tonight your husband is going to do something to you

16 11 2011

The fears, misery, and even secrecy surrounding sexual and physical life led by all women in the nineteenth century can never be overemphasized.  Northern bourgeois women went to the marriage bed ignorant of the sexual act.  if she was bold, a mother might prepare her daughter for the event in the following manner: tonight your husband is going to do something to you.  He has the right.  If it becomes too terrible, pray to Jesus Christ.  Many women were uninstructed in the results of sexual intercourse, or they made no connection between that and pregnancy.  When pregnancy did occur, women generally faced the prospect of childbirth in secret terror.  Again a mother might give her daughter a generalized or vague description of what would happen, or the doctor offered as instruction the command to make a fist, to scream as loud as possible, and to push.  Besides that slim knowledge, women knew that others had died in childbirth…No one thought of revealing miscarriages, and pregnancies went hidden from public view as women remained at home at least from their sixth month.  Women tried, in short, to tame the natural by hiding it.

The first thing to mention before discussing this revealing gem of history is that this excerpt was taken from Bonnie Smith’s Ladies of the Leisure Class: The Bourgeoises of Northern France in the Nineteenth Century (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1981), page 82.  Here, Smith is discussing women of the late 1800’s in Northern France, an area that, if nothing else, is quite industrialized and relatively modern…or at least in some respects.

And so she depicts the state of young girls entering the nuptial chamber, ignorant and scared.  What she doesn’t say (it isn’t part of her topic) but what may easily be inferred: if the women were ignorant of the act, then the men had to have been knowledgeable, if not through experience then at least from conversations with older friends and family members.  After getting over the initial shock upon seeing that girls in a modern, urban society could still be so ignorant to a basic fact of mammal life, something more interesting may be seen, namely, the early seeds of contemporary Christian conservative attitudes toward sexuality.

This connection is amazing.  The women Smith is dealing with live in an age in which their viable roles in society have been limited, effectively pushed out of the public sphere of production into the private world of reproduction.  However, even though it was their sole function, women elected to master sexuality by ignoring key elements thereof.  In this way, women left a significant stamp on sexual attitudes.  They were also extremely religious: as male and female roles had become highly specialized, women increasingly took up faith as a defining aspect of womanhood.

Today, many right-wingers in the United States take a hard stance on issues such as sex and abortion.  They advocate only the most basic education regarding sex (which, thankfully, is more than that commanded by the ladies of Smith’s study), and insist against teaching young women how to use condoms and birth control effectively in order to limit the instance of sexually transmitted disease and unwanted pregnancies.  At least this can be said to be evidence of American women just wanting to protect American girls, but the politics of sexual prudishness has gone even further.  Many conservatives do not support foreign aid programs that include progressive sexual education, such as former President Bush’s policy of only supporting those programs in Africa that support abstinence-based education.  For more, see this article by Nicholas Kristof.

While one can’t read too much into it, I do find it interesting that 19th-century French women embarked upon of culture of forced sexual ignorance just at the same time that they became increasingly religious and separated from men.  Interesting, and disappointing.  These attitudes were exported, and as a result of the success of some in enforcing such attitudes, the United States has much higher rates of unwanted teen pregnancy, which can often result in abortion, legally or otherwise.  If knowledge of what such attitudes can lead to isn’t enough, then maybe people will reevaluate their positions when they see the absolutely backward culture in which this type of thinking was born.  This gem reveals how, at least in part, contemporary attitudes that advocate not educating girls about their sexuality were developed in response to men pushing women out of the public sphere of production.  As a result, women latched onto what they could for some type of power and have only recently begun to retake a position of equivalence.


One World History

22 01 2010

In his lengthy introduction and discussion of terms to the classic Venture of Islam, world historian extraordinaire Marshall G. S. Hodgson offered up this immaculate gem when problematizing the use of various terms to refer to what he decided should be called ‘Islamdom’:

…the problem can be solved only by introducing new terms.  The term ‘Islamdom’ will be immediately intelligible by analogy with ‘Christendom’.  ‘Islamdom’, then, is the society in which the Muslims and their faith are recognized as prevalent and socially dominant, in one sense or another–a society in whihc, of course, non-Muslims have always formed an integral, if subordinate, element, as have Jews in Christendom.  It does not refer to an area as such, but to a complex of social relations [emphasis original], which, to be sure, is territorially more or less well-defined.  It does not, then, duplicate the essentially juridical and territorial term, ‘Dar al-Islam’; yet, in contrast to ‘Muslim lands’, it is clearly collective–frequently an important point.  Sometimes the phrase ‘the Islamic world’ is used much in this sense.  I prefer not to use it for three reasons: (a) in compound phrases where ‘Islamdom’ can be a useful element, the three word phrase can become clumsy; (b) the phrase itself uses the term ‘Islamic’ in too broad a sense; (c) it is time we realized there is only ‘one world’ even in history.  If there is to be an ‘Islamic world’, this can be only in the future.

