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Gender in the Merovingian World

Saturday, 6 September 2014

Warrior Women? More thoughts on alleged gender-transgression and alterity in early medieval cemeteries.

This post follows up the previous one.  As luck would have it, I have been working on an article on identity and 'otherness' in early medieval cemeteries, which essentially argues that alterity, properly-conceived, is not visible in post-imperial furnished inhumation cemeteries, largely thanks to the processes implicit in the creation of that part of the archaeological record.  When it is finished I will post the whole text (can you wait?).  For now I wanted to return to the issue of inhumations where the biological sex of the deceased does not match the gender associations of the grave-goods deposited.  I have written about this before, in chapter 9 of Cemeteries and Society in Merovingian Gaul, which you can read via the links on the 'my publications' page.  I don't want to repeat most of those points here, which concern the necessary methodology for establishing gender-specific artefact-kits, avoiding simple assumptions, not so much about 'weaponry' and 'jewelry' but about what might constitute jewelry and weaponry in the first place.  That chapter also confronts the pragmatic value of distinguishing, for the purpose of archaeological analysis, between biological (or perhaps osteological) sex and social sex/gender, as well as the problems implicit in assuming that transgression of the normal gender rules means that assumptions about the gender implications of particular artefacts are 'wrong' (equivalent to assuming that the fact that the - I assume - biologically male Eddie Izzard sometimes wears a dress means that dresses cannot normally be assumed to mark feminine identity).  I have also written about the problems that have been implicit in the refusal of certain interpretations of 'transgressive' burials (some of which comments are repeated on the blog here).  All of which illustrates (yet again) my gloom about the quality and rigour of 'theorisation' in modern archaeology.  Ho hum.

A lot of interest in this issue has (re)surfaced as a result of the gross misrepresentation of an article in the journal Early Medieval Europe from 2011 ('Warriors and women: the sex ratio of Norse migrants to eastern England up to 900 ad' by Shane McLeod, EME 19.3 (2011), pp.332-353) - see here for a good expose.  That original paper is itself problematic for a number of reasons.  One is the identification of burials as 'Norse', as confronted in the previous post (that article is ignored by McLeod).  The isotope evidence is in fact no less problematic, as Scandinavia is only one of a number of possible origins for the subjects that could be indicated and one is entitled to wonder whether it has been chosen to fit a better-known historical narrative.  Be that as it may, the issue of sex and gender is rather unconvincingly bracketed in note 1, but needs some attention.  This confusion seems to remain quite general in historical and archaeological studies of the early middle ages, including many of my own.  Any evidence from the mass burial at Repton surely has to be ruled out on the grounds of the insecurity of the context alone. As I see it, even if one accepts Heath Wood, Ingleby, as a plausible case - indeed even if one accepts all of these burials as those of Norse immigrants (something for which there is precious little prima facie evidence) - the scarce numbers of burials must (as argued in the previous post/article) mean that one has to ask why only a certain portion of the settler community was buried like this, for such a short time.  The argument there saw the explanation in terms of instability and social competition consequent upon the political turmoil (including but not limited to Viking invasion) in northern and eastern England and a momentary and perhaps not too severe crisis for some local elites.  If one were to follow that, then all the article suggests - even on an 'immigrant interpretation' - is that some of the incoming elite brought their wives with them - something we know from the written data.

However, my main reason for posting concerns not that paper so much as what one might do with burials which have grave-goods that seem inappropriate to the osteologically-revealed sex of the deceased.  Here is what I have to say (in first draft, without notes) in the article I am working on:

