28 May 2013

Women, history and the default narrative

Sometimes, something wonderful comes to your attention which makes you challenge your thought processes and reassess your views. This morning, such a thing occured, via Katrin Kania of 'A Stitch in Time', who linked to the following blog post, which in turn links to the latter.

Both of these essays, though written primarily for a writer/author audience are wonderful resources for the individual who is interested in history. Personally, it was as if a little lightbulb had gone off in my head ... Oh! Oh, how stupid of me.

See, the more I read about my favourite little corner of history (namely late 14th Century England), the more I had begun to think "Wow! Women actually did so much then!". There is the (initially surprising) incidence of women in trades, including those typically thought of as incredibly masculine such as blacksmithing or butchery. Then, the Hajnal Line was brought to my attention (thanks Juli!) and its implications for marriage, and thus life, for lower and "middle" class 14th Century women.

But all this time I'd been taking in these revelations and thinking of them as something unusual, something unique. What was it about the late 14th Century that had allowed these comparative freedoms for women, this comparatively modern life? I'd theorised maybe it was the Black Death, which caused so many other sweeping social changes and put some of the first big cracks in the feudal system.

No. Nothing so complex. It is, instead, rather simple. We are simply not taught about the contribution of women (or non-white individuals, or non-cis-gendered individuals). Our society has spent so long erasing the history of these people that it is only when you start doing more serious research that you see the traces ... the bits shoved under the carpet ... the pale, ghostly grey smear, near invisible, that was left once the eraser had done its work.

There is nothing special about the late 14th Century. 

There are interesting, strong, powerful, intelligent, diligent, benevolent women throughout history. And there are stupid, narrow-minded, purposefully ignorant, brutish, cruel and despicable ones too. The same goes for every other classification of the human race. It's just that most of that has been systematically ignored.

I hope this is a small wake-up call for some others too. Let us all try to remember that history is only what information was recorded about the past, not a true representation of the past. And let us remember the biases of those original record makers and all the subsequent copiers and interpreters of those records. And let us try to give our ancestors some credit when we interpret them, particularly for those of us who re-enact and thus have an educational as well as entertaining role.

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