That last idea – that there is only ‘one world’ even in history – is so striking yet so simple that it almost passes you by.  One world.  No Western world.  No Atlantic world.  No Islamic world.  No Latin American world.  Just, one world.  It’s a remarkably fascinating concept.

In my recent reading for a graduate colloquium centering on the study and teaching of what we now call “World History,” this expressed desire to break down academic barriers of specialization has been impressed upon me.  As an undergraduate I was constantly at loggerheads with my history advisor concerning my “focus.”  At the time I knew little of what he meant, other than that it felt confining.

“Be specific.”  “What country?  What time period?  What elements of that history?”

These were the questions leveled at the many and variegated interests, things that I later learned, thanks to that advisor, were mere fancies that could never amount to actual historical study.  Fortunately, I began to unlearn that notion upon entering grad school, where I encountered the intellectual approaches of more than my two professor undergrad department could offer.

Here I have learned – and continue to learn – that the study of history, insofar as it is an extremely complex analytical and speculative discourse; so complex that I will be taking my leave come June, with the strong hope for an eventual return.  Hodgson’s advice that we stop thinking of our insular specialties of 19th-century French women and Medieval Japan less as isolated, independent stages and more as interconnected stages.  I imagine a three-ringed circus.  Sure there are different activities going on in each, but if the elephant center stage stomps on the toe of the lion next to him, neither the arbitrary rings (borders) nor the handlers (historians) between them will be capable of maintaining the separation of spheres.

Like all analogies, this one has its holes, but the message is clear.  We cannot expect to fully understand our world when we approach the critical study of the past from a fundamentally and intrinsically isolated point of view.  This is not to say that there should be only one degree in history, the history of all of it, but rather that the relation of a part to its whole should always be an equally important part of our story, integral to both our advanced assessment in the academy as well as our condensed disseminations taught to the younger generations.

How to write a good (hi)story: page one

5 02 2009

To write a new Tableua de Paris is a difficult exercise; on the one hand too many essential elements have never been studied, and on the other too many books, hastily thrown together, repeat the same hackneyed descriptions.  Nevertheless the city was there, immense, slowly creeping into the surrounding belt of marshland, market gardes and fields; everywhere the country was close at hand; five minutes from the barrière Saint-Jacques, Parisians walked through fields of barley, filling their lungs with the scent of flowers; young people of both sexes from the faubourg Saint-Marcel jostled along the leafy lanes.  In early summer the lawyer Des Essarts, a man of sensibility and a lover of fresh air, chatted with homely farmers contemplating the early corn only a quarter of an hour’s walk from the Ecole Militaire.  Even if the French capital quickly became the very symbol of a monstrous city devouring the food supplies of an agricultural kingdom, one must never forget its proximity to a very different style of life, one, moreover, that has lasted for a very long time, whose effect was both to lessen and reinforced the contrasts with nature.  For the Parisian who sought a rural retreat, the countryside was close at hand, a place for walks, leisure and adventure; on an evening’s spree, one could easily get lost between the Porte Saint-Germain and Vaugirard.  For both the provincial and the country-dweller, the astonishment, sometimes disappointment, arising from the discovery of a strange new world was largely due to this abrupt opposition.  The still world of natur e contrasted with the noisy world of cobbled streets and roads, whose revererations struck the ear of a young Rétif de la Bretonne.  People were guided by their ears along the royal road into Paris: ‘I heard a frightening noise, which seemed to me like the sound of rolling thunder….’  Rétif was charmed by its grandiose air, the magic of the buildings and parks bordering the route.  He was disappointed by the jostling crowds, the summer dust and the winter mud.

The above is today’s gem of history for one reason: it is without a doubt the best first paragraph I have ever encountered in a work of history.  Found on page 1 of Daniel Roche’s The People of Paris (1987, translated by Aubier Montaigne), the above introduction does exactly what a good (hi)story should: it engages the reader, gripping them with the fact that they are now leaving their current surroundings and embarking on a new location in space and time.  Everytime I reread it and even as I typed it out, I could not help feeling as though I had awaken in 18th-century Paris.  As romantic as that may sound, the fact that it has that unique capability is evidence of an inspired, talented scholar.  Any story can be interesting, simply by virtue of its own facts and details.  But it takes a conscious effort to pull the reader by the nose as soon as the ink hits the paper, as Roche has so eloquently done.

