Rais­ing a ruckus in the grave

Against pa­tri­ar­chal odds, women played an un­quiet role in his­tory

The Herald on Sunday - Sunday Herald Life - - Books - Re­view by Su­san Flock­hart

Un­quiet Women Max Adams Head Of Zeus, £20

THE 21st cen­tury is an era of record. Thanks to re­al­ity TV and so­cial me­dia, al­most ev­ery as­pect of or­di­nary peo­ple’s lives is doc­u­mented for pos­ter­ity, though whether fu­ture gen­er­a­tions will be re­motely in­ter­ested in the random thoughts, feel­ings and self­ies that are in­con­ti­nently shared on­line is doubt­ful.

We, how­ever, are fas­ci­nated by the lives of peo­ple who ex­isted thou­sands of years be­fore com­put­ers, cam­eras or even writ­ing im­ple­ments were widely avail­able. When in 1999, the cof­fin of a young Ro­man woman was un­earthed at Spi­tal­fields, Lon­don, some 10,000 peo­ple flocked to view her re­mains and BBC doc­u­men­tary­mak­ers com­mis­sioned a foren­sic artists’ re­con­struc­tion of her head, which of­fered a tan­ta­lis­ing op­por­tu­nity to gaze at the face of a woman who had lived around 1700 years ago.

Or did it? In his new book Un­quiet Women, ar­chae­ol­o­gist Max Adams de­clares him­self “scep­ti­cal of such blend­ing of art and science” and cau­tions against “pro­ject­ing the modern imag­i­na­tion onto the an­cient sub­ject”.

More re­li­able in­sight into the way the long-dead were per­ceived by their con­tem­po­raries might, he sug­gests, be gleaned from por­traits found with Egyp­tian mum­mies, such as that of an un­named young woman from Hawara, thought to have died around 2000 years ago, which will go on dis­play in Edinburgh in Fe­bru­ary when the Na­tional Mu­seum of Scot­land’s An­cient Egypt Re­dis­cov­ered gallery opens.

The por­trait’s beauty may, Adams ad­mits, be “an ob­jec­ti­fied amal­gam of her loved ones’ fond mem­o­ries and the flat­ter­ing skills of the artist who painted her”. How­ever, “the re­sult is alive with per­son­al­ity”. Like­wise, Un­quiet Women seeks to put flesh, bones and per­son­al­ity onto the scant his­tor­i­cal traces that re­main of the 50% of the pop­u­la­tion who wielded nei­ther power nor prop­erty, and were rarely deemed wor­thy of be­ing ed­u­cated.

From sources such as grave goods, court-pro­ceed­ings and scraps of writ­ten tes­ti­mony, he re­con­structs the life sto­ries of the “un­quiet women” who, against con­sid­er­able pa­tri­ar­chal odds, cocked a snook at the ex­pec­ta­tions of their times and found ways to “tell their sto­ries and ne­go­ti­ate ac­cess to power”.

Some be­came trav­ellers, ex­plor­ers, mil­i­tary strate­gists, au­thors or em­presses. Oth­ers found more sub­tle ways to buck con­ven­tion. The 11th­cen­tury An­dalu­sian poet Wal­lada Bint al-Mus­takfi, who re­fused to marry and had af­fairs with women and men, wore her re­bel­lious­ness on the fab­ric of her robe, which she em­broi­dered with dec­la­ra­tions that she would kiss who­ever she liked and was de­ter­mined to go her own way “with pride”.

In fact, with the ma­chin­ery of power

and com­mu­ni­ca­tion gen­er­ally con­trolled by men, the pro­duc­tion and dec­o­ra­tion of tex­tiles was “the prin­ci­pal medium” of fe­male con­trol and agency, “as can­vases on which to in­scribe their own sto­ries and iden­ti­ties”. True, only three of the 626 fig­ures de­picted in the 70 me­tre-long Bayeux Ta­pes­try are fe­male, and as Adams points out, that fa­mous em­broi­dery con­tains 60 times more horses than women.

Nev­er­the­less, women ex­er­cised sig­nif­i­cant in­flu­ence in the spin­ning and weav­ing in­dus­tries and were ca­pa­ble of sub­vert­ing their art to make their mark. The abil­ity to sup­port them­selves through cloth pro­duc­tion also gave me­dieval women a de­gree of in­de­pen­dence, and in the Low Coun­tries, some 12th and 13th­cen­tury fe­males opted out of mar­riage, child­birth and fam­ily life by set­ting up com­munes or “be­guinages” in which hun­dreds of women lived and worked as weavers, farm­ers and teach­ers of girls.

Dis­ap­point­ingly, we learn lit­tle about life within these com­mu­ni­ties, but the ac­counts of later women such as the 17th-cen­tury Ital­ian artist Artemisia Gen­tileschi are more de­tailed. In­deed, Adams spec­u­lates that Gen­tileschi’s paint­ing Su­sanna And The El­ders – de­pict­ing the Bib­li­cal scene in which a mar­ried woman is falsely ac­cused of promis­cu­ity by two lech­er­ous old voyeurs who watch her bathing – might nowa­days be re-cap­tioned #MeToo, since it “ex­presses the artist’s sol­i­dar­ity with all women against all preda­tory men”.

It’s fas­ci­nat­ing ter­ri­tory, the nar­ra­tive is lively and the au­thor’s re­flec­tions are il­lu­mi­nat­ing and wise. Yet for some rea­son – per­haps my own patchy knowl­edge of past world events – I found it hard to fully en­gage with this book and strug­gled to ab­sorb all the his­tor­i­cal de­tails needed to con­tex­tu­alise the 50-plus in­di­vid­ual tales drawn from a vast pe­riod of his­tory (“from the dusk of the Ro­man Em­pire to the dawn of the En­light­en­ment”, as per the book’s sub­ti­tle) and most parts of the globe.

Per­haps in­evitably given the frag­men­tary na­ture of the avail­able records, we hear only snatches of these women’s sto­ries and as Adams would doubt­less ac­knowl­edge, the con­clu­sions we draw from them may well be as un­re­li­able as the Spi­tal­fields woman’s re­con­structed vis­age.

All the same, this is an im­por­tant book and Max Adams de­serves credit for demon­strat­ing that women played a big­ger role in past events than the pub­lic record might sug­gest. He writes saliently about the way his­tory favours the wealthy and pow­er­ful, as well as the male, point­ing out that only well­con­nected fe­males were likely to leave any trace at all.

Which means that for the most part, their poorer sis­ters re­main as quiet as their graves are de­void of riches.

Max Adams says Artemisia Gen­tileschi’s paint­ing Su­sanna And The El­ders – de­pict­ing the Bib­li­cal scene in which a mar­ried woman is falsely ac­cused of promis­cu­ity by two lech­er­ous old voyeurs who watch her bathing – might nowa­days be re-cap­tioned #MeToo

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