefer!  Much thinking remains to be done on this subject and a theme of undecidability runs through this short communication.

Let me start by re-stating some fairly uncontroversial bases for the analysis.  The first concerns the nature of classical gender construction; the second involves the distribution of grave-goods within post-imperial cemeteries.  It seems to be well established that Roman gender was constructed around a central masculine ideal: the notion of civic Roman masculinity.  This was historicised; the Romans did not think their men had always possessed such advantages in spite of the biological reasons for it that they proposed.  Roman accounts of the remote past saw their ancestors as barbarous.  The moment when such barbarism was transcended came with the discovery of law and – entirely related to that – the restriction of the choice of sexual partners.  The very movement to civilisation had in their eyes, therefore, been gendered.  What defined the civic Roman male was moderation, reason, the control of passions and the ability to see both sides of things.  This enabled their employment and reception of the law, rendered their government something other than tyranny, and its performance justified a man’s involvement in such legitimate government.  This was not simply psychological.  As mentioned, in classical thinking it was entirely bodily, biological.  The female body’s different constitution, in terms of the humours, made women less capable of such ideal behaviour.  Yet, the non-possession of the characteristics of civic male virtue was not restricted to women.  A too emotional, irrational character – justified similarly by imbalance of the humours –separated barbarians (male or female) from the civic ideal, and the barbarian’s wild ferocity made him assimilable with the animal, a third axis along which one might move away from the masculine.  The animal, the barbarian, the feminine and the infantile could therefore be condemned by their distance from the civic masculine ideal or praised for their closeness to it.  Indeed, barbarian men could acquire the attributes of civilisation so completely that their origins were entirely effaced.  Male children, of course, could be educated, grow into and acquire these characteristics (through the processes of paideia).  A woman, though, no matter how virile could, because of her sex, never entirelyoccupy that ideal centre.  In sum, then, Roman gender was constructed around the masculine.  The feminine was envisaged in terms of a fundamental lack. 

Now, from around the end of the first quarter of the sixth century in various parts of what had been the western Roman world – particularly those where a social structure based around the villae had gone into crisis with the Empire’s political disintegration – it became common to inter artefacts with the dead.  What matters for the purposes of this discussion is the well-known distinction in grave-goods assemblages between men and women.  This, as has now been pretty well established in several different areas of the post-imperial West, was modified by social age and position in the life-cycle.  Feminine grave-goods centred upon clothing and the adornment of the body, although some symbols of female work are occasionally also found.  Masculine artefacts on the other hand focused on weaponry, although, again, in some areas other types of artefact were at least as significant.  In the area I know best, northern Gaul, the latter comprised items such as flints, strike-a-lights, awls, tweezers and so on, often originally placed in a pouch attached to the deceased’s belt. 

The archaeological evidence suggests two conclusions.  One – quite unsurprising – is that masculinity was increasingly coming to be defined by martial characteristics. The other is more controversial or problematic and that suggests that there were two opposing poles of attraction in the material construction of sixth-century gender: a masculine and a feminine.  In other words, the feminine was not a simple, relative absence of the masculine but was constructed around its own set of ideals.  The patterning in the funerary data suggests that these ideals were structured around sex, by which I mean the female role in reproduction.

How might this shift from the classical situation have come about?  I suspect that the gradual demise of the model of civic masculinity lies at the core of the situation.  One of the main problems of the factional civil wars that ended the Western Roman Empire in the fifth century was that – especially after Valentinian III’s murder in 455 – no clear winner managed to establish a claim to legitimacy that was accepted by all other factions outside Italy.  This meant that, particularly in the provinces, any claim to traditional civic masculine virtue stood on very uncertain, shifting grounds.  A different model of Roman masculinity had emerged during the course of the fourth century, following the separation of the military and civil branches of imperial service under the Tetrarchy.  This ‘martial model’ more consciously incorporated elements of the animal and the barbarous, antithetical to the classical ideas of the virtuous civilised man.  As time passed, this model became dominant across the West, with eventually only the model of Christian religious masculinity existing as an alternative.  As a model constructed (at least in part) in opposition to the civic male, the martial model was less affected by removal from the legitimisation of the central government.  Thus I propose that what we are faced with during the course of the fifth and especially the middle quarters of the sixth century is two gendered ideals, both to some extent constructed in opposition to civic masculinity, a central definitive norm fast disappearing from actual practice.  This is what gives us, in the sixth-century cemetery data, the appearance of two opposed poles.  Both gendered ideals here are based around concepts that had hitherto been subordinated to the ideals of the Roman male.  The raising of these to the surface, as positive bases of identity, seems to me to be a kind of analogue, in social practice, to the processes of Derridean deconstruction.