Of course, the lesson here may be applied to any work; although any history has the potential to be intriguing, it is the task of the historian to unleash that potential with powerful imagery and a well-thought-out plan of attack.  This, in turn, requires a profound knowledge of the English (in my case, at least) language and an even better understanding of what inspires people to excitement.  The former is an easy task that takes a lifetime to perfect, while the latter is a difficult task that, in all likelihood, is impossible to even come close to attaining.  Fortunately, both can be approximated by doing one enjoyable task: reading.  Reading anything and everything – the New York Times, The Hobbit, The Atlantic, Sports Illustrated, Ultimate Spider Man, The Rise and Fall of the Roman Empire – is the best way to both expand vocabulary and encounter more and more examples and types of talent, style, and fluidity in written language.  Writing, of course, should also help (which is why I pretend to keep this blog updated), but there has to be a solid foundation of other examples upon which to draw when making the attempt.  With an infinite cache of language at hand, stowed away after every book, article, and blurb, the task of writing coherent and elegant prose becomes easier each and every day.

Unfortunately, I can think of nothing better to add to this glorification of one man’s effort, as I am only beginning my ascent.  I will say that, if I were ever to write a paper, article, or book with an opening vignette that draws in readers with a fraction of the power of this magnificant example from Roche, I would consider it quite an accomplishment.

flavors of history

29 11 2008

According to Mannheim, Conservatives are inclined to imagine historical evolution as a progressive elaboration of the institutional structure that currently prevails, which structure they regards as a “utopia” — that is, the best form of society that men can “realistically” hope for, or legitimately aspire to, for the time being.  By contrast, Liberals imagine a time in the future when this structure will have been improved, but they project this utopian condition in to the remote future, in such a way as to discourage any effort in the present to realize it precipitately, by “radical” means.  Radicals, on the other hand, are inclined to view the utopian condition as imminent, which inspires their concern with the provision of the revolutionary means to bring this utopia to pass now.  Finally, Anarchists are inclined to idealize a remote past of natural-human innocence from which men have fallen into the corrupt “social” state in which they currently find themselves.  They, in turn, project this utopia onto what is effectively a nontemporal plane, viewing it as a possibility of human achievement at anytime, if men will only seize control of their own essential humanity, either by an act of will or by an act of consciousness which destroys the socially provided belief in the legitimacy of the current social establishment.

So says Hayden White as he discusses the predominant idealogical modes and their effects on the historical imagination in 19th-century Europe in his Metahistory (Baltimore: The Johns Hopkins University Press, 1973, p. 25).  While his massive, detailed review of the major alternative trends in the historical enterprise as it was conducted in the 1800’s is certainly worth merit, I include this snippet as today’s gem for a different reason — I cannot decide where, as a historian, to place myself.  Were this a few years ago, I would probably call myself an Anarchist, convinced that the State of Nature was the true peak of civilization.  I would not have contended that the nasty, brutish, short era of man was amazingly pleasant, however.  Rather I would have argued that the so-called progress of the next few millenia were anything but.

Today, I can’t see myself (or anyone, for that matter) being able to hold such a position with much legitimacy.  It seems to me that there really never was a “state of nature” in which man was completely free.  There has to have always been at least a modicum of social interaction, and my understanding is that anarchy is, at its most fundamental level, the absence of social interaction.  That is, at least the type of social interaction that matters.  Furthermore, I don’t see man reverting back to this never-existent state by abolishing the entirety of the social structure.

The Conservative outlook seems equally fallible.  To view the current situation as the peak is, if not wrong, then at least an excuse for idleness in thought and action.  Every society has understood itself to be some sort of bastion of civilization, and our own is no exception.  In the interest of full disclosure, I too find it quite difficult to decide any reasonable or “realistic” way in which contemporary society may be changed for the better.  Clearly we have the internet, medicine, and accessible global travel and earlier societies only marveled when they created stained glass, arches, or cars.  Who could argue that our society is not the pinnacle of human achievement?  Of course, the perspicacious reader will notice paradox: if every culture group has considered itself to be the peak, then wouldn’t each subsuquent group prove the inaccuracy of each previous group, specifically, by improving on the old way of doing things?  If this is the case, then it doesn’t appear that Conservative philosophy holds much water.