"There may be one category of burials about which we can say something a little different.  This is constituted by burials which have grave-goods which generally seem to be inappropriate for people of the biological sex in question.  A discussion of this group will lead me to my concluding points.   It must first be conceded that this group of graves is very small; the vast majority of alleged cases may be questioned either on the basis of inadequate osteological data survival or analysis or, more commonly, because of insufficient contextual examination of the normal gender-associations of objects on that site at that period.  Often, the artefact-classes of ‘weaponry’ or ‘jewellery’ are too loosely defined.  Nonetheless, there are certainly some examples which appear to be genuine.  How one analyses these within the problematic of alterity is a difficult problem.  On the one hand the point must be reiterated that the bare fact of inclusion in the communal cemetery, as well as the evidence that the interment was conducted with appropriate ritual, care and attention by surviving relatives speak against seeing the occupant of such a grave as somehow ‘other’.  The fact that the difference from the normal is made clear in the evidence, in the public deposition of artefacts and costume accessories, also removes the possibility (discussed earlier) that the deceased’s family were trying to cover up any difference and stress consensual normality.  On the other hand, however, it is very difficult to avoid the conclusion that the deposition of (in biological terms) a man or woman with items overwhelmingly associated with the opposite sex represents an inversion of one of the most important structuring norms in social organisation, one with which concepts of alterity were very strongly associated, as noted above. 

"The first point to be made in confronting this conundrum is that we should not see the interment of biologically female subjects with masculine artefacts analytically equivalent to the burial of biological males with feminine material culture.  One of the detectable movements in Merovingian material culture in the sixth and seventh centuries is the adoption of some masculine artefacts by women.  This is best seen in the case of plaque-buckles.  These started out as strongly masculine items of apparel but seem gradually to have been adopted by women.  This in turn led to a redrawing of this gender distinction, with decorated and larger examples being buried with males.  The dynamic continued to operate, however, with women starting to wear decorated plaque-buckles and men investing more in the size and decoration of their belt-buckles.  This dynamic is of course well attested in many social contexts.  The construction of masculinity and the boundary it erected against the feminine were therefore always under a certain degree of pressure, with a constant level of ‘background noise’ where women were adopting masculine items.  This movement is in many ways to be expected in situations where women were judged positively for the possession of certain masculine qualities.

"The handful of plausible cases of women interred with weapons needs particular care.  It has been tempting, especially for non-academic readers, to leap to conclusions questioning the male dominance of warfare and even to refer to mythic concepts such as ‘shield-maidens’.  This is especially significant for this paper as societies which contained armies of women (notably the Amazons) constituted one of the key manifestations of alterity in the Roman ethnographic imaginary.  Some caution is required.  Heinrich Härke long ago drew attention to the fact that close study suggests that a strict, functionalist connection between weapons and an actual warrior role is highly questionable.  Most obviously, there are small children buried with weapons – rarely in Merovingian Gaul; more commonly in Anglo-Saxon England and the Alamannic regions.  We do not assume that this implies that six-year-olds went off to fight.  That said, I have argued before that the symbolism of weaponry was more specific than merely a right to fight.  The written sources in any case tell us of women involved in low-level violence.  I have suggested that the level of violence referred to in the deposition of weaponry was that of the army, of warfare, and the right to take part in it. 

"There is no evidence that women had a right to participate in the activities of the army but there are nevertheless several ways in which weaponry could still appropriately be employed in the interments of females.  One might be through the breach of norms to manifest a family’s distinction, as noted earlier; in other words a family might be suggesting that its right to participation in the military and political activities of the army inhered in, and could be passed through, its womenfolk.  Similarly, the family into which such a woman had married might have been staking a claim to acquire that right, or the military obligations that came with particular lands, through that marriage.  The written sources do tell us occasionally of women involved in some military activities.  The Liber Historiae Francorum’s admittedly problematic account of Queen Fredegund accompanying the Neustrian army on campaign against the Austrasians is perhaps the best instance.  Weapons could represent the control of warriors.  It is also well-attested that a female role in leading the defence of settlements was accepted in the early Middle Ages.  Weapons in a female burial could represent recognition of such a role or achievement.  There are therefore many interpretive options available before we appeal to shamanism, the historical existence of warrior maidens or a mass conspiracy on the part of male writers to conceal the existence of the latter.