All signs are, of course, inhabited, or haunted, by their opposites.  The Roman civic male was haunted by the irrational, the emotional, the feminine, the infantile, the barbarous and the animal.  For the Romans the civilised man acted as a sort of quilting point for the signifying system.  I have argued before that in the fifth century this point-de-capiton became unfixed.  Yet it had never represented an absolute point of origin because it had always contained – even in Roman terms – the image of its pre-civilised Roman precursor.  That historical dimension made the central image occupied as much by what it was not as by what it was.  What is different, I think, about the sixth-century situation is that while, of course, male and female are defined by what they are not, the ‘supplements’ which round out their meaning come not primarily from what we might think of as their structural opposites – man:woman – but from an ideal that was fast disappearing from social reality leaving only its spectre.  This ghost of the civic Roman male, haunts the gendered identities of sixth-century men and women but these relate more to that than to each other.

Statue of Dionysius from the National
Museum of Roman Archaeology in Rome
I would like to suggest that this process opened up the signifying space within which the Poitevin mentioned by Gregory of Tours was acting.  The classical world, of course, had concepts of mixed gender or sexuality: the hermaphrodite and the figure of Dionysius come to mind.  And yet I think that the classical notions are somewhat different from what is signified by the man at the Nuns’ tribunal, not least in their removal from the field of the mortal.  Here, again, we must take Gregory’s account at face value.  As Nancy Partner said, it is worth noting that the account describes the Poitevin as a man in women’s clothes, not as a woman, or a woman who turned out under closer inspection to be a man.  The implication of the story is that the man was not considered female by his contemporaries, and the extent to which he lived his life as a woman cannot be guessed at.  He claimed that his decision to dress in women’s clothing was motivated by the fact that he was impotent – or, as he put it, that he could do nothing of manly work.  It is interesting to wonder what exactly his costume comprised.  Here an archaeological example might help.  Grave 32 at the cemetery of Ennery (Moselle) contained a skeleton sexed as male but the deceased had been buried wearing a necklace and with an item of pottery normally only found in female graves.    The assemblage would on that cemetery have been appropriate for a woman of his age, above forty, as it did not stress the sexuality of the deceased in the way that was common with younger women still involved in the processes of reproduction, especially teenagers. 

What is at stake in this relationship between gendered costume and sexual reproduction?  Masculine objects in Frankish burials probably refer – at least obliquely – to the ability to start a family and govern a household.  The distribution of goods does not seem to relate directly to sexual potency, at least in purely ‘biological’ terms – Frankish adolescents are rarely buried with masculine items, in spite of being of an age-group whose sexual proclivities could worry Christian moralists and which was linked in the law-codes to the kidnapping of young women.  One penitential text suggests, however, that before the age of about twenty (the age, interestingly, when Frankish males start to be buried with weapons) male sexual practice, same-sex or otherwise, was more a matter of experimentation, of ‘games’. 

What interests me is that the construction of identity revolves not simply around the absence, or lack, of masculine items but the active employment of feminine ones.  This is underlined in the archaeological example, where the dead man’s family displayed this feature in his grave, in public ritual.  One might wonder whether this suggests something more positive about the reception of identity, whether this was not simply negative, a distance from the masculine ideal, but also perhaps something positive, a movement towards valued feminine ideals.  If so, and this can only be a suggestion, this underlines the ‘bipolarity’ of sixth-century concepts of gender. 

How one reads opposite instances, where biologically female skeletons are associated with masculine grave-goods, like weaponry, is something I cannot address.  I suspect, however, that this is a rather different circumstance, perhaps more akin to the classical situation and thus, I suspect, not to be read crudely as ‘transgression’ – perhaps quite the opposite.

The subsequent history of gender-construction in Francia perhaps supports the tentative reading I have made.  In seventh-century cemeteries, in a change beginning at about the time of the nuns’ revolt, cemeteries show important changes.  One of these is the reduction of feminine gendered grave-goods and a greater stress on the masculine.  This seems to me to represent a final triumph of the martial model of masculinity, which has now entirely supplanted the civic.  This situation seems more akin to the Roman, with a central masculine ideal and the feminine judged by proximity to or distance from this.  What has changed is simply the nature of that ideal, which is now based upon the martial model and a different, more warlike, set of virtues.  How male sexual impotence was judged, and whether it was marked at all, within that system is not something the evidence I have allows me to discuss.  I suspect, however, in a society more defined by masculine heads of lineages, that it was rather different though, not symbolised in clothing and certainly not valorised by a family.  The case of Gregory’s Poitevin suggests a glimpse of a historical moment when, however briefly, something different was possible.  The importance of that is that it cautions us not only against seeing modern categories as ‘natural’ but against positing an essential, unchanging ‘medieval’ set of categories with which to compare them.

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