So I’m left with Liberal and Radical, which of course means that I have resigned myself to the faith that positive progress can be made. [Note: the rest of this post may get sloppy…LOTR is on TNT]  The only choice to be made is: will it come quickly or in due time?  When I see Barack Obama naming Hillary Clinton as his Sec’y of State, I get angry about the lethargic pace of American politics and lean toward anarchy.  Other times, though, I accept the slow rate of change as, if not inevitable, at least something that will be hard to defeat.  But is this defeatist?  Is society better seved by approaching the world with a view that everyone working together can eventually reach an appoximation of utopia?  Or should those with the capability strike up the revolutoin?

Because that is the ultimate question, which approach achieves perfection?  Regardless of the choice, I think it is clear that each approach does desire that perfection.  It is simply that each has its own conception of where that perfection is: far behind us, among us, just beyond us, or quite far off from us.

It may help to consider my first leaning toward Anarchism and remember some math.  A vector is comprised of a magnitude and a direction.  Anarchism shares its magnitude, roughly, with Liberalism.  Does it make sense to maintain the belief that perfection is far away and just change orientation?  This seems to be reasonable: if one were looking off in the distance and sensed a great distance from a given goal, it could be the case that one was simply turned around.  But if the goal in mind was just behind one’s back, it seems it would be sensed as being close.

Of course this metaphor is hardly the strongest defense of a preference for Liberalism over Radicalism.  Pressed to find others, one is immediately reminded that Radical movements rarely, if ever, succeed.  Perhaps this is only because of their extreme goals.  Or maybe there really is no hope for rapid revolution.  I can’t decide at the moment, so you’ll have to decide on your own (assuming you would take a stranger’s advice, had I been able to reach a conclusion).

where we’ve been…where we are going

20 10 2008

The image of the struggle for the breeches concealed the reality that men assaulted women in 78 to 95 percent of the domestic violence cases reported in the courts.  Man wife-beaters seemed to feel they had a right to abuse their wives, and indeed until 1853 legal authorities equivocated as to whether wife-beating constituted legitimate correction or criminal assault.  The alleged ruling of Francis Buller, “Judge Thumb,” that a man could beat his wife with a stick no bigger than his thumb was never a legal precedent, but it entered folklore.  For instance, the pornographic Rambler’s Magazine cited it as a charter for wife-beaters.  Even in the 1830s, at least one Glasgow magistrate did not take wife-beating very seriously.  In a case in which a man had slashed his wife’s face, the magistrate told him, “If he had so beaten any other person, than his wife, he would have been punished most severely, but as it was only his wife,” he was bound over to keep the peace under a penalty of five pounds if he beat her again.  The magistrate next fined a carter, who had whipped his horse till it bled, ten shillings and sixpence.

Today’s post may not immediately strike one as a veritable “gem” of history, but it certainly sparks some thought on marriage relations, both in the past and in our own time. While the account referred to above by Anna Clark in The Struggle for the Breeches: Gender and the Making of the British Working Class (Los Angeles: University of California Press, 1995), 73 no doubt invokes simultaneous responses of disapproval for a malevolent culture and laughter at something that seems so backward and foreign to the modern reader, it should really should cause reflection.

I feel the best history enlightens us, and hopefully with respect to both past and present cultures.  In this case, it is far too easy to condemn our ancestors and then mock how uncouth they behaved.  I find fault with this response on two counts.  Firstly, immediate reprobation allows the modern reader to ignore the conditions that fostered such behavior, prohibiting a complete historical analysis.  Secondly, and, in my opinion, more importantly, such a reaction does not take into consideration the degree historical change that has taken place since our society was at that point of pitifulness.  Without an understanding of the relative disparity between early 19th-century Britain and the 20xx-West, we may condemn the magistrate in this account more than we legitimately can do.