"The points made in the preceding paragraph are, however, only valid where weapons accompany an otherwise feminine burial assemblage.  Where a subject biologically sexed as female was interred with a masculine complement of grave-goods different issues arise.  If what we might think of as a biological woman lived her/his life as a man, then there is no necessary transgression of the usual societal norms.  This is where the more recent revision of the common idea that gender is a social construct on the basis of biological sex make their point.  If such people were interred as men then clearly the community regarded them as men, not as women acting as men.  The only transgression would be when women who lived their lives as women take part in what were regarded as exclusively masculine activities.

"Females buried with what we might call a mixed gender-kit – weaponry alongside the usual female assemblage – nevertheless raise a crucial point, with which I will end.  The female warrior was, as noted, a classic sign of alterity in the late antique imaginary.  And yet, we do seem to have some actually-existing female subjects whose involvement in warfare was recognised as apt by the community – hence its recognition in the burial rite.  This same seeming paradox may be attested in the interment of males with female artefacts.    As I intimated earlier, these examples do raise some different issues from those brought up by the females with masculine goods.  First, there is no commensurate valorisation of the male adopting feminine attributes.  Here we actually have a written text to help us, although it is not one without problems.  Gregory of Tours does refer to a man dressed as a woman, during the tribunal at the end of the revolt of the nuns of Holy Cross, Poitiers. [See also here.]  The man justified his wearing of female garb in terms of his inability to perform ‘manly work’.  Whatever this may have meant, it was evidently not an unalloyed positive.  As Nancy Partner has pointed out, moreover, it is significant that this subject was described by Gregory and, evidently, the other participants in the episode as a man wearing woman’s clothes, not as a woman.  It seems therefore that the episode shows us costume being employed an outward sign of some kind of falling away from ideal manliness, rather than a ‘biological male’ living life as a woman.  It is also unlikely that we would encounter burials of the ‘mixed’ type just discussed with biological males.  Someone recognised as a man, but buried in feminine costume would be unlikely also to receive the weaponry customary for someone of his (biological) sex, for the simple reason that a decision to live life as a woman would undermine the ability to participate in the masculine activities symbolised by weapons.  It might, however, be the case that we might find men buried with masculine costume but with female artefacts appended – items evidently symbolic of female work such as weaving batons, loom-weights and so on, for example.  This would require close examination because methods of determining the gender association of artefacts might simply render these objects ‘gender-neutral’ and the fact that they are not items of bodily or costume adornment (jewellery) would make the anomaly less immediately obvious.  Thus the known ‘transgressive’ burials of biological males seem to be those interred in female costume, like the Poitevin mentioned by Gregory.  The inclusion of these people within the communal cemetery, and the respect and recognition given to their identity in the public burial ritual, show that even though one might consider their life-style to have represented the very acme of ‘otherness’, as envisaged in writings about ideal behaviour, in practice room could be made for them within the early medieval community.  This point would seem, as intimated earlier, to apply quite commonly within early medieval society, as it is manifested in the burial record.

"This illustrates a vitally important element of alterity, which has been much discussed in modern philosophy, and returns us to our starting point.  The social and political value of ‘otherness’ resides precisely in in the fact that it cannot be actualised; it can be confronted on the basis of the empirical only with difficulty, as was mentioned earlier.  It is extremely difficult to illustrate the ideology of alterity via actually-existing communities.  As Slavoj Žižek has repeatedly argued, the ideological function of otherness is to act, so to speak, as a peripheral ‘blot’ which draws the gaze away from tensions that might threaten the status quo.  When one attempts to view it constantly moves again.  The only way to tackle it is to adopt a perspective different from that assumed by ideology.  On the other hand, the tragedy of identity and alterity is that that ideology can be used to rupture communities that have long lived side-by-side, as in the countless instances of nationalism and ethnic cleansing in the modern world.  The variability that we can see within the post-imperial cemetery record may suggest, more happily, moments when such differences could be incorporated within everyday interaction."


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