Monday, July 7, 2008

The Women

     I was reading a book recently called Travels With Herodotus by Ryszard Kapuscinski and I was struck by something the author wrote about one little line in Herodotus that struck him, as well. Or maybe I noticed it because he made so much of it.  I know that Herodotus is an ancient Greek writer and Kapuscinksi was writing about his experiences as a foreign correspondent in the latter half of the 20th century.  What has this to do with the Middle Ages? Very little except that the treatment of women then was often equally shocking.
     While Kapuscinski commented on the horrors of the past contrasted with the banality of evil today, he spend an entire page mulling over the significance of this one line from Herodotus's description of Babylon's rebellion against the rule of the Persian Darius.
     "The revolt had been long and carefully planned.... When the moment finally came to declare their purpose, the Babylonians, in order to reduce the consumption of food, herded together and strangled all the women in the city - each man exempted only his mother, and one other woman whom he chose out of his household to bake his bread for him."
Herodotus made no further comment on this atrocity but Kapuscinksi had much to say.  It is to his credit that the act of murdering  all of the females in a city horrifies and haunts him.  We have at least made some progress. Another man might say "but this is war".
     Even a culture like that of the Celts where women had rights of succession, divorce and the ability to be judges and warriors had incidents like the one Herodotus mentioned.  Julius Caesar, in his The Gallic War, wrote about something similar. 
    The Gauls, of what would later be France,  were rebelling against the Romans.  Nothing in particular set them off, like the Babylonians, they did not want to remain under foreign rule and pay foreign taxes.  A charismatic leader, Vercingetorix, who succeeded in uniting them,  came along and the battle was joined.  At first the war went well; Caesar suffered the only military defeat in his life at Gergovia.  But, while the Gauls were under siege at Alesia, it was taking too long for reinforcements to arrive and supplies were running low for the besieged.  Vercingetorix expelled all women, children, old and infirm hoping the Romans would take them in and feed them, putting pressure on their supplies.  Caesar refused to take them or let them pass so as to put pressure on Vercingetorix.  He wrote no more about them but, in the footnotes, it is added that Cassio Dio did report on the outcome.  They all died, all of them, trapped in the no man's land between the two armies.  Their fathers, sons, brothers, husbands listened to their cries for mercy until one by one they all perished from hunger and thirst. These were not just adult women; there were children in the group. 
     The move failed.  Alesia fell and Vercingetorix was taken prisoner and executed in Rome.  The Babylonians lost as well and three thousand of their most prominent citizens were impaled as punishment.  Let that be a warning.  The gods hate those who would murder their women. 
    Were the Middle Ages any better?  The Babylonian story puts me to mind of The Avowing of Arthur where five hundred men under siege had but three laundresses to be their servants and fulfill their sexual needs.  With odds like these, one would think the women had their hands full but still they were jealous of each other and plotted to murder each other.  Baudewyn, who was telling this story to Arthur, let the last woman live, in spite of the fact that she slit the throat of one of the other women, because they still needed someone to do their laundry and service them sexually.  Would the murders carry more weight if it had been a knight she had killed?  Or would the need to have someone wash their clothes matter more than anyone's life?  One has to wonder what would have happened to the Babylonian women when there was no more bread to bake.
      According to Clifford Bachman, who wrote the excellent The Worlds of Medieval Europe, by the seventh or eighth century, women began to receive gentler treatment.  In times of famine, families practised infanticide usually killing the female children, leaving a severe shortage of women over time.  Rather like the shortage China will be experiencing in the near future.  With women dying in childbirth and the "growing popularity of convent life" (don't wonder why), the value of women went up so that the groom was paying a dowry to his wife.  He also gave her a 'morning gift' to compensate her for her loss of virginity. 
    However, the threat of sexual violence was such that women were in danger if they strolled out of their houses.   Bachman relates an account by Paul the Deacon, that certain Lombard women put raw chicken under their 'bras' so that, when it putrified it gave off a foul odor.  When the Avars tried to rape them, they found the stench too unbearable to proceed.   
      When I look around and still see cultures that value women so little as the Babylonians valued theirs, it horrifies me.  Of course I am a woman and I am the one who would be valued less than cattle, a loaf of bread or taxes.  Or my daughter would be the one because I at least can cook and do laundry.  I have so much more to offer than that; it would be nice to say with confidence that men in our culture, in our age do value us for more than that but I am not certain that this is true.

Beatles Song of the Week

Age, age, age, age,
Age gaudium tale est,
Age, cape otium,
Cape otium, cape otium
Omni aliquid celare habent praeter meum et simiam.

1 comment:

Anonymous said...

I agree with you, it would be good to think that we are valued more now than in the past - though the recent news story of that italian man who kidnapped his ex-girlfriend and made her do the ironing shows that the tale in 'The Avowing of Arthur' isn't so far distant as we'd like to think.

These are strange times - on the one hand we're always being told that girls do so much better than boys at school, that boys are feeling undervalued, yet on the other hand men still earn far more than women on average.

The Beatles song - 'Everybody's got something to hide except me and my monkey'? (I just didn't have time to do the song last week - but Nowhere Man I'm very familiar with!)