  • girls, though more numerous than boys, still are outnumbered in school enrollment across much of the world
  • fittingly, women continue to lag behind men in literacy rates in the same regions
  • worldwide, over 60 per cent of people working in family enterprises without pay are women
  • in the US, the median income in 2000 for females with a high school diploma was $21,963, compared to $30,868 for males with a high school diploma…females with bachelor’s degrees earned $35,408 in 2000, compared with $49,982 for males
  • as of September 2008, a mere 16.8% of the US Congress is female…only one state on the globe, Rwanda, has a majority female legislators

These are just a few of countless statistics to show the continued gender inequality in our “modern” society, the one that would induce most to ridicule the savages of 1830’s Britain.  Similarly, I find it too common that people beat their chests with pride when proclaiming the obvious honor their culture should receive.  The image that so often comes to mind lately is Senator McCain and his current running mate, Alaska Governor Sarah Palin.  They never miss a chance to say that the United States is the “best” country in the world, and its workers are the most hard-working to be found.  Of course, none of this can even be said to be true or false, because it’s purely subjective.  But, the fact that some people are so quick to proclaim the apparent favored-status of their home is evident, in my opinion, of one of two things: ignorance of one’s own culture, or ignorance of others, neither of which is good for leadership.

So, to conclude this short post, a word of caution: history should embolden us to right wrongs and cure ills, so be wary of tendencies toward cultural superiority when observing the faults of another, whether it be separated by time or space.

For further reading on current gender disparities, see the following:

Gender Equality Factsheet

Gender Equality in the United States: The Impossible Dream?

Women in National Parliaments

Why history?

7 10 2008

I became a historian because I thought history could make a difference.  This was never a naive belief that doing history by itself could become a transformative act.  But how the past gets recuperated does have consequences for how the present can perceived…Depending on how the story is told, the past provides potential sites of opposition.  It allows us to say: it didn’t have to happen like this.  And in the future it could be different.

Or so says, Geoff Eley, in his review (A Crooked Line: from Cultural History to the History of Society, 190) of the changing landscape of history over the past 40 or so years.  The book, though it can be sluggish, provides a wealth of information on the development and peak of so-called “social history,” as well as its more recent relinquishing of the cutting edge status to the “new cultural history.”  For the lay person, it’s intriguing; for the aspiring historian, it shouldn’t be passed up.  Although, I must admit: I didn’t really become a fan until it got to the wrapping up portion…and this not because I found the book boring, but rather, I found it hard to grasp the full thrust of the work until I could easily see entirety of the argument.  Whether that is due to the author’s style and approach or my own myopia is irrelevant.

Although I came up with the idea for this blog several weeks ago while reading a quite different book, I thought this would be an appropriate first entry.  As I begin the first stages of professional training in history, the impetus of more accomplished scholars to enter the field is a rewarding insight.  It helps me visualize the future.  How did I end up in graduate school in History?  Well, the easy, perhaps sarcastic, answer is that I couldn’t really decide on a path as an undergraduate.  I always enjoyed history (which, I now know, doesn’t really mean anything), so I tacked that on as a second major…one that eventually became my primary interest.  After a good GRE, applying to 19 graduate programs in Modern Europe saw a modest positive response of 4, and here we are, together, enjoying this blog.

So, what do you think of Eley’s reason for entering, and arguably his motive for staying in, the field of history?  No matter how many times I’m swayed, I tend to come back to the conventional wisdom that history is all about the future.  Glaringly contradictory?  Perhaps.  Overlysimplistic?  No doubt.  Still, the historian understands better than anyone the reality of the past.  However, and it isn’t always recognized, this implies a complimentary acceptance that time is fluid – it is bidirectional.  It may seem elementary, but the point is worth emphasizing.  A true historian should realize, and hopefully take great pleasure in, the fact that, if we can push time backwards on itself, time will eventually catch up and push on past ourselves.

Although some may even fight this, wanting only to look back and ask “Why?” I prefer to spring back in time, look forward, and wonder “How?”

Do this seriously more than twice, and I doubt anyone could avoid coming back to the present, looking into the unknowable future, and stammer, “What next?”  This, to me, is where the power of history resides.  Sure it’s rewarding to come as close as possible to understanding a distant society.  Yet, this can’t be the end (read: goal, not Fukuyama) of history.  In fact, I would think it asinine and unnecessarily pedantic to ignore that enticing itch every fan of history, academic or otherwise, has felt – the urge to boldly look foward and offer, “This next,” a prediction which, no matter how nuanced or insightful, will be proven vastly naive and shortsighted in such short order that making another similar proposition at a later point seems pointless.  Funny thing, then, that we continue to do just that.

No, the historian, no more than anyone else, cannotconstantly run back to the starting line.  Nor can they stubbornly agree to carry on forward march, so long as their back is facing that which they cannot know.  Instead, the best historians, in my opinion the only ones deserving the name, should turn around and join the march, all the while dragging the eons of past knowledge along with them, ever ready to employ it against future ignorance.